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The Vampire With the Dragon Tattoo

By:Kerrelyn Sparks

The Vampire With the Dragon Tattoo
Kerrelyn Sparks

       Dedication

To the angels,

both heavenly and worldly,

who watch over us.


Acknowledgments


I can't believe this is book fourteen of the Love at Stake series! I would have never dreamed back in 2005, when I was first getting to know Roman Draganesti, that the series would last this long. There are numerous people to thank. First, my husband and children for their love and encouragement. Then, my critique partners, MJ, Sandy, and Vicky. Each book represents such a long journey, and it helps immensely to know I'm not alone on that road as I plod steadily into the unknown.

On the business side, I am blessed by the fabulous support of my agent, Michelle Grajkowski; my editor, Erika Tsang; and her assistant, Chelsey. My thanks to all the professionals at HarperCollins, especially Pam, Caroline, and Jessie from the Publicity Department, and Tom from the Art Department, who has outdone himself with this latest cover.

My personal thanks to Susan Chao, who taught me how to say, "Gun bei!" My thanks also to hairstylist Wilson at the Etheria Salon and Spa in Houston, who was the inspiration for the vampire stylist at the Digital Vampire Network.

And finally, my heartfelt gratitude to all the readers and booksellers who have helped the Love at Stake series continue for fourteen books. Thank you for giving my vamps and shifters such long and happy lives!
                       
       
           



       
Chapter One





Dougal Kincaid was not in a partying mood.

As he entered the ballroom at Romatech Industries, his stomach churned. Too many people. The jarring noise of all their voices grated on his ears, and he dreaded the thought of participating in meaningless chatter. For centuries, he'd avoided these situations by playing the pipes, but those days were gone. That left him with one option for surviving the night.

Blissky.

Hopefully the mixture of synthetic blood and whisky would deaden his undead senses before he was confronted with the same questions he'd been hearing for the past four years. How's your new prosthesis? Can you still wield a sword? Will you be able to play the pipes again?

He had a better question: how fast could he get drunk? He headed for the refreshment tables.

They mean well, he reminded himself. It was the only way they knew how to show their concern. It was better than having no one who cared. But damn, he'd lost a hand, not his pride. A man was more than his hands. More than his music? His chest clenched with the familiar pang of grief. Without music, his soul felt half empty. And the half that remained was a sad melody of regret.

The first refreshment table was covered with mortal snack food. He kept walking.

"Hey, man, what's up?" Phineas slapped him on the back. "Say hello to my little dudette."

Dougal glanced at the bairn Phineas was holding. Phin's wife, Brynley, had given birth to twins six months ago. This had to be the girl, judging by her frilly pink dress.

"Hello." Dougal became aware of an awkward pause. Was he supposed to say more? He racked his brain, trying to remember the little girl's name. Gwyneth, that was it. And Benjamin was the boy. For short, they were called Gwyn and Ben, which rhymed with their parents' nicknames, Phin and Bryn.

His stomach churned. "Hello, Gwyn."

The little girl squealed so loud that Dougal winced.

"She likes you." Phineas beamed proudly at her. "Isn't she beautiful?"

"Yes." After a pause, Dougal suspected more flattery was in order. "Nice . . . dress."

"Yeah, her mom loves shopping for her." Phineas smiled at him. "So, dude, how's your hand?"

He gritted his teeth. "Which one?"

Phineas laughed. "Good one, bro. Well, I gotta go see how Bryn's doing. Ben just had a bomb go off in his diaper."

Thanks for sharing. Dougal strode toward the next refreshment table. It was surrounded by mortals and shifters, mostly women and children, gawking at the giant five-tier cake. Where the hell was the Blissky?

"Hey, Dougal. Have ye met my Tara Jean?"

It was Ian MacPhie, carrying another little girl. This time Dougal knew what to say. "She's beautiful. Nice dress."

"Thanks." Ian regarded him sadly. "I remember how ye played the pipes at my bachelor party. I really miss that."

Dougal winced inwardly. They mean well.

"How's the fancy new hand treating you?" Ian asked.

Here we go again. "Well, since ye asked, it is made of pure titanium alloy, strong enough for spacecraft and the deepest-diving submarines. In three seconds, I could pierce yer chest cavity and rip yer bleedin' heart out."

Ian's eyes widened. "Och, man. Get a grip."

