The sole communication that Katrina and Caleb received from Paige following her departure from Atlanta was a brief text message she sent to Katrina's cell phone indicating she had arrived home safely. And while Katrina found that to be perfectly normal and expected, Caleb was less pleased with the development. However, he reluctantly honored his promise to his mate not to attempt further communications with Paige until an appropriate time had passed. The problem was that the term "appropriate time" was far too arbitrary for his satisfaction.
Still, life proceeded, and he was once again preoccupied with the progression of the spring semester and all the associated functions of teaching at a community college. He spent a great deal of spare time drilling with Katrina, refining his mastery of self-defense techniques, including his recently acquired knowledge of knife fighting. He admitted that she had been correct in stressing that, while firearms were effective, the proliferation of sharp, bladed objects made them more important for weapons training.
On the social front, Katrina and Caleb spent time with William and Tanisha Browning. Caleb was pleased that his mate enjoyed visiting with the Brownings and their excursions to dinners and evening events attending plays and films. They even went out dancing at a local club one Friday evening in early March. Caleb had enjoyed seeing Tanisha really let her hair down that night and had been amused to see a much less controlled version of his friend as she danced heatedly with her husband. Tanisha later kidded him that if he ever said anything to their peers, she would blacklist him from future social events. Of course, Katrina was quite a sultry dancer when she wanted to be, as on one occasion when she had lost herself in the moment, grinding against his body.
The weeks passed quickly as Caleb prepared for their upcoming trip to England. Katrina helped him confirm that his passport was in order and made the arrangements for their flight to, and hotel stay in, London. She was an excellent, detail-oriented planner, one of her many admirable traits. He marveled at the amazing woman who had selected him as her mate and thanked the Fates for the day he had met her. However, the day that his memory held as their first meeting was not necessarily accurate, and he looked forward to the opportunity to have his memory restored completely. Though potentially emotional, he wanted to understand the true nature of their initial meeting. He hoped that the doctor whom Alton had recommended was indeed as good as the reputation that preceded him.
It was a Friday afternoon in mid-March and the last day of Caleb's obligations at the college prior to the weeklong spring break. He chatted excitedly with Tanisha in his office as he crammed items into his backpack and tidied up his desk. She sat in his guest chair, listening with amusement as he described the anticipation of his first overseas journey. After a quick goodbye and Tanisha's good wishes for a safe journey, he hurried out to his car and barely noticed the drive home as he appreciated the spring temperatures and late day sunshine.
He pulled into the garage, and the door had barely closed behind his car before Katrina appeared at his driver's side door. She kissed him and smiled brightly as he rushed from the car, forgetting his backpack in the passenger seat, and hurried into the house to finish packing for their trip. With a pleased smile, she calmly reached into the car, pulled out the backpack, and carried it inside behind him.
She had spent the entire day packing while he was at the college so she would be available to help him with his own preparations. Her assistance included watching over him to ensure that he didn't forget anything important, such as his passport, new exclusive joint-account credit card, or his collection of notes and brochures on London that he had assembled meticulously during the past month. Additionally, she made arrangements for Devon Archibald to check in on the estate a few times during the week. She also left word with the security system monitoring company to make Devon the primary local contact at night, but to respond immediately to any daytime alarms.
Within a couple of hours, evening arrived in full. Caleb finished packing, and Katrina made a call to Sunset Air to send a car to pick them up. One of the company's additional services was to arrange for secure transportation to and from the airport, if desired. In order to avoid leaving their car at the airport, she had quickly decided the added cost was well worth it. Additionally, their luggage would be automatically processed and loaded on the plane.
"Are you ready?" she asked with a smirk as she noticed Caleb glancing at his watch for the third time in less than twenty minutes.
"Me?" he asked innocently, folding his arms across his chest. "Oh, sure. Yep, ready to go."
"You're adorable," she observed with a smile as she regarded his nervous energy. He had a contagious sense of wonder and anticipation about him, which she found endearing. You're definitely keeping life both fun and interesting for me.
Katrina's cell phone rang, and she gave the Sunset Air driver a temporary access code to enter the neighborhood gate. Then she manually opened the driveway gate to allow access to the front of the estate. Minutes later, a black limousine pulled up in front of the house, and Caleb hastily carried their luggage to the back of the car. His heart was beating fast as he anticipated what he hoped was the journey of a lifetime with Katrina.
Their aircraft was a three-engine airliner specially outfitted with oversized fuel capacity for non-stop transatlantic flights. The interior of the plane was laid out in a series of special oversized compartments reminding Caleb of miniature hotel rooms. Each compartment had locked and closed portal windows and was tastefully furnished using lighter colors. In the center of the room were four large seats facing a large flat-panel display inset into the wall panel.
The already roomy seats were fastened together in pairs so that a set of two could be turned into one large area, much like a small sofa. Mounted before each seating space and appearing to be adjustable forward, up, or down, was a small oak-finished table. Suspended directly above each of the four seats was a console with an individual drop-down LCD display, reading light, adjustable air vents, and buttons to summon attendants or control the display.
Set behind the single row of seats was a small bed and a large overhead storage compartment. Next to the bed was a small doorway leading into a private bathroom, including a small shower. All in all, it appeared to be a comfortable setup for long-term flights. Katrina had reserved an entire compartment for them, though Caleb had no idea exactly how many other passengers might be on the flight in the other compartments, if any.
She sat next to him in the set of two seats closest to the outer wall of the fuselage. She noted the curious expression on his face as he viewed the interior of their compartment.
"Geez, this is nicer looking than any plane interior I've ever seen," he observed with awe. "It's like our own little apartment. There's even a bed back there."
She grinned at him, pulled up the seat arm that was barring her from snuggling next to him, and commented, "That's right. This is your first time on a Sunset Air charter flight. It's unlike most anything humans are used to, for obvious reasons."
He scooted closer to her and placed his hand on her thigh. "Are there any other passengers on the flight?" he asked as the aircraft's engines roared to life.
"Passengers are asked to please buckle their seatbelts, remain seated, and secure any loose cargo until we're airborne," announced a pleasant female attendant's voice over a small speaker set into the console above them.
So much for snuggling, Katrina observed. Maybe later.
The two of them buckled their seatbelts as she replied to her mate's question, "I sensed three vampires and one other human."
"The human would likely be a –"
"Companion, most likely. Although I discovered one of the pilots is human, as well as two of the flight attendants."
He nodded at the information and felt the plane begin to move. His grip tightened on Katrina's thigh, and he inhaled deeply. He had never flown overseas before, and while not scared, he was a little nervous as to what to expect.
She noted his increased grip and turned her head sharply to look into his eyes. "It's your first time flying, isn't it?" she asked.
He offered a shy smile as he returned her gaze and shrugged. "Well, over water," he conceded. "I've usually traveled via trains, buses, or cars. My mother and I didn't travel a lot, except for short car trips. Money was tight for us when I was growing up, and flying around the country was pretty much out of the question. When I relocated to Atlanta for college, I drove down from Ohio, mainly to have my car available. My college baseball team flew a couple of times, but those were just short flights. So, this is my maiden flight over water. Kind of strange and lame for someone who's twenty-six years old, isn't it?"
She smiled back at him and noted how endearing his expression appeared to her. Sensing a sort of vulnerability in his eyes, she stretched her left arm across his shoulders supportively. "Not at all," she reassured him. "Are you nervous?"
"Nah," he retorted casually, though there was a tightness in his voice. "Although it's a big ocean we're going to be flying over, and I'm not too keen on swimming in it."
She looked at him with amusement. "So, you don't care for the ocean then?"
He frowned. "Well, I'm not fond of deep water at all, really. I can't swim."
Her smile faded as she took in that important fact to file away for future reference. Her protective nature kicked in, and she reassured him, "Well, there's no swimming on this flight, so you're in luck. And besides, Sunset Air has one of the safest flying records in the industry. It's one of the few airlines where the safety of its passengers really is their first priority."
A man's deep voice resonated over the intercom, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're preparing for take-off. Please fasten your seatbelts at this time and remain seated until we're airborne. We'll announce when it's safe for you to move around your cabins. Thank you for flying Sunset Air."
