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CHAPTER FOUR

THE PRE-PARTY PLANNING COMMITTEE

"He's the youngest Breckenridge," I told Ethan and Luc, who'd swiveled in his seat to watch me pace the length of Ethan's office and back. "The youngest of four boys." I stopped pacing, stared down at the photograph between my fingers, and tried to recall the math. "Nicholas is three years older. Then Finley, and Michael's the oldest."

"Nicholas is your age?" Ethan asked.

I glanced back at him. "Yes. Twenty-eight."

"And how long did you two see each other?"

I resisted the urge to ask how he knew Nicholas and I had been an item, realizing that Ethan was at least as well connected as my money-hungry father and was equally keen a purveyor of information. I'd wondered if Ethan was my grandfather's secret source. At the very least, his access to information was as deep.

"Nearly two years while we were in high school," I told him.

Nicholas Etherell Arbuckle Breckenridge (and yes, his brothers and mine had tortured him about the name) had been totally dreamy—wavy brown hair, blue eyes, Romeo in our junior production of Shakespeare, editor of the school paper. He was funny, confident, and heir, if you didn't count Michael and Finley, to the fortune that was Breckenridge Industries.

Started by their great-great-great-grandfather, the conglomerate manufactured steel components for the construction industry. That meant the Breckenridges were reported to own a good chunk of the Loop. But while the Breck boys lacked for nothing, they were brought up with a very commonsensical attitude toward their money. Public school, high school jobs, paying their own way through college. After college, Michael and Finley headed for the family business, while Nick skipped B-school and law school for a master's in journalism from Northwestern, followed by a trek across sub-Saharan Africa to study the impact of Western medical relief efforts. When he returned to the States with a Pulitzer to his credit, he joined the New York Times as a bureau reporter.

Jamie, on the other hand, was the family black sheep—although even sheep were productive from a wool-making perspective. From what I'd heard, word having passed from Mrs. Breckenridge to my mother during a meeting of one of their ubiquitous clubs—golf club, book club, cotillion club, travel club, heirloom asparagus club, etc.—

Jamie mooched off his parents, occasionally dabbling in a get-rich-quick scheme, Internet start-up, or "surefire invention," most of which fizzled as quickly as his temporary interest in working. That Ethan and Luc believed it was Jamie, not Nick, who'd taken up the reins of a vampire investigation was a surprise.

I leaned back against the conference table and checked out the picture of Jamie. Tall and brown-haired like his brothers, he had been photographed walking down the street in jeans and a T-shirt, cell phone in his hand. The picture was taken in front of what looked like a neighborhood bar, although I didn't recognize the location. Whatever the setting, the expression on his face was unmistakable—he looked, and this was a first as far as I was aware, determined.

I glanced over at Ethan. "How did he go from slacker to pounding the pavement for the journalistic equivalent of The Jerry Springer Show?"

"Luc," Ethan prompted.

"First of all, was that really such a leap?" Luc asked. He rose from the desk, went to the section of the bookshelves that I knew held a built-in liquor cabinet, and after a nod from

Ethan, poured amber liquid—Scotch, maybe—into a chubby glass. He raised his glass to Ethan, who looked vaguely amused by the gesture, and took a sip.

"We've heard Jamie is feeling some pressure from Mr. Breckenridge about making something of his life," Luc said. "Apparently, Daddy referred to Nicholas as a model of how to flourish outside the family fold, and young Jamie took offense. Our guess is he figured that if big brother could make a living as a journalist, he'd take a stab at it, too."

I frowned. "I guess," I said. "But that really doesn't sound like Jamie. He wanted to outpace Nicholas, so he hired on with a tabloid? And no offense, but to investigate vampires?"

"Not just vampires," Ethan noted, relaxing back into his chair. "Celebrity vampires."

"Or even better, bloodsucking vampires taking advantage of poor defenseless humans."

Luc lowered himself onto the buttery leather couch on the left-hand side of the room and cradled his drink in his hands. "Not the kind of headline we want inked across the city, but exactly the kind of headline that could make a name for young Breckenridge."

