Where in the Devil’s good name had the rest of her squad gone?
It was twenty minutes past ten in the evening and Sophis had only managed to locate and relay orders to five out of her group of eight guards. If Commander Tynan discovered that she couldn’t keep her squad in line and at their posts on time, she was heading for an earful and possibly punishment. She didn’t need this right now after everything that had happened so recently and with the Creator Day masquerade less than a week away. Sophis clenched her fists, her arms trembling with the rage that pounded through her, part of it directed at herself, part at her squad and the rest at a man she couldn’t think about without grinding her teeth and wanting to growl. It would have been bad enough if it had been a normal ball, but this year was a centenary and that meant two nights of celebration and all eyes on the guards of the host bloodline.
The Venia household didn’t tolerate weakness at the best of times. With the safety of the lords, ladies, and other important members of the seven pure vampire bloodlines of Europe on the line, it was imperative that every group of guards performed their duties impeccably.
With her self-esteem already severely dented, Sophis dreaded that her team were going to be the weak link, the guards that failed should there be an attack, and it set her on edge as she walked across the immaculate lawn of the Venia mansion heading towards the main house. Her recent mistake during a routine patrol had already made her appear weak and unworthy of her position as a captain in the guard. If word reached her superiors that she couldn’t control the newest members of her squad, they would lose all faith in her. She couldn’t let that happen. She had to find the missing men and bring them into line, and she had to do it before anyone else discovered they were absent from their posts.
There was one man in particular that she didn’t want to find out—the person whose name labelled the largest part of her anger.
Sophis uncurled her fingers, stretching them and trying to shake away the burning fury and shame she felt from just thinking that name.
She hadn’t seen Vivek since the night she had led her team on patrol in Saint Petersburg to confirm that the Validus bloodline’s reports of increased hunter activity in the city were true. She had confirmed it all right. A vampire hunter had attacked and she had leapt into action, earning herself a poisoned arrow in the back for her impatience.
Vivek had come out of nowhere and saved her life.
Sophis paused halfway across the beautiful moonlit garden as her left shoulder blade burned with the memory of that night over a week ago. She closed her eyes and pressed her right hand to the front of her shoulder, breathing deeply and slowly to steady her rising panic.
She owed her life to Vivek twice over now. Her fingertips pulled the black material of her uniform jacket tight as she clutched her shoulder and ground her teeth. His actions that night had left her confused. He had swept in and singlehandedly dispatched her attackers and had shown such concern when he had picked her up, cradling her in his arms like a princess, and ordered his men and hers to go on ahead and warn the infirmary. The sickness from the poison had come upon her then but she had remained staring at Vivek, her mind swimming. She wasn’t a member of his squad, yet he had treated her as though she was, had shown the same amount of concern for her wellbeing as she had often seen him feel towards his men under similar circumstances.
Only he never went to their rescue.
He let them fight their own battles.
Why had he interfered with hers?
Was it just to make her feel weak, to make her look feeble in front of her squad and his, to make her appear as though she wasn’t suited to the role of their leader? To prove to that small section of the guard that he was right and she shouldn’t hold the position of captain?
Or was it something else?
Her closest friend, Ella, had told her once that people who fight all the time were secretly in love with each other.
In that brief moment in his arms, Sophis had dared to hope that the care he was taking with her and his concern weren’t only because she was injured and sick. She had wondered if Ella was right. That hope still knotted her stomach and confused her whenever she thought about it. It had been nothing more than a slip, a flash of insanity caused by the poison, a fleeting feeling that Vivek had crushed. She would do well to remember that.
Vivek had looked so cold as he had carried her back to the mansion, covered in the blood of her attackers, reeking of their grim deaths at his bare hands. He hadn’t looked at her once. His icy gaze had remained fixed ahead of him and his heavy steps had echoed in her drowsy fiery mind. She had kept her attention locked on him to stave off her muddled feelings and as a point of focus so she could battle the toxin. The cold abyss of his heart had shown in the depths of his eyes, void of emotions and any shred of care for her.
Nothing had changed that night. Not her feelings or his.
