Rowan closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
I am in the Great Tent of the Dyadd Morgaine, she thought, concentrating until she could almost believe it was so. In her mind's eye, she stood under a ceiling of gently billowing crimson silk, the lush carpet beneath her bare feet the grass of the forest. The faint calls of night creatures just awakening drifted to her on a breath of sultry evening air, already rich with the scent of spice. Tonight the Dyadd would feast, and well.
But first, as they always had, they would dance.
Rowan stood poised, still and silent as a statue alongside her sisters, her mother, waiting for the music to begin. The villagers who had gathered to pay them homage held a collective breath, the desire of the men who would offer of themselves already prickling her skin with anticipation. The drums began to beat. She was ready ...
"Hey babe, wake up. You're next."
"Shit," she muttered, using one of her favorite human curse words as a curvy brunette wearing nothing but a G-string brushed past her, jerking her instantly back to reality.
Memories of spiced summer air and forest drums vanished instantly, leaving her with nothing but stale cigarette smoke and the opening notes of Rob Zombie's "Living Dead Girl."
It was just another Saturday night in Reno. And like it or not, she was on.
Rowan stalked out onto the strobe-lit stage, mile-high stilettos clicking in time with the thudding beat of the music. Wild howls and catcalls erupted from the packed floor of the club at her entrance, the individual faces of the usual motley crew of patrons obscured somewhat by the haze of white pouring from the smoke machine. The fistfuls of green already waving in the air, however, were readily apparent. And that, she reminded herself, was all that truly mattered these days.
Even if it involved red satin hot pants and corsets.
She prowled her way to one of the golden poles that flanked the stage and wrapped one long, shapely leg around it. Rowan coiled sinuously around it, arching so that the long red mane of her hair nearly brushed the floor. She spun, slid, gyrated to the music, expertly whipping the crowd into a boiling frenzy of lust. They hung on her every smoldering glance, shuddered each time she bared her fangs in a seductive snarl. Simple men, powerless before wicked beauty, nearly coming to blows in the crush to give her their money.
Rowan accepted it all with a boredom that was increasingly edged with despair.
It wasn't the work, really. Her kind had always reveled in the unusual beauty of their physical forms, wielding that power like a sword when need be. If these human men really wanted to throw precious money at her for doing nothing more than dancing around without any clothes on, drooling over a body that would bring them a universe of pain should they ever attempt to touch it ... well, that was their stupidity, to her way of thinking. She felt no shame, though she was often annoyed. But the monotony of it, night after night in this dingy place, all the while not knowing if she would ever be able to return home or whether there was anything to return to, ate at her very soul. She worried that in time the fundamental decay would begin to show. But for now she could only wait, work. And worry.
In the meantime it was just unfortunate that she'd grown to hate this damned song so much. Rowan watched a big bald-headed man with numerous tattoos attempt to pound a scrawny youth into the ground to get nearer the stage and wished desperately that Zin, the manager, would let her switch to something she could lose herself in. As it was, the fights were the only things that kept her from falling asleep in mid-wiggle. But according to him, her Stripping Vampire routine had put his sleazy little dive on the map, and she was going to keep doing it until either the men tired of it or her legs fell off.
Since neither thing had happened yet, she was stuck being The Pretty Kitty's own Living Dead Girl. But that didn't mean she had to like it.
Just as Zin didn't like her conditions for continued employment, Rowan thought with a smirk as she worked the crowd. No lap dances. No private shows. In fact, no anything she didn't specifically feel like doing. She showed up, she did her thing, she went home, end of story. Lucky for her that was all it took to bring in more money than all the other dancers combined.
Lucky for him he had a blood-drinking demigoddess desperate enough to continue to do the job. Much to Rowan's chagrin, in this realm neither her considerable talent nor her legendary beauty was any match for having gone to the place humans called "college." And what would have been her preferred methods of getting what she needed had been flatly condemned by her brother as way too conspicuous, seeing as they tended to involve flaming infernos of destruction.
But she could dance. And she could remove her clothes.
And whether or not it had been the best decision, here she had been for the nine months since she and Bastian had fled the smoking ruins of the camp of their people, breaking through to this strange realm on a terrifying burst of magic she still didn't understand. Rowan could comprehend the blinding flash that had thrown them from their own realm of Coracin into Earth no better than she could the horrible fate that had befallen their people. All she knew was that it was undeserved. And that whatever fault there was lay with her.
