“We cannot enter into alliance with neighboring princes until we are acquainted with their designs.”
—Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Nice, France . . . six months earlier
“THIS IS YOUR plan, Mathilde?” Christian Duvall didn’t look at his Sire when he asked the question. He didn’t want her to understand yet just how troubled he was by what she’d revealed to him.
“It is,” she answered. There was more than a touch of pride putting a shine on her usual arrogance.
Christian looked up and met her crystal blue eyes. He’d never seen eyes that color before or since meeting Mathilde, and he’d often wondered if she used some of her considerable power to augment their pristine beauty. She was vain enough to do it, but it seemed like a waste of energy, even for someone as self-centered as Mathilde.
“It seems . . . unnecessarily risky,” he said finally. “Why not simply grant permission to those of your children who wish to challenge for a territory of their own in North America?”
Mathilde’s gaze narrowed. “I’m not doing this for them. I want to see that arrogant bastard brought low. I want to see his face when I claim his territory for myself.”
“You mean Raphael.”
“Of course I mean Raphael. Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said?”
Christian smiled to take the edge off her temper. He was still a favorite of hers, although not perhaps for much longer. Certainly not once he told her what he really thought about this misbegotten scheme of hers.
“I’ve listened to every word.” Christian crossed his arms over his chest, eyeing her thoughtfully. “You seem quite confident you’ll succeed.”
“Because I am. Not even Raphael can stand against so many of us.”
“If you fail, he will kill you.”
“I shall be certain not to fail then,” she said, laughing as she placed a dainty hand on his forearm. “How could I do otherwise with you by my side?”
Christian stared down at her. “But I will not be by your side, my lady,” he said gently.
Mathilde’s eyes sparked with power, a blue fire there and gone so quickly, he almost missed it before her gaze shuttered and she smiled. “Of course you will, my Christian. I would not leave you behind on such a momentous undertaking.”
He wasn’t fooled. He’d known Mathilde too long to miss the calculating cruelty behind that charming smile. He very carefully gathered his power, keeping it buried beneath his shields, but ready on a moment’s notice. He didn’t want to provoke her, but he’d long ago grown too powerful for her to command him.
“You don’t understand,” he said patiently. “I will not undertake this fool’s errand with you. It is a bad plan, but even more, it goes against everything that it means to be Vampire. We fight for what we want. We do not use untrustworthy magical devices or an army to hold our opponent captive while pretending to issue a challenge. This is trickery, not victory. And it will not work. Do you think Raphael has no allies? No loyal children of his own to fight against you?”
“And do you take me for a fool who has not considered such things?” she snapped, then smoothed the anger from her expression, like shedding a mask. “You will anchor the power circle to hold him prisoner,” she ordered calmly. “And when the North American West is mine, you may name your prize.”
Christian shook his head. “You’re not hearing me, Mathilde. I will not join you in this.”
Mathilde stared at him, the skin over her fine cheekbones stretching taut as she fought to contain the rage she could feel bubbling beneath her skin. But she wouldn’t fight him directly. He was too powerful, and she might lose. It was the same reason she was resorting to such underhanded tactics with Raphael.
“I am your Sire,” she ground out. “You are mine to command.”
“You are my Sire,” Christian agreed quietly. “But I have not been yours to command for a very long time.”
Her power brushed over his skin, probing. It was an unpleasant, unclean feeling. But her probing clearly argued against any attempt to force his compliance, because once again, her expression went from furious to charming in the blink of an eye.
“Very well, you may assist in taking North America’s Southern Territory instead. Vincent is still consolidating his power in Mexico, and with Raphael neutralized, Anthony will be badly weakened. Hubert intends to challenge for the South. He will help me subdue Raphael initially, before departing for Texas, where I’ve promised him my help in staking his claim. You bring far more power to his cause than I intended to offer, but this will ensure his cooperation in taking Raphael down, so perhaps it’s for the best.”
Christian eyed Mathilde, his expression carefully blank. He didn’t dispute her orders; he didn’t say anything. He had every intention of journeying to Texas. He even intended to challenge Anthony’s hold over the South. But not on behalf of fucking Hubert. He was going to claim the South for himself, and he’d kill Hubert or anyone else who tried to stop him.
That was the vampire way.
Malibu, CA . . . present day
THE HEAVY STEEL gate rolled back on nearly silent wheels, and Christian lowered the back window of the Lincoln he’d hired to drive him from the airport. He’d considered renting a car and driving himself. Maybe something sporty, with a convertible top and a responsive engine. He loved fast cars, and he’d never driven up the California coast. It was supposed to be spectacular. Though perhaps not so much at night.