He was still the bane of her life with his sexist attitude towards her and his desire to have her thrown out of the guard. He felt nothing for her now. Those times were long past. Lost forever.
Sophis had felt that then as she did now, but it hadn’t stopped her from musing the strangest thing.
Vivek never smiled anymore.
That thought had plagued her during her recuperation and even cut through her present anger towards him.
It lingered in her heart and she had spent her long empty hours of rest thinking about how he used to be and how he was now. The contrast between past and present was as sharp as that between white and black.
What had happened to the man she used to know, the one who had trained her and taught her to fight to the best of her abilities and, if those weren’t good enough for her, to practice until she didn’t have the strength to stand and then rest only long enough to catch her breath? Vivek had inspired her, supported her, and made her feel that if she tried hard enough she would be the best guard in the Venia household, surpassing even him. Where was the man with the brilliant smile that made his normally intense hazel eyes sparkle and the quick wit that had always brought out her own smile and made her feel so at ease around him? He was so serious now, his eyes as cold as glaciers and as hard as diamonds. His smile nowhere to be seen.
And he was cruel.
Two days ago, Sophis had returned to duty and this evening she had discovered that Vivek had filed a rather unsavoury report about the hunter attack in the city and her ability as a captain of the guard. He had cited her weakness, her leap into the fight without using her team, and other faults that she was already painfully aware of without his mentioning them to their commander. Her blood had caught fire as she had listened to Commander Tynan recite the report.
It was boiling now that she had discovered her men missing.
Sophis set her jaw, stormed across the damp grass and the golden gravel path and entered the elegant palatial mansion that was her family’s home, using the back entrance close to the ballroom. She moved swiftly along the short corridor towards the stone steps that led down into the basement. The hallway was plain and unadorned, with dull walls and cold flagstones underfoot, a poorer cousin of the bright cream corridors in the public spaces of the house, with their oil paintings and lamps, and antique wooden furniture that lent them a regal and warm air. These passages were used by guards and servants of her bloodline. No one of importance lowered themselves to walk them so there was no need for them to look remotely inviting.
The darkness clung to the hall, broken at intervals by a single lamp on the wall that cast insipid light in a small semi-circle around it, barely chasing back the gloom.
Sophis hurried down the stone steps to the basement, her heightened vision and her memory providing her with the position of each tread. The flat heels of her knee-high polished black leather riding boots were loud on the cold stone, echoing along the hall coming into view before her and marking the quick rhythm of her steps. She could have moved silently if she had wished, but she wanted everyone in the corridor ahead to know that she was coming. She wanted them to hear her anger before they managed to sense it.
She ground her teeth until her slightly extended canines cut into her gums, flooding her mouth with the sweet perfume of her own blood. The taste of it stopped her in her tracks and she drew a deep steadying breath, searching for some calm amongst the storm of her feelings so her fangs retracted.
This wasn’t just about her missing men. Vivek was getting to her again and she was playing right into his hands. He wanted her angry, wanted her to slip up and give Tynan a reason to lose his faith in her abilities as a captain. She couldn’t give Vivek the satisfaction of winning.
Regardless of what he thought about her, she was a good guard and a strong leader. She had fought for her position within the ranks and she wasn’t going to throw it all away, no matter what he did or said about her. She wouldn’t let him win. The guard was everything to her. It was her life.
Sophis strode along the dimly lit hallway, passing servants quarters and the blood store. The smell of it tainted the air, causing her stomach to twist and grumble. It had been days since her last feed. The preparations for the upcoming Creator Day masquerade had everyone rushed off their feet, especially the guards, and feeding hadn’t crossed her mind since she had returned to duty. She would have to soon or she would grow weak and would be of no use to her bloodline during the celebrations. After her duties tonight had ended, she would request permission to head into Saint Petersburg to hunt. There would be enough time before sunrise for her to locate, distract and kill a suitable male human. Strong blood would allow her to last through the celebrations without needing to feed again and would restore her strength, giving back what she needed to prove herself a worthy captain of the guard.
She would show Vivek that she was strong and capable, that what had happened was just a glitch, nothing more than a mistake, and he was wrong about her. She was worthy of her position. She would prove that.