"Especially if he's the one to break the second-biggest story since our coming-out—if he gets to spill the beans about the inherent evilness of vampires," Ethan said, rising and making his own trip to the liquor cabinet. But instead of pouring a stash of undoubtedly expensive alcohol, he opened a small refrigerator and pulled out what looked like a juice box. As Ethan was the type to use fine china and silverware to eat a hot dog, I had a feeling it didn't contain juice. Blood4You usually sent its wares in plastic medical bags. I guess it had upgraded to convenience products.

"Not Nicholas with his Pulitzer," he continued, "but Jamie. The youngest Breckenridge, and a man who has little, academically or professionally, to his credit." Having offered his theory, Ethan poked in the plastic straw attached to his "juice" box.

"Cocktail," he said, his tongue flicking the edge of one suddenly extended canine. My heart skipped a disconcerting beat. His eyes stayed emerald green as he sipped, a sign of his ability to control his emotions, his hunger.

Ethan drank the blood in seconds, then crushed the packaging in his hand and threw it into a silver trash can. Apparently refreshed, he slipped his hands into the pockets of his trousers and leaned back against the cabinet. "We won't be popular forever," he said.

"We got lucky with regard to the murders—lucky that most humans were willing to direct their ire toward Celina while embracing the rest of us. The idea of magic, of there being more to the world than meets the eye, remains very attractive to many."

Ethan's expression darkened. "But people fear what they don't understand. We may not be able to avoid that fear forever. And popularity invites criticism, fuels jealousy. It is, for better or worse, human nature." That's when his head lifted, and he looked at me. His eyes sparkled, orbs of emerald green ice, and I knew he was about to make his pitch.

Voice low, grave, he said, "We maintain alliances, Merit, form connections, in order to protect ourselves. To give ourselves what advantages we can—advantages that we need in order to survive, to safeguard ourselves, our Houses." He paused. "You have these connections."

"Shit," I muttered, squeezing my eyes closed, already knowing what he wanted me to do.

"You grew up with the Breckenridges. Your families are friends. You are, for better or worse, part of that world."

I felt my hackles rising, my heart beginning to beat faster. I was already beginning to sweat, and he hadn't even gotten to the meat of it yet. "You know I'm not like them."

He raised a single blond eyebrow. "Not like them? You are them, Merit. You're Joshua and Meredith Merit's daughter, Nicholas Breckenridge's ex-girlfriend. You had your cotillion, your debut. You were introduced to that world."

"Introduced to it, and walked right out of it. I didn't belong there," I reminded him, holding up a finger in protest. "I'm a graduate student. Was one, anyway, before your trip to campus." His face tightened at the comment, but I pushed forward. "I don't waltz. I hate wine and creepy little appetizers. And as you damn well know, I don't care if I'm wearing the latest designer shoes." His expression was still bland, my tantrum being apparently ineffective, so I switched tactics, went for commonsensical strategy. "I don't fit in with them, Ethan, and they know it. They know my parents and I aren't close. The socialites won't give me any information, and they won't help me get closer to Jamie."

Ethan watched me quietly for a minute, then pushed off the bar and walked toward me.

When he was a foot away, he crossed his arms and looked down at me from his six feet and change.

"You are no longer a graduate student. Whoever you were back then, you're different now."

I began to object, but he lifted his brows in warning. New vampire I might be, but I'd sworn two oaths to serve him and the House. More importantly, I'd seen him fight. I was willing to test the boundaries of my obligations, but I knew where the lines were drawn.

And when he spoke, I was reminded why he was head of Cadogan House, why he had been chosen to lead and protect this band of vampires. Whatever personal issues I had with Ethan, he knew how to coach.

"You are not merely his daughter. You are a Cadogan vampire. You are Sentinel of this House. When you walk into a room filled with those people, you will know that you are not one of them—you are more than they are. You are a vampire, of an historic house, in an historic position. You are powerful and well connected, if not because of your father, then because of your grandfather. You are nothing more, and nothing less, Merit, than exactly who you are. The question is not can you do it, but will you choose to do it?"

I lifted my gaze, looked up at him. He arched a single eyebrow, a challenge, and kept talking. "You have accused me of not believing in you. If this story goes to press, and Chicago's vampires are demonized as manipulative predators, we all lose. Who knows what we'll face then—another Clearing? Perhaps not. But registration? Incarceration?