Caleb rechecked his seatbelt and glanced over to ensure Katrina was buckled in. He looked up at her with a tight-lipped smile and gazed around the cabin as if seeking a distraction of some kind. She reached out to grasp his right hand in hers and noticed that his palm was slightly moist. Ah, he's a little nervous after all, she considered with a smirk. She found it somewhat endearing and made a mental note to be particularly reassuring towards him.
"So, Sunset Air only caters to vampires, don't they?" he asked absently.
Katrina nodded and explained, "Well, they're vampire-owned for a reason, but they cater to human customers using a separate fleet of aircraft. They're a legitimate business focused on a profit-making venture, after all. It's just that their vampire-supportive fleet specializes in safe, relatively anonymous, sunlight-free transportation. It's one reason why their fares are so exorbitant. Of course, the amenities are numerous as well."
He nodded silently as the aircraft seemed to shift abruptly. He thought it must be taxiing across the runway to prepare for take-off. Though, without a window view, it felt to him like riding in a closed box on wheels.
Minutes later, he felt a sensation of acceleration, and his body was pressed back into the seat cushion. He felt a tell-tale uplifting, tickling sensation in his stomach, as well as a feeling of being lifted upwards at an angle. He continued to feel that for a time, until the plane seemed to bank again before leveling off. In the end, it was a smooth and pleasant experience, and he sighed appreciatively.
"There. We're in the air now," Katrina commented softly with a small pat on his shoulder.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Richard Webber speaking," announced a deep, male voice over the loudspeaker. "We're airborne now and will continue non-stop to London. We welcome our human passengers and request on behalf of your safety that you please stay in your assigned cabins. Our staff will be happy to provide for any and all your needs, and we hope you enjoy the flight. Thank you for traveling with Sunset Air."
Katrina unbuckled her seatbelt, but Caleb merely stared up at her with a curious expression. "Let me guess," he ventured as he folded his arms before him. "That must have been the vampire pilot."
She smirked at his reaction. "Now, now. Humans are guests just like the vampire passengers. It's just that our kind are hesitant about mingling openly with humans in these circumstance. Please don't take it personally."
"But you can leave the cabin, right?" he pressed with a hint of annoyance in his voice.
Her eyes quickly darted to him, and she looked over at the nearby plasma display nonchalantly. "Well, yes, I suppose I could. They do have a bar area set up for vampires to socialize in." But she brightly countered, "However, I plan on spending the flight here with you, enjoying my mate's company. It's our first real traveling experience together, after all."
He frowned slightly, but then shrugged and unfolded his arms with a sigh. "Yeah, I suppose it's nice to have some privacy together," he acknowledged with a half-smile.
She grinned slyly, reached over to unbuckle his safety belt, and tilted her head towards his to kiss his soft lips. Following a couple of additional kisses, a light knock sounded at their cabin door.
"Come in," Katrina replied.
A tall, brunette woman wearing a Sunset Air stewardess uniform peeked into the cabin with a pleasant expression and asked, "May I offer you warm towels?"
"Yes, thanks," Katrina replied as she sat up in her seat beside Caleb.
The woman entered, and Caleb noted that her nametag read Trish. She presented Katrina with a warm, moist towel using a pair of tongs and repeated the process for Caleb. He appreciated its warmth and happily rubbed his hands and face with it.
Trish asked about food and drink preferences, to which he asked for a menu and a Coca-Cola, while Katrina asked for a glass of wine. The stewardess departed, and Caleb set his towel aside on the small adjustable table before him.
"Kat, what else are you expecting to do while we're in London?" he asked. "I get the impression this is part business trip."
Very perceptive, she congratulated him. "Alton mentioned there are some vampire-related matters he wanted to discuss with me," she explained. "I'm not entirely clear on most of the details, but it appears a rift is forming in the vampire community. The implications are still being determined, although I can't help feeling that Alton is one of the leaders representing one side of the issue."
He considered that for a moment. "He wants to recruit you, doesn't he? Isn't that part of why he offered to set up the meeting for me with the vampire psychiatrist?"
She frowned, not wanting to consider her former mentor's actions as being so base or manipulative, but conceded there might be a hint of accuracy to her mate's assessment. "It's possible that Alton only wants to get my impression of things, but it's more likely that he wants my assistance in some form," she said. "However, he's becoming fond of you, and I think he sincerely wants to try and help if he can."
"Well, that's nice of him, at any rate," he conceded with a shake of his head. "I'm feeling both nervous and hopeful about meeting with- What's his name?"
"Dr. Roehl Guilhelm," she supplied. "According to Alton, he's supposed to be one of the best in his field. I did some preliminary research, and he does appear to be an actively practicing psychiatrist."
Caleb nodded, hoping again the doctor was as good as his reputation. He really wanted to get his blocked memories back. Somehow he felt as if some sort of important closure could occur, at least regarding his father, if not also for his initial meeting of Katrina, or rather, Amber. "That's good to know," he replied absently.
A few minutes later, Trish returned with wine, cola, and a menu, which Caleb perused at length before ordering a deli sandwich. Much to his surprise, it tasted freshly prepared. He and Katrina watched a recent blockbuster action film on the display and read novels they had brought in their carry-on luggage. He was amazed by the friendly, attentive service provided on the flight and became so acclimated to the smooth in-flight conditions that he felt comfortable taking a shower and napping in his reclined seat. Although Katrina was amused that he didn't feel so relaxed that he would concede to napping on the comfortable-looking bed.
"Fear of unexpected turbulence rolling me out of bed," he had countered with a yawn.
Soon afterwards, she took her turn in the shower, after which she noted he had fallen deeply asleep during her brief absence. She settled down to do some more reading while listening to some music on a set of headphones connected to the console above her.
When he woke, he realized that he had slept nearly six hours and was hungry. After a quick perusal of the menu, he was served an early morning breakfast of eggs, pork sausage, and Belgian waffles while Katrina enjoyed a warm glass of human blood. In a brief simultaneous exchange, each viewed the other's meal with mild disdain.
"Mine smells tastier than yours," he bragged with a smirk.
"You smell tastier than either," she observed with a predatory grin, to which he smiled and returned to his platter of food.
"You want a little nip?" he asked playfully as he poured hot syrup over his waffles.
"I would, but I've decided to spare you for later," she replied suggestively.
He merely smiled and shook his head. It was nice to be desired, despite the fact that he was the intended meal. He suddenly realized how comfortable he had become with being a vampire's mate in just a matter of months and how much he relished his role in Katrina's life. It was a source of both great pride and personal satisfaction.
As their plane approached the British Isles, the sun had already risen, and the human pilot who took control of the aircraft invited Caleb to the cockpit to view their approach to the mainland. As he approached the cockpit he noted all the other cabins had been closed and the bar area was devoid of patrons. He found the cockpit view fascinating and couldn't help but wonder what adventures awaited him as he observed the looming land mass of Great Britain. Upon his return to their cabin, Katrina glanced up at him from her mystery novel.
"Enjoy the view?" she asked with a smirk, though she easily detected how pleased he was.
He bent down to kiss her. "It was great! And I suspect I've got you to thank for that, as well."
"While you were napping earlier, I slipped out and let it be known it was your first transatlantic flight, and the other vampires and crew were kind enough to oblige my small request."
He smiled warmly as he sat down next to her, once again touched by his mate's seemingly endless kindness. "Thanks, Kat. You're the best."
She adopted a mock-smug expression, returned to reading her novel, and agreed, "Yes I am, in fact. And don't you forget it, my love."
It was mid-morning by the time the plane landed at a small airport just outside of London. They remained in the plane at length while the aircraft taxied into a completely blacked-out hangar, its doors closed to preclude any sunlight from entering. A special ramp was brought alongside the plane, and the few passengers disembarked.
They grabbed their carry-on luggage and proceeded through the quiet central hallway leading towards the front of the plane, though the only people they encountered were the human pilot and their two assigned stewardesses. Caleb shook their hands and thanked them for their service and safe flight, and each person seemed flattered and slightly taken aback by his friendly and appreciative manner. Katrina followed suit, though merely nodding, smiling, and thanking the crew for their hospitality and service.
