Max Howell tossed ten M&Ms on the pile in the middle of the kitchen table. “See your five and raise you five, Caesar.” The vampire master’s left eyebrow twitched, but he said nothing. Max turned and watched the players on his other side.
Duncan held up his cards to consult with his partner sitting in his lap. “What do you think, Ellie?”
Max tried not to smile at his daughter’s serious expression while she examined her uncle’s hand. She’d inherited the St. James blue-black hair, but somehow ended up with the Howell blue eyes.
“Hey, that’s cheating!” Alex said. His protest emphasized the Texas accent he’d kept for over a century and a half.
“You had the opportunity to obtain your own partner, Stanton.” Caesar smiled over the top of his cards.
“At least Phillippa plays poker,” Colin grumbled. “You should have heard the lecture I got about gambling.” The last scion of the famed Fitzgerald political family scowled at his own hand.
“Auntie Anne is right. You’re not very good at poker, Uncle Colin,” Ellie’s sweet voice piped in. She tossed twenty brown M&Ms on the pile. “Raise you by another ten, Daddy.” She popped a blue one from her prodigious pile into her mouth.
Colin glared at her in mock outrage. “Did you talk Duncan into reading my mind? Because that cheating, too.”
“Dude,” Jake Wong drawled. “In case you hadn’t noticed, two mere Normals are kicking your supernatural ass, and one of them isn’t even in kindergarten yet.” He tossed the requisite number of M&M’s into the kitty.
Max checked his two cards again. Did the four vampires realize how obvious their tells were? Only the really crappy hands he’d drawn had kept his pile from being as big as Jake’s or Ellie’s.
Alex pushed his cards aside. “Too rich for me.”
After a bit of grumbling, Colin folded as well.
“I’m out.” Caesar laid down his hand.
Max made a show of checking his cards again. He’d played with Jake long enough to know his sister’s ex was bluffing. However, his sister’s husband couldn’t bluff to save his life even with Ellie as his partner. “I match your bet and raise you another five.” He added more candy to the growing pile.
Sure enough, Duncan whispered into Ellie’s ear, and she tossed the necessary amount of M&M’s into the kitty. “Raise you ten, Daddy.”
Jake tossed his cards face down on the table. “Mazel tov, kid. Maybe your mom and dad will let you come to Vegas with me next weekend.” He winked at Ellie.
“Can I, Daddy?” She bounced in her excitement. “Uncle Duncan and Aunt Sam will let us stay with them.” She batted her big blue eyes at her poker partner. “Won’t you, Uncle Duncan?”
“Of course, you may visit.” He glared at Jake. “But you need to ask your mother first.” Silently, Duncan mouthed over Ellie’s head, “And you are not taking her on the casino floor, Wong.”
That didn’t mean Duncan wouldn’t set up a private room for Ellie with staff to play with her. Hopefully, her presence would get Sam to...
Max clenched his jaw at the disturbing thoughts. To what? Relax? Rejoin the human race?
Except his baby sister wasn’t human. Not any more. And she’d become obsessed with hunting down the rest of the saurian demons who’d managed to escape the Battle of Tuttle Creek last year. Even Duncan had admitted Ellie was the only thing linking Sam to the mortal plane these days.
Max stared at the flimsy cardboard in his hand. Duncan would totally lose it if Sam simply didn’t come home from one of her hunting trips one day.
Max realized with a start Ellie had been calling him more than once. “Sorry, sweetie. Just thinking about what I should do.” He tossed his matching bet on the pile. “I call.”
Ellie squealed in glee. “Three kings!” She laid down her cards.
Max smiled. He may not be able to save his sister, but he could damn well make his daughter happy. He laid his full house face down. “You win, sweetie.”
She clapped her hands. “Another hand.”
“No. I said this was the last one for tonight.” At her pout, he added, “But we can play more this weekend when we go visit Duncan and Sam.” Tiffany wouldn’t argue too much about a father-daughter weekend road trip. With the class load she was taking, she needed some serious study time.
“Can Uncle Jake come, too?”
Max hesitated for a moment. Jake and Sam’s ancient engagement was a sore point with Duncan even though Sam was long over the stunt man turned enforcer.
“Yes, he may,” Duncan said.
“Yay!” Ellie jumped off his lap and ran around the table, singing, “We’re goin’ to Vegas!”
