Blood Hunger

Deathless Night Series #1

 

 

Chapter 1

Rural Pennsylvania

Emma heaved a sigh of relief as she walked in the front door and locked it firmly behind her. 

Home. 

Finally. 

She kicked off her cheap, low-heeled pumps and hung up her keys. Exhausted, she dragged herself into the kitchen, flicking on lights as she went, and dropped her tote down on the kitchen island. 

She thought she’d never get out of that madhouse of an office today. One of the major accounts hadn’t balanced and the entire department had been in a tizzy all day trying to find the missing funds. It was a wonder she’d made it home as early as she had. “Early” being 8:27 pm. 

And it was only Wednesday.

She scowled at her bright yellow kitchen. She hated accounting. And she hated the happy, sunflower wallpaper that covered every inch of the walls in here.

Grabbing a clean glass from the cupboard, she stuck it under the filtered water dispenser on the fridge and took it upstairs with her, flicking on more lights as she went. A long, hot shower was definitely in order. In spite of the uproar at work, she’d managed to sneak out at lunch and fit in an intense kickboxing class, but hadn’t had time for the normal speed shower afterward. Instead, she’d just splashed cold water on her face and did a quick reapply of her deodorant. 

Her blouse and skirt had stuck to her sweaty skin all afternoon. It was totally gross. But the workouts were necessary for her sanity, and her ability to keep her life under control. 

Hitting the sanctuary of her bedroom, she peeled off her damp clothes as soon as she walked through the doorway, not bothering to close the door. No one else was there. And no one else would be coming in. 

Unlike her kitchen, which reflected her mother’s taste in decorating, her bedroom was completely her creation. Small but cozy, her queen-sized bed took up most of the room. It was simple, clean and modern, and had no decoration other than a simple, warm brown fabric headboard. The pillow top mattress was covered with an old blue pieced quilt. And the numerous pillows all had soft white covers on them. 

A nightstand held her alarm clock, a small lamp with a built-in nightlight, and the latest historical romance she was reading for the third time. 

At the foot of her bed was an old antique dresser she’d picked up at a consignment store for a deal. The color almost, but not quite, matched the fabric on her headboard. A small TV sat on top of it, along with a glass dish that held what little jewelry she owned. 

The walls were painted a soft warm honey beige, undecorated other than a print of New York City in the fall. Her parents had purchased it for her from a street vendor the one and only time they’d gone there. 

But her favorite part of the room was the giant bay window opposite the doorway. Well, the window, and the window seat in front of it. It was her favorite reading nook. She’d sit there for hours and hours on Sundays, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her skin, watching the snow, or listening to the drizzly rain while she sat bundled in a blanket on the plush cushions, lost in the lives of her favorite fictional characters. They were so much more interesting, and less depressing, than her own.

Leaving the glass on her dresser, she headed into the bathroom in nothing but her cotton panties. Keeping her back to the mirror to avoid what she would see there, she turned the water on, shucked off her underthings and waited for it to warm up. When the water was warm and steamy, she gratefully pulled back the plain white curtain and stepped under the shower head. 

Ahhhhh,

It was an unconscious action after all these years, avoiding mirrors. 

Turning around, she let the hot water beat down on her sore shoulders, blissfully thinking about absolutely nothing as her muscles loosened up and relaxed. She stayed like that for a long time, until her growling stomach urged her to get a move on. 

Grabbing the shampoo, she quickly lathered and rinsed, doing the same to the rest of her body. Turning off the water with regret, she grabbed her towel and briskly dried herself off. Her nightshirt was hanging on the back of the door, and she pulled it over her head before turning toward the pedestal sink and the large mirror above it. Picking up her wide-tooth comb, she ran it through her wavy shoulder-length hair, letting it fall where it wanted. She threw her dirty underthings in the hamper in her small closet, pulled on her old robe, and headed downstairs to get something to eat. 

Maybe someday she’d have something to smile about again. But that day was not today.

Chapter 2

The grass in the field has grown above my knees and tickles my bare legs. It catches on the bottom of my short summer skirt as I run, pulling at the flimsy material. But I don’t care because my older sister, Keira, is chasing me! I laugh as I chance a look back over my shoulder. She’s about to catch me! So I squeal and run faster! Behind her, I can see the white lights of the Ferris wheel lighting up the night sky.

It’s so pretty. 

I can still smell the funnel cakes and popcorn all the way out here. We stuffed it all down our throats until we couldn’t go on another ride, worried it would come hurling back up. I hear the shouts of the carny people calling out to the dwindling crowd, attempting to lure them over to their stands. Come try one last game before you leave! 

The tinkling of the carnival music fades as Keira and I run toward our car parked at the edge of the field by the woods. Laughing, we zigzag through the grass, trying to catch each other, stumbling every so often on the uneven ground.

I glance back again to find that Keira has stopped running. The stuffed dog I’ve won for her is hanging limply at her side. Out of breath and giggling, I shove my hair out of my face and stop too. “Come on, Keira!” I shout, but she doesn’t move, doesn’t look at me. Gradually, my smile begins to fade. Keira’s eyes are open wide and white-ringed with terror. I stare at her, confused.

“Keira? What’s the matter?”  

As I wait for some response, the hair on the back of my neck starts to rise up eerily in warning. Someone, or something, is behind me; something that has scared my normally brave sister into immobility. 

Slowly, reluctantly, I turn back around to face this thing that has so rudely intruded upon our night. The first fun night we’ve had in months. The sight I see before me takes a few seconds to sink in, as it is made of the stuff of nightmares. 

