Faction and I wanted to surprise you and present you with a little something

Winding Down

I

Lucky watched as Josef guided Faction away toward the living area with one hand lightly touching the small of her back. She was pleased he had chosen to spend some time with Faction; she could see the tension in every line of his body, and knew that if anyone could begin taking the edge off after that horrendous conference, it was the sweetly devoted young woman with him. That, and the view of the city lights below, the jeweled array glittering out there in the blackness of the southern California night. She knew how much he loved the view, how much he reveled in the glorious night.

Lucky nodded to Allara and slipped away to her room. She was anxious to get out of her heels and the tight dress she was wearing. Protocol for a formal meeting, Josef had said, included them being dressed for the occasion. Now, however, the meeting was over, and she needed to get comfortable. It was almost bound to be a long night. Josef had indicated during the ride home from Mick's place that he would be wanting to talk to her later. That was a good thing. Granted, earlier in the evening, she'd been terrified by his anger, afraid even to lay a soothing hand on his arm, as she wished to do. Once, once she'd gotten in his face when he was completely over the edge with rage, and while there had been no consequences, he had warned her later how close she had come to harm. She knew, too, that if he had hurt her, it would have caused him pain at least as great, and she had no desire to cause that. Tonight, he'd been shaking with anger, not, thank goodness, that it had been directed at her. If he ever got that mad at her, she knew, she'd be finding out first hand that she couldn't outrun him, with or without high heels. There'd be no question; she'd be dead. On the other hand, chances that she'd ever do anything on purpose so stupid as to anger him that way were negligible.

There was no question, she knew, but that vampires were dangerous predators. The bad ones were beyond bad, beyond dangerous. The good ones, though, if you could find one, the good ones could make you feel safe, utterly protected from any evil in the world. And, Lucky reflected, Josef was one of the best. He made a lot of noise sometimes about his lack of morals and scruples, but over the time she'd known him, she'd decided that his swagger on the subject was just that—an act to cover his essential decency.

It was only recently she'd decided to commit to blood exclusivity with Josef. She given it quite a bit of thought, and it wasn't that she didn't care about the other vampire who had been in her life, but somehow Mick St. John just hadn't seemed to need her, to value her as much as Josef did.

She had absolutely no regrets, and she had become utterly devoted to Josef since making her decision. When he gave her a key, and set up living quarters for her, Allara, and Faction, it had seemed the most natural, desirable thing in the world, to be a part of the vampire's entourage, one of his most favored freshies. And the other girls—they'd become as close as sisters. She'd never have thought that she'd be comfortable with sharing a man's attention, but, well, vamps were just different. Josef needed more blood, more frequently, than one freshie could provide. And he preferred not to drink too deeply, from any of them at any one time, claiming it was better to be able to taste each of them often. The fact that his three favorites got along so well, complemented each other so perfectly, was just a fortunate extra. Although Josef had once smirked at her and asked her if she didn't know he'd planned it all that way. She smiled, remembering also something Faction said he'd told her one night—"I don't smell every flower in the bouquet, and I put even fewer of them in my lapel." He'd probably never dream of saying something so blatantly sentimental to her, or to Allara, but it was a nice thought.

This reverie had carried her as she undressed and took a quick shower. She considered renewing her perfume, but decided against it. Josef had said more than once that to a vampire's ultra-sensitive nose, the scent of a woman's desire, the blood pulsing beneath her skin was perfume enough. "By all means, Lucky," he'd told her, "disguise that delicate fragrance when you are out in the world. Save it for someone who will appreciate it, will savor it." After that, Lucky had made sure she had unscented toiletries available, and while Josef had never said anything, he'd made it clear that he noticed, and approved.