"Such a friendly, polite young man," the captain whispered to the two crewwomen standing next to him.
"Cute couple," one of the women muttered, causing Katrina to smirk as she descended the ramp next to Caleb.
Two black limousines with tinted windows were already idling near the plane with their brake lights on, indicating their passengers were loaded and ready to depart the hangar. One lone black limousine remained near the bottom of the ramp. Its rear-most passenger side door was open, beside which a tall man wearing a tailored suit stood arrow-straight. His right hand was crossed neatly against his left hand as he stared ahead of him observing their descent to the concrete floor of the hangar. A man dressed in a traditional chauffeur's uniform stood next to the rear bumper of the vehicle as airport employees transferred the luggage from the aircraft into the car's trunk.
Caleb noticed Katrina's change in posture to a more aggressive stance as she deliberately walked a little ahead of him towards the man standing next to the car's open door. The dark-haired man seemed momentarily taken aback by Katrina's forward bearing, and he blinked once as he stared back at her.
"Ma'am," the man offered deferentially with a nod. "Welcome to London. My name is Simmons, ma'am. Mr. Rutherford sends his regrets that he couldn't meet you in person. He sent me to ensure that you and Mr. Taylor are properly escorted to your hotel."
The chauffeur approached Caleb and gestured towards his and Katrina's carry-on luggage, which he took and stored in the trunk for them. He nodded politely to Caleb, returned to the rear of the vehicle, and watched the other airport staff who were loading two remaining luggage items.
Katrina raised an eyebrow. "I see. And you're part of the security detail for Mr. Rutherford?"
The man nodded and replied in a crisp English accent, "Yes, ma'am."
Caleb knew better than to interrupt the interaction taking place and stood quietly behind and to the left of Katrina. He found his mate's sudden change in demeanor to one of immediate authority curious, but perhaps not surprising. She was an alpha vampire, after all, and she had no idea who the man was.
"Expecting trouble, Simmons?" she asked pointedly as she looked in the direction of the chauffeur, who closed the trunk and moved to the driver's side of the vehicle. He stood quietly, apparently awaiting word to proceed with the departure.
"Not expecting any, ma'am," Simmons replied crisply. "Mr. Rutherford merely wanted to ensure that your journey to the hotel was without incident given that it's daytime."
Caleb's eyes perked up with the recognition that the man fully understood he was addressing a vampire.
"Then I appreciate your service today, Simmons," Katrina replied politely. "Let's proceed."
Simmons nodded to the chauffeur and held the car door open for them. Caleb glanced back to the airplane, but all the people had suddenly disappeared from the area, leaving them seemingly alone in that part of the hangar. Katrina touched Caleb lightly on the shoulder to urge him forward to enter the back of the car before her. He ducked into the back of the limousine and scooted over to the far side of the seat to allow her to enter. She slid onto the seat, and Simmons closed the door. He got into the passenger side of the front compartment, leaving Katrina and Caleb alone in the roomy rear compartment of the vehicle.
Caleb looked out the passenger side of the car and noticed the hangar doors were opening, allowing the two limousines ahead of them to depart. A few moments later, their own limousine pulled through the hangar and into the daylight, although the darkly tinted windows kept any ultraviolet radiation from penetrating. He looked out the car window at the airport buildings and hangars and found that things looked very similar to the airports in the United States.
Katrina extended her left arm across the open expanse of space towards him and pulled him back to the center of the car next to her with one swift motion. He chuckled as he slid across the leather seat towards her and tilted his head up to kiss her.
"Welcome to London, my love," she offered. "Don't worry about the view for now. It will begin to look more scenic and noteworthy once we leave the area around the airport."
"That man, Simmons," Caleb noted curiously. "He reminds me of a secret service agent."
"Alton likes to hire former British military and intelligence service members in his security ranks," she told him. "Their experience and discipline lend themselves well to Alton's preferred style of performance and leadership."
He nodded. "You looked rather authoritative there for a moment, as well."
She shrugged and hugged him to her. "It was important to establish the pecking order with such types. They respect that, and it removes any role ambiguity."
He smirked. "I think I like you better this way."
She smiled back slyly and kissed him on the cheek. "Of course you do. But then, I've already established our pecking order, haven't I?"
He shook his head, rolled his eyes, and patted her thigh with his hand. He took a moment to take in the interior of the vehicle and realized that a small LCD display was built into a central console before him. There appeared to be a small bar and built-in cooler, and a leather seat was situated on each side of the console facing towards them. The interior would comfortably seat five, he noted.
"Nice ride," he said. He was impressed with the luxuriousness of the vehicle and anticipated that it must have cost a small fortune.
"One of Alton's," she noted. "I'll bet they even stocked the fridge for us."
He reached across to open the small refrigerator and found two bottles of chilled Coca-cola along with two plastic vials of chilled blood. He took out one of the Coke bottles, opened it, and took a swig. His dry throat appreciated it, and he looked up at Katrina.
"Want some cold blood?" he asked with a grin.
She frowned for a moment and reached over to the console to open a small wooden panel. Inside was a set of two clear drinking glasses, which were heated by elements surrounding the interior of the small storage area. A brief wave of heat flowed out of the interior towards them.
"Wow," he said with surprise. "Preheated glasses. Never seen that before."
She nodded, but closed the door again without removing a glass. "I seem to recall his telling me about installing heated glass holders in his cars. Novel idea, but I'm not terribly hungry right now," she replied, although she took the Coke bottle from him and took a small swig before handing it back to him.
Once they left the area surrounding the airport, the scenery looked somewhat rustic, though the most notable aspect was that they were riding down the opposite side of the road from what was normal in America. Caleb decided to not look forward, half expecting to run into an oncoming vehicle. As if sensing his personal challenge, Katrina ran her fingers down the back of his neck lightly, which caused him to shiver slightly.
"Try looking at the passing scenery instead of forwards for a time," she suggested. "It takes a little getting used to, I'll admit."
As they approached the outskirts of London, Caleb noticed that the buildings were a mix of the most modern constructions combined with architectures of less descript design. It was almost like one could see the varying generations of English architecture all combined into one stretch of the city. However, a number of homes and buildings really didn't look that different from designs found in the United States or Canada.
Once downtown, he wished that he could open a window to see a lighter version of the scenery around him, rather than the darkly tinted imagery, but he naturally didn't want to do anything to harm Katrina. He anticipated that he could stand outside of the hotel for a time once they arrived and checked into their room.
Again, Katrina seemed to sense his thoughts. "I'll see if Alton knows someone who can take you out for some daytime touring of the city. It would be a shame for you to only see the place at night."
He grinned back at her as he briefly turned from the window. "You're sure vampires don't read minds? Thanks, I'd love that."
She smiled in response and appreciated the engaged manner in which he tried to take in the passing scenery. Their trip had been very successful thus far, which pleased her. She was determined to make the trip as relaxing, fun, and enjoyable as she could manage, despite her daylight limitations.
As they proceeded further into London proper, the city became an anomaly unto itself. There were many modern buildings sporting both professional and creative architecture interspersed with sites of historical antiquity, and all were crammed into a metropolis thriving with both people and traffic. Certainly, most major cities supported a blend of architectures from varying periods, but London was the historic heart of Great Britain, and it was laid out in its glory for the world to see and traverse.
When they arrived at the hotel, Summit Towers, in the heart of the business district, Caleb was impressed by appearance of the fifteen-story building. The frontage offered a stately elegance that also appeared very modern. As the building loomed above them, he noted that the glass around the first and second floors, as well as the three top-most floors, appeared tinted, while the other floors appeared to have traditional glass. He wondered if that were to accommodate vampire guests more easily, though Katrina hadn't mentioned that the hotel catered specifically to vampires.
The limousine pulled onto a small access road leading around the periphery of the building and proceeded to a gated entrance into an underground parking garage that was manned by a uniformed security guard. Their limousine was admitted after a brief exchange between the guard and chauffeur, and they proceeded into the well lit garage. Following a couple of brief turns around concrete pillars, the vehicle came to a stop before a faux street entrance, appearing much like the street-side entrance of the hotel.
