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Paper Apology

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Kit Marlowe, one of the few hundred vampires in the world who had enough power to qualify as a first-level master, wasn’t afraid. He just didn’t want to ruin his suit. Not that a fistfight was a reasonable reaction to a gift, but the woman it was for had a knack for losing her reason.

Kit smiled grimly at the package he’d brought. With his luck, even if she didn’t take offense at his knowledge of what she liked, her boyfriend or housemate would.

Ah, well. One of them needed to make the first move towards ending the antagonism between them. She wouldn’t do it—not that he could blame her—so he would. All he could do was open a dialogue. How she responded would be her affair.

And maybe he’d get a chance to set a few more bugs and learn some more snippets about the Blue Elves and Dark Fey who somehow shared living space in this small disaster of a house before they destroyed his surveillance again.

Kit got out of the car, pointedly ignoring his current driver—Philip had been with him long enough to know that meant to stay put—and headed for the front door.

Before he even reached it, the tall, green-eyed redhead who owned the property greeted him with a glare, her fey blood giving her more speed than a pure human could ever have without dying. “No!” Claire snarled. “She’s healing!”

What the hell? She hadn’t been hurt that badly in France. “It’s been three days!”

He dodged a swipe from an arm had suddenly turned purple, scaled, and taloned—and just the arm. Was that half-form ability because she was only half dragon, or could all dragons do it?

“I’m not here for a job!” he snapped, as exasperated by the assumption as he was by the reminder of his ignorance about these allies. Dory got results but was hell to work with. This house and the fey who lived in it were worse—more antagonistic political disasters waiting to happen than dubiously sane bad luck charms—so why the hell would he have come if he could have called?

Claire reared up—and a small hand grabbed her arm.

“Don’t,” said a voice he knew, but…not at so low of a register, and definitely not with that sultriness.

Kit stared at the woman he was here to see as she glanced him over. Her short dark hair had a faded blue streak, and the black-on-black ensemble of shirt and trousers and boots held a few knives and possibly a gun. That was normal.

The neutrality in her dark eyes wasn’t, and that froze him like her anger never did.

But then, this wasn’t Dory.

For Dorina Basarab was a dhampir, half human and half vampire, and he only knew the human half.

This was Dorina, the vampire half, and it was blatant in everything from her voice through her body language. Her father spoke as if they were one person, split into two personalities that were reintegrating. Legally speaking, she was two consciouses sharing a body—ostensibly for political reasons, since that meant she was therefore eligible to be on a vampire senate, but maybe… Maybe it wasn’t just politics.

She held a pencil, of all things.

Dorina followed his glance to it, then pivoted about and entered the house.

Claire watched after her, then scowled at him. “I’ve kicked you out before, and I’ll do it again.”

“Don’t,” Dorina repeated.

“You don’t like him either, Dory!” Claire snapped.

Kit tensed. She knew the dhampir a lot better than he did. How did she not see the difference? How did she not hear it? Dory would’ve even quipped something, by now.

Dorina looked over her shoulder back at them, eyes tightening a little, and her brow furrowed as she carefully said, “Let him in.”

Claire sighed. “Fine. Just let me know if you want some help.”

That got him in the door, at least. Now to see how reasonable a certain dhampir’s vampire half was. Her willingness to ignore the insult from Claire was…promising, if depressing in its implications.

At least she wasn’t blaming him for whatever she was healing from.

He followed her through the house, wending past the myriad trolls who lived here (and who somehow got along with the elves in the backyard, despite them being of two completely different fey courts that tended to war with each other), up the stairs into an empty room.

Because it was her bedroom, he realized belatedly, stopping cold on the threshold. The few sets of shirts and trousers crumpled on the floor were the black she always wore.

He suddenly realized that he’d only ever seen her wear other things when making do with what was handed to her or what was on hand. The way she fretted about work—and the payment for it—suddenly made a lot more sense.

Her family should’ve been helping her more than this.

Apparently oblivious to the wrongness of the situation, Dorina sat on the bed, facing him, and focused on a drawn-on paper that was on the bedside table. A slight swipe of pencil added a curve.

He stared at the design for a gown, flowing and shaped with wide ribbon…and detachable? That looked as if it was made to come apart, with a suitable-for-combat bodice and leggings forming the foundation, so the garrote-ready sash was probably on purpose.

Her father dressed impeccably to a degree that should have been impossible, but Dory’s idea of ‘appropriate attire’ focused more on functionality than fashionability. She had the artist’s eye but applied it tactically.

Maybe because she had to prioritize weapons over wardrobe.

Even so, Dory didn’t wear things like this design, though he suspected she’d appreciate it. She’d recently admitted to outright throwing out what few dresses she had because one tripped her up and nearly got her killed, and maybe the detaching thing would prevent that.

He looked back at Dorina. She glanced up at him, and something he couldn’t read flickered in her gaze.

Seconds ticked by. She kept at her drawing.