The door for the guards’ rest room came into view along the grey corridor and she straightened her back, tipped her chin up, and quickened her pace. Noise came from the room, drifting out of the open door along with warm light. She focused her senses, trying to detect whether her men were there, slacking off and disobeying orders. None of the voices coming from the room were familiar to her. She stepped inside, sharply coming to a halt and drawing all eyes to her. Several of the men quickly rose from the dark couches and armchairs scattered around the dull windowless stone-walled room and saluted her by pressing their hand against the breast of their black mid-thigh length uniform jackets. She scanned their faces, realised that neither Vivek nor her men were present, and then nodded and turned away.
Heat coiled in her stomach, anger blazing there and slowly pouring into her veins like acid that ate away at her restraint, giving free rein to her desire to unleash her feelings on Vivek even when she knew it was wrong of her to aim all of her fury at him. It wouldn’t be the first time they had fought outside the training room. When she found him, she was going to give him a large piece of her mind and find out just why he had felt the need to emphasise everything she had done wrong that night in his report.
She passed another room where guards were relaxing between duties. Her men weren’t there either.
Where were they?
Sophis hurried along the dim corridor to the steps at the other end, took them quickly, and pushed the heavy wooden door at the top open. The brightly lit vestibule of the house greeted her, warm with its pale yellow walls and grand crystal chandelier. The servants were already decorating the double-height room. Elegant arrangements of red roses stood in huge antique vases on the black-cloth-draped side tables and the pedestals placed around the large room. Several women dressed in plain black clothing were threading garlands of roses through the banister of the mahogany staircase that curved upwards to the first floor. That area would become the guest suites for the most important attendees during the ball and her family had spared no expense to ensure their comfort. They had even moved some of the less important members of the Venia bloodline to the second floor where her room and those of other ranked guards were to free up their stately rooms for the guests. The theme of red roses and gold would run throughout the entire first floor and the rooms on the ground floor that remained open to their guests during the ball.
Several guards entered from the ballroom beneath the balcony to her right and she saluted their commanding officer.
“Have you seen Vivek?” Sophis stepped towards Seth, a blond man of impeccable neatness who had come through the ranks at the same time as her, although he was closer in age to Vivek. The two men had never seen eye to eye. She now shared Seth’s dire opinion of Vivek and he had grown supportive of her, even fighting her corner more than once when Vivek had chosen to start on her in his presence.
Seth waved his group of young guards on and then closed the gap between them. His deep blue eyes expressed more than his handsome schooled features. He wasn’t happy.
“Not since Commander Tynan ordered us both to patrol the grounds and ensure there were no intruders. We split up to head around the perimeter wall in opposite directions and he was not at the meeting point. I waited with my squad for more than thirty minutes before realising that Vivek was not coming.”
Sophis frowned, her eyebrows meeting tightly. Vivek was annoying as Hell when he put his mind to it but he wasn’t someone who shirked his duties. It wasn’t like him to leave a fellow officer to lead a patrol singlehandedly, especially when Tynan had given him orders to assist him. Something must have happened.
“Perhaps he finished before you and decided to return to the house.” The words sounded weak even to her ears. She wanted to give Vivek the benefit of the doubt, but it was difficult to see past her anger over his report and her missing squad members.
Seth didn’t look so sure.
“Listen.” Sophis glanced around the double-height room, making sure no one was close enough to them to hear her whispered confession. Seth would never tell on her. They had confided a lot in each other over the past ten years. She told him all the things that she would have gone to Vivek about in the years before he had turned sour towards her. “I’m having trouble locating some of my squad. Three men. They’re new recruits. I don’t suppose you’ve seen them?”
“Perhaps they are with Vivek.” Seth’s expression remained flat and serious.
“Why would you say that?” The question sprung from her lips before she could stop it. It was obvious why he would think it.
Her men had spent time under Vivek’s command while she had been recovering in the infirmary. He had probably taken the opportunity to corrupt the newest members of her squad. It was one thing to openly challenge her right to her position within the ranks of the Venia bloodline and completely another for him to convince members of her squad to mutiny against her.