Two uniformed hotel staff approached the car immediately, and the chauffeur provided access to the trunk. Simmons exited the vehicle, swept his gaze around the garage meticulously, and then opened the rear passenger side door to allow Katrina and Caleb to exit.
Katrina slid out of the car, visually swept the surrounding area herself, and stood aside for Caleb to exit. As he left the car, he was amused by the hotel's replica entrance and noted that their luggage was quickly being removed from the limousine's trunk.
A short, middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed mustache and wearing a tailored white business suit approached Simmons and nodded politely. Simmons gestured towards Katrina deliberately, and the man shifted his focus to her with a professionally practiced smile.
"Welcome to Summit Towers, madam," he offered in a stately English accent. "My name is Jenkins, and as the daytime manager, it would be my pleasure if you would allow me the privilege of checking you into the hotel. May I inquire as to the name on the reservation?"
Katrina smiled pleasantly. "Reservations for Mr. Caleb Taylor and Ms. Katrina Rawlings."
The man's eyes widened only slightly before returning to their previously practiced state. He clasped his hands in front of him and inclined his head towards Katrina deferentially.
"My apologies for this unnecessary delay, Ms. Rawlings," he apologized. "I wasn't informed that you were already on your way to us this morning. I am aware that your reservations have already been processed, and I'll see that your luggage is taken to your suite immediately. We're very pleased to have you stay with us, and rest assured that your every need will be attended to immediately. You have only to ask, and it shall be addressed. If it pleases you, I'll program your key access cards."
Katrina raised her own eyebrows with slight surprise at the elevated form of address from the man. "Of course. Thank you, Mr. Jenkins."
Caleb looked up at Katrina, who maintained an impassive expression as she turned to follow Jenkins into the hotel lobby through the small entrance. He shrugged and followed behind her as Simmons closed the car door and nodded brusquely to the chauffeur.
Caleb nearly stopped in his tracks as he entered the posh hotel. The flooring was mostly polished white tile, while other areas were polished oak. The walls were white plaster with matching wood lining the lower part of the wall, the effect both stately and regal at the same time. Large plaster columns inlaid with Greek-looking symbols were scattered throughout the interior of the vast lobby, and crystal chandeliers with imbedded lights hung from high vaulted ceilings, which were themselves inlaid with white plaster designs outlined in painted gold trim. Polished oak furniture complemented the decor, as well as leather couches and reading chairs placed throughout. Sleek lamps decorated polished wood end tables near the chairs and couches, and a variety of stylized classical artworks hung in various open wall spaces.
Jenkins moved behind a polished wood counter with marble inlay. A young woman wearing a business suit with hotel crest on her jacket stood at the main desk, and she quickly cast a curious glance at both Katrina and Caleb before turning her eyes downward to the countertop. Caleb frowned, wondering why she seemed so subdued. She briefly glanced up at them again, and he smiled at her. She returned his smile shyly, then returned to some paperwork set before her. Katrina glanced at him with a raised eyebrow, and he shrugged innocently before moving to stand beside her.
"Your luggage is being moved to your suite as we speak," Jenkins offered as he produced two gold key cards and handed them over to Katrina. "These will work for any of the special services rooms, elevators, and of course, your own suite."
Katrina took the keys and handed one to Caleb.
"We're so very pleased that you're staying with us, Ms. Rawlings and Mr. Taylor," Jenkins offered. "Now, if you'll permit me, I'll show you to your suite."
Katrina nodded politely and smirked at Caleb, who wore a telltale tourist expression as he tried to take in everything at once. They both turned to follow Jenkins across the beautiful lobby towards the nearby elevators. They entered the elevator together, and he regarded them with a respectful smile as he inserted a pass card and pressed the button for the fifteenth floor, the topmost in the hotel.
"Your room key is required for the car to go to the top two floors," he informed them.
The elevator doors opened to reveal a regal hallway decorated much like the lobby with polished wood paneling at the lower portion of the plaster walls. There were stained oak tables with mirrors above them and flanking fabric-backed chairs at intervals along with curtained windows. Caleb cast a quick glance up to Katrina as she comfortably passed the first window, and he noted the window panes were all tinted with what he guessed must be a UV-dampening coating.
Their suite was at the end of the long hallway furthest from the elevators, and Jenkins commented, "There are only four suites on this floor, so I'm hopeful that you will enjoy a quiet, relaxing atmosphere."
The manager gestured to Caleb for his room card, neatly swiped the lock and opened the large door leading into Suite 1504. He handed the card back to Caleb, encouraging them to enter ahead of him with a sweeping gesture of his arm.
The living room was as roomy as the one at Katrina's estate. The furniture was a mix of oak and leather-covered chairs and a comfortable-looking couch. The rich carpet was thick-piled, complementing the decor with an air of regal comfort. The far wall was a series of large pane-glass windows coated with the same tinting as the hallway glass, each flanked by heavy drapes for privacy at night.
"Wow," Caleb muttered with a degree of awe, to which Jenkins offered a sincere grin. A pang of embarrassment passed through him, and he silently admonished himself for acting like a little kid who'd never seen a hotel room before. Come on, act like you've been off the farm more than once in your life.
"I'm happy that you approve," Jenkins offered congenially, but with a tentative glance at Katrina.
"Very nice, indeed," she agreed with a simple nod.
The bedroom was spacious, and a lengthy dining room sporting an eight-seated varnished table held court at the back of the suite before another series of large windows. A small study next to the dining area hosted a stocked wet bar.
"I'll leave you now, but please let me know if there's anything at all I can do to accommodate your needs or make your stay more enjoyable," Jenkins offered with a polite nod to both Katrina and Caleb. He quickly exited, pulling the door closed behind him.
Caleb walked over to the living room windows, staring in silent wonderment at the city beyond. Katrina walked up behind him, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed him warmly on the cheek.
"Very cool. I'm actually in London," he murmured before turning his attention back to his mate. "This is simply unbelievable, Kat."
She beamed, so very pleased he was happy. "And it's just the beginning, my love."
"Hey! I can see the London Eye from here," he exclaimed as he stared out the large window.
She raised both eyebrows as she looked. She absently curled her arm around his waist as she glanced through the window, grateful the coated glass allowed her to appreciate the daytime view with him, even though the coating made the view appear somewhat duskier than the early daytime hour that it was.
The London Eye was indeed a sight. The large circular wheel was part of a Millennium landmark competition in the late 1990s. Its perimeter was surrounded by glass-encased viewing pods, which allowed for spectacular views of the city. Caleb grinned as he observed it in the distance and turned to glance up at Katrina with an inquisitive expression.
"Yes," she replied with a smirk. "I'll make sure that you get to go up in it, both at day and night."
He chuckled and tilted his face upwards slightly towards her while elevating himself on his toes to kiss her lightly.
"You're the best, Kat," he complimented, to which she kissed him in return as she tightened her grip around his waist.
She relished their closeness at that moment and fully appreciated how easy it was to love him. He made her so happy, so content with her life. "Come on," she offered while reluctantly releasing him. "Let's call Alton. He'll want to know we've arrived."
She walked to the nearest phone in the living area while Caleb continued to absorb the view of the city. Soon afterwards, the two of them shared a shower and changed into fresh clothes. Being in casual tourist mode, both chose jeans. However, where Caleb wore a plain cotton shirt, Katrina selected a fleecy turtleneck sweater. While the temperatures were cold outside, neither needed their jackets as they didn't intend to go outdoors, never mind that Katrina would find the experience lethal from the UV radiation emanating through the clouds.
They proceeded into the hotel elevator and took it to the first sub-level floor, which was one story below ground. Alton had informed Katrina that the hotel and his office building were connected via an underground passageway, making it ideal for vampires during daylight hours. They had no sooner exited the elevator car and proceeded down a short length of carpeted hallway when a lone, smiling figure appeared at the end of the empty corridor.
