Hello everyone!! As a reward for hitting 1,000k fans in my Facebook group Realms of Love, I am sharing the first chapter of Mastering the Flames, BHS #4. I share all of my progress in my Facebook group, and here is the link if you’d like to join us! <3 SJ Himes’ Realms of Love
This is UNEDITED, so no despairing of the few errors scattered throughout. The entire book is still in the rough draft stage.
Add the book here on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42974635-mastering-the-flames
Mastering the Flames
Copyright© SJ Himes 2018
All rights reserved.
“Sign here and here,” Nadine Masters said, pointing with a perfectly manicured nail to the dotted lines on the numerous pages stacked in front of him. He didn’t even bother reading his discharge papers.
His time at Nevermore Rehabilitation Clinic had been…eventful, and anything but what he expected. In his thirty days at the very expensive rehab clinic, Isaac had been more stressed out by everything happening outside the clinic rather than in it. Well, for one notable exception, but Angel’s antics for the first week of his stay still took the overall prize for stressful circumstances. He did his best not to think about the weekend of hell that followed the successful rousting of the Council from Boston by his brother’s hand. Those few days would trigger a panic attack and a short walk back to his comfy bed in his room here at the clinic.
Isaac felt like he was leaving vacation to go home. Well, sort of, if vacation came with doctors and group therapy and one-on-one sessions with a super-hot doctor and physical therapy and several nightmarish days of withdrawal bound to a gurney screaming his head off.
Nadine swooped down on the papers and bundled them over to her filing cabinet, which she opened with a key. She pulled out the very familiar sight of his file, tucked the papers inside, and came back with a single sheet of paper.
She handed it to him. It was a simple print out with his outpatient appointments with his therapist, Dr. M. Visits once a week for the next six weeks. Dates and addresses and times. All on a subtly designed paper that didn’t give away the fact it was a rehab outpatient clinic instead of any old doctor’s office. He appreciated the courtesy, though he didn’t really care if strangers knew he was an alcoholic. Everyone he cared about knew where he’d been the last thirty days.
Nadine opened her desk, and pulled out Isaac’s wallet, smartphone, and keys. “I charged your phone for you.”
“Oh, hey, thanks,” Isaac muttered, taking his stuff back. It all felt odd in his hands, like they weren’t his. He put in all in his pants pockets, the weight odd there too.
“Now, Isaac, you have five more minutes until your time with us is over, and I want to say before you leave that, at any time, for any reason, if you feel you need to come back, we have a walk in, no questions asked policy for patients and former patients. If you cannot, for any reason, make it back on your own,” she paused, and Isaac knew what she wasn’t saying. If he was too drunk to get back on his own. She continued, “if you can’t get here on your own, call the front desk, tell them your name and location, and a car and driver will be sent for you. The number is on your outpatient schedule. Previous patients have found it helpful to add it to the favorite contacts lists in their phones. Do you understand everything I’ve mentioned?”
“I do,” Isaac stood, and folded the single sheet of paper and put it in his wallet. He tucked his stuff into his pockets and swung his duffle bag over his shoulder. He looked at the door of her office that went out to the foyer and then freedom. “I do understand. And thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I am so glad Nevermore was able to help you on your journey to recovery,” Nadine smiled at him, Isaac reflexively smiling in return, and she gestured to the door. He followed behind her, into the foyer.
It was empty, thankfully. She went with him to the front doors of the clinic, and Isaac stopped. He curled his free hand into a fist, and looked at the bright moon through the glass, spring in full swing, the stars bright overhead. “Isaac?”
Nadine stood at his elbow, compassion in her smile and eyes. “Isaac, if you want, we can turn right back around, go back to your room, and there will be no shame in it, or judgment. I told you when you came on your very first day, that if you needed or wanted to stay another thirty days, you would be welcome.”
“Yeah, I know.” Isaac shifted on his feet, antsy. His heart beat hard, once, twice, before easing back to normal. Adrenaline spikes. “I just…I just need a minute. I’ll be fine.”
“That’s more than acceptable. If you want to stay, I’ll be in my office. Just poke your head in and wave, then head back to your room.”
“I’m just gonna take a second. I’ll be fine,” he said again, trying to sound like he meant it. He did. Maybe. He wasn’t sure.