Sophis closed her eyes and exhaled slowly, ignoring Seth as he spoke. She was jumping to conclusions again, basing everything on her feelings rather than fact. It was just her anger clouding her judgement. Vivek would never disobey Commander Tynan and he had only been honest in his report. It had pained her to hear the cold hard truth and know that he felt she was unfit to act as a captain. That pain was pushing her into reacting in a way that was unlike her. She was directing all of her anger at Vivek, pinning the blame on him to deflect it away from herself. This was her fault. She had acted rashly, behaved in a way unsuited to a captain, and had got herself injured and taken off duty. Now she was paying for it. If she hadn’t rushed into the fight, Vivek wouldn’t have had to rescue her, he wouldn’t have had to file a report on her actions, and her squad would have remained faithful to her.
The scar on her back burned with the memory of the scrape of the holy wood arrow shaft and the fiery heat of the toxin. Fear threatened to seep into her veins again. She shunned the emotion, unwilling to allow it to control her. She had survived and she had learnt a valuable lesson, one that would see her survive her next fight against the vampire hunters.
When she found her men, she would see that Vivek wasn’t responsible for their actions and that she was wrong to aim all of her anger at him.
She had to hold on to the faith she had in him and needed to remember what he used to be like. He was still that man inside. She was sure of it. Something had changed him and if she could discover what it was, she could set things right between them and restore the friendship they had once shared. That felt like too much to hope for. Vivek had changed so much that thawing the ice in his heart seemed impossible.
Seth was staring at her.
Sophis shunned her thoughts and looked him square in the eye.
His lips quirked into a smile. “Perhaps it is that female who distracts him.”
Female? Anger lanced her gut again, spreading fire into her chest. She hadn’t noticed Vivek chasing a female. If he was, it could prove that she was wrong and he had disregarded his orders tonight. Around twenty years ago, a female had caught his eye and he had shirked his duties then in order to pursue her. The feeling inside Sophis increased, burning through her blood, and she turned her frown on herself. What did it matter to her if Vivek was chasing anyone?
She pitied the poor female he had targeted. That was all this feeling was. She was just confusing it with something else, something she definitely wasn’t about to consider, not even for a split second.
“If you see my men, can you please come and tell me? If I find Vivek, I’ll reprimand him and send him to Commander Tynan to file his report,” Sophis said.
Seth’s look turned sour and he frowned. “The idiot will get what is coming to him one day.”
Sophis couldn’t agree more.
She saluted Seth and he pressed his hand to the chest of his crisp black jacket, nodded, and walked away.
Sophis stared after him, her focus wavering as her gaze tracked him until he disappeared down a corridor. She blew out a long sigh, her thoughts weighing her feet down. There was no point in putting things off. Her men were here somewhere. She wasn’t sure what she would do if she found them with Vivek. It would be the final blow to her already damaged self-esteem but she couldn’t stop looking for them now.
The basement guards’ quarters, the rest rooms there, and the armoury had produced no results. She hadn’t sensed her men or Vivek there. No trace of their scent lingered in the air, which meant they hadn’t been there in at least an hour. The grounds had held a hint of Vivek’s scent, but Seth had explained that for her. Regardless of what Seth thought, Vivek had been out there at some point this evening, although that didn’t mean he had patrolled as ordered.
Sophis closed her eyes and focused her senses. It was difficult to pick out a specific scent in the mansion. There were so many people coming and going because of the masquerade preparations that the scents all swirled together into one blanketing smell of roses and vampire blood.
If she were older, she would have been able to pick through the scents until she found Vivek’s masculine smell of strong blood and warm aftershave. She was on the wrong side of one hundred for that sort of skill though. Picking him out of a crowd was beyond her.
She tipped her head up and drew in a deep breath anyway on the off chance that she might detect him. The smell of roses choked her senses. Useless.
Was he on this floor? There were areas where those of their rank could go, reception rooms they could use if they wished, but Vivek rarely went there.
They had become some of her favourite places for that reason alone.
