Isaac held out his arm to me. After a moment, I slid my fingers over his forearm, trying to hold the bodice of my dress closed with my free hand.
“Stop fidgeting,” he said. We crossed a circular driveway around a fountain where a stone woman, bare as she could be, stared sightless up at the spray coming from her outstretched palm. “Act like you belong on my arm.”
I scowled at him. “I will never belong on your arm.”
He laughed without humor. “True, but tonight you will exude your usual grace and charm, and you will pretend you do.”
“I’d rather eat glass.”
“That can be arranged.”
The silence was oppressive. As I stared at the wide French doors at the top of the stairs we’d soon reach, I realized what rang my alarms at full blast. Vampires were tight on security at their gatherings according to every source I’d ever spoken to.
“Where are the guards?” I asked in a near whisper since he could hear better than anyone I’d ever met, vampire or otherwise.
“Look up. What do you see?”
I tilted up to the full moon, finding nothing but a diamond-dappled sky. No shadows passed anywhere. “Banshees? What am I looking for? Oh! Tell me whoever this is doesn’t own a dragon?”
“Not that high.” Isaac gripped the top of my head and tipped it down, the way he would a child. “Bring a woman to hell on earth and she gets excited at the possibility of dragons.” Shaking his head, he said, “What do you see on the roof?”
“How was I supposed to know? You said up, so I looked up. Gracious, you’re touchy tonight.” It took some squinting, but something finally came into focus. Lots of somethings that appeared to be made of stone. Thick-bodied, horned. Bloody hell. “Are those gargoyles? Real, honest to goodness gargoyles?”
A grin broke across my face as I held up my hand to dull the glare from the spotlights. “Professor McGillan at Ironhill U said he’d seen one once, but they haven’t been common in decades. Do you think I could meet one?”
“When you’ve completed your tasks, if you want to have your throat ripped out, then be my guest.”
I tilted up to look at him. “Why do you say that? I sense intelligence in those dark eyes of theirs. I’m no threat to them, and unlike you, I can show kindness to other creatures.”
“They are creatures of instinct, very much like cats. Move too quickly, and they’ll pounce. Why do you think the council would keep them to secure their gatherings? Their bite can crush even vampire bones.”
My thoughts stumbled before recovering. He would bring me before the council? More, had I finally found something he was afraid of? “Have they summoned me, or was it your choice to bring me here?” I wished I knew more about the relationship between the council and its hive lords. Fear warred with curiosity, both over the council and of the creatures I’d often wondered about.
“No more questions, and stop gawking at the sentinels. We’re expected, and I can’t transport us directly inside.”
It was warded, then. “All vampires can move like you can?”
Grabbing my wrist, he tugged me toward the steps. The eyes of the stone sentinels tracked me, and I could almost feel their curiosity about me. Were they truly made of stone? Or dense flesh that made them appear that way?
“Just two minutes, Isaac, please. You’ve taken my freedom while I was under false accusation. I’ve worn your bloody ridiculous dress, let you primp me like a doll. The least you can do is allow me a moment with these fascinating creatures.”
He halted, groaning, before staring down at me. “Like a kitten after a scrap of yarn. Guilt does not work on me, Miss Hudson, and this yarn can rip your arm off. I’m not sure I can heal that. We’re going.”
His magic could heal a severed limb? “They won’t hurt me,” I grumbled as he hastened me to the stairs and urged me to mount the first one, a hand scorching my bare back.
The crack of stone on stone sent vibrations down the steps as a gargoyle crashed down in front of us. Two more followed, one on either side of the first. Isaac cursed and crouched in a battle stance, shoving me behind him, though I ended up stumbling off the step and barely keeping my feet.
Terrible sounds came from the gargoyles, like stone teeth gnashing together.
“Isaac, stop. Bow your head and be still.”
“Doona order me about, woman,” he snapped as I approached again.
“They’re simply curious about me, since they showed no aggression until you shoved me. They probably sense my…heritage.” Head bowed, I moved up the stairs, hands out at my sides, palms out. “Aren’t you magnificent,” I cooed, looking up through my lashes at their stout bodies, somewhere between a small dragon and a dog. Sandstone scales covered their backs and haunches, and a row of tiny horns came out from a ridge on their foreheads like a modern-day triceratops. When I made it past Isaac, he shot his hand out and grabbed my arm.
“This is madness,” he said.
I glared at him over my shoulder. “Careful, Isaac, I’d almost think you were concerned for me.”
He made a scoffing sound. “Doona flatter yourself, woman. You’re of no use to me dead.”
“If you want to get inside, then you’ll remove your hand and let me do my job.”