Nadine gave him a small smile and then left, returning to her office.
Voluntarily admitted for alcohol abuse and crippling, unresolved grief, depression and overwhelming guilt he wasn’t equipped to manage on his own, Isaac arrived at Nevermore a mess. Thirty days. It didn’t feel like enough time to learn how to live without falling back on bad habits, but how was he supposed to know if he could live a normal life unless he went out and tried?
Hands damp, and he ran them down his shirt, brain trying to reconcile his previous thinner frame with his new muscle mass. Gaining ten pounds was nothing when he’d been too skinny to begin with, but it was muscle. Ribs no longer visible, abs defined more than they’d been when he was a teenager, he looked all right. He took advantage of the clinic gym and pool, gaining more definition and muscle mass. He looked the same, but weighed more than when he went in. The staff nutritionist called it healthy weight gain.
Healthy. The word sounded odd, like it didn’t fit, like his wallet and phone and keys felt like they weren’t his. Being healthy was new, and he had no idea how to fit the concept to his skin, how to live inside that state.
The parking lot was visible through the front doors. A limo idled out front, the parking lights on, the passengers waiting. There was no way they couldn’t see him, standing there like an idiot. Isaac frowned, and fed up with himself, took a step forward.
He pushed out the doors, leaving the protection and care of Nevermore for the first time in a whole month. The night air was cool, crickets singing, the sky full of stars and a nearly full moon. He stood on the top step, breathing, and tried to remember how to use his legs.
The limo door closest to him opened. A slim man stepped out, dark brown hair longer than the last time Isaac saw it, blond tips grown out and trimmed away. Brown-green eyes set in their father’s face gazed back at him, part questioning, part patience, and Isaac grinned.
“Can’t I have a mental crisis without you getting impatient?” Isaac called to his older brother. Angel snorted, rolling his eyes.
“C’mon kid. I want to go home. I ordered pizza and it should be there by the time we get back.” Angel tilted his head in the direction of the limo, eyes questioning, but he said nothing more, as if aware of how Isaac was feeling. Angel probably did know how Isaac was feeling—his older brother was annoyingly good at reading people.
Angel was cranky and sarcastic, along with protective, bossy, caring, and supportive. When he remembered to be, at least. Mostly cranky, and fond of staying in at night and relaxing with his mate. Isaac realized, despite the many visits to the clinic, he missed his brother more than he thought he would, and a small ache that lived under his ribs since he entered Nevermore eased.
Isaac went down the steps, and the hesitancy to leave Nevermore faded with each step. He wanted his own bed, his clothes, his stuff. He wanted to listen to Angel tease Daniel about his crush, fend off Eroch and his machinations for bacon, and hear the reassuring rumble of Simeon’s sexy Irish accent.
Isaac wanted a lot of things, many of them simple things he now appreciated. One thing was beyond him though, and it pained him more than he knew how to bear.
He wanted to be himself. If only he knew who that was.
From the penthouse of the Tower, Boston glimmered, stretching out to the west. Behind him, the view of the ocean was unmatched, the Atlantic a murky dark blue and gray, the harbor lights bouncing off the swells and the few vessels out on the water. Spring nights in Boston were chilly, especially with the wind coming in from the cape.
He didn’t mind the cold wind or the damp that clung to everything. It no longer bothered him and hadn’t for thousands of years. He enjoyed the sensations more than anything.
Constantine Batiste was older than the city in which he now lived, older than the country he called home for two hundred years. When he came to these shores, transportation was done by wind and oars and sails, and had been fraught with peril, even on a ship he owned, manned by loyal blood servants and fledglings. Safely ashore after months at sea, he spent the next few years establishing safe holds for his bloodclan and people.
Aside from the invaluable help and support of his First Elder, Simeon, he did it all alone. It never bothered him before, bearing the burden of leadership, because he never wanted for companionship.
Until now. That epiphany left him uneasy, and uncertain of how to proceed.
Constans, my heart. You will never be alone surrounded by your people. The whisper rose from the depths of his mind, faded by millennia and his rebirth as one of the undead. His mother’s voice cut him to the core, but the hurt was soothing now, a promise he would never lose her, even with her bones reduced to ash and the lands of his father lost to time.
