He turned, examining her face.
She appeared calm, if not curious. Seemingly satisfied, he gestured to a corner and followed her.
“I see you took my advice.” Aoibhe smiled, but it did not reach her eyes.
William’s expression tightened. “The girl is a diversion; not a consort.”
“Then there’s room in your bed for me.”
William simply returned her stare. Aoibhe tilted her head as she scanned his features.
“No doubt it will take some time for you to tire of your new pet. I can be patient. Is she under mind control? I couldn’t tell.”
“Is there a point to this conversation?”
Aoibhe tossed her long red hair.
“Your pet’s scent is masked. Was she a virgin?”
William gritted his teeth. “Be alert this evening, Aoibhe. The hunters will find you irresistible.”
“I suppose that means she wasn’t.” Aoibhe tapped a finger to her lips, as if she were deep in thought. “If she wasn’t a virgin, I’m surprised you bothered with her. Tell me, was she sweet?”
The Prince glared. He was about to leave, when something over her shoulder caught his eye. The other council members were turned in their direction, observing them with more than a little interest.
His eyes returned to hers.
With practiced ease, he lifted his right hand and brought it to her face, swiping his thumb across her lips.
Her dark eyes widened in surprise and she drew his thumb into her mouth, sucking deeply.
“She’s a pet. Nothing more.” He kissed her aggressively and she reciprocated, nipping at his lower lip.
William pulled back with a scowl, lifting a hand to his mouth. Mercifully, she hadn’t drawn blood.
Aoibhe winked at him.
“I’m glad we have an understanding. You know where to find me when you grow tired of your pet.”
She turned to rejoin the other council members, but spoke over her shoulder.
“I’ll be waiting.”
Somehow the journey up the spiral staircase seemed much longer than the downward climb. Raven clung to William’s side, eager to flee the strange world he inhabited.
Her thoughts caught on the word. William didn’t simply inhabit the underworld; he ruled it. Judging from the deference she’d heard in the voices of his associates, they feared him.
She had thought of him as a member of a group of vampyres, not as the leader. If she’d been afraid of him before, her fear had tripled.
Now I’m his pet.
She cringed. The term, as well as the experience, was demeaning. If she hadn’t been afraid for her life, she would have objected. Loudly.
Her commitment to the laws of nature and what was physically possible had been weakened and almost destroyed. She’d seen and heard too much, both above and below the mysterious staircase. And the way the men and women in the gymnasium moved . . .
She wondered why vampyres hadn’t taken over the world.
Raven stumbled and she felt William’s iron grasp on her right elbow.
“Keep going,” he whispered.
She didn’t know if they were visible to the others. Certainly she didn’t hear any other footsteps on the staircase.
Her heart was beating very fast. She was sure the adrenaline was what was staving off the discomfort of wearing high heels.
William didn’t speak, but he moved so that his arm was wrapped around her waist.
Raven found his touch comforting.
A few more minutes and they were moving through doors and down hallways. William helped her into a car and sat beside her, removing her blindfold and shoving it into his jacket pocket as they drove through the city streets.
She exhaled a sigh of relief.
His face was watchful, careful. “It’s possible my brethren might follow us, but they’ll be stopped at the gate to the villa. They can’t cross onto the property.”
“Why not?” she croaked, her mouth dry.
William retrieved a bottle of water from Luka, who was driving.
Raven accepted it gratefully.
“Let’s just say there are certain things in my possession that prevent the others from troubling me.”
“You didn’t tell me you were a prince.”
“The title refers to my position.” William watched as she drank half the bottle. “The ruling vampyre of a principality is known as the Prince. Thus, I am the Prince of Florence.”
“How long have you been prince?”
“Since the fourteenth century.”
Raven began to choke, water spilling into her lungs. She coughed and spluttered while William looked on helplessly.
“Are you all right? What should I do?”
She waved aside his hand and continued to cough, clearing the water from her throat.
“Luka, stop the car,” William instructed.
“No,” she managed to say, though she continued coughing. “I’m okay.”
“You don’t sound okay.” He placed his arm around her shoulder.
She coughed a few more times.
Carefully, she sipped her water. Then she took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Are you all right now?” His pale eyebrows had drawn together.
“Much better, thanks.”
“You have to be more careful.”
“I didn’t realize that drinking water while you were talking was hazardous.” She glared at him. “If you became prince in the fourteenth century, you must have been born earlier than that.”
He nodded once.
“How much earlier?”
“I’ve kept my age a secret, for various reasons.”
She frowned. “What kind of reasons?”
He gave her a look calculated to end her line of inquiry.
“How does one become a prince?”
“Usually, by destroying the previous one.” His tone was casual, too casual.
Raven’s blood grew cold.
“I never destroyed anyone who didn’t deserve it. Remember that before you condemn me.”
He withdrew his arm from her shoulder and turned his attention to the darkened cityscape.
Raven took another drink of water, not knowing how to respond.
William was unaccustomed to justifying his actions. Since he’d become prince, he hadn’t had the need.
But even as he explained himself to the young woman who sat beside him, he felt a new emotion. He pushed it aside, not wanting to deal with it.
“You were very brave this evening. I would have liked to reward you by showing you the wonders of my city, but there are hunters about. Our tour will have to wait.”