Alton Rutherford stood a few inches over six feet and appeared quite the English playboy in a pair of dark gray dress slacks and white, long-sleeved silk dress shirt. He had forgone a tie, but still looked sharply attired by the addition of a designer leather belt and dress shoes. His late thirty-something appearance was complemented by a solid body frame, short dark hair, and piercing hazel eyes. And while Caleb didn't know exactly how old Alton was, he knew the vampire was older than Katrina, and she had lived over five hundred years.
Like Katrina, his unusually pale skin tone was nearly radiant, though not stark enough to set him aside from the human environment around him. In London, it wasn't as if people walked around sporting a natural tan. But Alton's pale complexion hardly detracted from the attractive specimen who likely turned many a woman's head in his direction.
Katrina immediately moved to embrace Alton warmly, each smiling at the reunion. It had been months since they had last seen each other, just prior to Katrina's and Caleb's nearly lethal confrontation with Chimalma. As they parted, Alton pressed a kiss to her cheek, eliciting a playful smirk. While her close friend and former mentor had never been a romantic partner, she felt strong affection for him.
"Welcome to London, my dear," he offered. "I'm glad you're here."
"It's good to see you as well," she replied.
Alton turned his full attention to Caleb and extended his hand. Caleb returned the firm grip in kind, but felt the elder vampire pull him towards him in a brief, fraternal embrace. Katrina raised an eyebrow at the exchange, noting Alton's unusually affectionate greeting towards her mate.
"Hello, young man," Alton greeted. "It feels like a long time since we've seen each other. Strange, isn't it?"
Caleb smiled brightly as he pulled away from the tall vampire and looked up appreciatively into his eyes. He welcomed the warm greeting and marveled at how natural the exchange felt for him. He had confided many things to Alton during the past few months. The vampire's advice and knowledge of Katrina's background had proven quite helpful in strengthening his relationship with her. Not to mention the fact that his continuing understanding of alpha vampires was due in large part to Alton.
The three exchanged small talk regarding the overseas flight as they walked down the span of corridor leading into a small lobby at the other end. Aside from a couple of conservative-looking couches, reading chairs, and contemporary tables, the only other central element was two elevator doors. Devoid of other people, the area seemed eerily quiet.
"Kind of handy having a connecting corridor between the hotel and your office building," Caleb noted as he glanced at Alton.
"Sensible and convenient for our kind, wouldn't you say?" he replied.
"Indeed," Katrina agreed. "Did you enter into a partnership with the hotel to arrange this?"
"Oh, yes," Alton replied with a smirk. "In fact, I bought the hotel almost a year ago."
"Cool," Caleb noted. "Which must explain why some of the hotel's floors have coated glass."
Alton pressed a return button for the elevator. "Precisely. London's well on its way to becoming a central hub for our kind, all the better to ensure that accommodations are easily available. The Tube is another element of that, in fact. It's mostly underground, allowing virtually unlimited travel throughout the city without ever exposing oneself to sunlight."
Katrina's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the off-handed comment, but Caleb appeared aloof to Alton's reference as he looked up to view the elevator car's floor on the LCD panel before him. What exactly is Alton up to now? she wondered.
A few moments later they boarded the elevator, and Alton pressed a series of codes into a keypad mounted next to the control panel. The elevator continued on an uninterrupted rise to the fifteenth floor, one level below the topmost floor of the building.
"And did you find your room in order?" he inquired politely with a glance at Katrina.
She frowned slightly. "Yes. In fact, it's much grander than the suite on the Website."
"Well, some of the suites are reserved for V-VIPs," Alton noted simply. He took a moment to appreciate the perplexed expression on Caleb's face before adding, "Vampire VIPs, that is. Oh, and your stay is being comped, as well."
"Now, Alton –" Katrina protested.
The elder vampire raised his hand and interrupted, "No. I won't hear of it. You're my guests on this trip. Besides, it is my hotel, after all."
Katrina merely inclined her head. "Very kind, Alton. Thank you."
"Yeah, thanks Alton," Caleb added. "The suite is amazing. I've never stayed anywhere quite so grand." He glanced up at Katrina with a guilty expression and amended, "Except for Kat's estate, naturally."
She smirked at her mate and lightly ran her fingertips across the back of his neck. "It's your estate now, too, you know," she corrected him gently.
He shivered slightly at her caress while Alton chuckled.
Moments later, the elevator doors opened to reveal a professionally decorated and carpeted hallway appearing much like any elegant office building. The sound of a nearby phone's ringing added to the subdued sound of people chatting, while a nearby office emitted the sound of rapid keyboard typing through the open doorway. Alton led the way out of the elevator and down the length of short hallway before turning a corner to a longer stretch of carpeted corridor much like the one behind them.
As Caleb glanced into some of the open offices they passed, he noted men and women dressed in professional suits who reminded him of a corporate law firm he once visited back in Atlanta. A tall, blonde woman wearing a business suit halted in an office doorway to wait as they passed. He observed with a wide-eyed expression that she had piercing green eyes like Katrina and was holding a steaming mug of what appeared to be blood. The woman smirked as he passed, and he briefly glanced behind him to see her watching him with amusement.
Caleb reached out to tug on Katrina's hand to get her attention and muttered, "Hey, did you just see –"
But she silenced him with a slight frown and silently mouthed, "Sh."
Alton glanced back at Caleb over his shoulder with an amused expression. "Yes, Caleb. I employ a significant number of vampires in this office facility. However, they're discreetly limited to the uppermost floors for the most part."
Katrina considered that revelation, which only added to the growing sense of curiosity stemming from his earlier comments regarding accommodating vampires in the city. I had no idea he was employing vampires on a large scale. Her friend had said nothing about it in their recent interactions, and she wondered how long the development had been in practice.
Finally, Alton led them through oak double-doors that proceeded into a spacious office with a large window looking out upon London's financial district. The room was the size of a small hotel suite, complete with a wet bar to one side and a large oak conference table surrounded by ten high-backed leather chairs. A plush sofa sat along the opposite wall with an oak coffee table set before it. Ceiling-high oak bookshelves lined each of the two side walls, some shelves open and containing books, while others sported finished cabinet doors that concealed their contents.
Set before the large window was a wide oak desk with two large, high-backed leather chairs set before it. Alton gestured to the seats with one hand while closing the office doors and moved to the wet bar in a blur of movement.
"Blood, Katrina?" he asked as he rummaged beneath the bar counter, producing two crystal glasses. He filled them with blood from a chilled container in a small refrigerator.
"Yes, please," she replied with a glance towards Caleb. I'd prefer Caleb, but it seems that will have to wait for later.
"Coke, Caleb?" Alton asked as he produced a simple drinking glass with ice without waiting for a reply.
"A little early in the day to be hitting the hard stuff, isn't it?" Caleb quipped with a grin as he walked directly to the open, film-coated window to gaze out upon the city.
Alton stared at Caleb's back and raised a curious eyebrow, perplexed by his quip. Katrina smirked and cleared her throat slightly to get her mate's attention. When Caleb turned around to gaze at her, he immediately noticed Alton's sober expression and his grin quickly faded.
"Sorry. That would be very kind, thanks," he replied quietly.
Alton shook his head slightly as he produced a glass bottle of Coca-Cola and neatly popped the metal cap off with the flick of his thumb. As he poured the contents over ice without even glancing down, he heated the two glasses of blood in a microwave located below the counter with his free hand.
Caleb marveled at the stately vampire's almost off-handed, precise, smooth movements. Wish I could to that. He moved across the room to accept the neatly filled glass from Alton's outstretched hand.
"Thanks so much," he said, to which Alton merely inclined his head with a smirk.
"Certainly," the vampire replied as he retrieved the two heated crystal glasses of blood from the microwave. He effortless glided across the distance to Katrina and offered one of the glasses to her with a purposefully dramatic sweep of his arm.
"M'lady," he offered in a gentlemanly tone as she reached out to accept the glass with a charming smile.
"Thank you, kind sir," she replied gracefully. "Show off," she added with a wink.
He chuckled and returned to sit behind his desk, while Caleb sipped at his cola and perused the articles displayed on the oak bookshelves along one side of the office. A small, unnamed wooden sailing ship in a glass bottle caught his eye.
"So, you'll be sightseeing this evening, I should think," Alton ventured to Katrina before taking a sip of the warm blood from his glass.