Suspicion and regulation? Undoubtedly. But if you can get close to Jamie, become a source for Jamie, help him see who we really are, or, better yet, convince him to drop the story altogether, then we stand to fare better. If nothing else, we can put off the vitriol for a little while longer. I'm coming to you, Merit, because you have the connections to do this. Because Jamie knew you before, and he'll be able to see that your goodness, your decency are still there, even though you've become one of us."

"Christine has the connections to do this," I noted, recalling one of my fellow Novitiate vampires, who'd taken the Cadogan House oaths on the same night as me. She was the daughter of Chicago attorney Dash Dupree, and while like every Novitiate vampire she'd lost the privilege of using her last name, she was still a Dupree, still a member of that family, which stood in the highest echelon of Chicago society.

"Christine cannot do this. You have the strength to defend yourself. She does not."

Arms still crossed over his chest, Ethan bent over, whispered in my ear. "I can order you to do it, to fulfill the role you accepted when I Commended you into this House, or you can accept the job willingly."

He stood straight again, offered me a look that made clear exactly how much choice I had. He was allowing me the perception of choice, but he was right—I had given my oaths in front of him and Luc and the others to protect the House, even if it meant wearing Dolce & Gabbana and attending society dinners.

Ugh. Society dinners. Prissy people. Uncomfortable shoes. Butlers, and not even the monkey kind. But I said goodbye to my Friday nights, and I sucked it up. "Fine. I'll do it."

"I knew I could count on you. And there is an upside, you know."

I looked back at him, brows lifted in silent question.

"You get to take me with you."

I nearly growled at him, kicking myself mentally for not guessing that was coming. What better way for Ethan to ingratiate his way into Chicago's (human) social scene than to use me as his entry ticket?

"Clever," I commented, giving him a dry look.

"A boy learns a thing or two in four hundred years," he smartly said, then clapped his hands together. "Let's strategize, shall we?"

We convened in the sitting area of Ethan's office over a plate of vegetables and hummus I'd ordered from the kitchen. Ethan turned up his nose at the vegetables, but I was starving, and he found me petulant enough on a full stomach to avoid low-blood-sugar grouchiness. So I munched on celery sticks and carrots as we plotted over a map of Chicago locations believed to host raves. They included a club in Urbana, an expensive suburban home in Schaumburg, and a bar in Lincoln Park. Any spot would do for a bloodletting, apparently.

As we leaned over the spread of information, I wondered aloud, "If you had all this information about the raves, why not stop them?"

"We didn't have all the information," Luc said, flipping through some documents.

"So how do you have it now?" I asked.

The look of mild distaste that pinched Ethan's features gave away the answer. Well, that and the fact that as Luc pored through the scattered documents, he revealed a manila folder that bore a tail of red twine. I could just make out the phrase LEVEL ONE

stamped across the front. Bingo.

"You called the Ombud's office," I concluded. "They had the info on file, or they did the research. That's the stuff I brought you earlier."

Silence. Then, "We did." Ethan's answer was as clipped as his tone. Although he apparently wasn't too proud to beg for information, and despite the fact that he and Catcher were friends (of their peculiar sort), Ethan wasn't a big fan of the Ombud's office. He thought they were tied a little too closely to Mayor Tate, whose position regarding "the vampire problem" was less than clear. Tate had all but refused to talk to the House Masters even after we became public, despite the fact that the city administration had known about our existence for decades.

The Celina fiasco hadn't helped Cadogan-Ombud relations. The Greenwich Presidium didn't recognize Chicago's authority over Celina, no matter how heinous her acts. Since she was a member of the GP, the GP believed she was entitled to certain accommodations, including not serving an eternal sentence in the Cook County jail. It had taken no little diplomacy on my grandfather's part to secure the administration's support for her extradition to Europe. That meant my grandfather, who'd made his own oath to serve and protect Chicago, had been forced to release the vampire who'd tried to have his granddaughter killed. Needless to say, he felt a little conflicted. Ethan, on the other hand, was bound by his loyalties to the GP. Awkwardness, thy name is vampire.

"Whatever the source, Sentinel, we have the information now. Let's use it, shall we?"

I bit back a grin, amused that I'd reverted back to "Sentinel." I was "Merit" when Ethan needed something, "Sentinel" when he was responding to my snark. Admittedly, that was frequently.