The Dyadd Morgaine were Drakkyn sorceresses who took little for their own and wielded their power wisely, holding court beneath the endless canopy of their forests and accepting the offerings of those who revered them
. They had done nothing but what the Goddess had asked of them, to look after the Orinn villagers who had no magic of their own to protect themselves, often from one another. Now her mother, sisters, aunts were gone, borne away on leathery wings of death or fled in terror to who-knew-where. All because they would belong to no man.
But in truth, because she had refused to belong to a hateful one.
Lucien Andrakkar. May the Goddess curse you wherever you walk.
Rowan shed her hot pants in a series of fluid movements, then spun across the stage in her matching G-string, trying to escape the sudden swell of revulsion and anger within her. She'd gotten good at blocking it out, the black rage at the Drakkyn shifter who, with his blind lust, had stolen everything from her. Still, it seeped through from time to time, threatening her hard-won control over her emotions.
Her life on what these humans called Earth had been a carefully cultivated façade of apathy. Fortunately, that seemed to suit the so-called vampires who had taken her and Bastian in just fine. The pain, the crushing grief from that night had been buried deep in a place she could not touch. If she did, Rowan feared that the one her mother had called Little Flame would consume herself and everything around her in the blaze of her own fury. Instead, she played along, dancing for the pleasure of the weak, turning a blind eye to the perverse appetites of the Earthly vampires, and praying to the Goddess Morgaine that she and Bastian would soon be returned to their own world.
Returned ... and granted vengeance.
Unsettled, distracted, she allowed yet another sweaty admirer near enough to slip a twenty under the thin strap riding her hipbone. He let his chubby fingers linger overlong against the smooth skin of her thigh, giving a tentative stroke to what wasn't his to touch. Rowan whipped her head around in a flash of temper and hissed, baring razor-sharp incisors.
He loved it.
She meant it.
The offending fingers were removed, but by now Rowan recognized that the slight tremor in the man's hands had nothing to do with fear and everything to do with unmitigated lust. He would touch her again in a heartbeat given the chance. She knew it, and her mood shot straight to potentially violent. It was that more than anything, the utter lack of respect accorded her by the males of this realm, that had her once-famous temper on an increasingly short leash these days. Well, she grudgingly admitted, that and the fact that she was so blood-starved at this point that she probably couldn't blow a leaf across a street, much less defeat the army of winged reptiles who certainly awaited her return in her own realm. But either way, every night it got harder to let the little things go.
Just as it got harder not to simply give up and put the fangs everyone here assumed were fake to good use. Rowan look a great deal of pride in her discipline. But she was so hungry.
Again, she wished for the freedom dancing had once brought her. Hack when she had moved to the wild music of pipes and drums beneath different stars, a different moon. When blood had been something given in homage, taken and offered with love and honor.
Not coerced or stolen, ripped from the necks of the deluded, frightened, or simply unwilling. She had not been able to take what was not freely given, though she had tried. But instead of the warm flow of life, all she'd been able to taste was sick, nauseating fear. Her refusal to drink for many months now infuriated Bastian, and though it was not his place to question her, she could understand. She saw it every time she looked in a mirror, her loss of strength from this slow starvation. Yet though she had lost almost everything, she still had both principle and pride.
She only hoped they would not end up being all she had left.
Rowan shook her head to clear it, hating herself for letting the same old things interfere while she was performing. She would be blank, uncaring. She would do what must be done until there was another option.
I will control my temper. I will not bite. I will not cause any of the nice people to burst into flames. I WILL control my temper...
Just then she caught a flash of something, a familiar face materializing in the haze beyond the stage as it pushed through the crowd. She continued to move to the beat as she tried to get a better look, craning her neck as her long fingers began to work at the scarlet ribbon that held her corset together. The face vanished, then reappeared. Electric blue eyes caught her own, and held while the mouth frantically repeated the same words over and over again.
Rowan paused, letting the ribbon fall. Bastian? What was her brother doing here? He made a point of avoiding the club at all times, since the one time he'd taken her to work had nearly caused a riot among the other dancers. Rowan hated to admit it, but her brother was almost as pretty as she was. He might be odd in that he was the only male ever known to have been born into her tribe, but his looks held the same startling perfection as all Dyadd. Bastian's looks were ice to her fire. Just as his temperament was the still, deep pool to her raging tempest. Though none of her tribe would ever admit to being dependent on a man, Rowan knew that without Bastian's unwavering calm and reason to cling to, she would have been utterly lost these last months. He was all she had.