Chasing daybreak, p.24
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       Chasing Daybreak, p.24

           Ranae Glass

  I hadn’t been prepared for a great many things that night. I hadn’t been prepared for the limo that picked us up. I hadn’t been prepared for the way Shane looked in his tux pants, white shirt, and shiny black vest—so much like I imagined he would have looked on our wedding day that it actually took my breath away when I saw him. I hadn’t been prepared for the swarm of flashing cameras and paparazzi as we pulled up to the turn-of-the-century mansion that served as Conclave headquarters, or for the heaviness in the pit of my stomach. Even through all the glitz, I felt like I was being thrown in a pool full of sharks.

  But mostly, I hadn’t been prepared for the deep, driving loneliness growing inside me as the clock continued to tick, each tiny sound bringing me closer to losing Shane—to losing a part of myself.

  The golden gown Mercy sent fit me perfectly, clinging in all the right places, flaring in others. The fabric was a delicate combination of satin and lace. Not exactly the sort of gown you got off the rack at a local department store. If I hadn’t been so nervous, I might have felt like a princess. As it was, I just wanted not to vomit.

  Initiation was a big deal in the new celebrity that was the sexy, vampire lifestyle. Thanks to a few million lame books about sparkly, sensitive vampires, they—while abhorred on one hand—were super glamorous on the other. And Shane was the story of the day.

  We were ushered in quickly by a group of very tall, very wide doormen who shielded us, as much as possible, from the frenzy. Still, I had no doubt that my stupefied face stepping out of the limo holding Shane’s hand would be fodder for the next day’s Society page.

  Inside, soft orchestral music played. I mistook it for a recording before I spotted the actual orchestra playing in the library. I guessed vampires spared no expense.

  The knot in my stomach grew to basketball size as we were led upstairs to a small bedroom decorated much like an upscale hotel—generic and impeccably clean, in a pattern of black and white. The only actual color was in the green stem of a potted orchid on the nightstand. Then our guard-escort instructed us to wait there before he turned and left.

  I looked at Shane and raised an eyebrow.

  He shrugged in response to my unasked question. “I’m sure they just want to walk us through the ceremony.”

  I smoothed my dress and sat on the edge of the bed.

  “That would be nice. I’d hate to mess up the secret handshake,” I said, my tone dry.

  The fact was, even though I’d agreed to this, I hated it. Down to the tips of my toes, I hated that Shane would be leaving. It was selfish, childish really, but there it was. I really wanted to be all mature and understanding, but I wasn’t. The possibility that someday I might be was the only thing keeping me from resorting to crying and begging him to come home with me right then. But I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t ask him to come, not if I wasn’t going to keep him.

  And I knew I wasn’t.

  In silence, he sat on the edge of the bed across from me. I looked at him, hoping to see a trace of hesitation or fear, but it was the cool, calm face of the undead. It looked so wrong on him, and yet at the same time, kind of right, too.

  “You look beautiful,” he said finally.

  I felt the blush creep into my cheeks, but before I could say anything, the door opened and Xavier, Mercy, and Xavier’s second in command, a busty redhead named Ahnarra, glided in. Mercy rushed to Shane, who stood and caught her in a tight embrace.

  I turned my attention to Xavier. “So, what’s the drill?”

  He leaned casually against the dresser. “The ceremony is called Valde Vitualamen, or in English, the Great Sacrifice. It’s symbolic of vampires cutting their ties with the human world and embracing their destiny as immortals.”

  “In the old days,” Mercy said with a giggle, “vampires would actually kill all their human family in the ceremony.”

  I swallowed, but I refused to let her rile me. “I assume that isn’t how it’s done anymore?”

  Ahnarra shot Mercy a look that was clearly a ‘shut up’ before saying, “No, that isn’t done anymore. It hasn’t been done for centuries.”

  “You have nothing to fear, Isabel,” Xavier added. “I swear, no harm will come to you this evening.”

  I nodded. Vamps were lots of things, but once they gave their word, it was law, especially coming from someone in Xavier’s sphere of authority. They could lie, but they thought themselves much too civilized for it. Lying was degrading, in their opinions, or so Shane had told me. Ironic that murder was perfectly all right, but lying was frowned upon.

  Stupid vampires and their stupid rules.

  Ahnarra stepped forward and motioned for Shane and me to stand in front of her. Once we were in position, she withdrew a thick, red ribbon from the back of her tight, red dress.

  “Raise your arms, please,” she said gently.

  We did. She proceeded to wind the ribbon around his right arm and my left, essentially tying us together.

  She stepped back and Xavier stepped forward, handing Shane a large, golden dagger, which Shane tucked into his belt.

  “I will call the ceremony to order, say a few words, and then our new initiates will be brought forward, one pair at a time,” Xavier informed us. “We have three joining us tonight. You and Shane will go last in the procession.”