"They're going to be suspicious that Merit wants back in," Luc pointed out. "Which means she's going to need a cover story."

"And not just a cover story," Ethan said, "but a cover story that can make it past her father."

We pondered that one silently. As head of Merit Properties, one of the city's biggest real estate management companies, my father was enough of a salesman to know when he was being conned.

"How about a little familial gloating?" Luc finally asked.

Ethan and I both looked at him. "Explain," Ethan ordered.

Luc frowned, scratched absently at his cheek, and relaxed back into the sofa. "Well, I think you laid it out earlier. She's a member of a key Chicago family, and now Sentinel of one of the oldest American Houses. So she plays the youngest daughter making her triumphant return to the society that once scorned her. You start with her father—approach him first. She plays cool, confident, standoffish, like she's finally come into that famed Merit attitude." He clapped, apparently for emphasis. "Boom. The patriarch welcomes her back into the fold."

Ethan opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. "That's an interesting analysis."

"Dynasty reruns have been rolling nonstop on cable," Luc said.

Huh.

That was an interesting bit of information about our guard captain.

Ethan stared at him for a moment before offering, "Pop culture notwithstanding, your plan would require some considerable acting on Merit's part." He slid me an appraising (and none too flattering) glance. "I'm not sure she's equipped."

"Hey." With a chuckle, and without thinking of who he was or the authority he held over me, I punched Ethan lightly on the arm. Fortunately he didn't jump out of his seat and pound me, although he did stare at the spot on his tidy black suit jacket where I'd made contact.

"Look, I know acting isn't exactly my background, but I'm pretty sure I can fake being pretentious." I did have one hell of a teacher. "But I actually have a better idea."

Ethan arched his eyebrows. "We're all ears, Sentinel."

"Robert," I said. "He's our cover story."

Despite our ongoing estrangement, or maybe because of it, my father had approached me a few weeks ago, on the evening of my twenty-eighth birthday no less, to ask that I help my brother Robert, who was poised to take over Merit Properties, make inroads with the city's supernaturally endowed population. I'd declined for a number of reasons, the speed with which Ethan would punish what he imagined to be my pro-human treachery first among them. My dislike for my father, though, ran a real close second.

I'd corrected my father's assumptions about what I "owed" my family in strong enough terms that he would wonder why I was coming back. But if he thought I was willing to help Robert make connections with sups, my guess was that he'd bypass wondering and move right into gloating.

"That's not bad," Ethan said. "And when you secure an audience with your father, which you can work on this evening, you'll be delivering him one hell of a connection."

It was my turn to lift sardonic brows. "And that would be?"

"Me, of course."

Yeah. That was exactly the pretension I was referring to earlier.

Luc looked at me. "You'll want to call the family as soon as you have a chance. Let them know you want to return to the fold. Ask them if there's anything on the social calendar that looks interesting."

"Aye, aye, Captain."

"Well, now that we've arranged a strategy," Ethan said, slapping his knees and rising from his seat, "you're dismissed. Luc, make the arrangements we discussed."

The arrangements they'd discussed? As in, past tense?

"Wait a minute," I said, lifting a finger as Ethan walked back to his desk. "How much of this little plan had you two already decided on before I walked in?"

He offered Luc a thoughtful look. "What, Lucas, all of it?"

"Pretty much," Luc said, nodding.

"Never underestimate the power of staff buy-in," Ethan said, glowing with Gordon Gecko-worthy smugness. I humphed.

Luc, the traitor, grabbed a celery stick from our spread, then rose from the couch, patting my shoulder as he walked past, a gesture that was equal parts camaraderie and condescension. "But thanks for coming to the party, Sentinel. We appreciate you sparing us some of your time."

Ethan's chair squeaking, he situated himself behind his desk, then ran hands through his hair and squinted at his computer monitor.

"If we're done," I said, "I'm going back upstairs."

Luc settled into the chair in front of Ethan's desk while Ethan attended to his e-mail, or whatever business electronically preoccupied him. He poised his fingers above the keyboard, and like a pianist's, they flew across the keys. "Do that, Sentinel. Do that."

Luc munched the end of his celery stick, then waved the stalk of it at me. "Have a great evening, Sunshine."

I left them to their gloating.

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