The Emerald Lily (Vampire Blood)(9)

By: Juliette Cross

“This is your home, Aleksei?”

They walked closer to the three-story manor house.

“Yes, Your Highness. Welcome to Wentworth Hall.”

The gargantuan door flew open. A lovely fair-haired lady, a vampire with Aleksei’s distinct features, launched down the portico steps and into his arms. Aleksei laughed boisterously and spun her around, her skirts fanning wide. Mikhail couldn’t help but smile.

“Easy, Irena.” He set her on her feet. “You’ll strangle me.”

“Damn you, Alek.” She punched his shoulder with the heel of her hand playfully. “Six months? That’s entirely too long.”

“What? Mother isn’t good enough company?”

“Mother is lovely. But you know she has no sense of humor. And the winter has kept everyone away from visiting. I’m bored senseless.”

He chuckled again. “Come then. Meet my friends.”

“Friends?” She arched a brow. “You mean your fellow assassins, don’t you?”

He grinned affectionately down at her but didn’t answer. Apparently, Aleksei’s sister knew more about the Bloodguard than most.

She tucked her arm in the crook of his when he offered it, then he led her to where the rest of the party stood off to the side.

“May I present my sister, Lady Irena Lukov.”

His sister curtsied in greeting.

“Irena, this is Gregoravich, Dmitri, Gavril, and my captain, Mikhail.”

Her eyes widened when they landed on him, a common reaction from women he newly met. He was aware that his unusually sharp features and his peculiar-colored eyes drew attention.

“And this is Her Highness, Vilhelmina Dragomir, Princess of Arkadia.”

Irena’s cool eyes widened even further. She dropped to a deep curtsy, almost to the ground. “Forgive me, Your Highness. I didn’t know—I wouldn’t have behaved in such a—” She shot a scathing look up at Aleksei, who merely grinned.

Vilhelmina stepped forward and took her hands. “Please stand. There’s no need to worry yourself. I imagine you didn’t have warning we were coming.”

“No, Your Highness.” She stood, shooting another death glare at her brother. “We had no warning at all.”

“Then I beg your forgiveness.”

Aleksei interrupted. “Irena, perhaps we can get the princess inside. She’s been through an ordeal.”

Irena finally took in Mina’s nightgown and velvet robe. “Yes. Please come inside. Mother will be anxious to meet you all.”

Aleksei led the way, passing through the door, where a butler stood, stiff and unaffected by the surprise visitors.

“Hello, Marshall.”

“Lord Lukov. It is a pleasure to see you again.” Though the butler’s stern features didn’t show pleasure of any kind.

“And you.”

“Mother will be in her drawing room,” said Irena, hurrying ahead with long, swift strides.

“A bit spirited, your sister,” said Dmitri.

Aleksei glanced over, his smile fading at once. “Dmitri, stop looking at my sister that way.”

“Or what?” he asked, still watching Irena farther ahead.

“Or I’ll punch your teeth in.”

“She’s a lovely girl.”

“Yes,” snapped Aleksei. “Girl, not a woman.”

“Hmph.” Gregoravich scratched his grizzled beard. “She must be twenty at least.”

Aleksei’s fury turned to their hulking comrade. “Twenty-one. And that’s hardly more than a girl in vampire years.”

Vilhelmina dipped her head low, hiding her smile.

Aleksei grumbled as they entered a bright, high-ceilinged parlor draped in pastels of blue, white, and gray. Irena had already summoned her mother to her feet. She was a mature vampire, perhaps three hundred years old, her features denoting a lovely woman who was wise in years by the set of her all-knowing eyes—crystal blue—the same that Aleksei and Irena bore, which settled on her son first.

She opened her arms. “My son.”

He embraced her warmly. “Mother.”

“I’ve missed you so.” She pulled back to gaze at his face, a look of love and adoration shining bright. She cupped his cheek as she might have done when he was a boy. Aleksei didn’t shy away but let her gaze her fill. “Now.” She turned toward the rest. “Who have you brought with you?”

“This is my mother, Lady Galena Lukov.”

She swept her gaze across them then gasped when she landed on Vilhelmina. “Oh, dear child.” Stepping forward, she curtsied deep before the princess. “I had word that you were—” She stopped the rest of her sentence and glanced back at her son. “Did you all take her from Briar Rose?”