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THE WINTER SENTINEL
I stared at the sleek steel blade, its honed edge only inches from my cheek, and tried not to flinch. I was taut with nerves and anticipation, my fingers slippery around the handle of my own ancient katana, my gaze flicking between the weapon that threatened me and the man who wielded it.
"Nervous, Sentinel?" asked the blond vampire before me, who held not one but two ancient samurai weapons.
I wet my lips and readjusted my grip, trying not to let my prurient interest in my adversary - the sweat-slicked, half-naked physique; the stunning green eyes; the golden hair that just brushed his shoulders - distract me from my mission.
Bringing. Him. Down.
"Not in the least, Sullivan." I winked at him, and in the second his eyes widened in interest, I took my chance. I dropped to my knees and used the handle of my katana to unbalance Ethan's right hand, forcing him to loose his sword.
Well, one of his swords.
My opponent was Ethan Sullivan, a four-hundred-year-old vampire and the Master of Cadogan House, one of three vampire Houses in Chicago. He was the vampire who changed me, rescuing me from a vicious attack one spring night.
Now he was also the vampire who made me whole.
I was the twenty-eight-year-old former graduate student he'd shaped into an immortal warrior . . . and I loved having the opportunity to show him exactly what he'd created.
Tonight, that meant learning to battle with not just one but two gently curved katanas. Vampires loved katanas, preferring swords to guns - primarily because vamps were an ancient and snobby people convinced to believe in katanas' superiority to other weapons by a samurai who'd once roamed Europe.
History aside, wielding two katanas was a tricky venture. The katana was an elegant weapon, and brandishing it was supposed to be an elegant exercise - as much a dance as a show of cleverness and strength. That wasn't easily accomplished with two swords, which required learning how to rebalance my body . . . and not trip over my own weapons.
Fortunately, even Ethan was having trouble. Scowling, he picked up the sword he'd dropped onto the tatami mat on the floor of the House's basement training room.
The vampires on the balcony who watched our practice with eager eyes cheered as their hero, the Master of their House, prepared to fight again.
And they weren't the only ones watching.
My former teacher of swordcraft, Catcher Bell, a mutual friend and sorcerer, was absent from tonight's festivities, busy with other work. We'd found a replacement, albeit one who was less than impressed with our initial efforts.
"That was damned ungainly," said the auburn-haired vampire in front of us.
Grey and Navarre were the city's two other vampire Houses, and our teacher was captain of the Grey House guards. Jonah was tall, handsome, and was my partner in the Red Guard, a clandestine organization created to ensure the Houses and Greenwich Presidium, the ruling body for the North American and Western European vampire Houses, didn't overstep their bounds. We weren't technically a part of the GP anymore, having seceded when the group became too oppressive, but there was little doubt they still had the power to make our lives miserable. Guarding the guardians was never a bad idea, in my opinion.
Ethan had accepted my RG membership, but he was still working on accepting my partnership with Jonah. He preferred my loyalties remain solely with one vampire of the male persuasion - him. They'd reached an accord about me after working out their aggression in a sparring match at the House, even if they weren't exactly the best of friends. Ethan still scowled at Jonah's comment.
"It wasn't ungainly," Ethan said. "It was awkward."
"No," I teased, "it was the result of strategic tactics by yours truly." I put extra emphasis on the hard "c" sounds to underscore the point.
"It was luck," Jonah countered. "And it wasn't especially pretty. You've both got to think of the katanas as extensions of your body. I know it's awkward, but you'll get used to it. Try again."
I rolled my left wrist, which was beginning to ache. Vampires had greater than average strength, but we'd been practicing for an hour, and Jonah hadn't exactly been generous with the water breaks.
"Problem?" Jonah asked.
"Just a little soreness."
"You'll be fine. Reset."
I couldn't help but give him a look. It wasn't that I'd expected my RG partner would be an easygoing instructor. He was responsible for keeping the Grey House guards ready for action, after all. But nor had I expected him to be a total hard-ass.
"Reset," Jonah repeated, a little more firmly.
"Should I remind him I'm a Master?" Ethan quietly asked beside me, rolling the swords in his hands and bouncing on the balls of his feet as he prepared to spar again.
Jonah's hearing must have been acute. "You're Master of Cadogan House," he said, "not dual swords. Reset."
The crowd of vampires hooted, spurring us on just as Jonah did.
"Two katanas are trickier than one," Ethan muttered.
The same applied, I thought, to vampires. Especially vampires of the male persuasion.
An hour and a shower later, we returned to the House's third-floor apartment, the small set of rooms that we called home.