Once, long ago, when his heart still beat, and sunlight bronzed his flesh, he gazed out over a wine-dark sea. Then the sun-washed stone of battlements shone white as bone, the waves a murmur underneath his feet. Massalia, city of his birth, and so dissimilar in appearance yet hauntingly reminiscent of the city in which he now lived. Dozens of tongues spoken by as many ethnicities, evolved through the millennia, but holding true to the languages that birthed them in the dawning of the ancient world mixed with scents of foods once cooked over wood fires, baked in clay ovens, and now handed out from food truck vendors on street corners. So much the same, yet different. The taste of ocean air might be poisoned by ozone and harsh chemicals, but the rhythm of the sea was a familiar cadence.
Constantine turned his back on the windows and returned to his desk, the small lamp over the blotter illuminating the personal profiles of the more powerful of his children. He was the oldest vampire in the city, but several bloodclan members were very old, a few of them approaching a millennium. His bloodclan was large, over seven hundred strong, including human donors, non-donor employees, and contractors. New England, and especially Massachusetts, was heavily populated by practitioners, and no place more so than Boston. It meant that vampire bloodclans avoided the Northeast, since the magic that laced practitioner veins and the blood of their close relatives was poisonous to the sentient undead. It made for interesting food supply difficulties, but he found a workaround. He’d had to—he had hundreds of vampires depending on him for safety and prosperity. It was that prosperity that was threatened now.
His former Elder, William Bridgerton, a month dead and gone now, killed by his Champion and First Elder, Simeon, had left his own people and financial affairs in disarray. Simeon, instead of claiming Bridgerton’s assets and people, gave them to Constantine, which he appreciated, but regretted the annoyance it brought. It was apparent after digging through Bridgerton’s financials that the man was an idiot who spent money as fast as he made it and died when he had less than reputed to hold, which explained his willingness to align with the High Council and betray the bloodclan. The High Council had a well-known, extended history of paying bloodclans for cooperation in Europe.
A soft knock at the penthouse door interrupted his musings. He spoke quietly, but the guards across the penthouse would hear him—it was night, so they were his children, the mortal guards off their shift. “Let her in.”
He sat in his massive antique chair and removed the files but for one into a drawer on the right side of the desk. He shut the drawer just as Ellora Sumar, the highest-ranking member of Bridgerton’s now defunct house, appeared at the door to his office.
She was slim, muscles defined, and her complexion a deep, dark brown, luminous even in the shadows. Faint scars were visible on her shoulders and upper arms, highlighted by a sleeveless red blouse that clung to her torso. She wore gray slacks with a subtle flare that highlighted her trim physique and black leather ankle boots. Black, natural hair trimmed to inch-long, tight curls highlighted her sharp cheekbones and startling bright eyes. They were a dark green, but they caught the light in shades of gold, and her lips were a lighter blush, her smile white, her fangs petite but deadly. She was stunning, elegant, and powerful, and her strength even more admirable due to the quality of man she followed since her rebirth as a sentient undead. Ellora was over three hundred years old. When mortal, she was kidnapped as a small child from the shores of Western Africa by slavers and bought to the New World in chains.
While Bridgerton had been many things in his long life, and a supremely horrid man with dubious character, one thing he had not abided was slavery. The former pirate liberated the slave ship that bore kidnapped children and took in Ellora. According to the research compiled, Bridgerton made her a vampire in the twentieth year of her human life, and she’d been with him since. Her birth name was lost to time and the brutal erasure of her culture by colonization and slavery, but she chose the name she went by now, and it was the one Constantine would use.
“Ellora Sumar,” Constantine gestured to the chair opposite his, smaller and simpler than the monstrosity upon which he sat. Simeon fondly called Constantine’s chair a petty king’s throne, and he wondered again if his most trusted child knew more about Constantine’s past than he’d shared.
Ellora nodded graciously and sat in the chair, leaning back and crossing her legs, hands in her lap, expression expectant and composed. “My Lord Batiste, I am honored. How may I serve you tonight?”