Sophis turned to face the door on the opposite side of the room to the one she had just exited. It was one of the few remaining places to check. She crossed the entrance hall and entered the elegant green reception room. None of her men were among the guards relaxing on the deep forest green antique couches around the large fireplace or those playing card games on the polished wooden tables towards the back of the room. The smell of flowers lessened and something sparked on her senses as she approached the next reception room, her favourite one where she loved to relax with a good book and find some peace.
She ducked to one side when the dark wooden door opened and two guards walked out, and curled her fingers around the edge of it to stop it from closing. Instead of entering the pale blue drawing room that acted as a library for the guards of the bloodline, she remained tucked behind the door, listening in. Her senses pinpointed Vivek and several other soldiers. She recognised some of them, had studied the feel of them on her senses so she could pick them out during battle and quickly relay orders or check whether they needed assistance. Her three missing men. Disappointment lurched through her, its taste bitter in her throat and on the back of her tongue.
Sophis drew in another deep breath, needing it to retain control and stop herself from storming into the room and giving Vivek a piece of her mind. Her senses stretched out and she was familiar enough with the room to be able to picture where Vivek was.
That was her favourite armchair and he probably knew it. He was here on purpose, to show her that he knew her innermost feelings and how much pleasure that place brought her, and he was going to ruin it for her. Demon. She cursed him under her breath and tried to see who else was present in the room. Several males judging by their scent, and also a female or two. Some were seated further away from Vivek and his group, towards the double doors far to her right, where crammed bookcases lined the walls. Vivek was closer to her, seated near the elegant white marble fireplace in the cluster of dark blue upholstered antique armchairs and sofas that stood on the expansive ornate blue and gold Chinese rug.
“We should probably go,” a deep voice said, gravelly with Czech accented English, and she recognised him as one of the younger guards assigned to her group.
“Perhaps you should run along and return to your mistress,” Vivek said, his voice low and teasing, his Russian-edged words filled with amusement that tore at Sophis. She wanted to shut him out and not listen, not hear the things he had to say about her because they would only worsen the pain she felt whenever she thought about how much Vivek had changed in these past ten years and how much his behaviour hurt her. “She is no doubt wondering where you have gone and if you do not return to her soon, she will run crying to Commander Tynan. Although, I thought you had all come here because you wanted to be part of my squad? I only accept strong guards who can think for themselves, not younglings who turn tail and run.”
Sophis gripped the door, her claws extending and pressing into the wood.
Not only was he trying to get her dropped from the guard but he was stealing her men too. She growled low enough that no one would hear her, venting her anger in the only way possible without open confrontation and violence.
His sexism was nothing new to her. She had endured such snide and horrible behaviour from others in the past, especially during the time when she had been working her way up the ranks. It wasn’t often that a female was elevated to her level within the guard but it had happened before, and it would happen again, regardless of what the males in the house of Venia thought about it.
Part of her wanted to go into the room and remind Vivek that the Law Keeper of their bloodline, the highest echelon of guard and the position many of them aspired to achieve, was female. Marise was strong and powerful, and deserved her position as the representative of the Venia, the one who upheld the laws of the seven pure bloodlines in their name. Sophis looked up to her and fought to be as strong as she was. Marise was a sign that a woman could achieve anything they set their heart on, regardless of what some men believed. It was because of her that Sophis had the strength to endure everything that Vivek threw at her and wouldn’t surrender her dream. She was strong and able, led her squad by example and followed the rules herself. She was the epitome of a good leader and one worthy of her position. She would keep working to prove that until even Vivek couldn’t deny it.
“You saw what happened the other week during patrol,” he said and the contents of his report echoed around her mind.
Her resolve faltered and her anger and disappointment turned back towards herself. She clung to the door, leaning on it for support, weak as she thought about everything that had happened. She had wanted so desperately to fight and prove that she was strong and worthy of her position, and she had only proven that she was still rash and a youngling in some ways. She hated that she had shown that side of herself to her team and to Vivek. She had given him a reason to believe her weak and unworthy of her captaincy, and that was something she despised with all of her heart, not because he would use it against her but because she had wanted him to believe in her, to have faith in her skills as he had ten years ago, and now he wouldn’t.
