It was close to dawn by the time Phil returned to the cabin. Phineas teleported back to Romatech, leaving him alone with Vanda. She was folding laundry at the kitchen table. He noted the stack of clean towels and clothes, including her purple catsuit.
As soon as Phineas disappeared, she threw her arms around Phil and hugged him. "I missed you."
He held her close and nuzzled his chin against her hair. Connor had suggested he simply invite her to New Orleans for a holiday. No need to let her know what the real plan was. She might refuse to be their bait, and they were too desperate to take that chance. This was war, and a time for desperate measures.
Phil hadn't argued the point, although he'd doubted he could purposely mislead Vanda. Now that she was in his arms, he knew for certain that he couldn't.
"How bad is it?" Vanda asked.
"Bad enough." He took her hand and led her to the couch. "The Malcontents used mind control to get ahold of some military helicopters. They bombed those two Romatechs from the air."
"Oh no." Vanda sat beside him on the couch. "What's Angus going to do?"
Phil described Sean Whelan's plan to help the Vamps. Then he explained Roman's plan to make Nightshade, and Laszlo's plan to make tracking devices. Vanda nodded, listening carefully in spite of numerous yawns.
She blinked sleepily. "I'm really glad to have a safe place to hide, but I feel a little guilty that I'm not doing anything to help." She sighed. "What am I saying? I worked with the resistance in the last war, and it was scary as hell."
Phil hesitated, not sure how to proceed. "The Coven Master of New Orleans has invited us to stay with them for a few nights."
Vanda yawned. "New Orleans?"
"You're about to conk out. Let's get you to the closet." He pulled her to her feet.
She leaned against him as she walked. "I've always wanted to see New Orleans."
"Gregori told me about this club called Vampire Blues. I think you'd like it."
She gazed up at him with a confused look. "It's a vampire club? I thought I was supposed to be in hiding."
Inside the closet, he sat on the blanket and pulled her down beside him. "Vanda, I have to be honest with you. Angus is desperate to draw Casimir out. If we can kill him now, we might be able to avoid an all-out war. Think of all the lives that could be saved."
Her eyes narrowed. "What's going on?"
"They want you to go to this club so you can be seen. You're on Casimir's hit list, so there's a good chance that as soon as he knows you're there, he'll show up to finish you off. There'll be lots of guys there to protect you. Phineas, Zoltan, Dougal, Robby, and me."
"Oh God." Vanda pressed a hand to her chest. "You're using me as bait."
"We didn't want to. The guys wanted to do this without you. Some of them are on the list, too, but we realized we really need you."
"Why? What can I do?"
"If you're there, we can get Corky to announce it on her show."
"Because she hates me." With a groan, Vanda fell back onto the blanket. "Lucky me."
"I won't blame you for getting angry."
She yawned. "I'm too sleepy to get angry."
He brushed her hair back from her brow. "I'm really sorry. I didn't want you to have to do this. But if it can stop Casimir from killing more Vamps, it would be worth it. I swear I'll protect you. I won't let anyone hurt you."
"Right." Her eyes flickered shut. "First thing tomorrow night I'm kicking your ass."
Phil smiled. "It's a date." His beautiful Vanda, so clever and brave.
She took a long shuddering breath and was gone.
A spurt of panic shot through Phil. He'd just watched Vanda die. If he failed her, she could die…permanently.
By noon Phil was pacing the cabin like a caged beast. He went outside, but the woods didn't calm him like they usually did. His inner wolf was howling. He had finally won Vanda's love, but now he could lose her.
Connor had assured him the plan was solid. There would be at least a dozen Vamp men at the club in New Orleans. When Casimir showed up, the Vamps would attack, and Vanda would be safe.
But Phil knew plans didn't always work. He couldn't expose Vanda to this danger without a backup plan. He needed a safe place to take her. They could come back here, but what if it was near dawn in New Orleans? It would already be daylight here. Going west would be safer.
And he had a hunting cabin in Wyoming. Or at least he thought he did. He hadn't been there in over four years. The place could have burned down. There was no phone, so no answering machine would pick up and give Vanda a beacon to guide her to the right place.
