Dougal Kincaid was not in a partying mood.
As he entered the ballroom at Romatech Industries, his stomach churned. Too many people. The jarring noise of all their voices grated on his ears, and he dreaded the thought of participating in meaningless chatter. For centuries, he'd avoided these situations by playing the pipes, but those days were gone. That left him with one option for surviving the night.
Hopefully the mixture of synthetic blood and whisky would deaden his undead senses before he was confronted with the same questions he'd been hearing for the past four years. How's your new prosthesis? Can you still wield a sword? Will you be able to play the pipes again?
He had a better question: how fast could he get drunk? He headed for the refreshment tables.
They mean well, he reminded himself. It was the only way they knew how to show their concern. It was better than having no one who cared. But damn, he'd lost a hand, not his pride. A man was more than his hands. More than his music? His chest clenched with the familiar pang of grief. Without music, his soul felt half empty. And the half that remained was a sad melody of regret.
The first refreshment table was covered with mortal snack food. He kept walking.
"Hey, man, what's up?" Phineas slapped him on the back. "Say hello to my little dudette."
Dougal glanced at the bairn Phineas was holding. Phin's wife, Brynley, had given birth to twins six months ago. This had to be the girl, judging by her frilly pink dress.
"Hello." Dougal became aware of an awkward pause. Was he supposed to say more? He racked his brain, trying to remember the little girl's name. Gwyneth, that was it. And Benjamin was the boy. For short, they were called Gwyn and Ben, which rhymed with their parents' nicknames, Phin and Bryn.
His stomach churned. "Hello, Gwyn."
The little girl squealed so loud that Dougal winced.
"She likes you." Phineas beamed proudly at her. "Isn't she beautiful?"
"Yes." After a pause, Dougal suspected more flattery was in order. "Nice . . . dress."
"Yeah, her mom loves shopping for her." Phineas smiled at him. "So, dude, how's your hand?"
He gritted his teeth. "Which one?"
Phineas laughed. "Good one, bro. Well, I gotta go see how Bryn's doing. Ben just had a bomb go off in his diaper."
Thanks for sharing. Dougal strode toward the next refreshment table. It was surrounded by mortals and shifters, mostly women and children, gawking at the giant five-tier cake. Where the hell was the Blissky?
"Hey, Dougal. Have ye met my Tara Jean?"
It was Ian MacPhie, carrying another little girl. This time Dougal knew what to say. "She's beautiful. Nice dress."
"Thanks." Ian regarded him sadly. "I remember how ye played the pipes at my bachelor party. I really miss that."
Dougal winced inwardly. They mean well.
"How's the fancy new hand treating you?" Ian asked.
Here we go again. "Well, since ye asked, it is made of pure titanium alloy, strong enough for spacecraft and the deepest-diving submarines. In three seconds, I could pierce yer chest cavity and rip yer bleedin' heart out."
Ian's eyes widened. "Och, man. Get a grip."
"That's about all I can do." Dougal lifted his right hand, and, using his vampire mind control, he curled the fingers into a tight fist. The movement was smooth but caused a series of clicking sounds. The superstrong grip was great for wielding a sword, but the lack of manual dexterity made it very difficult to play the pipes. In other words, he was now more suited for killing than making music.
He swallowed down his frustration. "Have ye seen the Blissky?"
Ian snorted. "This is a birthday party for a bunch of bairns. There is no Blissky."
"Tara turned one last month in September," Ian continued. "Austin's little girl will be one in a few days and Robby's boy in November. With three birthdays so close together, we thought we should have a big party. I'm glad ye could make it."
As if he'd had any choice. The Echarpe family had come, and as their bodyguard, Dougal had accompanied them. "There has to be Blissky here somewhere. The damned stuff is manufactured here."
Ian shook his head. "Try to relax and enjoy the party."
"Is there any Bleer?"
Ian arched a brow. "What ye need is a good woman."
I had one. And lost her. "I need a drink." Dougal wandered toward the last refreshment table. How much had he lost over the centuries? His first and only love. His freedom. His family. His mortality. His hand. His music. Did so much loss make him a loser?