Max rose and stretched, only to have Jake grab his arm and pull him into the foyer of Caesar’s mansion.
“You sure this is a good idea?” Jake’s brown eyes reflected Max’s concern. “I was joking about Vegas. I won’t come if it’ll cause problems.”
Max glanced at the vampires, who were studiously ignoring him and Jake. He knew damn well they could hear everything they said, but he was grateful they kept Ellie entertained while they cleared drinks and snacks so he and Jake could talk.
“Actually, yeah, it would be good if you came. Nothing against Duncan—”
“I am glad to know you bear me no ill will.”
Max jerked and glared up at his brother-in-law. How could someone with his bulk and height sneak up on anyone? “I really need to put a bell on you.”
Duncan’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. He turned his attention to Jake. “You are most definitely welcome to visit the Karnak. I think it would do Samantha some good.”
A sick feeling filled Max’s gut. Duncan wanting Jake at the hotel/casino he ran said volumes. “Are things getting worse?”
“Define ‘worse’.” Duncan grimaced.
“She’s been coming home, hasn’t she?”
“It is not the coming home that disturbs me.”
Alex joined them. “My father-in-law isn’t trying to put the moves on her again, is he?”
Max leaned around the men to check on Ellie. Caesar galloped down the main hallway of his mansion with her on his back. Max shook his head. If he filmed the vampire master, and former prince of Egypt, playing horsey with his daughter, he could make a mint. He just wouldn’t live long enough to enjoy it.
“No, she has made her wishes in the matter quite clear to Ares. We have not had any more issues with unwanted suitors.” Duncan looked perplexed. “She has taken to playing bridge with some of the goddesses when she’s home.”
Max took off his glasses and cleaned them on the hem of his polo shirt to cover his own unease. He’d met some of Sam’s new friends, all of them death deities from various world religions. It was creepy as hell, but what could he say when Sam was one of them? “She’s not ignoring the baby zombies, is she?”
Duncan shook his head. “No, and please stop calling them ‘baby zombies’. They are restored humans, and they have been for nearly five years now.” Lines creased the alabaster skin of his forehead. “Frankly, they are doing better than she. And they are worried about her obsession with the Old Ones’ acolytes as well.”
Max put his glasses back on and rocked on his heels. “Guess we’re coming out to Vegas this weekend.”
* * *
As Max had figured, Ellie was out cold by the time they pulled into their Tarzana ranch house’s driveway. When he lifted her out of her safety seat, her little arms automatically wrapped around his neck and baby snores filled his ear.
The living room lights weren’t on. That was odd. Was Tiffany still at the university?
No, it wasn’t just the main lights. Even the little antique lamp Grandma Neel had sent them as a wedding present was out, and he was pretty sure he’d turned it on before he and Ellie left for Caesar’s this evening.
Crap. One burnt out bulb meant tripping over whatever toys Ellie left scattered in the living room. He really didn’t want set her down on the couch. If he did, she’d be wide awake, hyper about the trip to Las Vegas. Then he’d get an earful from Tiffany for allowing their daughter to stay up so late.
Maybe if he shuffled along the carpet, he’d be okay.
Max twisted the key and nudged the front door open. The hairs on the back of his neck rose before he consciously recognized the scent of sandalwood.
Vampire. Fresh vampire. Except it had been two weeks since the last time Duncan had dropped by, much less any of the rest of Augustine Coven.
The odor was followed by the equally distinctive scent of unwashed human.
Max pivoted back toward his Volvo, but something grabbed him from behind at the same time his daughter was ripped from his arms.
Pain exploded at the back of his head. He couldn’t make his arms work. The second punch landed on the side of his face and sent his glasses flying.
He struck out blindly in the direction of his daughter’s terrified shriek. There was a muffled grunt before a blow to his back drove him to his knees.
Her screams grew fainter. Someone was taking her away. He lashed out, but fists pounded him, boots kicked him until he couldn’t take a breath. A sharp crack and his jaw broke along with a couple of teeth. More bones broke until all he felt was agony.
But it didn’t match the agony in his heart. Someone took his daughter.
A voice whispered through his mind. Your daughter is ours. Make sure you remember that when your world burns.
The fire in Max’s brain consumed him until everything he’d ever been burned to ash.