She thought she'd break out one of the pretty teal satin nighties tonight. She'd maybe have preferred a t-shirt and flannel sleep pants, but that was out of the question. Too casual for their upscale vamp. After he'd proved just how much he'd liked the first garment of that particular style and color, she'd ordered a dozen more just the same. Lucky had felt a bit uncomfortable, at first, spending Josef's money. It made her feel a little mercenary, among other things. A little bit, well, bought. But he'd spoken to her about it, so reasonably, that she'd acquiesced. She offered him, freely and without price, something he valued, and if he wished to offer her what he could in return, she should be pleased to accept it. At first she thought he'd only meant the blood, and she didn't understand why it should be so valuable, because he could surely get blood a thousand ways, with less trouble than she and the other freshies represented. That was only part of it, though, she'd come to understand. He said that their trust, their loyalty, their affection for him put something, some mystical other quality, into the blood, made it more sustaining, more nourishing to him than any other. Josef had smiled at her, caressed her cheek with one forefinger and said, "It's addictive. I can't explain it, but it's addictive."

She slipped on a robe that matched the nightgown, and picked up a book, waiting. It was sometime later when she heard him moving quietly down the hall. Josef carried Faction in his arms.

"Lucky," Josef said, so softly she could imagine he hadn't vocalized at all, but spoke directly into her mind, "get the door, will you?"

She smiled at him as she went past, hurrying to open the door to Faction's suite. She could see even in the dim light that the other woman was sleeping naturally, curled against Josef's chest in the strong arms that could comfortably hold her all through the night without tiring.

He deposited the sleeping woman carefully on her bed, and stepped back to watch Lucky remove Faction's shoes and spread a blanket over her. Lucky gave her cheek a brief, light caress before straightening to turn to Josef, but it was the vampire bent to brush back the hair from her forehead, and bestow a gentle kiss there. "Goodnight, my formidable one," he murmured to her, and she shifted, smiling in her sleep.

Then he turned, and with a slight smile extended his hand to Lucky. She glanced down at his pale, slender hand, so open to her and so filled with controlled power, then back up to his face. She knew his expression might be deceptive, but at this moment his face was peaceful, his eyes calm. Lucky returned his smile, and took his hand, and they left Faction to her rest.

II

The city lights were spectacular, spread below them. The surface of the pool on the terrace beyond the glass wall was slightly ruffled by the breeze, as best Lucky could see. Everything was peaceful, tranquil. Lucky had assumed, had been sure from prior experience, that Josef would be in a talkative mood, ready to rehash and rethink recent events and the conference until dawn. She'd known him to talk all night before, half the time about things she could barely comprehend, events from his long past that still haunted him. Or rant over some perceived insult or injustice, talk it out until he came to some conclusion. Mostly her job was to listen, to provide an audience, occasionally to offer encouragement and, more rarely, an opinion.

Josef always claimed to value her comments when she gave them, but she was painfully aware of the inadequacy of any small wisdom she might possess in the face of his four hundred years of life experience.

Tonight, however, Josef was uncharacteristically quiet. He stood, holding her close, for a little, then sat down on the couch, his powerful hands gently turning her so that she lay half across his chest, her head nestled on his shoulder, his arms around her as inexorable as the night, and as comforting. He professed to disdain mortals, to find them of little worth compared to those of his kind, but she could tell that here and now what he needed, what he wanted, was nothing more than the sound of the slow trusting beat of her very mortal heart.

She may have dozed a little, against the utter stillness of his chest. She knew he stared out into the night, almost unblinking, and wished she knew what to say to him, some words that would ease his mind.

Sometime later, much later, he spoke, a little more slowly than was his wont. "That was hard tonight, Lucky, very hard. To be accused, even falsely, especially falsely, of such a thing. And to know it had been used to cause pain to you and Allara and Faction. That was wrong." He craned his neck a bit, to look down at her. "You won't tell anyone, Lucky, but it was you, all three of you, that brought me through. Your fidelity, your integrity, your—unshakeable faith in me. You are—" his voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, "my strength, Lucky, my strength."

Lucky reached a tentative hand up to touch his face. "We are here for you, Josef," she whispered. "Always."

They spoke no more. Eventually, exhausted, she slept, and when she awoke, in daylight, she was in her own bed.

And on the pillow beside her, was a single blood-red rose.