When I woke up next to Sinclair, I was the most shocked person on earth. Plus, to increase the creep factor, he was lying on his side, head propped up, watching me. His chest was covered with a mat of crisp black hair, and his-

"Jesus!" I sat bolt upright and grabbed myself. I was, thank all the gods that ever were, fully clothed. "Don't do that! What am I doing here on Hell's satin acre?" I started groping my way toward the edge. We were in the middle of his gigantic bed and, I was happy to see, the sheets had been changed. They were the color of the sky on a cloudless day.

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"And good evening to you, too." He watched as I clambered off his bed with all the grace of a laboring hippo, and never moved. "How is it that you weren't burned to a crisp last night?"

"What, you're asking me? How the hell should I know?"

Last night, after our shower, we'd gotten Nick dressed, taken him to his place. Sinclair had pulled his vampire 'you are getting verrrrrrrrrrrry sleepy' thing, and we left Nick dozing. True to my word, we then ventured to Sinclair's lair. Marc and Jessica protested, but not too much...they'd been up all night, and sunrise was right around the corner. Sinclair had promised them I wouldn't come to any harm in his house, and that was good enough for my love-struck pals. I could have left them in the company of starving African lions and they would have been fine with it, as long as Sinclair told them it was okay.

The sun caught up with us as we raced to Sinclair's. I didn't think much of it-hadn't I been sleeping in my bed this whole week, and didn't my room face east? But the others flipped out when I opened my car door.

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"How was I supposed to know you had an underground route to your place?" I grumbled, squinting at myself in the mirror and combing my fingers through my hair. Did my hair grow now? Would I ever need to worry about booking Chantelle at Le Kindest Kut? "I figured sunlight didn't bother you any more than it did me. When Donald stopped the car, I assumed it was time to get out, not time to wait for the entrance to open for the bat-cave."

Sinclair held up his arm. It was an angry red, almost the color of a cooked lobster. When he'd reached out, grabbed me, and pulled me back into the car he'd given himself a hell of a burn. "Obviously, you were mistaken."

I squirmed at the memory. It was really embarrassing. There I'd stood, blinking in the sunlight, and turned slowly at Tina's shriek of dismay. Then Sinclair was reaching for me, his arm coming out of the dark car like a hairy life preserver. "Oh, right," I'd said slowly, stupidly...had I ever been so tired? "The sun, it burns, oh, the agony...oh, cruel rays of zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz."

So embarrassing! "Well," I said, staring at Sinclair's burn. "I'm sorry about that. I didn't mean for you to get hurt. I would have jumped back in the car myself, but it was hard to think. I was so tired."

"And you so almost got me fried alive. How could you not have known this would happen to you?" His tone was equal parts impatience and admiration.

"I didn't know I'd pretty much pass out as soon as dawn hit. I'm usually in bed before the sun comes up. And the next thing I know, poof-I'm wide awake and it's a brand new night."

"This is an excellent time for your lessons to begin."

"Why?"

"Because you promised."

"No, why do you care? Why do you want to teach me Vamp 101?"

"Because," he said simply, standing in one fluid movement (I was relieved to see the navy boxer shorts), "if you are to be an effective queen, you must know the terms of the society you will rule."

"Oh, come on. You don't really believe all that Book of the Dead stuff, do you?"

"If I hadn't before last night, I would have when I saw you standing in sunlight and yawning, instead of doing what an ordinary vampire would have done, which is burst into flames. But first..." He smiled a slow grin that was almost catlike in its insolence. "There's the little matter of what I told you at the diner a few nights ago."

I had a nasty suspicion, but was ready for him. Oh, I was starting to figure out this guy's tricks. I wandered toward the chest of drawers by the window. "What are you talking about?"

He stalked after me. "I told you there would come a time when you needed my help, and I would give it, provided you put something of mine in your mouth." His hands reached for my shoulders and gently turned me to face him. "Lady's choice, of course, but I do hope you'll-what's that?"

"One of your handkerchiefs," I said. I stuffed it into my mouth, chewed, and swallowed. "Where's the bathroom?" I asked thickly. "I'm going to be sick."