  Ahnarra continued the narrative, “Then Shane will be joined to us via Mercy, who is standing in for his sire. He will be bound to her, and by doing so, to the Conclave.”

  Mercy leaned on Shane, smiling as she added, “Then, we have our reception.”

  “And I can leave?” No way was I sticking around any longer than I had to.

  “Of course,” Ahnarra said quickly. “We will have a car standing by to take you home.”

  Xavier stepped forward, forcing Mercy back. Taking Shane by both shoulders, he leaned in. It looked like a hug, but I could sense he was whispering something to Shane, but I had no idea what. Then he repeated the action with me.

  “Please, before you go home tonight, I would like to speak with you,” he whispered and drew back.

  I nodded quickly, and the three of them turned to leave.

  “I’ll send someone when we’re ready for you. Until then, please wait here,” Ahnarra said solemnly, closing the door behind her.

  I looked down at my arm where I was latched to Shane with blood-red silk. “So, what do we do now?”

  He looked at me and smiled. “Wanna thumb wrestle?”

  The ballroom was filled with people in elaborate Victorian costumes. I felt like I’d just interrupted the masquerade scene in a Phantom of the Opera production. A red carpet was rolled out, leading from the rear entry doors to a small stage where Xavier sat in a chair that looked way too much like a throne for my taste.

  Xavier was flanked by Ahnarra on his left, and a man I couldn’t place on his right. Ahnarra, of course, wore her stunning red dress. The man looked older than Xavier, which I knew was deceiving. Mid-fortyish when he died, he had closely shorn salt-and- pepper hair. A mustache of the same color framed his narrow lips and ended in a goatee.

  The first initiate, a slender but stunning blond woman, had already gone through the ceremony when we entered the room. As I watched, the orchestra played a soft tune and the couple in front of us proceeded forward at a wedding march pace.

  I shivered and dropped my gaze to the floor. Counting to ten slowly to calm my breathing, I fought back full-fledged panic. Memories of standing alone at the altar on my wedding day came flooding back, as did all the daydreams I’d had of the moment when Shane would walk me back down the aisle as his wife. I wanted to cry, scream, or do something. But I didn’t. I just swallowed my emotions down. I’d cry later, I promised myself, but not here, not in front of these people.

  The music stopped abruptly. Looking up again, I watched as the male vampire in front of us drew a shiny dagger like the one Xavier had given Shane and with one swift motion, he sliced through the red ribbon. The scraps fluttered to the floor like le
aves on the breeze. The human beside him stepped back and a vampire stepped in, taking his place. Xavier stood from his throne and withdrew a black ribbon from his vest pocket.

  “This is the tie that binds, one to another. It is our brotherhood, our unity. With this, we are one.” Xavier’s voice rang out over the silent crowd. He leaned over and tied the two vampire’s arms together. When he was done, he stood and announced to the crowd, “Welcome our new brother, Doctor Peter Chandler.”

  The applause roared like thunder through the room, shattering the stillness as the new vampire moved into the crowd to be welcomed him with handshakes and hugs. The human was led to a room off to the side.

  Shane gently squeezed my hand but kept his eyes forward as the music began again.

  Feeling like I might hyperventilate, I picked a spot on the wall behind Xavier and focused on it as hard as I could, trying to drown out everything else. A soft gasp beside me brought me back to reality. We’d stopped in front of the stage, but something was wrong. Shane’s nostrils were flared, his body rigid with tension.

  “What is it?” I whispered, though I was sure the whole room could hear. He gave me a barely noticeable shake of his head and drew the dagger.

  Something was wrong. I could feel it as sure as I could feel the blood pounding in my ears, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. My nerves were too frazzled. I was hot all over, breathing too hard and too fast.

  Giving my hand one final squeeze, Shane tensed. I closed my eyes, part of me hoping he’d stop, drop the knife, and walk out of the ballroom with me.

  But he didn’t.

  I didn’t feel the knife cut the ribbon. After a second, I opened my eyes, expecting to see the red trimming still connecting us, but it was gone. My heart fell. Xavier was watching me, his emotions unreadable on his stoic face. They were waiting for me to move. I glanced at Shane, who was staring ahead, ignoring me as if I wasn’t even there. I took a shaky step back.

  Mercy swooped into my spot, flashing a bright smile over her shoulder at me before turning to face Xavier, who stood and spoke.

  I didn’t hear the words this time. Turning away, I walked slowly back down the red carpet, this time alone, and out into the hallway. I must have stumbled because one of the guards grabbed me by the waist and lifted me into his arms. Behind me, I heard applause erupt in the ballroom, and the tears started flowing from my eyes. I only knew that the guard was taking me away because the noise in the ballroom grew more and more distant.

  I wasn’t as scared as I knew I should be at being carried off by a strange vampire. All I knew was he was taking me away from that sound, and that was all I wanted.

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