Staggered along the tree line are monsters. Actual monsters. Grotesque creatures with skin oozing the rotting smell of death, and bleeding, bulging eyes. Their bodies are tall and muscular, yet emaciated at the same time. Powerful arms hang down almost to their knees. Long, yellowed claws curl at the ends of their fingers. They wear no clothing, and their genitalia hang obscenely between their legs. The one in front opens its mouth wide, and saliva drips down sharp, pointed teeth. It pushes its nearly hairless, distorted head forward on its neck and hisses loudly at us. 

I scream as Keira yells, “Emma! RUN!!”

 

RUN!! 

Emma jerked violently awake. As her gaze shot wildly around the room in the soft twilight of early morning, reality slowly came back to her. She found herself in familiar surroundings. 

She was upstairs in her childhood bedroom, in her very own bed. Not in a field. Her old “Can’t Touch This” T-shirt, her favorite thing to sleep in, was now stuck to her back and under her breasts with the leftover sweat of fear. She glanced out her bedroom window to see that the sun hadn’t started to rise yet.

She wasn’t seventeen anymore. She was safe. Safe in her room.

But her sister, Keira, was really gone. Not dead, but taken. Taken by the monsters in her nightmare, for they weren’t just figments of her imagination. They were real. And they’d stolen her sister that night. 

The hissing one had hurtled itself around Emma as she screamed. Throwing Keira over its shoulder, its claws had dug into the backs of her legs to hold her still. As her blood ran in rivulets down her thighs and dripped onto the high grass, its tongue protruded from the gaping hole of its mouth, greedily lapping up whatever it could reach. Hissing a final time at Emma, it had lurched off into the woods. The last thing she remembered was her sister screeching at her to “Run, Emma!” as the remaining monsters closed in on her. 

Emma had spent three months in the hospital after her “bear attack,” and the following year single-mindedly searching for her sister. With just as much determination, she buried deep inside what had happened to herself that night, until she could recall nothing of what had occurred after the monsters appeared. But her own injuries weren't important. What was important was finding her sister. 

She’d harassed the police, the local officials, anyone she could think of. Completely useless, all of them. Angry tears pricked her eyes just thinking about it, even after all this time. Lifting her hand, she quickly dashed them away. She was so tired of crying, tired of wondering. 

After that first year, the authorities had pretty much given up, and her sister’s disappearance was buried in the back of the file room with all of the other unsolved cases. But Emma wouldn’t give up. Keira was all the family she had left, and she was going to find her come hell or high water. 

She just didn’t know how anymore.

She’d contacted the city and gotten the name of the company who’d put on the carnival, and the employees who’d been there that night. Hunting them down one by one, she’d spoken to all of them, questioned them repeatedly. Nothing. No one remembered seeing anything or anyone unusual. No one had even noticed them leave the carnival. It was like Keira had disappeared into thin air. 

She’d posted missing person alerts across the country every year. She’d spent hour upon hour online, trying to find evidence that these creatures existed. Again, nothing. She’d exhausted all of her resources.

She didn’t know why those things had taken Keira, and she didn’t know where they’d taken her, but she believed her sister was still alive. She had to believe it. Or what else would she have left?

In spite of their two-year age difference, the two sisters had rarely fought. In fact, they’d always been the best of friends, maybe because they were each other’s only friends. 

Even when they were really young, and their mom would take them to the park, they never played with the other kids. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to, but the other kids always kept their distance. Almost instinctively.

The girls never understood why the other kids acted so weird around them. They would lie in bed at night in the room they shared, long after they should have been asleep, and whisper to each other about the “mean kids” and how they didn’t need them anyway. They had each other.

As they got older and started school, nothing changed. They were shunned, avoided, and sometimes made fun of. They were never invited to sleepovers, or asked out on dates. They were always the last ones to be picked for teams in PE class, and only ended up on a team at all because the teachers made them.

“Special” is what Mom and Dad told them when they asked what was different about them. 

“Freaks” is what the other kids at school said about them. 

They weren’t picked on, or bullied, or threatened by the other kids. If they had been, Emma would’ve felt more normal, but they weren’t any of those things. They were just ignored. The other students, and even some of the teachers, acted like they weren’t even there. It was like they were invisible, and no one else saw them. They only saw each other, and it created a bond between the two girls that nothing could break. Except death. If Keira were dead, Emma would know. 

She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. 5:14 am. 

With a sigh, she got up, threw on her soft blue robe, and made her way downstairs to the kitchen for a new glass of water. She didn’t need any lights—she knew her house like the back of her hand—but she turned them all on anyway. 

It was a small farmhouse, built with her father’s own hands. Two bedrooms upstairs, each with their own en suite baths, took up that entire floor. Downstairs was the kitchen, a half bath, laundry room, and a cozy living area. An old wood stove located at the bottom of the stairs heated the entire house in the winter. 

Winters got pretty cold in northern PA, especially out here in the country. She was glad spring had finally arrived and the weather was warming up. 

She and Keira had grown up here and they’d stayed in the house after their parents had died years ago, in spite of the way they were treated by the rest of the town. Although some people wouldn’t like being surrounded by ghosts, to them it was home.

Emma leaned up against the counter with her water in one hand, listening to the birds as they fervently welcomed the new morning. 

A little premature, aren’t we? she thought, as it was still dark. But it wouldn’t be long before the sun would be coming up, so she may as well take their cue and get started on her day. 

She wouldn’t be getting any more sleep she knew, so she took her water and headed back upstairs to throw on the running clothes she had laid out the night before. She pulled off her robe and nightshirt, hanging them on the hook behind the bathroom door, and pulled on her black running pants and a sweatshirt. Pushing her hair back with a hair band, she grabbed her iPod off the dresser and her sneakers out of the closet and headed back downstairs. 

Lifting her key off the wall hanger to lock the door behind her, she headed outside just as the first rays of the sun were about to come up over the horizon. Earphones blaring Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson, Emma stretched a bit and then headed out her long driveway at an easy jog. 