My work night was done, but in a few minutes, I'd be heading into a frosty February evening. And since I was hoping to make a better impression than "sweaty vampire," I found myself in the closet amid Ethan's expensive suits and polished shoes, worrying over what to wear.
"Ankle boots or knee-high?" I asked.
Ethan leaned casually against the wall, one foot canted in front of the other and an amused expression on his face. "Does it really matter what you wear?"
I gave him a flat look.
"Sentinel, you are an intelligent woman, with a solid sense of honor, an excellent pedigree, and a master's degree - "
"Nearly a doctorate."
"Nearly a doctorate," he allowed, "in English literature, and yet you're worried about your choice of footwear. It's not as if you have a date."
And a good thing, since Ethan and I had been living together for nearly two months. I had a key to prove it, although I was still getting used to the idea that the Cadogan penthouse was also mine.
Still, date or not, it wasn't wise to underestimate a Chicagoan's love of good winter footwear. Frostbite was no one's friend.
"I know I don't have a date. This just feels . . . important."
For the fifth or sixth time, I sat down on a padded ottoman and switched out my shoes, exchanging ankle boots - cute, but not warm - for knee-high leather boots, tugging them over the jeans I'd paired with a shirt and sweater. The boots were dark brown leather and fitted perfectly, ideal for long and dark winter nights.
When I'd pulled them on, I stood up and posed in front of the closet's full-length mirror.
"It is important," Ethan agreed, scanning my reflection. "She was your friend for a very long time. You're both attempting to pick up the pieces of your relationship to see if they still fit together."
"I know. And it's still awkward. And it still makes me nervous."
The "she" in question was Mallory Carmichael. My former best friend and roommate, a relatively new sorceress attempting to redeem herself after an unfortunate period as a real-life wicked witch. She was currently atoning for her sins by living without magic and performing menial labor for the alpha of the North American Central Pack. She seemed to be regaining control of herself, but neither Ethan nor I was entirely sure of her.
"You look nervous," Ethan agreed.
I sighed. "Not helpful. I was hoping for something a little more complimentary. Like 'Merit, you don't look nervous; you look ravishing.'"
"Trap," he said, shaking his head.
I met his gaze in the mirror. "It's not a trap."
"It is a trap," Ethan assured with a grin, "because there's no response I can give that you'll actually believe."
I gave him a dubious expression. "Try me."
Ethan, who looked devilishly handsome in his fitted black suit, stepped behind me, brushed the long dark hair from my neck, and planted a kiss at the crux of my shoulder, sending a delicious chill along my spine.
"Sentinel, you are always the most beautiful woman in the room, irrespective of what you're wearing. And most especially - and preferably - when you're wearing nothing at all."
How did men manage to offer a compliment that transitioned from sweet to utterly salacious in the span of a few words? Still, a compliment was a compliment, and Ethan Sullivan was a master complimenter.
"You're welcome." He checked his large and undoubtedly expensive watch. "I have a call in a few minutes. You should probably get going."
I huffed at the doubt in his voice. "My steed is trusty and will get me there on time." I talked a big talk, but in fact I'd be driving a well-worn Volvo across Chicago in February. The odds were not in my favor.
"And now you're beginning to sound like Jeff," Ethan said.
Jeff Christopher was a friend and colleague, a lovable nerd and shape-shifter I'd met through my grandfather, Chicago's former liaison to all folks supernatural. Jeff was tech savvy and a fan of role-playing games - I'd recently seen him in head-to-toe ranger garb, from boots to hood - so my reference to a "trusty steed" was right up his alley.
"Jeff has saved our butts on a number of occasions," I pointed out.
"Well aware, Sentinel. But you must agree he does it with his particular flair."
"He does. His own furry flair. Oh, and speaking of, you still haven't paid me on our little bet."
"You didn't win our little bet, Sentinel."
"I guessed Jeff was a puma."
"And as I've pointed out many times, Jeff isn't a puma."
I gave him a sarcastic look. "He's also not a marmot, which was your guess. Mine was closer; thus I win."
"Close doesn't count. It was a draw."
I rolled my eyes. I wasn't going to give up my position, but I didn't have time to argue the finer points of animal taxonomy today.
"Either way, furry makes a nice change from stodgy vampire."
"Vampires are not stodgy," Ethan said, pushing his hands into his pockets and staring back at me, stodgily.
"You are, but that's your particular flair."
Ethan arched an eyebrow, a move he used frequently to portray many of the emotions in his arsenal - doubt, imperiousness, wickedness, among them.
"You do realize, Sentinel, that you're one of us?"
I let my eyes silver, an effect that appeared when vampires felt strong emotions, to demonstrate just how much like him I really was - and the depth of my emotion about it. "I never doubt it. Anyway," I said, changing the subject, "what's your call about?"