She nodded and swallowed a mouthful of blood. "Yes, but that's not the topic I'm interested in at the moment, I'm afraid. Why don't you tell me more about this little business you're running here? I always thought you were into corporate investments."
"I am," he said. "Vampires are long-lived beings and are wonderful for implementing long-term investment strategies. Wouldn't you agree?"
She cast a sharp glance at her former mentor before her eyes darted across the room in Caleb's direction.
"How many vampires?" she pressed quietly.
Alton's eyes flickered to hers and then to Caleb as he answered, "For investment management? Seven."
"And what about vampires employed for non-investment purposes?" she pressed with a raised eyebrow.
He hesitated for a couple of seconds. "Eighteen, for now."
She stared into his eyes in piercing fashion, but remained silent. I should've suspected as much. What are the others being used for?
"Hey, this looks like the HMS Victory," Caleb finally spoke up. It took him a number of minutes studying the details of the model ship while searching his naval history knowledge for a name. "That was Horatio Nelson's flagship during the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Trafalgar in the early 1800s."
Alton broke his stare with Katrina to glance over at Caleb with a smirk. "Well played, my boy. However, that vessel is the HMS Agamemnon, reportedly Nelson's favorite ship. It was at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Still, you were correct that Nelson's actual flagship was HMS Victory, also at Trafalgar."
Caleb raised his eyebrows appraisingly and nodded, pleasantly surprised at how close his venture had been. While American history was his specialty, he sought increased knowledge in world history too. He moved to peruse the leather-bound books above the model ship as he sipped at his Coke, oblivious to the hushed conversation taking place across the room.
Katrina observed her mate for a moment in silent admiration. My charming, handsome historian, she considered with a slight smile before returning her gaze to Alton. "So, what are the other vampires busy doing?" she whispered too low for Caleb to overhear.
"Before I answer that question, there are some things you and I should discuss first, privately."
Caleb glanced over at the two vampires with a sour expression, all too aware that the hushed whispers were intended to exclude him from the conversation. He hated secrets, but had learned it was best not to challenge his mate at such times. Instead, he sighed with resignation. So, it looks like this will be a "working vacation." He had hoped that he and Katrina would be able to have an enjoyable getaway together, as well as perhaps be able to get to the bottom of his blocked childhood memories.
"You want to talk business, and I'm in the way, aren't I?" he mused out loud as he placed his nearly empty glass on the bar countertop.
Katrina looked up with a mildly guilty expression, while Alton simply smiled in a disarming manner that might charm a charging rhino.
"Perhaps you could stroll the corridors a little bit, dear boy," he suggested. "There are excellent views of the city from multiple large windows situated along the hallways. We won't be long, and you two can resume your discovery of London in earnest."
Caleb smirked and shook his head as his presumption had proven correct. Vampires and their secrets. Still, who could blame them? It has to be habitual to have lived this long in secrecy, right?
"I'll come for you soon, my love," Katrina promised with a penetrating stare. "And I appreciate your patience." She felt a momentary pang of desire course through her as she registered his scent and the sound of his heartbeat from across the room.
Caleb smiled in silent reply and turned to exit the room, closing the door behind him. As soon as the door shut, Katrina raised her voice to a normal conversational level.
"What is it you want to tell me, Alton?" she insisted with a hint of irritation in her voice. "You were more than kind to sponsor Caleb's upcoming visit to Dr. Guilhelm, but I knew there was another reason you wanted me here. I promised Caleb a vacation, you know."
Alton sighed. "I assure you, I'm not trying to hijack your holiday. So, as always with you, I'll simply cut to the chase."
She scowled at her friend's prescient, yet sardonic, wit.
"Recently, there's been a shift in vampire politics abroad. I'm part of a select group of our kind who are interested in collaborating at global levels to curtail events like what took place with Chimalma last year," he explained. "The 'other' vampires on my payroll are helping to scope out certain unsavory elements among our kind in and around central Europe who have turned hostile in opposition to the new venture. In fact, you could say that tensions are rising among us, depending upon from which side of the fence the venture is being viewed."
Katrina sat motionless as a statue as she absorbed everything that he told her. Somehow she wasn't surprised by his revelation, but she was certainly dismayed. While she respected her former mentor's reaching out to her for support, it caused her to pause. Granted, she felt a definite sense of obligation after all he had done for her last year, including nearly losing his life himself. Nevertheless, she resisted the idea of getting involved in global vampire politics.
"Alton," she began with a sigh. "My mate and I barely survived a battle with an ancient one of our kind, and frankly, I'm more interested in sitting this venture out."
He regarded his former pupil with an expression of stoic patience as he considered her reaction. "Katrina, I'm not drawing you into a war," he countered. "I just want you to keep an open mind and perhaps attend an upcoming gathering in Europe during the summer with me. There's a group of stakeholders who will be in attendance, or at least their designated representatives. It's really just a preliminary project proposal to gauge interest among the major players of our kind."
Her expression turned to one of surprise. "You mean, a vampire summit of sorts?"
"Perhaps that's a good description," he considered. "But your presence would be a powerful symbol among the attendees. After all, you not only foiled a global vampire murderer, you've declared a territorial claim in a major American metropolitan area."
Her temper flared as she realized the implications of his last statement. "A territorial claim that you suggested, I might add."
"And a good one, nonetheless," he reassured her calmly. "Most vampires wouldn't want to challenge your authority or show up unexpectedly. That makes things safer for Caleb, you realize."
"Yes, yes, we've already been over that," she replied impatiently. "But once again, you've guided me into uncomfortable waters."
Alton stared into Katrina's eyes and deliberately softened his expression, once again adopting a disarming visage.
"Stop trying to charm me," she admonished. "It won't work. I'm wise to you after all these years, you know. Well, for the most part, anyway."
"I suppose the only person who can charm you is roaming the hallways as we speak," he speculated with a grin.
She smirked in silent reply as she sipped at the blood in her glass. Yes, he does have that magical quality. When I allow it, that is. She realized that she was only partially correct. There was very little she could actually deny Caleb if he asked.
Caleb casually strolled down the formally corporate hallway on his way to the next available window to gaze upon another part of the city. Fortunately, Alton was correct that the views were actually quite amazing from such heights. But it only hastened his desire to pick a direction and start walking. Then he felt guilty and berated himself for being so dense. It's not like Kat's going to be able to just start roaming the streets until evening anyway.
He would have liked to call or text Paige about their arrival and share his initial reactions to London, but he dutifully followed Katrina's advice to avoid contacting her.
Caleb passed a vampire in a business suit as his mind returned to what he and Kat might do to pass the time until evening. It wasn't as if he wanted to experience all the sights without her, despite the added benefit of improved vision during daylight. He kept walking, not really paying attention to the hallway before him. Although it's not as if she'll have any problem seeing at night. Are some of the museums even open at night? How about tourist attractions?
Suddenly, he looked up and found himself staring at a solid, metal-reinforced door that looked more like an armory entrance than an office access. He frowned and looked at the information panel posted on the wall next to a numeric keypad and badge scanner. The panel read, Data Center.
"Where all the vampire geeks are kept, I presume," he muttered with a chuckle.
"Hey," spoke a gruff British voice from behind him. "Who are you? What are you doing there?"
Caleb spun around to see who was addressing him and noted two tall men in dark suits standing at the end of the hallway from where he had wandered. They were both pale and solid in stature. With one glance into their slightly glistening eyes, he realized they were vampires. He watched them guardedly, feeling a sense of panic rise inside, and his eyes darted around him nervously as he instinctively searched for an immediate exit. The two vampires watched him intently and began moving slowly, deliberately towards him in an almost stalking manner.
"Stop!" echoed Alton's commanding English accent from somewhere nearby.
Alton and Katrina appeared at the end of the hallway some distance behind the two vampires, who both froze in place at his command. Caleb noted that Katrina's arms were folded before her as she wore a stern expression, while Alton seemed almost amused by the scene before him.
"This is Mr. Taylor," he explained. "He's a personal guest of mine and shall share courtesy access with Ms. Rawlings to the upper floors of the tower during their stay in London."