It had been a present to him on his eighteenth birthday, a bribe to make him more agreeable to his father's control. That had lasted about three months. Phil had tried to break loose, and his father, in a fit of rage, had banished him for life.
He'd gone to the cabin, but after a few months, he decided that hiding from life was not a life. He left, seeking an environment that was completely different, and he found it in New York City.
The first few years, he'd gone back to the cabin on vacation. That's when he discovered the letters his sister Brynley had left. At first she had begged him to come home. He'd left a note, telling her no, he could never go back. Then she left letters begging him to at least stay in touch. He entered her phone number on his cell phone but never called. About four years ago he stopped going to the cabin.
He punched in her number. No signal. He switched to the kitchen phone. His heart raced. He hadn't heard Brynley's voice in nine years. Would she be willing to do a favor for him? Would she even want to talk to him?
His heart stuttered. Brynley's voice had acquired the deep, husky tone of a mature female werewolf. Memories flooded back. Growing up, she'd always been at his side. Werewolf cubs were usually born in pairs, so she was his twin. They'd gone through their first change together, their first hunt together. He'd shared his first kill with her. She'd licked the blood off his muzzle, and they'd howled their joy to the moon.
"Hey, I can hear you breathing, you pervert." She hung up.
He stared at the receiver. Now that went well. He started to dial the number again, then the phone rang. "Hello?"
"I star-fifty-nined you, you pervert. Now I have your number, and I'm turning you—"
"Brynley, it's me…Phil."
There was silence. He half expected her to hang up again.
Now she was testing him. Most people assumed his full name was Philip. "No. Philupus."
She gasped. "Oh my God, it's really you!" She squealed, then burst into laughter. "Phil! Thank God! I've been hoping you would call for ages. How are you?"
"I'm…good. How are you?"
"Great! Now that you're back. You are back, aren't you?"
He winced. "No, I'm not."
"Phil, you have to come back. It's fate that you called just now. I was about to hire a P.I. to find you."
His skin chilled. "Why? What's wrong?" Surely the old man was all right. A healthy werewolf could live up to five hundred years, and his father wasn't quite two hundred.
"Everything's wrong," Brynley grumbled. "Howell is turning twenty next month. He's pressuring Dad to name him Heir Apparent."
Howell was almost twenty? Phil recalled his last memory of his younger brother and sister. Howell and Glynis had only been eleven years old when he'd left. "I didn't realize Howell had grown."
"Well, duh. We didn't stop living here when you left, you know. Howell has asked the Council for permission to become an Alpha."
"That's awfully young to be an Alpha," Phil murmured.
"Tell me about it. He's extremely ambitious, Phil. And if he manages to pull this off, the pack will be so impressed, they'll favor him over you. So you'd better get your furry ass back here to Montana and get your Alpha status. Prove you're the rightful heir."
He sighed. If the pack knew he'd managed to achieve Alpha status on his own, they'd never leave him alone. "I have a life, Bryn, and I like it."
"Are you crazy? Phil, you're a freaking prince here. You can have anything you want."
Except freedom. Or Vanda. The pack would never accept a Vamp as their queen. "Brynley, is my cabin still there in Wyoming?"
There was a pause. "Yeah."
"I may need to go there in a few days. Would you mind meeting me there?"
"I'd love to see you, Phil. I missed you."
"I missed you, too. Can you get there by tonight and make sure the place is stocked?"
"Okay. Are you on vacation? I don't even know where you work."
"I'll explain everything when I get there." He paused. This was going to sound strange, but there was no help for it. "I'll need some bottled synthetic blood at the cabin."
"You're kidding. Why?"
"I'll have a Vamp with me."
"A vampire? Shit, Phil. Dad will have kittens."
"Don't tell him I'll be there." Phil gritted his teeth. "I'm serious, Brynley. Don't tell him."
"I'm serious, too. Dad will want to see you. He's not mad at you anymore."
Phil groaned inwardly. Of course his father would be happy to see him. He'd welcome him back like the prodigal son. He'd dig his claws in and never let Phil go. "Brynley, we can talk about this later. For now, I need you to go to the cabin, take some bottled blood with you, and wait for my call. If I call, it will be at night."