He stared at me for a long moment, then started to laugh. He was laughing so hard he could barely point to the bathroom, and I almost didn't make it in time.

"I won't."

"But you must."

"No!"

"Are you so anxious for Nostro to gain ever more power?"

"Why does this have anything to do with me?"

"You know why."

"That's bullshit and you know it!"

"If I knew it," Tina said softly, "would we even now be trying to get you to help us? We've risked ourselves for you, Majesty, many times. You were foretold."

"Enough with that!" I was close to panic. I had thought this would be Vamp 101, but instead it was 'Why Betsy Has To Help Us Overthrow The Most Obnoxious Vampire In Five Centuries.' That's why they were so interested in me. Not just because I was the Queen, but because I was the Queen who brought all the tribes together, who ruled them as one. More book of the dead crap, which Tina had been reading to me all night. It was like going to Bible school in hell.

I knew not feeding with them had been a mistake. It was all very casual...several "friends" lived with Sinclair, women for him and Tina, men for Donald. Any one of them (or any three of them) would have jumped at the chance to be my dinner, but the whole group-meal thing weirded me out. Plus, frankly, sucking blood still weirded me out. When I was doing it things felt mighty fine, but when I wasn't, the ick factor tended to bug me.

Unfortunately, they were mighty impressed when I passed up the chance to feed. Too impressed. Between that and not burning to death this morning, everyone in the house was convinced I was the queen. Except the queen, of course.

"Not only am I not El Vampiro Chosen One, or whatever, but I'm barely a vampire."

"She's got us there," Donald said apologetically. "She really is a terrible vampire. Too dumb to go up in flames in sunlight, and not nearly ruthless enough."

"See? See?"

We were in one of Sinclair's living rooms-he had three that I knew of. It was late-close to midnight. Tina, Donald, and Sinclair had been taking turns explaining how the four of us were going to knock Nostro's block off. I wasn't buying it.

"Look. You guys. I'm a secretary, all right? If you need me to type a bunch of memos calling for Noseo's resignation, I'm your girl. You got a stack of filing you need taken care of before we can kick ass, bring it on. But I'm not a kingmaker. Shit, I'm a little new to the game to be choosing sides and overthrowing tyrants. A week ago I was still installing Netscape Navigator!"

"This pains me as much as it does you, Elizabeth," Sinclair said, picking up his wine glass and taking a distracted sip. "A woman of your erratic temperament would not have been my first choice. More damning, you are young-young when you died, and as a vampire you're a positive infant. But how much more do you need to see to believe?"

I sniffed. No way was it going to be that easy, pal. "Quite a bit more, actually."

He pointed to the book of the dead, which had its own nifty little stand next to the fireplace. I'd been tempted to boot it into the flames more than once this evening. "Our book-our Bible, if you will--tells of a female vampire who will not be burned by the sun, who can control her thirst, who has dominion over beasts, who is still beloved by God-which is why you can wear a cross around your neck."

"Still not buyin' it," I said stubbornly.

"You can do all these things, Elizabeth. And what's more, you are yourself-I don't doubt that the woman before me is much the same as the twit from a month ago. You're vain, you think constantly of your own pleasure, you like your pretty things, you're fond of your creature comforts."

"Oh, you're one to throw that in my face, Satin Boy!"

He remained unruffled, though Donald had to force his laugh into a cough. "You have remained you. This is the most definitive proof that you can think of others-friends and strangers alike-before your own needs. Most vampires would drink from their own grandmother if thirsty enough. Plus, people react to your charisma. Do you really think if Dr. Marc had met just any vampire, he would have allowed her to feed from him, taken a meal with her, then moved into her home and done everything to help her? He instantly wanted to be with you. Your friend Jessica never once was frightened of you-correct? Not only did the book foretell your unique abilities, not only do we vampires know who you truly are, but ordinary people can feel it, too."

"Marc's a nice guy who wanted to hang out with me, is all," I said defensively. "And Jessica's like a sister to me-of course she wouldn't be scared." But even as I said it, it didn't ring true. My own father was afraid of me-but not Jessica. Marc was ready to throw himself to a messy death-and now he was plotting with Jessica on ways to make me help the world. In the space of a week. Less than a week.