He instantly shoved that thought aside. He would never have lasted this long if he had succumbed to that sort of negativity. He was a survivor. He kept fighting no matter what.
I will find you. No matter what. If it takes a thousand years, I will find you.
The old promise reverberated inside his skull, reminding him that he'd failed the one person who had meant the most to him. His gaze wandered over the ballroom, taking note of all the happily married couples. They were chatting, laughing, admiring their babies.
His heart clenched in his chest. The loss he'd suffered almost three hundred years ago struck him anew, as if it had happened a few moments ago.
He wrenched a bottle of Bubbly Blood out of an ice bucket and poured the mixture of synthetic blood and champagne into a flute glass.
"For those special vampire occasions," he muttered, then guzzled down half the glass.
Someone tapped on his arm. It was Bethany, the eldest of the Echarpe children. Jean-Luc had adopted her a few years back when Heather had been pregnant with the twins.
The nine-year-old girl gave him a shy, embarrassed look. "I forgot where the restroom is. Can you show me?"
He glanced around, searching for Heather. "Yer mum canna take you?"
"She's busy with the twins, and Papa's in an important meeting with Uncle Angus and Roman."
Dougal tilted up his glass, finishing off the contents. No one had told him about an important meeting.
"Dougal!" Bethany's eyes grew desperate. "I need to go!"
"I'll take you." He grabbed the bottle of Bubbly Blood. "This way."
He led her out the double doors into the foyer of Romatech, then headed down the west hallway. Halfway to the MacKay security office, they reached the restrooms. Bethany went inside, while he leaned against the wall, drinking Bubbly Blood and wondering what was going on. Angus MacKay, head of MacKay Security and Investigation, sent a monthly report to all his employees to keep them informed, but there had been no mention of a meeting tonight.
According to the reports, after the deaths of Malcontent leaders Casimir and Corky, most of their followers had fled back to Russia and Eastern Europe. Angus sent security teams there whenever the bad vampires got out of hand.
Master Han, another evil vampire, was still growing an army in China and acquiring more territory. There had been three vampire lords assisting Master Han, but MacKay S&I employee Major Russell Hankelburg had managed to kill one before ripping out his tracking chip and going AWOL. About three times a year, Angus sent guys to hunt for Russell, but as far as Dougal knew, the ex-Marine had never been found.
Dougal's last mission had been over a year ago when he'd helped a were-bear in Alaska. And he'd only landed that job because all the other guys had been busy in the field elsewhere.
With another gulp of Bubbly Blood he chided himself mentally. While the other lads were battling evil, he was waiting for a little girl to finish using the restroom. Face the facts. They doona think ye're suited for being more than a babysitter.
After that disastrous battle four years ago when he'd lost his hand, he'd been grateful just to stay employed at MacKay S&I. Angus had arranged for him to be transferred to Jean-Luc Echarpe's house in Texas, where he had replaced Robby MacKay as head of security. It was a cushy job, since Jean-Luc was the best swordsman in the vampire world and could easily take care of himself. But when it came to keeping his family safe, Jean-Luc wasn't going to turn down the extra help, even if it was one-handed.
Dougal had been grateful to Jean-Luc, too. In spite of his busy schedule, Jean-Luc had taken the time to teach Dougal how to fence with his left hand. And then two years ago, when he had received his first prosthetic hand, Jean-Luc had trained him once again.
Now Dougal could fence equally well with both hands - a rare talent amongst the employees of MacKay S&I. So why was he still working as a glorified babysitter? Why wasn't he being sent on field work? The boredom was becoming increasingly hard to bear. Maybe he should just retire.
And do what? Sit in his cottage on the Isle of Skye and stare at the sea all night? There would be no one there, no sound other than the plaintive cry of birds and the rhythmic beating of waves against the cold rocky shore. One night would follow another, a hollow, desolate refrain stretching into eternity.
His friends here might pester him with painful questions, but at least they cared. He wasn't left alone with a half-empty soul.