“You want to be in a real man’s squad, not hanging on the skirt of a female. Is that not so?”
Those words sent the fire in her blood to her heart. It consumed her, burning away the last threads of her restraint and releasing all of the pain she held locked in her heart, hurt that she felt whenever she thought about Vivek. She couldn’t stop herself from stepping out into the open. Her dark brown eyes widened when she spotted Vivek sitting on her favourite armchair in the middle of the room, surrounded by his squad and the three men belonging to hers, and with a woman seated on his lap. Sophis recognised the neat chignon of blonde hair and the slender curvaceous outline before the woman had even turned her face away from Vivek to look at the others.
She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
It was Ella draped all over Vivek, sitting on his thigh with her feet tucked between his black-clad legs, her fingers running through the longer lengths of his messy short dark hair. Her friend smiled, as though in agreement with what he had said, and Sophis’s heart stung over the betrayal. How many times had Ella supported her when she had griped about Vivek and his treatment of her? Ella had agreed with everything she had said about him and his sexist ways, and now she was sitting on his lap, staring at him with adoring eyes. Ella brushed her fingers across his cheek. He smiled at her.
Was he so absorbed in Ella that his guard was down?
The others had sensed her presence, and her anger judging by how they had backed away from Vivek, leaving him open to attack. The three males from her squad were staring at their boots, huddled close together as though there was safety in numbers. She would deal with them later. After she had given Vivek that piece of her mind reserved for him.
Sophis growled, crossed the expansive room in a flash, and grabbed Vivek by the short stand-up collar of his black military-style uniform jacket. She twisted it in her grip and tore him from the blue velvet armchair, sending Ella toppling off his lap as she forced him to stand and dragged him towards her.
His hazel eyes met hers, cool and calm, unflustered by her assault.
“I’ve had enough of you.” Her words came out evenly despite the anger sweeping like liquid wildfire through her veins.
He smiled slowly, his sensual dusky lips bowing into it. Amusement shimmered in his eyes as he looked down into hers.
It didn’t fool Sophis. The tight lines bracketing his mouth and the tautness of his neck muscles warned her of his anger long before the emotion began to roll off him in tangible waves that told her to back down or accept the consequences.
Doubt settled in her mind. Right now, she wasn’t strong enough to beat him and she didn’t have any proof to lay at his feet should he demand to know what had her so riled. She was overreacting again, pinning all of the anger that should have been directed at herself on him instead. She had accused and sentenced him in one breath and she had to go through with what she had started.
“Why did you say those things in your report?” It seemed like the safest of her reasons to mention. He couldn’t deny it at least.
“Why did I tell the truth in a report to my commander?”
When he said it like that, Sophis couldn’t hold his gaze, no matter how hard she tried. Her eyes darted to his chest and the heat of shame engulfed and incinerated the anger in her heart, turning it to ashes. Vivek was right. He had only told the truth, a requirement when filing a report. What reason did he have to lie for her? None at all.
“If you want to prove that you are not weak or a liability, then do so,” Vivek said and her eyes widened.
Was he challenging her?
She raised her gaze to meet his. His intense hazel eyes gave nothing away, no sign of his feelings or any hint of the meaning behind his words. The banked flames of her anger sparked back into life, fanned to a fierce roar in her heart by the challenge he had issued and the desire to prove herself.
“I’ll fight you.” The hardness of those words leaving her lips surprised her.
The guards gathered around them moved back as one, positioning themselves at a safe distance, some of them shifting to stand behind the furniture.
A glimmer of light touched Vivek’s eyes again and Sophis had the terrible feeling he hadn’t meant what he had said as that sort of challenge. It didn’t matter. She had fought him before and she would fight him again. She would prove right here and now that she was strong and capable.
“I beat you last time we danced,” he husked in a low voice that felt too intimate, as though he was trying to speak to her alone, shunning the others who surrounded them.
She could feel their eyes on her, the spark of fear that ran through some of the younger vampires and Ella, but didn’t take her focus off Vivek. She wouldn’t give him an opening. If he made the slightest move, she was going to knock him on his backside in front of everyone. That would bring him down a peg or two but would do nothing to satisfy the deeper craving for violence that filled every inch of her.