She didn’t notice the glowing silver-blue eyes watching her run by from the cover of the pine trees that edged her drive.

Chapter 3

Seattle, Washington

Seven Years Earlier

“I have a bad feeling about this, Luuk.” Nikulas Kreek touched his brother’s arm as he strode past on his way to the elevator that would take him down to the garage under their apartment building. “I don’t think you should go.” 

“I have to Nik. The bitch is never going to give it up until I deal with her once and for all.” Luukas shrugged off his brother’s hand from his arm. “Now please, stop with all the melodrama. It’s not like you to be so serious. You’re freaking me out.”

Nik’s jaw muscles tightened, a sure sign of his frustration. Blood brothers from before they’d been reborn, they often knocked heads out of nothing but plain old stubbornness. But this time was different. 

He tried again to convince his older brother that this was a bad idea. “You can’t trust her Luuk, you know this. Why would you want to risk yourself this way?” When his brother walked away and ignored him, as usual, he let out an exasperated breath. 

Following right on his heels, Nik grabbed his arm again as he reached for the doorknob. “I’m telling you, now is not the time to confront her. She’s up to something, Luuk!“ Forcibly spinning Luukas around, he shoved his face all up into his brother’s personal space gritting out, “You are our Master. As in, the guy we need to lead us. What if it’s a fucking trap?”

Luukas bared his fangs at his brother with a hiss, eyes glowing an eerie green, a warning Nik did not take lightly. He immediately backed off and lowered his own eyes, breathing hard. The threat of a fight had adrenalin flooding his system. 

He tried one last thing. “At least take Christian with you. As your Guardian, it’s his job to protect you. Or take me. I’ll go with you.”

Luuk grabbed his brother by the shoulders, the aggression he’d just shown gone as quickly as it had appeared. He gave him a slight shake. “Nothing is going to happen, and I need Christian here right now. And you too. Even if it is a trap, Nik, so what? She can’t contain me and you know it. I am a Master Vampire. As in ‘one with which you do not fuck’. No one can make me do anything I don’t want to do. Especially not that dried-up old whore.” 

Nik would’ve laughed at that description of the forever young and stunningly gorgeous Leeha, if not for the fact that she was also extremely dangerous. More so than Luukas liked to believe. She’d also been after Luukas for most of her immortal life.

The two brothers stared each other down, Nik’s baby blues testing Luukas’ greys, until Nik—knowing he wouldn’t win this one—finally nodded in defeat and gave his brother a reluctant smile. “You’re right. I’m probably worrying over nothing. I’ve just had this weird feeling in my gut all day. Must’ve had some bad blood or something.”

“I keep telling you bro, bagged blood is risky. You need to find yourself a juicy live vein. Preferably one belonging to a curvy little female.” Luukas grinned at his younger brother, showing strong white teeth.  Smacking him hard on top of both shoulders, he turned to go. “I’ll be back in a few hours. Lock up when you leave.” 

Nik clenched his fists at his sides and watched his older brother saunter out the door of his Seattle apartment, casually waving in his direction. 

He had a really bad fucking feeling about this. 

* * *

Rural Pennsylvania

Current Day

 

Nik was pulled from his reverie by the imminent rising sun. Had he really been here all night? Though it was still dark, his internal clock was telling him it wouldn’t be for much longer and he needed to find shelter. He’d totally lost track of the time. 

Blinking rapidly, he pushed himself up off of the tree he was sitting against and looked over towards the house he’d been watching. Or rather, the girl inside the house—Emma Moss. He’d been here every night for a week, watching, waiting, learning her habits and her routine, hoping to pick up on something that would confirm his suspicions. 

So far he’d learned…absolutely nothing. Except that she worked too much and seemed to be a vegetarian.

This was the first time he’d spent the entire night here though. Usually he’d find a good vantage point in a tree right after sunset, arriving right around the time she got home from work—about 7 or 8 every night. He’d hang out until she went to bed around 11. 

Nothing much to watch after that.

He’d hoped to catch her cohorts coming and going from her house, hear some phone calls…something. But there wasn’t any of that. She didn’t even have a pet. As far as he could tell, Emma was a loner. 

And wasn’t that interesting in and of itself.

It was the same thing every day. She’d get home from work, hustle into the house locking the door behind her, and then he’d watch her proceed up to her room. He always knew exactly where she went by following the sound of her footsteps and the lights she flicked on as she moved from room to room. 

Chick has a serious issue with the dark.

Exactly ten minutes from the time she walked in the door, he’d hear the water come on. She’d take a quick shower and then back downstairs she’d come in an oversized T-shirt and a ratty blue robe to fix herself a salad or some other healthy crap for her dinner. She’d sit at the kitchen counter while she ate, usually with an open book in front of her. 

When she was done she’d wash off her dishes and make a cup of tea, then walk around downstairs checking all the doors and windows, even though she never opened them. Once the security check was done, he’d follow her progress back upstairs again, turning off lights as she went. Next he’d see the glare of the TV and she’d get into bed, drinking her tea until she went to sleep. Five minutes after he heard the TV go off, he’d leave. 

In spite of the fact that he’d learned nothing to support what he knew about her, he didn’t consider the past week a complete waste of time. Mainly because Emma was fucking hot. Boring…but hot. Like model hot. 

Even from halfway down her driveway and hiding under the cover of the trees, he could see her well enough to know that the female had been blessed with some good genes. She was petite, but carried herself in such a way that she appeared taller than she was from afar. Her hair was shoulder length and of some light indecisive color. Blond maybe? 

He’d love to be able to see it in the sunlight, run his fingers through it, lift it to his nose. He'd bet she smelled great with all the showers she took. He couldn’t see her features clearly from here, but he could see enough to know that she’d turn heads wherever she went. 

