A man stepped in front of her, tall and broad-shouldered. His eyes roamed over her body with no hint of pretense or appreciation.
“Your shoes,” he said, holding out his hand.
She stared at him. “I beg—”
“Master Aidan will talk to you now. But I’m not letting you anywhere near him with those heels. Take them off.”
The closest candidates turned smirks toward her. Meriel’s anger flashed through her veins like quicksilver.
“Just about all of those,” she jerked her head to the women, “could have a stake up their skirts. And you’re giving me grief about my shoes?”
His expression remained impassive. His hand didn’t waver. “I’m not letting you near him unless—”
The man looked up at the dais at the name, and Meriel followed his eyes. Master Aidan nodded once.
“Go ahead,” Stephen said, sounding unhappy. “But I’m keeping an eye on you.”
Ignoring his warning, Meriel held out her almost-empty glass to him. He gave her a sour look but took it. She climbed onto the dais and approached Master Aidan. He sat very stiffly on the throne-like chair, but his left foot tapped the floor impatiently, belying the formality of the setting. He wasn’t as broad of shoulders as his bodyguard, and his tight shirt and pants hinted at a lean but muscled body. Meriel made a small bow—just low enough to be respectful—and introduced herself.
“My name is Meriel, from Mistress Leean’s clan.”
He inclined his head and indicated the seat on his left with a ringed finger. His brown eyes sparkled with amusement, though it didn’t touch his thin smile.
“Welcome, Meriel. Are you enjoying the soiree?”
She sat down, her body at an angle so she could both see him and the people in front of the dais. True to his words, Stephen was glaring at her, his arms crossed over his chest.
“I only arrived a few minutes ago,” she replied, unwilling to start their chat with the admission that she hated shindigs such as this one.
Master Aidan seemed to see right through her, and his amusement flared anew. “I’ve asked that question a dozen times tonight. You’re the first who didn’t start gushing about what good parties I throw.”
Meriel managed not to flinch. This wasn’t starting well at all. She didn’t doubt that Leean was closeby, observing the proceedings, and if Meriel didn’t at least make a token effort, there would be hell to pay.
“Tell me,” Master Aidan said. “Why are you here?”
Could he have asked a more inane question? Why not talk about the weather, while he was at it?
“I want to be your concubine,” Meriel replied with a forced smile, mentally punctuating the sentence with a ‘duh.’
Aidan leaned toward her minutely, his eyebrows tightening for an instant. “Do you, really?”
“Of course. Why else would I be here?”
He shrugged. “Some of the other candidates were thralled by their sires so that they would throw themselves at me. A few think they’ll get more power being my concubine than they ever could by remaining with their clan. I think a couple of them are genuinely attracted to me. But you… I can’t read you.”
A wave of panic slid over Meriel. She tried to push it back before he could notice.
“Read me?” she asked, the words catching in her throat. “You mean, read my mind?”
If he could do that, if he could see what Leean had planned—
He chuckled. “So that rumor is still running around? No, I’m afraid I can’t read minds any more than you can. I wish I could. All of this would go much faster.”
With a casual gesture, he encompassed the dais and the women in front of it.
“So what do you mean by ‘read’ me?” Meriel insisted.
“You know what. You do it, too, I’m sure. I’ve just had a lot more time to practice.”
He stopped and arched an eyebrow at her, waiting for her to figure it out. She knew, of course, and she felt silly for lending credit to the mind-reading rumors.
He nodded. “And your body language, yes. Though yours are much too jumbled for me to make much sense of them. I don’t like that.”
A wave of relief washed over Meriel. She hid her reaction as well as she could; the last thing she needed was for Aidan to wonder why she was relieved he couldn’t figure her out.
Her meek tone did not seem to fool Aidan. “Somehow, I don’t believe you are sorry. And I don’t think you really want to be my concubine.”
Meriel’s foot tapped impatiently a couple of times before she remembered to rein herself in. Her eyes swept over the crowd, pausing only briefly on Leean. She was standing on one side of the room with two other vampires, a glass in hand and a polite smile on her lips as she appeared to listen to her companions. Meriel did not doubt for a second that her sire’s attention was on her and Aidan. From where she stood, Leean could probably read their lips. Meriel had to be careful about what she said.
“I’m here because my sire asked me to be.” She gave him a smile, trying to lighten the mood. “It’s not like I’m trying to hide that.”
Leaning his elbow on the arm of his throne, Aidan rested his cheek against his closed fist and considered Meriel carefully. His eyes gleamed as they plunged into hers.
“She didn’t thrall you.”
Meriel wasn’t sure whether it was a question or statement. “She didn’t have to. She raised me well.”
He laughed, the sound earnest and unexpected. “Did she? Respect for your elders mustn’t have been one of the lessons.”
Despite her fear of angering her sire, Meriel couldn’t stop annoyance from flaring in her. More and more, he seemed to be mocking her.
“Forgive me if I’m not thrilled at the idea of being enslaved,” she said sharply.
His amused smile faded, and his widening eyes betrayed his shock. “Is that what you think this is?”
“Isn’t it? I’m currency in exchange for the right of my clan to hunt in this city. Call me concubine or whore, it doesn’t change a thing.”
He blinked and leaned back in his chair, considering her in silence for a few seconds. She’d blown it, Meriel realized when he dismissed her with a gesture. Damn it, Leean wasn’t going to be happy. She stood and gave a small bow before descending from the dais, acutely aware that Aidan’s stare remained on her even as another candidate joined him.
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