He lifted the bottle for another drink.
"Dougal?" Angus's voice boomed down the hallway. "What are ye doing out here?"
He swallowed so fast that his eyes watered. Angus and his wife, Emma, approached him, their gazes shifting from him to the bottle of Bubbly Blood in his hand. Damn, they were going to think he was drinking on the job. Well, technically, he was.
"We've been looking for you," Emma said with an amused twinkle in her eyes.
"Aye," Angus agreed. "We need to talk." He motioned to the security office.
"I'll be there in a moment." Dougal glanced at the restroom door, his face growing warm. "I-I'm waiting for Bethany so I can escort her back to the party."
Emma smiled. "I'll take her. You two go on."
Dougal nodded and accompanied Angus to the office.
Inside, Phineas's younger brother, Freemont, was seated behind the desk, munching on a donut. He jumped to his feet and saluted with the donut still in his hand, leaving behind flakes of sugar on his brow. "Everything's cool in the building, sir. Robby did a perimeter check ten minutes ago. The grounds are clear."
"Good." Angus strode across the office, his kilt swishing about his knees. "And our guest downstairs?"
"The weird psycho dude?" Freemont gestured at the wall of security monitors opposite the desk. "He's still in stasis."
A weird psycho dude? Dougal studied the screens. The party in the ballroom was in full swing. In the hallway outside, Emma was leading Bethany back to the ballroom. The foyer was empty. Same with the cafeteria and Roman's laboratory. Laszlo was in one of the labs. He appeared to be cleaning and organizing. No activity in the parking lot and front entrance.
On the bottom row, Dougal spotted an interesting scene, and he leaned over for a better look. It was the silver room in the basement, a room designed for imprisoning vampires. A man was laid out on a stretcher, unconscious, with his arms and legs buckled down with restraints. "Who is he?"
"A more likely question is what is he?" Angus replied.
Dougal straightened. "He's no' a vampire?"
Angus shook his head. "No' exactly human, either. We have him in the silver room so none of his vampire friends can teleport in to rescue him. He has superstrength, as strong as we are. And since he's normally awake during the day, I was worried he would overpower our mortal guards. The only safe way to hold him was to put him in stasis."
"You should have seen it!" Freemont's eyes sparkled with excitement. "The psycho dude is so strong, it took three Vamps to hold him down while Abby gave him the injection."
Dougal searched his memory. He'd been out of the loop for too long, stuck in Texas. "Abby is Gregori's wife?"
"Aye. President Tucker's daughter. Luckily for us, she's a biochemist who earned her Ph.D. on stasis research." Angus patted Freemont on the back. "Ye can go to the party now."
"Cool!" Freemont headed for the door, stuffing the last of the donut in his mouth. "I think they're about to cut the cake."
When the door shut, Angus took a seat behind the desk. "I just came from a meeting with Jean-Luc and Roman."
"Aye." Dougal sat in one of the chairs facing the desk and set the bottle of Bubbly Blood on the floor next to him.
"Phineas and Austin have been in charge of security here at Romatech," Angus began. "Austin wants to continue when he's no' needed on missions, but Phineas wants to take an extended leave of absence. He's verra busy with the twins and his ranch in Wyoming. And I think he prefers the country now that he has to shift every month."
Dougal nodded. It must have been difficult for Phineas to make the transition to his new hybrid status of half vampire, half werewolf. He was fortunate to have a werewolf wife to help him adapt.
Angus leaned back in his chair. "So that leaves a position open here. I asked Robby if he was interested, but he wants to be transferred to Texas. His wife, Olivia, has family there. She wants her grandmother to help her with the bairn."
Dougal wasn't surprised. It had to be tiring for the mortal wives when their vampire husbands were dead all day and unable to help with the children. "So Robby is going to do security at the Texas Romatech?"
"He'll oversee that, but he'll also be in charge of Jean-Luc's security." Angus sat forward, his elbows on the desk. "He's taking his old job back."
Dougal blinked. "Ye mean - "
"Aye. That leaves you without a job."