He had just started to leave when he noticed her bedroom light come on. Curious as to what her morning routine was, he decided to stay just a bit longer. Leaning back against his favorite spying tree, he crossed his muscular arms over his hard chest and prepared to watch the show. He watched the light trail as she made her way downstairs in that god-awful robe. She walked into the kitchen and out of sight as she went over by the sink. 

He waited where he was, thinking she wouldn’t be there long. Probably just getting a drink. 

Yup, there she goes back upstairs, glass of water in hand. 

He grinned widely, proud of himself that he’d guessed correctly, but his smile just as quickly turned into a scowl. 

Man, I need to get a fucking life. 

She walked across the bedroom and went into her bathroom. 

Is she taking another shower? Chick has more issues than just the dark…oh, wait. Nope. Here she comes. 

The lights turned off one by one as she made her way downstairs annnd…out the front door. 

Nik pushed himself away from the tree. Shit! He needed to hightail it out of there, he wasn’t ready to be seen. Besides, it was way too close to dawn. It was no longer full darkness, but getting into that twilight right before sunrise. Still safe for him to be out, but barely. He really needed to go. 

So instead, he moved silently to a new vantage point behind the tree to watch her from there. His dark clothes would keep him in the shadows and he pulled his hood up to cover his light hair.

He watched as she strode across the porch to the top of the steps and started stretching, grabbing her feet behind her one by one and then bending over to touch her toes—a pose that brought an interested lift to Nik’s eyebrows. She shook out her arms and legs, put her headphones in and headed his way at an easy jog. 

As she came closer and closer, Nikulas became as still as the trees around him. Standing in the pre-dawn shadows of a large maple he watched, mesmerized, as the most stunning creature he’d ever seen passed within mere feet of him, completely unaware of his presence. 

Holy shit. 

His lungs began to ache as she passed, reminding him to breathe and he sucked in a big gulp of air. His gums started to burn and he felt his fangs elongating. His mouth watered and his body hardened as her luscious scent hit him. 

Emma. 

He’d spent the past week watching her from afar through the windows of her house, but nothing had prepared him for the sight and smell of her up close and personal. 

She had a lean feminine frame, and ran with the easy grace born to a natural runner. Her…oh yeah…strawberry blond hair bounced in the breeze, and her flawless alabaster skin was just starting to flush a bit from the wind and exertion. He watched her cute little backside, in those tight running pants, bounce by him and out to the end of her driveway, where she turned right and headed down the rural road.

He scrubbed a hand over his mouth as he watched her. 

FUCK me.

Wait. Was that Marilyn Manson? 

The burning of the sun’s rays just hitting the horizon rapidly cooled down his ardor, and Nik took off to head back to the tricked out RV where he and Aiden—Guardian of Nik, Hunter, best buddy, tech wizard, and all around badass vampire—were holed up about two miles from Emma’s house. 

Luckily for him, vampires were blessed with supernatural speed. He laughed out loud as he raced the burning rays of the sun, feeling high off of the close call with Emma and the adrenaline flooding his system. 

In the RV, Aiden swung his chair around from watching the security monitors as Nik barreled through the door, minutes away from turning into a bonfire and grinning like an idiot. He watched, unperturbed, as his friend frantically slapped at the smoking areas of exposed skin on his arms and head.

“One of these days, mate, you’re going to cut it too close. And I’m the one who’ll be chasing your ashes all over these bloody woods come nightfall, trying to collect enough to have a decent funeral. I will give you a brilliant elegy, and finish it just in time for Luukas to throw me into the sun for not doing my job of protecting you.” Aiden squinted his eyes at his friend of over 300 years. “What’s with the grin?”

Nik pushed his blonde hair out of his face. “Today is the day, my friend…or night rather. I’ll call Emma at work and have her meet me after dark. Somewhere public…that little bar down the road…and get her on our side.”

“Do you know how you’re going to manage that?” Aiden asked. 

“You doubt my skills of persuasion, Aid? After all the years you’ve known me?” Nik scoffed. “Besides, how could she resist this handsome face?” He grinned roguishly.

“You’re sure she’s the right girl? I would hate to kidnap the wrong one.”

Nik stared at him blandly.

“Alright, I’d hate to kidnap the wrong one this time. And besides, those other times weren’t really kidnappings. They were just weekend dalliances of mutual consent…for the most part.”

Raising his eyebrows at his friend, Nik rolled his eyes and shook his head. This was a conversation for another day. Another day a long time from now. Like, never. 

“It’s her. I’m sure of it. There’s no way she knows anything though. She’s totally clueless.” Emma, as far as he’d been able to gather, didn’t know who—or what—she was. 

Aiden unfolded his six foot one inch frame from his chair, stretching his arms over his head. His shirt rode up, exposing a strip of flat muscular stomach. “You really think she’s unaware that she’s a witch? How can she not know?” Dropping his arms, he yanked his shirt down. “How does she explain all of the unexplainable in her life? The premonitions? Things moving around on their own and such?”

Nik shook his head. “I think I may have been wrong, Aid. I’ve been watching her all week, man, and I’m telling you she’s completely clueless. She has no idea what she’s capable of.”

Aiden nodded, a thoughtful look on his face. “Well, that would explain why she hasn’t gone after her sister yet. I’ll ring up the guys and tell them to prepare.” Aiden turned back to grab his cell. “And then you and I need to get some rest, mate. I don’t know about you, but I’m bloody knackered. And we’ve a busy next few days ahead of us.”

Chapter 4

Emma got to work at 7:55 am on the dot, just like she did every morning. And like every morning, she walked through the reception area with a “Good morning!” to Linda the Receptionist, used her badge to get through the door and into the office area, strode to her cubicle, locked her purse in her desk drawer and sat down to boot up her computer. She took a sip of her soy latte while she waited for the outdated thing to wake up and let her gaze roam around the windowless room. 