"Elizabeth, you were meant to help us destroy Nostro. To bring peace. That will benefit all of us, vampires and humans alike. Your friends and your parents. If you are the queen," he added slyly, "you can be sure no one will turn your mother into a midnight snack."

I jumped up. "That's not funny, Sinclair!"

"Even now, Nostro could be sending the Fiends to your mother's house. He's very, very angry with you. Of course," he added, no doubt guessing I was ready to bolt from the room and put Mom up in a Super 8, "I made arrangements for her to leave the state earlier."

"You...how?"

"I was very persuasive," he said, and smiled. It wasn't one of his sneaky nasty smiles, either, but a sunny grin that made him look years younger. "Never fear, she who bore you is safe. And quite a fascinating woman, I might add-she instantly guessed I was a vampire and, for a refreshing change, didn't scream the house down. She did, however, threaten to brain me with a candelabra if I tried any 'funny stuff'." He turned to Tina. "By the way, I promised her you would come by for tea some night...she has several questions about the war."

"Oh, the war," Tina said, rolling her eyes. "That's all academics ever want to talk about. 'What was the Civil War really like? What did you think of General Grant? Did the slaves really want to be freed?' Ugh."

I relaxed slightly. I believed Sinclair. Don't ask me how I knew, but it was plain he was telling the truth. (Also, I wanted to go along on that tea party...I had a few questions myself.) Mom was safe. But for how long? Sinclair was right; Nostro was one pissed off dead guy. I'd refused him twice, and by now he had to know whose house I'd been hanging out in. Even-ugh!-sleeping in. He'd assume the worst, and take steps.

"Does--does Nostro think I'm the queen?"

"No. He thinks you are a rare vampire, the kind born strong, but he discounts all things in the book of the dead-he must, else he'd have read about his own downfall. And an ego that monstrous wouldn't face such a thing."

Oh, yeah, Nostro's ego was huge. Uh-huh. "Look, we can't just storm the castle, right? He's got a zillion followers."

"Cut off the head," Tina said coolly, "and the body will die. Better yet, the body will throw its allegiance to you."

"Swell."

"Majes-Betsy, I know this must be difficult. As you said, you've only been one of us for a week. You should be adjusting to your new life, not plotting to overthrow despots."

"Yeah, exactly! Thank you!"

"But time is running out," she went on implacably. "We need your assistance on this as soon as possible."

"Why? What's the rush? He's been around for a few hundred years, but you guys have to kick him off the anthill this week?"

"We think he's getting ready to go to war," Sinclair said simply. "He is, to use a technical term, a complete nutjob, and has been growing steadily more unstable over the centuries. I've tolerated him because, up until now, his numbers were too great and we kept out of each other's way. But your presence changes things."

"I don't know about that, but I'll tell you--I never thought I'd be scared of a bald guy in a bad tux," I agreed, "but he's sincerely crazy. It's not just the numbers he controls...he's creepy. I'd never trust him to do the right thing on his own-and I sure don't trust him to do right by the vampires he forced to his side."

Sinclair nodded. "He's always regretted letting me go. Knowing me and mine aren't under his control eats at him. One day we'll come downstairs and find two hundred vampires waiting for us. I would prefer," he added dryly, "to be pro-active. Donald?"

Instantly Donald jumped to his feet, hurried out, and a moment later returned carrying four plain white shoeboxes stacked in his arms like a little column. He set the boxes down, then left again, and came back with six more. He spread them out in front of me and began flipping the tops off the lids.

I screamed. With joy. Flip! A pair of lavender Manolo Blahniks-with the dearest three quarter inch heel-was revealed. Flip! A pair of Beverly Feldman sandals in buttercup yellow. Flip! An ice-blue pair of L'Autre Chose slingbacks. Flip flip! Two pairs of Manolo Blahniks, one black lace, one red leather. Gold Salvatore Ferragamo sandals...