"Darius. Apparently there are rumors he's no longer strong enough to hold the GP together. Morgan and Scott wanted to talk."
"Because Darius was kidnapped?" I wondered aloud. Darius West was the leader of the Greenwich Presidium. Although we were technically Rogue vampires since we lacked GP affiliation, Ethan maintained friendly relations with Scott Grey and Morgan Greer, the Masters of Grey and Navarre Houses, respectively. It also helped that we'd recently saved Darius's life, rescuing him from an assassin hired by the city's new supernatural "liaison," John McKetrick.
"Exactly," Ethan agreed. "I understand the other GP members are pleased we saved him, but concerned he needed saving in the first place."
The GP was populated by vampires revered for their strength, if not their magnanimity.
"It doesn't surprise me they'd question his abilities," I said, grabbing a short camel trench coat from a hanger and shrugging into it. The coat had been a gift from Ethan, who was afraid the thin leather jacket I usually wore on Sentinel excursions wasn't warm enough for February. I didn't need him to ply me with gifts - I was plenty pliant already - but the coat was warm and fit perfectly, so I'd decided not to argue.
"You'll be careful out there?" Ethan asked. A line of worry appeared between his eyes.
"I will. But we're just going for pizza. And Luc knows where I'll be, just in case of a zombie apocalypse."
My chain of command was complicated. I stood Sentinel for the House, a sort of soldier for Cadogan and all that it stood for. But I wasn't a House guard per se, which meant Luc, captain of the Cadogan guards, wasn't exactly my boss. Neither was Ethan, for that matter, since I technically had the authority to override him if he wasn't acting in the House's best interests. But Luc was at least my acting supervisor, so I'd filled him in on my plan for the evening.
"I know," Ethan said. "And I know you need a break. We've both been working a lot of hours lately."
"Well, I've been keeping an eye on McKetrick, and you've been - " I looked at him sideways. "What have you been doing again?"
"Running this House of vampires?" he dryly asked.
"Ah, yes," I said with a nod. "Running this House of vampires."
He grinned a bit, then slid a tendril of dark hair behind my ear. "In all seriousness, we should arrange to spend some quality time together."
I gave him a sly smile, because I happened to have anticipated his request.
"I agree completely," I said. "Which is why I've made dinner reservations on Friday at Tuscan Terrace, Chicago's finest Italian bistro. Homemade pasta. Fine champagne. Truffles. These little dessert cakes that are nearly better than Mallocakes. We'll celebrate in style."
Tuscan Terrace was an old-school Chicago restaurant, where waiters spoke mostly Italian, the rooms were dark, and privacy was guaranteed. It was delicious and expensive, the type of place you saved for a special occasion.
Ethan furrowed his brow. "To celebrate what?"
"You don't remember what Friday is?"
His stare went blank, and his expression had a decidedly deer-in-headlights look about it. I'd stumped him.
"Friday is February fourteenth," I said. "It's Valentine's Day."
I'd been single for so much of my adult life that Valentine's Day hadn't, in context, meant much. Sure, I'd occasionally been given tired roses in a green vase, or a heart-shaped box of mediocre chocolates. But those gifts had been few and far between.
This relationship was real, which meant I could - for the first time - experience a meaningful Valentine's Day. Not because of pink roses or nougat-filled chocolates, but because of us. Because I'd found someone who made me better, stronger, and because, at least I liked to think, I did the same for him. That was worth celebrating, treasuring, being grateful for.
It was worth tuxedoed waiters and delicate champagne flutes.
"Saint Valentine's Day, you mean," Ethan said with a chuckle. "I'm surprised you want to celebrate such a bloody day in Chicago's history."
He meant the massacre on Valentine's Day in 1929, when Al Capone took out several men from a rival gang in a Lincoln Park garage.
"You know that's not what I mean." I picked a bit of lint from one of his lapels. "Like you said, we deserve some quality time together, just the two of us. A few minutes of peace and quiet away from the House, where it won't matter if we're vampires."
"That does sound inviting," Ethan admitted. "A bit tempting of fate, perhaps, but inviting all the same. I look forward to it."
He smiled at me wickedly, suggesting it wasn't so much the dinner he looked forward to, but what he hoped might happen afterward.
Since imagining that scenario wasn't going to help us meet our obligations for the evening, I pressed a kiss to his lips. "I need to run."
Ethan's expression fell. Putting a hand on his chest, I could feel his heart thumping - steady and sound - beneath.
"I'll be careful," I promised. "I'll have my sword and my phone. And besides, I'll be dining with one of the most powerful sorceresses in the world."
His eyes flattened. "I know," he said. "That's precisely what worries me."