"If you call?"
"Yes, and if I call, it'll be because we're in serious danger and need a safe place to hide. The Vamp will use your voice to teleport us there."
"Oh sheesh. We heard a rumor that you were working with vampires. I didn't want to believe it."
"Can you do it, Bryn?"
She sighed. "Sure. But the full moon starts tomorrow night. Dad's going to wonder why I'm missing the Hunt."
Ah yes, the Hunt. The highlight of the wolf pack's existence. Every month, on the first night of a full moon, the pack would gather for a hunt. His father's pack was so huge now, encompassing Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, that only a handful of wolves were selected each month to hunt with the Supreme Pack Master. Other pack members and lesser pack masters would gather locally for their monthly hunt. Being invited to his father's Hunt was a huge honor, equivalent in the mortal world to being presented to royalty.
Phil had grown up seeing other werewolves bow to his father and call him Supreme Pack Master. His dad was the most powerful Alpha wolf in America. By the age of twelve Phil had realized that his father craved power more than anything. He would always want more power and more control over his subjects, including his own sons. And Phil, cursed with the same genetic makeup as his father, was not the kind of wolf who could accept being controlled.
He took a deep breath. "This is really important."
"Yeah, I figured that. Otherwise, you would have never bothered to call."
He winced at the resentment in her voice. "Thank you for helping. It'll be good to see you."
"Oh Phil." Her voice trembled with emotion. "I'd do anything for you, you know that. I'll be waiting for your call. Be careful."
"Thanks." He hung up.
A sense of foreboding settled in his gut. The cabin in Wyoming was the perfect place to hide Vanda. No one in the Vampire World knew of its existence. But the cost of using it might be way too high.
Vanda wrinkled her nose. "Smells like coffee in here."
"It was a coffee warehouse for a hundred years," Robby explained. "The coven used to live in an old wine cellar, but it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina."
Vanda surveyed the huge rectangular room. Water stains marked the walls, showing how badly the warehouse had flooded. It was dry now, and empty except for a small sitting area that consisted of a sofa and several armchairs.
Robby, Zoltan, and Dougal had visited the New Orleans coven before, so the warehouse was embedded in their psychic memory. They'd simply grabbed onto Vanda, Phineas, and Phil and teleported them there.
Vanda tightened the whip around her waist. "Where is everybody? I thought they were expecting us."
Phil pointed at a surveillance camera above the main entrance. "They probably know we're here."
"Bonsoir, mes amis," a deep masculine voice echoed across the warehouse. "Welcome to our home."
Vanda looked around, and then up. A balcony spread across the width of the warehouse. From a door in the center, a couple emerged. The man was handsome, dressed entirely in black, and the woman by his side wore a shimmering golden evening gown the same shade as her hair.
"No stairs or ladders," Phil murmured. "A good way to stay safe."
More Vamps filed from the upstairs room. Elegantly dressed, they posed along the length of the balcony. Vanda realized the coven must actually live in the room on the second floor. With no access other than levitation, it kept them safe from mortal intruders.
The man in black stepped off the balcony and floated down, his black coat fluttering around him till he landed gracefully on the ground floor. He bowed. "I am Colbert GrandPied, at your service."
"Vanda Barkowski." She extended a hand.
He leaned over to kiss it. "Enchant'e."
As Colbert greeted the rest of the Vamps and Phil, Vanda watched more well-dressed Vamps float down from the balcony.
"I am Giselle." The blonde, dressed in gold, kissed Vanda's cheeks. "We are honored to have you here."
Honored? Vanda didn't see much honor in being bait. And these elegant Vamps looked dressed for the opera rather than a battle with Casimir. "Ah, you do realize there could be a battle?"
Giselle cocked her head. "It was my understanding that the battle will occur at the Vampire Blues. That is the plan, non?"
Vanda sighed. "Yes, but—"
"Do not worry, ch'erie." Giselle patted her on the shoulder. "Our best swordsmen will accompany you to the club. Many of them lost loved ones in the Great Vampire War of 1710. They are eager to have their revenge."
"Great." Vanda smiled wryly. "Then everybody's happy." She glanced at Phil. He'd been frowning all night, his gaze darting everywhere as if he expected danger at every turn.