Her voice was pleasant, a faintly-accented alto that bore hints of British and American Southern influences from pre-American Revolution years. She learned English in the height of piracy along the southern American colonies and in the Caribbean, and she retained that inflection from her mortal years. Most vampires turned prior to the early 1900s kept their accents—human prejudice rose to new heights in the years following the two great wars in the early half of the previous century, and many humans turned during that time of upheaval attempted to hide who they were as mortals.
Constantine placed a hand on her folder, and her eyes flicked to it for a second before she met his again. “The information my people have gathered in the last year or so is extensive, but even modern information gathering techniques fail occasionally, and yet most often, when dealing with the undead. We outlive many lives and reinvent ourselves frequently.” He paused, and Ellora nodded, expression not wary, still polite, nothing leaking past. She had regained her equilibrium since Simeon took her former master’s head. “Is there anything that my people missed, any detail from your past that I should know?”
The fact she did not answer immediately also gave her favor in his eyes, and she took her time thinking. A short moment passed, and she shook her head once, a small gesture that spoke volumes. “No, my master. I hold no allegiances outside this bloodclan. No enemies who wish me dead, old arguments and disagreements long settled or left to die away naturally. I withhold no secrets that may come to haunt this bloodclan and its people, and no ambitions that would put me at odds with your dominion.”
“My favored child, Elder Simeon, killed your sire and master.” Constantine watched her, looking for any hint of how she felt. He saw resignation, and something like regret.
“My sire brought his fate upon himself. Ever since I met him as a child, I knew that one day he would bring about his own end. I do not harbor anger or resentment towards Elder Simeon for slaying my sire. I do not seek vengeance.”
“Do others within his household?” His question caught her by surprise. Her shoulders gave the tiniest of jerks, and she stiffened. Eyes sharp, she met his head on.
“Some are angry, but we all knew Bridgerton well. Those who are bitter are those who were his current favorites at the time of his death, but they are not in any position to cause trouble beyond some grumblings.”
“If they do cause trouble for my bloodclan? What would you do?” Trouble was inevitable. Especially for beings who had nothing but time in which to cause strife.
“I would stop them, by any means necessary.” She did not hesitant nor break eye contact.
Instinct told him to believe her, but his recent errors in judgment made him pause, reflect, and do what he had rarely done before—let another decide.
Constantine picked up the file and stood. Ellora blinked, caught off guard, but she stood as well. He handed it to her across the desk, and she took it without opening it. “Master?”
“Elder Simeon is expecting you downstairs in the security center. Report to him now, and he will explain further.”
Ellora tilted her head, curious, but she withheld the questions he could see she wanted to ask. She nodded, a slight bow, and backed away a few steps before turning and leaving on silent tread.
Master he may be, but Constantine let arrogance and complacency cloud his judgment. He would no longer make such mistakes again. There was one person in this world he trusted above all others, and Simeon would be a guard against the machinations of those who would bring harm to the clan until he found his footing again. Confidence shaken, trust betrayed, enemy plots seen too late or not at all, Constantine would not appoint another Elder, despite the expectations of the oldest amongst his clan and the traditions of his people.
Simeon was enough for now, and the new legates he was grooming from the ranks would take some of the burden of being the sole Elder from his shoulders.
He slipped his hands into the pockets of his trousers, listening to her leave the penthouse. The elevator hummed, retreating downward beyond his senses. Minutes passed, and the penthouse was quiet, empty. He was alone. Constantine turned off the small desk lamp and walked to the north side of the penthouse, the walls nothing but thick, spell-treated glass. The treatments made it safe for him in daylight, but dulled the light, and the view was diminished. North of the Tower, the city fell away to suburbs, historical districts, the river, and further on, farther than he could see through the glass, the city of Revere.
Nevermore Rehabilitation Clinic, where Isaac Salvatore had spent the last month. More times than he was comfortable admitting, he had come to this vantage point, and thought back to the taste of a mortal practitioner’s kisses. One he took without permission, and the shame of it stung his honor, even now, after abasing himself at Isaac’s feet. The other, a press of lips to skin, senses full of Isaac’s taste, his scent, the heat of his body.
His smartphone vibrated in his pocket, and he pulled it out, opening the message. If his heart beat it would have leapt at the words in the text.
Isaac Salvatore has left Nevermore.