"That's about all I can do." Dougal lifted his right hand, and, using his vampire mind control, he curled the fingers into a tight fist. The movement was smooth but caused a series of clicking sounds. The superstrong grip was great for wielding a sword, but the lack of manual dexterity made it very difficult to play the pipes. In other words, he was now more suited for killing than making music.

He swallowed down his frustration. "Have ye seen the Blissky?"

Ian snorted. "This is a birthday party for a bunch of bairns. There is no Blissky."

No Blissky?

"Tara turned one last month in September," Ian continued. "Austin's little girl will be one in a few days and Robby's boy in November. With three birthdays so close together, we thought we should have a big party. I'm glad ye could make it."

As if he'd had any choice. The Echarpe family had come, and as their bodyguard, Dougal had accompanied them. "There has to be Blissky here somewhere. The damned stuff is manufactured here."

Ian shook his head. "Try to relax and enjoy the party."

"Is there any Bleer?"

Ian arched a brow. "What ye need is a good woman."

I had one. And lost her. "I need a drink." Dougal wandered toward the last refreshment table. How much had he lost over the centuries? His first and only love. His freedom. His family. His mortality. His hand. His music. Did so much loss make him a loser?

He instantly shoved that thought aside. He would never have lasted this long if he had succumbed to that sort of negativity. He was a survivor. He kept fighting no matter what.

I will find you. No matter what. If it takes a thousand years, I will find you.

The old promise reverberated inside his skull, reminding him that he'd failed the one person who had meant the most to him. His gaze wandered over the ballroom, taking note of all the happily married couples. They were chatting, laughing, admiring their babies.

His heart clenched in his chest. The loss he'd suffered almost three hundred years ago struck him anew, as if it had happened a few moments ago.

He wrenched a bottle of Bubbly Blood out of an ice bucket and poured the mixture of synthetic blood and champagne into a flute glass.

"For those special vampire occasions," he muttered, then guzzled down half the glass.

Someone tapped on his arm. It was Bethany, the eldest of the Echarpe children. Jean-Luc had adopted her a few years back when Heather had been pregnant with the twins.

The nine-year-old girl gave him a shy, embarrassed look. "I forgot where the restroom is. Can you show me?"

He glanced around, searching for Heather. "Yer mum canna take you?"

"She's busy with the twins, and Papa's in an important meeting with Uncle Angus and Roman."

Dougal tilted up his glass, finishing off the contents. No one had told him about an important meeting.

"Dougal!" Bethany's eyes grew desperate. "I need to go!"

"I'll take you." He grabbed the bottle of Bubbly Blood. "This way."

He led her out the double doors into the foyer of Romatech, then headed down the west hallway. Halfway to the MacKay security office, they reached the restrooms. Bethany went inside, while he leaned against the wall, drinking Bubbly Blood and wondering what was going on. Angus MacKay, head of MacKay Security and Investigation, sent a monthly report to all his employees to keep them informed, but there had been no mention of a meeting tonight.

According to the reports, after the deaths of Malcontent leaders Casimir and Corky, most of their followers had fled back to Russia and Eastern Europe. Angus sent security teams there whenever the bad vampires got out of hand.

Master Han, another evil vampire, was still growing an army in China and acquiring more territory. There had been three vampire lords assisting Master Han, but MacKay S&I employee Major Russell Hankelburg had managed to kill one before ripping out his tracking chip and going AWOL. About three times a year, Angus sent guys to hunt for Russell, but as far as Dougal knew, the ex-Marine had never been found.

Dougal's last mission had been over a year ago when he'd helped a were-bear in Alaska. And he'd only landed that job because all the other guys had been busy in the field elsewhere.

With another gulp of Bubbly Blood he chided himself mentally. While the other lads were battling evil, he was waiting for a little girl to finish using the restroom. Face the facts. They doona think ye're suited for being more than a babysitter.

After that disastrous battle four years ago when he'd lost his hand, he'd been grateful just to stay employed at MacKay S&I. Angus had arranged for him to be transferred to Jean-Luc Echarpe's house in Texas, where he had replaced Robby MacKay as head of security. It was a cushy job, since Jean-Luc was the best swordsman in the vampire world and could easily take care of himself. But when it came to keeping his family safe, Jean-Luc wasn't going to turn down the extra help, even if it was one-handed.

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