I moaned and pounced on them. They were all in my size! I tugged off my tennis shoes, yanked so hard my socks went flying over my shoulder, and slipped into the yellow sandals. Bliss!

"Mirror!"

"I can't believe we're bribing our future queen with designer shoes," Tina muttered.

"Mirror!"

"Over there," Sinclair said, and pointed. There was a mirror above the fireplace. I dragged a chair over, plucked the mirror from the wall, hopped down, and leaned it against the far wall. I peered at the reflection of my feet. I felt like Dorothy in the ruby slippers.

"Wonderful! How did you do it?"

"I saw your shoe collection when we were at the house last night, and had my ladyfriends do some shopping while we slept. What a pity you can't keep them." Sinclair sighed theatrically and motioned to Donald, who started putting the lids back on the boxes.

I nearly wept. "What? Why?"

"Well...you're so adamant about not helping us. Not being a kingmaker, as you put it. Very wise and practical, but of course useless for our purposes. Perhaps Nostro will accept these as a token of peace."

Nostro? Nostro putting his nasty clammy fingers all over the buttery soft suede, the delicate embroidery? Giving them to Shanara? Using them for the Fiends to play fetch? Never, never, never!

"Don't touch!" I ordered, and Donald froze in mid-reach. "I'll help you. And I get to keep the shoes."

"Done and done," Sinclair said, his lips twitching as he tried not to smirk. I'm sure he thought I was vain and weak-willed and a complete idiot. Who cared? I was a vain weak idiot with the season's coolest shoes. And they hadn't cost me one cent!

I jumped off the chair, flung my arms around Sinclair, and kissed him full on the mouth. He was so surprised I nearly toppled him over. "Do I get a bonus pair if we settle Noseo's hash tonight?" I asked breathlessly, peeking up into his dark, dark eyes.

"Kiss me like that again, and I'll buy you a baker's dozen."

I let go of him like he was hot, and not without regret. Hugging Sinclair was like hugging a rock that smelled great. I was willing to bet even the guy's earlobes were well-defined. "Better not tempt me. Okay, so, let's go get the bad guy."

"It's that simple?" Tina asked. She shook her head at us, grinning as Sinclair touched his mouth with a bemused expression.

"A deal's a deal," I said, admiring my pretty feet. Of course, we all knew it wasn't just about the shoes. But Sinclair was no fool-this was all the excuse I needed to do what seemed more and more like the right thing.

"You're going to help them overthrow Nostro." Donald effortlessly lifted a full case of wine up onto the bar. I'd asked for more plum wine, and Tina and Sinclair were downstairs plotting strategy. I had no interest in the gory details...I suspected they wanted me along more for the power of my psuedo-status ("We've got the queen on our side...surrender!") than any actual fighting or tactical skill I'd bring. At least I hoped so. "Just like that."

"Sure. Look: it's not that I want Nostro to stay in charge, because I don't. He's a crazy creep and he treats his Fiends badly and all the other vampires are scared shitless of him, except maybe for Sinclair. I mean, when the monsters are scared of somebody, you should probably get rid of him, right?"

"Right..."

"I was just hoping to stay out of vamp politics. But if they can use me to kick him off the mountain..." and if I can increase my shoe collection by eighty percent, "...it seems like the thing to do."

"What if you change your mind?"

I caught on. Donald was leery about my one-eighty. Didn't want me chickening out when it got nasty and leaving his friends high and dry. "Don't worry. I won't. Besides, I owe that creep for siccing Shanara on my friends. And for throwing me in the pit with the Fiends. And I'm sick of worrying about running into some of his tribe, sick of being dragged to his various hideouts...yuck! This week would have been hard enough without being caught up in Nostro's war." Reciting his sins against me was getting me worked up. I vibrated with righteous indignation. This was starting to seem like a really good idea, and never mind the shoes.

"So your mind's definitely made up?"

"One...hundred...percent," I said emphatically. "You don't have to worry."

"Actually," he sighed, "now's when I have to start worrying."

I had just enough time to wonder why he was swinging a case full of wine bottles at my head when everything went bright white, then dead black.

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