There were about twenty cubicles, broken up into four rows of five cubicles each. Everyone in the office worked in a cube. Except Mark, their supervisor, who had his own office towards the back, and Linda, who sat behind her desk in the receptionist area.

She worked for an independent furniture company in their accounting department, in a typical small northern town about a twenty minute drive south of her house. Not the most exciting career, but it suited her. She liked accounting. The work was routine with very few surprises, which was exactly how she liked her life. 

Or so she told herself.

At 8:00 am exactly, her boss arrived at the office. Smiling broadly, he stopped by Emma’s desk. “Good Morning, Emma! You look especially nice today.”

She glanced down at her clothes. She was wearing her usual work attire—black pencil skirt, silk hose, black 2-inch heels, with a forest green blouse buttoned up to her neck. A black sweater thrown over her shoulders completed the ensemble. Her wavy hair was back off her face and she wore minimal makeup. 

“Um. Thank you, Mark,” she answered.

Mark beamed at her like he’d just won the lottery. “I have some meetings this morning so I’ll probably be here late tonight catching up on the regular stuff. Let me know when you’re leaving and I can walk you to your car.”

“Sure. Thanks.” Truth was, Mark walked her to her car almost every night since she’d started working here a year or so ago. She often stayed late, preferring to get ahead on her workload over going home to an empty house, and hardly ever left the office before six or seven.

“I’ll see you then.” Mark rapped her desk once with his knuckles and continued on to his office. 

As she sipped her latte and idly watched him walk away, Darlene, her co-worker in the cubicle across from her, leaned her chair Emma’s way and gave her a smirk. “He likes you, Emma.” 

Emma furrowed her brow at her and whispered, “Mark is nice to everyone, Darlene.” 

“Yeah, he is. However, Mark doesn’t stop and say good morning to everyone, or compliment what they’re wearing, or offer to walk them to their car every night.”  With a knowing look, Darlene turned back to her computer. 

Emma frowned at the back of her grey head. Darlene was pleasant to work with, but she was also the office gossip. In her late fifties, she lived a quiet life at home with her husband and her Pomeranians. Her one child was grown and had a successful career in New York City, so Emma supposed she gossiped more from the need to have some excitement in her life rather than from maliciousness. 

She decided to ignore her comments and turned back to her computer to start her day, which had finally gotten to the log in screen. After all, Mark was in his late forties, though still a nice looking guy with a kind of Kevin Costner look going for him. He was also married, with three kids. She seriously doubted there was any truth to Darlene’s observation. He was just a nice guy who was gentlemanly enough to walk her to her car after everyone else was gone. 

Besides, she didn’t date. Not since the “bear attack”. Well, other than that one small fling she’d had with a Marine who’d been home on leave, she hadn’t been out with anyone since Keira disappeared. And that was just fine with her. She liked her life the way it was. It was orderly, unexciting, and peaceful. And yeah, sometimes a little boring. 

OK, a lot boring. But she didn’t have to worry about anyone else but herself. She did what she wanted, when she wanted, and she didn’t have to explain herself to anyone else. 

She gave a heavy sigh. Not like she ever really did anything except work and exercise. And on the weekends she spent her time volunteering at the Women’s Center, helping victims of abuse learn skills to be able to take care of themselves and their children: Anything to keep her mind off of her lack of a sex life, and the reason behind it. 

Darlene handed her some purchase orders, pulling her from her thoughts. “Are you going to sit there staring into space all day, girl?” 

Emma felt her face flush. “No. Of course not. Sorry.” Shoving her personal problems out of her mind, where they belonged while she was at work, she logged onto her computer and started her day.

Chapter 5

Nik woke instantaneously right as the sun was about to drop beneath the horizon. That was the thing with vampires. One minute you’re dead to the world, almost literally, and the next you’re completely alert. It was kind of cool actually. You never felt groggy or hung over. Plus, there was the added bonus of expedited self-healing. A little blood, a good day’s rest, and you woke up as good as new. 

He stood up in nothing but his sweat pants and twisted his torso around to crack his back. Holding out his arms, he checked out his regenerated unburned skin. 

Cool. 

Across the RV, he saw Aiden sitting cross-legged on his bed, dark head already bent over his laptop. 

Aiden glanced up briefly, eyeballing his friend’s half-nakedness. “You know mate, I really think you need to start exercising more. You’re getting downright plump with all of this inactivity.”

Nik barked out a laugh, throwing his pillow at him. He missed the head he was half-heartedly aiming for, hitting the bulletproof shutters above the bed instead. “You wish you had a body like mine, man.” 

Actually, although Nik was slightly taller and bulkier, they were both built like MMA fighters. And they loved to fight like them too. Plus, you know, vampires…hello? Physical appearance never changed. 

He returned Aiden’s once over. “I guess we could both probably use a little exercise. That is, if you think you can keep up with me.” 

“Pffft. With that potbelly you’re getting? I’ll run rings around you, Nik. Just let me check in with Dante and make sure everything is on schedule, then we can squeeze in a quick match before you go meet up with Emma, yes?” Aiden didn’t wait for an answer, strutting off in his boxers towards the area of the RV that served as his mobile recon center.  

Nik grabbed a tee shirt and pulled it over his head, then strolled over to the fridge to grab his breakfast. What shall it be tonight? O Positive? B Negative? Didn’t really matter. They all tasted like shit, but satisfied his nutritional requirements for the most part. He did need to drink more than he would if he took straight from the vein, but he had a great delivery service set up from one of the local blood banks, so that wasn’t a problem. 

However, he got ragged a lot by the guys for his diet choice, especially his brother. But they could all kiss his ass. If he wanted to drink bags of plastic-flavored blood, that was his business. And at least he didn’t accidentally kill anyone. 