Vivek lowered his head towards her, his sharp hazel eyes holding her motionless as though he had cast a spell on her, and carefully placed his hand over hers where it held his jacket. She started at the feel of his cool fingers closing over hers and swallowed the lump forming in her throat. She fought to tear her gaze away from his, feeling the danger of staring into his eyes, but failed. It was impossible when he was so close to her, barely a few inches away. Each flake of purest gold that flecked the transition of rich green to earthy brown in his irises held her fast and mesmerised her. She was open like this. He could attack her before she could bring her focus back to the fight let alone manage to defend herself. It would be game over in under a second.
He leaned in closer, until his mouth neared her cheek and she could no longer see his eyes. Her senses snapped back to attention, outlining the room and its contents in sharp relief in her mind. Vivek’s proximity played havoc with them. Her vampire senses bounced off everything in the room like radar but it was quickest to leap back from him. She could feel his senses on her too, monitoring, focused with intensity. The signals echoed back and forth, bouncing off each other, until awareness vibrated between them and threatened to drown out the rest of the room. Sophis swallowed again, fighting a losing battle against it and the startling effect it had on her body.
“Surely you do not want to humiliate yourself again?” he murmured against her cheek, sending unpleasant shivers down her neck as his breath washed over it. The shiver became a tingling that spread over her arms and trickled down her spine. She fought the urge to close her eyes and shoved him backwards, placing distance between them.
His gaze lost its warmth.
“I won the previous two, remember?” Sophis tightened her grip on his black jacket and he tightened his on her hand, crushing her fingers with gentle pressure, not enough to hurt but enough to remind her that he was the stronger out of them, and not only because he had fifty years as a vampire on her. Another rush of tingles swept through her, stealing the strength from her legs and turning her mouth dry. She straightened, refusing to let him affect her and denying the electric feel of his fingers against hers.
Her senses sharpened and Vivek responded in kind, his focus settling wholly on her. The intensity of it and the sure smile that tugged at his profanely sensual mouth shot her concentration to Hell. She sucked in a sharp breath, narrowed her eyes on his, and tipped her shoulders back. Vivek’s gaze briefly dropped to her chest, his right eyebrow quirking, and then met hers again.
She wasn’t going to let him fluster her. She was going to prove right here and right now that she could take him in a fight because if she didn’t, her men would never follow her lead.
Vivek’s broad build lent him physical strength that she couldn’t match, but while he could use brute force in their fights, she had intelligence and speed on her side. She had outwitted him several times over the past few fights and had won because of it.
Sophis snatched her hand back and squared up to him, tilting her chin up and holding his gaze.
“I’ll win this time,” she said on a sneer, unafraid of the darkness emerging in his eyes as the colour began to bleed from them. The flecks of gold turned icy, black gradually ringed his irises, and then pale blue emerged and subdued the hues of brown and green until his eyes were softest aquamarine, the colour that signified him as a member of the Venia bloodline.
Each of the seven pure bloodlines had different eye colours when they were showing their true face. From the obsidian darkness of the Tenebrae, through the fiery orange of the Nocens and the blood red of the Vehemens, the intense emerald of the Caelestis and striking sapphire of the Aurorea, to the royal purple of the strongest family in Europe, the mighty Validus bloodline. All of them were unique in this one way, and many thought it was this difference that divided them, that pitted them against each other in an eternal battle for dominion over their species.
Sophis allowed her eyes to transform and her canines lengthened into fangs, revealing her true self to Vivek. His pupils widened and then narrowed, and she sensed the change in him, the moment he went from treating her as a feeble woman to a potential threat. His guard came up, his focus sharpening, swamping her with a sensation that she was in danger.
She wasn’t going to back down. “You just got lucky last time.”
The group around them jeered.
Vivek glared icily at them and then his gaze shifted back to hers. His fangs showed between his lips as he spoke.
“I will not make the mistake of going easy on you again.”
With that, he threw a right hook at her.