Colbert slipped an arm around Giselle's slim waist. "And where are Scarlett and Tootsie? I thought they'd be the first ones down."
"They were still fiddling with their makeup in the bathroom, the last I saw them." Giselle smiled at Vanda. "They're your biggest fans."
"Fans?" Vanda blinked when a figure ran from the upstairs room onto the balcony. "Wow." The silver dress was completely covered with sequins and sparkled like a disco ball. It took her eyes a second to adjust.
"That's Scarlett," Colbert whispered.
Vanda's mouth fell open. Scarlett's figure filled out the dress quite well…for a man.
"Hot damn," Phineas muttered.
Scarlett looked down at Vanda and gasped. "Oh my God! She's here! Tootsie, hurry. She's here!" She, or he, flapped a hand in front of his face. "Oh my God, I can't breathe."
"Where is she?" Another figure dashed onto the balcony. Hot pink bell-bottoms and a halter top, completely covered with sequins. He wore a hot pink wig to match, topped with a sparkly pink pillbox hat.
"Et voil`a." Colbert gestured to the balcony. "Tootsie."
Tootsie pressed a hand to his chest while he stared at Vanda. "It's really her! Oh my God, she's wearing the purple catsuit. And the purple hair." He reached out to grasp Scarlett's hand. "This is so exciting!"
Together the two men leaped off the balcony and landed on the ground floor.
Scarlett wobbled slightly in his six-inch red stilettos, then scurried toward Vanda. "I'm so glad to meet you. I'm your biggest fan!"
"No, I'm your biggest fan." Tootsie squeezed in front. "I'm a full size bigger than Scarlett." He giggled.
"Well, you wouldn't be if you laid off the Chocolood," Scarlett sneered. "Oh, Vanda—may I call you Vanda, please?"
"I suppose. It is my name."
Scarlett giggled. "You're so clever. And brave! We just loved the way you led that riot outside DVN when Ian was in trouble."
"You saw that?" Vanda recalled the event last December. Gregori had brought a camera out to the parking lot, where she'd gathered a group of women to support Ian. But at the time, she'd been a lot more worried about Ian's safety than the possibility of appearing on television.
"We just adore Ian," Tootsie explained. "Such a sweet boy."
"And such a sweet kilt," Scarlett added, but Tootsie slapped his wrist.
"Behave. And we just love the way you tried to help Ian find his true love." Tootsie pressed a hand to his mouth. "It was so romantic. I think I'm going to cry."
"Don't," Scarlett fussed. "It'll make your mascara run. And Vanda…" He grabbed her hand. "We just loved the way you attacked Corky Courrant. Don't we, everyone?"
Murmurs of agreement spread through the crowd.
"We have it all on tape," Tootsie explained. "That hideous part when Corky was insulting Ian, and then that lovely part when you went flying across the table to strangle the bitch."
"We've watched it a hundred times!" Scarlett exclaimed.
"Great," Vanda muttered. "It was one of my finer moments."
"We just adore you," Tootsie insisted. "And we love that terrible temper of yours."
"Oh yes." Scarlett shuddered. "It's so raw and fierce."
"Do you—" Tootsie pressed a hand to his hot pink lips. "Oh, I hate to be an imposition, but do you possibly think you could demonstrate one of those glorious fits of rage for us?"
"Oh yes, please." Scarlett clasped his hands together. "It would be such an honor to see you royally pissed!"
Vanda gritted her teeth. "I'm working on it as we speak."
"All right," Robby interrupted. "Enough gossiping. We need to proceed with the plan."
"Oh my." Tootsie looked Robby over. "Another nice kilt."
Robby arched a brow. "If ye come to the Vampire Blues with us, ye must be prepared to fight for yer lives."
Scarlett and Tootsie both gasped.
"Y'all have a fabulous time." Scarlett stepped back, waving good-bye.
"And don't let anything happen to Vanda," Tootsie added.
"We won't," Phil grumbled.
"This way." Colbert and six of his men strode toward the warehouse entrance.
Outside, they piled into two black limousines. Time to set the trap and see if Casimir would take the bait.