Not anymore. Fucking never again.

Throwing his breakfast in the microwave, Nik propped himself against the counter to wait, drilling holes in Aiden’s back as he talked to their head Hunter. “So what’s up, Aid? Everything in place?”

Aiden raised his hand and waved at him to hang on, or to shut up—or both—and finished listening to what was being said on the other end of the line. “Alright, commander. Sounds good, mate. We’ll see you there.” He threw his cell back on the table and turned his chair around to face Nik.

He reminded him, “You know Dante hates it when you call him that.”

Aiden grinned. “So he says. I think he secretly loves it. Anyway, all is good! In three days, they’re going to be surrounding the bitch’s lair. That will give us a little time to get Emma filled in and on board. We’ll meet up with Dante, Shea and Christian so they can catch us up on what they’ve found there and we can get a plan of invasion together.”

Nik chewed on the inside of his cheek as he considered the time frame. “We’re going to need more time to work with her. If she is, in fact, clueless—and I’m pretty convinced that she is—then she’ll have quite a challenge ahead of her to be ready in three days.”

“There is that.” Aiden leveled a cautious look at his friend. “You know Nik, I’m thinking, maybe we should keep her out of the actual fighting,” he suggested. “Although having some witchy power on our side would be beneficial to our cause, we really only need her to keep her sister out of our way while we get Luukas.” 

Mulling it over, Nik had to agree. “Yeah, you may be right. If she’s as ignorant of us as I think, I don’t know that she’d be any good to us anyway. She won’t be ready.” He blew out a frustrated breath. “Fucking Luukas! I knew when he walked out that day that something like this was going to happen. I tried to get him to stay, to take someone with him. I told him she was up to something. But he and his fucking ego think they’re invincible. And now Leeha’s got him, and we have to babysit an untrained witch.”

Even if she is a total babe of a witch. 

Pushing his hair back off his face, he voiced his worst fears. “I can’t even imagine what she’s doing to him…or fuck, maybe I can.” He grabbed his bag from the beeping microwave, but he’d lost his appetite. 

“He’s still alive, Nik,” Aiden insisted softly. “She’d be daft to kill him. It would muck up all of her plans for world domination. And she’d have no leverage.”

“But if she can kill him she wouldn’t need any, Aid.” Nik’s face was uncharacteristically somber as he looked to his friend. He didn’t know what he’d do if Luukas was gone. Luuk was the Master Vampire, the most powerful of them all and leader of their council. If anything happened to him, that responsibility would fall upon Nik as next in line. No damn way he was ready for that.

Although, if Leeha could manage to capture and contain Luukas, and it seemed she’d done exactly that, the rest of them were thoroughly fucked anyway. 

They really should’ve burned her when they’d had the chance.

Aiden came over to stand in front of Nik. “Look at me, Nikulas. Look at me.” Nik lifted his head. “If anything happened to your brother, we’d feel it. All of us. You know that. Luukas is still alive.”

Nik’s voice was strained with the effort it took him to contain his emotions. “It’s been years, Aiden. She’s had him for almost seven fucking years.” 

Aiden squeezed his arm. “But he is still alive, Nik.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I know.” But will he still be sane after all this time? 

Scratching his head, Aiden pondered aloud what they’d all been thinking the last seven years. “What do you think her point was? Taking him? She hasn’t contacted us. Hasn’t started a war. Hasn’t asked for any kind of ransom, or deal, nothing.”

Nik shrugged. “I don’t know.” He paused. “But she can’t have him anymore.”

“Then stop with all the gloom and doom, and let’s go get him. I’ve been waiting for ages to see Leeha again.” He glanced around, looking for nonexistent eavesdroppers before confiding in a stage whisper, “I kind of fancy her, you know. “ Aiden grinned and waggled his eyebrows at Nik’s shocked expression.  

“You are one fucked up vampire, Aid.” 

“We established that when we met, Nik, I don’t know why you still act so surprised.” Aiden headed towards the back. “Finish your juice bag and let me throw some clothes on. I’ll meet you outside in five.”

Nik really didn’t know if he could stomach anything after that particular confession, and so sipped at his breakfast cautiously as he thought back to the day he and Luukas had come across Aiden. 

* * *

They had met Aiden in 1712. 

The brothers were traveling from their home in Estonia, where the population was being culled severely by the Great Northern War and thereby culling their meal opportunities, to start a new life in a new land. Looking to make their way to the New World, they were planning to establish their own “colony” and were searching for others to join them. 

He and Luukas were scanning for survivors after a particularly bloody battle in Wakenstädt, of what is now modern Germany. Having been vampires already for over 350 years, they found the war offered not only plenty of entertainment, but also provided an excellent recruiting opportunity for Luukas. 

They’d run across Aiden laying in the midst of the dead and dying, holding his own guts in place with filthy hands and singing a dirty ditty to himself. 

He gave them a toothy, if bloody, smile as they approached him. “Evening, gentlemen. How are you this fine,” He coughed. “Evening?” 

Luukas, amused by his cheerful disposition in spite of the condition he was in, answered him. “We’re doing well, sir. You, however, seem to be in a bit of situation.”

Lifting his hand, the soldier glanced down at the tangle of raw meat that was bulging from his torso and steaming in the cold. “So it would seem. Think you could give me a hand here?” 

Luukas and Nik glanced at each other, and then down at the fallen soldier with increasing interest. He was covered in mud and gore and in obvious pain, but his grey eyes were lucid.    

Luukas said, “We saw you fighting right before you were so rudely disemboweled. You fought quite valiantly. You must be very dedicated to your country and its cause.” 

“The cause?” The soldier furrowed his brow as if just considering it. “Um…not really, to be completely bloody honest.” He closed his eyes together tightly and winced as a wave of pain hit him. When he opened them again, it was to gasp, “How did you two manage to come out of this unscathed?”