Kit swallowed and held out his offering. “I…”

How did this work, exactly? Claire didn’t recognize Dorina, so maybe she didn’t want to announce that she was the one awake.

He lowered his volume and discreetly asked, “Is she…?” Aware? Present? He couldn’t think of a good way to finish that question about Dory. Not without risking the fey overhearing, and not without dropping into the vampire mind speech that would be rude to initiate. She had the capability to communicate that way, but that didn’t mean she knew how or was willing to.

Dorina’s gaze flicked to him. “Asleep.”

Thank God. Dory would take his current location out of his hide, otherwise. Of course, her boyfriend still might.

She didn’t get up, forcing him to enter the bedroom further to be able to hand over his gift. Hopefully Louis-Cesaré wouldn’t visit until after the scent dissipated.

She opened the package enough to see the oil paints inside, then set it aside and returned to her sketch. “Good choice.”

At least she can talk.

He winced at the thought and clearly formed I didn’t mean that in case she was eavesdropping. “Thanks.”

Come to think of it, if Dory was asleep right now, how would she know who had given the gift?

But there was nothing he could do for that. All he could do was try.

She picked up her drawing, eyed it critically, and nodded with a small smile.

And then crumpled it up.

“What?!”

Dorina glanced at the open door behind him, eyes flickering gold as she briefly called up her power—checking for eavesdroppers—then looked at him. “She doesn’t draw.” She rolled the paper in her hands, further mucking it. “Not like this.”

So Dorina was hiding it, like how she was hiding that Dory was asleep, right now.

For Dory’s sake.

Kit swallowed. According to his sources, Louis-Cesaré kept buying her frilly French things that even Dory disliked, despite asking her preferences and claiming to respect her and his weird code of honor that made Kit wonder how the hell the man had survived his centuries as a vampire that naïve.

What was so respectful and honorable about insisting on giving someone things you knew they’d hate? And how did Dory not see that?

Her blindness had been a lot more understandable when he’d thought her a homicidal asshole smart enough to take advantage of others’ assumptions. Her late uncle, commonly known as Dracula, had been the same. But now that he knew otherwise…

There was no good reason for her to accept it as reasonable. Just bad ones, and—

Kit hissed in a breath and held it. Dory wouldn’t mind a good fight to let off steam, but he wasn’t dealing with Dory, right now.

Dorina studied him curiously.

“I’m frustrated with your family, not you,” he snapped, plucking the crumpled-up drawing from her hand. “I’ll take care of it.”

What did she usually do with them, burn them in the elves’ bonfire out back? Destroying all that work, work she obviously enjoyed, just to hide. His stomach twisted.

Dorina stared at him.

The surprise at being taken seriously was depressingly familiar, and he stomped on another surge of anger. He’d survived his mother’s ambitions the longest, but it had been the death of him, too, in the end.

He’d been made a vampire by the consul herself, who protected her people—and so did Mircea, which was probably why what he’d done to Dorina upset Kit so much. Mircea had done what he felt he had to, so his daughter would survive, but that had still been cruel to the one locked away.

Maybe that was why Mircea insisted Dorina was just a personality that was going to integrate with Dory, rather than acknowledging her as her own person. The guilt would eat him alive, otherwise.

Kit caught himself hissing again and bit his own tongue. He took a deep breath and indicated the paper. “I think my lady would appreciate this,” he said honestly, because the consul would appreciate knowing Dorina liked drawing. And, apparently, tactical dresses.

Something that he could almost recognize still filled her eyes as she studied him.

“May I take it?” he asked outright, because she deserved some autonomy.

She blinked at him for a second before saying uncertainly, “Yes?”

That wasn’t true agreement. He waited, pointedly, for her to decide.

Heartbeats passed, their gazes locked.

Dorina slowly asked, “You are going somewhere?”

Kit self-consciously straightened his suit, which had been paid for by his righthand man before he’d even seen the bill, so the price must’ve been insane. “I’ll have you know your father’s people helped mine on this one.”

Her father, Mircea Basarab, was the diplomat for the North American vampire senate—and between understaffing and the looming war that threatened earth and all the hells, Kit, the spymaster, was having to help, because even Mircea had limits, and spies could be diplomatic, right?

Right.

(Kit was not a diplomat but could be charming when he had to be, and he would do his damnedest for his mistress. And part of that was getting fashion help from the diplomats.)

“I’m sure,” Dorina murmured, grabbing him by the tie.

He froze, staring at her. Dory isn’t that fast.

“No,” Dorina agreed as she redid the knot. She eyed the results critically, tugged it a bit, then smiled. “Better lines.”

“Lines?” It was still just a tie under his fingers, though he assumed she’d changed something. “Thank you.”

Her gaze flicked to the crumpled-up paper. “Thank you,” she said quietly, and she settled on the bed to go to sleep.

His cue to leave.

He stuck the paper in his pocket, shut the bedroom door behind him, and got the hell out of there before anyone got the wrong idea.