"Sorry, Mr. Rutherford. But we didn't notice them on the sign-in roster," one of the vampire's explained.
"Er, yes," Alton replied. "Well, that's my fault, actually. I escorted them up personally."
Both of the suit-clad vampires nodded towards Caleb and turned to depart the hallway heading away from him and past where Katrina and Alton were standing. The tall, pale, blonde woman wearing a dark business suit that Caleb had seen earlier appeared behind Alton and Katrina and smiled in a practiced, professional manner. Aside from being quite attractive, she had green eyes, much like Katrina's.
"Ah, Ms. Kendrick," Alton greeted the woman. "Would you please be so kind as to escort Mr. Taylor to the best viewing locations on the upper floors? Then bring him back to my office and add their names to the guest roster, please. We wouldn't want any future misunderstandings, now, would we?"
"It would be my pleasure, Mr. Rutherford," the woman replied in a dutiful, practiced manner and employing an accent that sounded Danish or German.
Caleb offered a sheepish grin and shrugged his shoulders with resignation at Katrina while she smirked at him and shook her head. She turned to follow Alton back around the corner, leaving Ms. Kendrick standing at the end of the hall with a welcoming expression.
He walked towards the woman with a tentative look on his face, extended his right hand, and offered, "Hi, I'm Caleb. Pleased to meet you."
She smiled genuinely, shook his hand, and replied, "Marla Kendrick. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Taylor."
"Caleb," he corrected her gently.
"Of course, Caleb," she accepted while studying him curiously. "Please feel free to call me Marla."
He nodded, and she gestured with her hand in the direction of the hall behind him. He turned to walk alongside her and glanced up to look into her green eyes. They definitely reminded him of Katrina's, though he realized that they were paler somehow, almost washed out, and yet distinctive in their own way compared to a human's.
"Our immediate destination is further back and to the left," she explained, frowning slightly as she noted him observing her closely. He deliberately averted his gaze to avoid seeming rude.
Once Marla directed him to a few windows on two other sides of the building, he noticed that the city was quickly being covered by gray clouds, suggesting oncoming rain. She explained that sunny skies were hard to come by in London in the early spring and for him not to be too disappointed if it did rain quite a bit during their vacation. He sighed, and they returned to Alton's office. Marla waited to shut the office door behind him before departing. Katrina turned to observe him from where she sat as he entered the office, and Alton gestured to the empty seat next to Katrina.
As he sat, she smirked at her mate and teased, "Welcome back, trouble-maker."
"Hey, I was just standing there quietly minding my own business," he retorted innocently.
"I'm sure you were," she accepted diplomatically. "But then, you already have quite a track record for that sort of thing."
"Oh sure," he muttered with a roll of his eyes to the ceiling. Geez, how ridiculous. I can't even walk down a hallway without being accosted by vampires.
"I'm just saying," she teased gently. You're so cute when you're perturbed, my love.
He glanced up at her curiously. Sounds a lot like something Paige would say.
Alton curtailed a smile and interrupted the exchange. "Well, what do you think of my little office building?"
"Quite impressive, actually," Caleb complimented. "And far from little."
"I do hope my vampire associates didn't alarm you too badly," the vampire added with a twinkle in his hazel eyes.
"Rather intimidating, under the circumstances," he replied. "But I'm sure they're quite friendly once you get to know them."
The corners of Alton's mouth upturned slightly with amusement, but his eyes narrowed as he stared back at Caleb. "Friendly? Not even on their best days, young man," he admonished mildly. "And Ms. Kendrick?"
"Very cordial and polite," Caleb replied diplomatically and looked into Katrina's eyes appraisingly. "But Kat has more beautiful green eyes."
Her eyes glistened, and she spanned the distance between them in a blur to kiss him on the lips. You know just what to say.
He smiled back at her, even as he jolted slightly from the nearly instantaneous appearance of her face before his.
Alton changed the subject in stride. "Would you permit me to treat you to lunch? Are you hungry?"
Caleb thoughtfully considered his stomach for a moment and shrugged. "Sure, I could eat."
"He can eat, all right," Katrina retorted. "Most anytime, in fact." It was amazing to her how his appetite was almost as resilient as a vampire's constitution.
Caleb cast a withering look at his mate before adopting a solemn expression. "Sounds nice, actually. And it's not like we can really explore the city until dark anyway. I presume you know somewhere close that's daylight-friendly?"
Alton's eyebrows rose. "As a matter of fact, I do."
The restaurant he had in mind was located on the tenth floor of the office building. It was called Shakespeare's and commanded a respectable view of London via the huge windows that extended from the high ceilings to within two feet of the floor. As with the fifteenth floor, the windows appeared to be coated with an ultraviolet-resistant material.
The dining room was nearly half full, the chatter inside presenting a lively atmosphere without seeming noisy. Most patrons wore typical office business attire, and none of them stood out as being vampires upon Caleb's cursory glance, although he readily admitted that he was no expert in identifying vampires on sight.
The pressed white tablecloths were a notable quality of the elegantly decorated dining area. The lighting was bright but not distracting, and the finished wood floors added a sense of warmth to the otherwise polished appearance of the room.
They were promptly approached by a middle-aged man wearing a black suit, who appeared to be the maitre d'. Caleb felt a little underdressed for his surroundings and glanced up at Katrina with an uncomfortable expression, and she did a double-take over the look on his face. He made a subtle gesture with his fingers as he pulled at his shirt slightly, to which she smiled.
"You look fine," she reassured him in a quiet voice before subtly teasing him, "Besides, Americans usually dress notoriously casual when abroad. Britons and Europeans have grown to expect it."
His eyes widened as he glanced up at Alton, who was doing his best to restrain himself from laughing out loud.
"Mr. Rutherford, how nice to see you, sir," the maitre d' greeted crisply.
"And you as well, Mr. Gibbons," Alton replied politely. "I realize we have no reservations, but my friends are just in from America, you see. Could we perhaps encroach upon a table for lunch?"
The man seemed genuinely amused by Alton's query and insisted, "Perish the thought, sir. We always have a table for you."
"Very kind, I assure you," Alton said with a smirk and looked over to Katrina and Caleb with a broad grin.
Katrina's eyebrows rose with amusement, and she cast a brief glance to the ceiling. Oh please. You probably own the place.
"Please, follow me," Gibbons offered and turned to lead the way into the restaurant.
Meanwhile, Caleb was quite impressed and placed his hand in the small of Katrina's back for her to proceed behind Alton. I may be underdressed, but my chivalry is still intact.
The table they were led to was in the corner of the dining room furthest from the front of the restaurant and had a spectacular view of the city from the glass windows that flanked the table. Gibbons held Katrina's seat for her as she sat between Alton and Caleb, her back to the rest of the dining room, thereby allowing her the best view of the city. The table was also comfortably far away from other diners.
Gibbons placed a cloth napkin across Katrina's lap with a flourish and offered menus to each of them. Another waiter appeared seemingly from nowhere to fill their empty water glasses, while a waitress appeared to place fresh-smelling warm bread and small plates on the table.
"Perhaps some wine, sir?" Gibbons suggested to Alton.
"Indeed," the stately vampire agreed. "Bring us the 1900 Bordeaux, please."
Gibbons' eyebrows rose for only a moment, but he nodded. "I'll see to it myself, sir."
Katrina looked at Alton sharply, and even though Caleb was uneducated regarding wines, he realized that something that old must cost a fortune.
"It's a special occasion when friends come to visit," Alton offered simply as he reached for a slice of the warm bread.
Caleb watched the dark-haired vampire smell the bread as if categorizing it and break off a bite to chew it slowly as he looked directly at him. "Try some, it's really quite good," he insisted. "Baked daily, actually."
Katrina's eyes narrowed slightly, but she reached out for a piece of the still-steaming bread and inhaled slightly as she held it before her. A small smile crossed her face.
Caleb selected a slice and smelled it for a longer duration than either vampire, fully appreciating the fresh-baked scent of it. His taste buds watered as he broke off a bite and popped it into his mouth. Another bite quickly followed as the flavors came alive.