Nik squatted down by him and poked lightly at his injury with his index finger. Ignoring his hiss of pain, he said, “Oh, we didn’t actually participate in the battle, we just like to watch.” 

“That would have been the brighter idea, I think.” The man grimaced again, glancing down at the raw injury being probed. “Though not nearly as fun I say. So, about that favor?” He shot Nik a dirty look until he stopped poking at him. “Would you be so kind? Fix me or kill me. Either one will work, and I would be eternally grateful.” He gave them another bloody grin. 

The brothers studied him, calculating the odds of him surviving the change. After a moment, they nodded at each other in accord. 

The soldier looked back and forth between them, his forehead scrunched up in confusion until Luukas smiled. “How would you like the first option?”

The soldier’s eyes widened in disbelief. “You’re saying you can fix me?” 

Luukas made a sound of affirmation. 

“Really?” 

Luukas nodded. 

“That would be lovely.” He looked them both up and down. “But I don’t see how you’re going to go about it. Are you witches?” His gaze was drawn to the piles of bodies all around him. “Or is this some cruel illusion brought on by my impending death?” He gasped suddenly, his expression screwing up in a grimace, as another wave of excruciating pain rolled through him. 

Luukas squatted down alongside Nik, catching the soldier’s gaze and holding it with his own. “I have something even better than witchcraft, and I can save your life. But in return, I will need that eternal gratefulness you spoke of.” He paused. “What is your given name?”

“Aiden,” the man whispered. Caught in the vampire’s spell, the pain left his eyes as they stared unblinking at Luukas.

Luukas lowered his hand to his brow, peeling the sticky hair off of his forehead. “I can give you eternal life, Aiden, if you so choose. A life where you will have strength and not weakness. A life where all you’ll need to survive is blood, but not in the way you think. I will require nothing in return, other than your complete and utter loyalty. Will you be able to do that?”

Without hesitation, the dying soldier asked in all seriousness, “Will I still get to fight and fuck?” 

“Yes,” Luukas answered, chuckling lightly. “Yes, you can do both. At the same time if you’d like. Just ask my brother.”

Nikulas gave him a thumbs-up and a lewd grin.

A delighted smile broke out across Aiden’s face, and he instantly agreed to the terms, “Alright then. Do your magic.” He winced slightly. “Just hurry along, if you will.”

“Is that the only question you have? Wouldn’t you like to know more?” They’d never come across such a willing participant.

“I fear I don’t have much time for more questions. The important one is answered. The rest I’ll figure out as we go.” As his eyes started to glaze over, his lips barely moved as he whispered, “Go on then.”

Luukas lowered himself down to his knees and sat back on his haunches on the bloody, mud covered ground. He pulled the top half of Aiden’s body gently onto his lap, his fangs lengthening. “This will only hurt for a moment.” 

At the terrifying sight of those dagger-like fangs, a last spark of life flickered in Aiden’s eyes, widening them in fear. But too late. 

Luukas gripped his head, turning it to the side and exposing his throat. Striking fast as a cobra, he latched onto Aiden’s neck, sucking the old life from his body and replacing it with the new. 

They never did figure out exactly which side Aiden was fighting on that day, if any at all. 

* * *

Speaking of the devil, the bang of the bathroom door announced Aiden’s return. “All set?”

“Yup. One sec.” Nik tossed his bag’o blood in the recycle container and picked up his cell phone. He hit speed dial for the number he’d programed in there earlier and waited. One ring…two rings…three rings…had he missed her?

“Accounting, this is Emma, how may I help you?” Her soft-spoken voice finally came across the line. 

“Meet me at The Vineyard. 9 PM sharp. Don’t be late. I have information about Keira.” Nik disconnected the call, set his phone down on the counter and followed Aiden out into the cool night, both of them barefoot and wearing nothing but sweats and T-shirts. Silently, without a word or look between them, they split up and walked the perimeter of their camp, checking for anything threatening or unusual. 

They’d found a clearing in a secluded area of the woods not far from Emma’s house to park their mobile unit. Not your average recreational vehicle, this one was specially made. It had started out as a Fleetwood Pace Arrow, which had then been worked over to include things like steel shutters over the windows, technology out the ass, weapon caches, and a souped up engine.  

Although the vampire Council for North America was based in the state of Washington, they had numerous modes of transportation such as this throughout the United States and Canada. They also had some pretty jazzy jets, hideaways, etc. 

Needless to say, they did not have money issues. After living so many lifetimes, you quickly learned which investments were good ones. Making money was a bothersome, though necessary, evil. However, in this modern day and age it was needed more for their protection than for materialistic reasons.

Luukas had been Master over the North American territory since arriving with his acquired colony of vampires shortly after finding Aiden. The colony was ruled by the Council, whom he’d hand picked his from his strongest, most useful and most loyal Vampires.  

Nikulas, as his brother, was his second in command. The two brothers, as the most important members of the Council, each had a Guardian who was never to be far from their side. The rest of the group consisted of the Hunters. Although they hadn’t been used much in recent years, their job was to foresee any and all threats to the council, and to annihilate that threat as quickly as possible. 

Together they made the laws and enforced the rules for the smaller colonies that now were spread throughout the country, by force if necessary. 

Luukas was a hard, but fair, Master. Very few had challenged him for that position over the years, and the few that had dared didn’t survive the Hunters to challenge him again—with the exception of Leeha. 

When they had spared her life after burning her father (and maker), who knew what a pain in the ass she would become? 

Nik walked to the center of the clearing and waited calmly for Aiden, who was now busy doing his Muhammad Ali dance. Such a showboat, that guy. But Nik wouldn’t want anyone else with him when it came to a real fight. Aiden was a powerhouse. The fact that he was a complete lunatic only brought an extra element of surprise with him.