Gibbons returned with the wine, uncorked it, and offered the tasting to Alton. After a moment, the vampire nodded with approval, and the maitre d' served Caleb and Katrina. Then, as quickly as he had appeared, Gibbons departed.
Alton savored the scent of the wine for a moment and took a small sip. Katrina did the same, and Caleb waited until last to taste. The flavor was full and rich, yet with a hint of bitterness to it. Caleb silently conceded that he wasn't exactly a connoisseur of fine wine.
"An added benefit of our kind: our senses allow for a fuller appreciation of things in small quantities," Alton prompted Caleb. "I don't miss my human experiences at times such as this," he added as he watched the young man with a degree of amusement.
"Stop teasing him," Katrina admonished mildly.
Caleb frowned as he considered Alton's comment. "And just when was your last human experience?" he asked before taking another small sip of his wine.
Katrina's eyes darted to watch Alton as a sly smile formed on her lips. The stately vampire's eyes narrowed and bored into Caleb's with sudden intensity. He remained both still and silent for a few moments, as if half-studying the young man. Then his face resumed an almost bored-looking expression, and he took a moment to sip his wine.
Alton deliberately waited until Caleb took a drink from his water glass to reply, "Sometime in 1216, actually."
Caleb choked on his water as his mind reeled over the sudden revelation. Katrina's hand instantly patted him on the back, heedless of the risk of someone's noticing as she moved in a blur. She gave Alton a dirty look, as well.
"Eight hundred years ago?" Caleb whispered excitedly as he tried to keep his voice low. His mind was still reeling from the vampire's admission. He'd always anticipated that Alton's age was a little older than Katrina's, but not by nearly twice.
"Ah, but it seems just like yesterday," Alton replied with a grin as he took another sip of his wine. The vampire's disposition darkened somewhat as he stared out across the view of the city, and he amended, "Actually no, it seems like eight hundred years ago, and I still don't miss being human."
"Incredible," Caleb muttered as Katrina rubbed his back lightly with the palm of her hand. "That's nearly a millennium." He struggled to wrap his mind around the concept, not yet having fully reconciled the idea of having a five hundred-year-old mate in Katrina.
"Rubbish," Alton complained. "I'm still a couple of centuries from a millennium yet."
Caleb merely stared across the table at Alton with wide eyes. He averted his gaze to stare out of the window as Gibbons reappeared to take their orders.
Katrina ordered a fruit and herb salad, while Alton ordered a cheese and cracker assortment, claiming to have eaten a late breakfast. Gibbons looked at Caleb, who tried to collect himself enough to think of something to order. However, his memory of the menu suddenly failed him.
Just as Katrina began to speak up, Alton interjected on Caleb's behalf, "The young man mentioned something authentically English. Bring him a Cottage Pie."
"Very good, sir," Gibbons replied and quickly departed.
"Caleb?" Katrina asked softly as she reached out to grasp his hand in hers. "Are you okay, my love?"
Her hand felt soft and warm in his, and he was momentarily jarred from his scattered thoughts. He blinked slowly and looked first into her eyes before turning his attention back to Alton.
"1216?" he asked again with disbelief.
The corner of one side of Alton's mouth rose slightly. "I joined the ranks of our kind the year after the Magna Carta was signed. Henry III rose to the throne of England that year at the age of nine."
Katrina squeezed Caleb's hand in a gesture of support as she studied his features and listened to his heartbeat. She hadn't expected her friend to reveal such information so abruptly to him and wondered what caused him to do so. I'll certainly ask him later.
"It's just so unreal to me," Caleb stammered. "It's like something magical and — and ominous all at the same time. It makes my brief lifetime seem insignificant by comparison. I'm merely a blink in your existence."
Katrina immediately frowned with disapproval, squeezing his hand and fiercely whispering, "Don't you dare think that, Caleb Taylor. You're the most significant and wonderful development that's happened to me in centuries. You made me want to live again."
He was taken aback by Katrina's tone and winced slightly as she squeezed his hand to a nearly painful level. She immediately noted his reaction and cursed under her breath as she released his hand. He pulled it into his lap and massaged it with his other hand as he stared back at her morosely.
"I'm sorry," he apologized in a subdued voice. "I didn't mean –"
"No, my love, I'm the one who's so very sorry. You have every right to your feelings," she insisted. "Please, I didn't mean to hurt you." She reached out to his hand tentatively, and he allowed her to hold it gently between both of hers. She ever so lightly, and with deliberate effort to be careful, massaged his hand for him. She also berated herself for having hurt him, despite its being an accident. Even after so many years, she occasionally neglected to consider how easily humans could be injured by her kind, even inadvertently.
Alton viewed the exchange silently, but with a hopeful expression. "I've never seen a human and a vampire matched so perfectly before," he whispered with an uncommon tone of reverence. "You're an anomaly, Caleb, and not just for Katrina either."
Caleb regarded Alton curiously.
The vampire read his expression and body language and explained in a subdued tone, "Human mates are actually as common as vampire mates for our kind. However, very few human-vampire pairings are successful for long periods without conflict, or the human's being turned into a vampire, or being killed. And yet you and Katrina have been through more challenges and potential relationship pitfalls than any previous pairing that I've ever heard of, and you're still together. No, not just together, truly devoted to each other. That surprises me, to be brutally honest."
Katrina's eyes darted to her former mentor and narrowed dangerously.
But Alton continued unabated by the warning signal. "And then there's you specifically, Caleb: successfully paired with a vampire mate and supplemented by a vampire surrogate. I would say two guardians, but Devon Archibald is only temporary by agreement. That's never happened to my knowledge, and I know a lot about vampire culture."
"And?" Caleb beckoned. He wanted to know more and gain additional insight into the scenarios placed before him.
"And," Alton answered with an uncustomary blank expression as his hazel eyes bored into Caleb's directly, "I can't wait to see what happens next. Though very little would surprise me. Or would it?"
Caleb shivered slightly from the distant and empty expression in Alton's eyes, and he deliberately averted his gaze to stare out the window upon the expanse of city before them.
Further discussion was interrupted by the arrival of their meal. Alton deliberately lightened the mood by discussing the various points of interest that Caleb and Katrina needed to visit while in London. He offered the services of two of his human staff to escort Caleb through the city during the day, so he could take advantage of some locations that either weren't open at night or didn't offer viable vantage to human eyes in darkness. Katrina considered the merits of the idea, and while it saddened her that she couldn't experience some things with her mate, she nevertheless wanted him to see as much as possible on their visit.
Caleb enjoyed the conversation, as well as the meal. His cottage pie was comprised of minced beef and vegetables topped with mashed potato, and he found it both delicious and filling. Alton assured him that it was a traditional entree that he had frequently eaten as a human, though he offered few additional details regarding his human lifetime.
"The shepherd's pie was excellent," Caleb offered with satisfaction as he ate the last bite on his plate.
"Cottage pie," Alton clarified.
"Isn't it pretty close to the same thing?" he asked.
"Cottage pie is made with beef," Alton explained in a practiced manner. "Shepherd's pie is made with mutton."
"Oh," he muttered, filing the information away. "Either way, very tasty."
"Just like you, my love," Katrina offered with a sly smile. Very tasty, she silently added as she contemplated time back at the hotel with him. And sexy, she amended, considering additional options for their quality time together.
Caleb yawned after finishing his second glass of wine, though both vampires seemed completely awake and unaffected.
"Tired, my love?" Katrina asked.
He nodded and stifled another yawn. Geez, I could fall asleep on the floor right now.
"It's probably the wine coupled with a full stomach and jet lag," Alton suggested.
"Speaking of wine," Katrina prompted. "How did you know there was a 1900 Bordeaux available?"
Alton smiled brightly. "Oh, didn't I mention? I own the restaurant."
She rolled her eyes and muttered, "It figures." Thought so. Then she humorously contemplated Caleb's weariness and whether she would have to carry her sleepy mate back to the hotel room or not. In the end, he managed to walk out using sheer willpower, and she couldn't help but smile at him endearingly as she wrapped her arm around his slim waist protectively.
Okay, sleep, then sex, followed by "tasting Caleb," she determined while following up on a previous train of thought.READ MORE >>