“All right princess, let’s go. Time’s a wastin’.” Nik raised his fists in front of his face, sinking down into a solid fighting stance. 

“Princess? Princess?? That would be Queen to you, you Estonian bastard!” Aiden charged across the clearing, arms and legs pumping like pistons. Jumping high into the air at the last minute, he caught Nik in the head with a hook kick. 

With barely a stagger, Nik went with it and then ducked low and caught Aiden around the waist, tackling him to the ground with a “whoop!”

In less than a second, they were both on their feet again, circling each other. And then, it was Game. On. Taunts and fists flying, they eagerly went after each other, only avoiding face shots. They saved those for their enemies. After all, why mess up their pretty mugs if it wasn’t necessary? 

Thirty minutes later, Nik called a halt to the fun. “Much as I enjoy kicking your ass,“ he grunted, “I need to shower and get ready to go see Emma.” Holding Aiden’s head between his thighs in a scissor hold, Nik gave him a noogie, burning his knuckles across Aiden’s head and eliciting a string of curses from said head. 

Releasing him, Nik jumped to his feet and ran into the RV, laughing aloud as Aiden flipped onto his stomach in the damp grass, yelling after him, “You’ll not be getting away with that, Nikulas!”

Chapter 6

Seattle, Washington

“Is Dante coming or what? I’m really getting tired of constantly waiting on his ass. I have things to do.” Christian threw himself onto the oversized leather couch near the window overlooking the city. He propped his head up on one end and his dirty boots on the other. 

“Hey! Easy on my furniture, manwhore.” Shea scowled at his buzzed head. The only female vampire on Luukas’ council, she was also the only one who cared about such things as clean furniture.

His amber eyes flashed as he sat up. “Why? It’s not like you ever bring any dates home to see it.”

She plopped down next to him, just far enough away that they didn’t accidentally touch. “Let’s not fight, C. Fun as it always is, we have other things to worry about right now.”

He reached over and smacked her jean-clad knee in agreement. “Speaking of which…like seriously, where the hell is Dante?”

Hiding the pain caused by his casual touch, she said, “He’s on his way up. Give him a minute.” 

Shea leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees. She was tired of having this same conversation with Christian over and over again.

Christian mimicked her position, turning his head to look at her. “What the hell is up with him, Shea? You’re closer to him than all of us. What’s his deal?”

She inwardly sighed. It looked like they were going to have it anyway.

“I really don’t know,” she told him honestly. “He’s been like this since Luukas was taken. Hell, we’ve all been affected one way or the other.”

“Well sure, but you don’t see me living underground like a creature of lore. We don’t have to do that anymore.”

“He feels safe down there…if a bit wet.” Shea smiled and changed the subject. “So, who’s the floozy of the moment for Christian the Lady Killer?” She threw a hand up. “Don’t tell me! Let me guess her name. Candy? Bambi? No? Wait. I know, Porsche!”

“Lay off, Shea. You know you’re just jealous.” Playing it off, Christian got up and walked over to the kitchen.

Shea regarded his broad muscular back, now hunched over the counter and thumbing through the newspaper she’d left lying there. She wondered if he ever got tired of the endless parade of females sashaying in and out of his life. She wasn’t kidding when she'd called him a manwhore. She’d never seen one guy get so much action from so many different females. 

He was right about one thing, however. The bastard. She was jealous, though she would never admit it. She hadn’t had a male companion since Luukas disappeared. 

Something had happened to her afterwards. She’d first noticed it when Nik had gathered them all together to let them know their Master had never returned from his meeting with the she-bitch. After he’d filled them in, she’d gone up to him to give him a hug, show some support. But no sooner had his arms gone around her to return it when excruciating pain had blasted down her spine, shooting out her limbs and hitting every nerve ending along the way. She’d pulled away with a hiss, and the pain had immediately gone away. Assuring Nik she was fine and giving him an apologetic smile, she’d hurried out of the room and hadn’t purposely touched any male since. 

Strange, but it seemed to only be males that affected her. Now, she fed exclusively on females. Sometimes she even fucked them, just to have some skin on skin contact, but she’d never admit it to her comrades. She didn’t need the harassment. She wasn’t a lesbian. She was just lonely. 

And she definitely didn’t want to give the guys she hung out with any fuel for their sex lives. They were like her brothers, and she’d worked hard to build that relationship with all of them. She didn’t want to ruin it by stirring up their girl on girl fantasies, with her as the star. 

The front door was suddenly thrown open, smashing into the wall behind it, and Dante’s imposing figure filling the entire frame. Dressed in biker black and with his latte-colored skin, his presence seemed to suck all of the light in the room into the black void that was his existence. Tribal tattoos covered the left side of his body, running down the side of his face and neck. They vanished under the neckline of his tight T-shirt, contributing to his chilling appearance.

His lifeless black eyes scanned the room, lighting briefly onto Christian and finally coming to rest on Shea. A tiny spark of life appeared as he gazed upon her and was just as quickly gone, not hanging around long enough for anyone to notice.

Christian calmly raised an eyebrow. “Is that really necessary, dude?”

Dante’s lips lifted into a scary semblance of a smile as he ran a hand over his smooth skull. 

* * *

Rural Pennsylvania

 

Emma’s phone rang just as she stood up to leave work. Leaning her head back and tiredly closing her eyes, she seriously considered not answering for a few seconds, but then picked up the receiver with a heavy sigh. 

“Accounting, this is Emma, how may I help you?” 

“Meet me at The Vineyard. 9 PM sharp. Don’t be late.” A pause. “I have information about Keira.” A very deep, very masculine voice said.

Emma’s breath froze in her lungs as she stared unseeing at her cubical wall. Information about Keira? About her sister? Could it be? After all this time? 

Suddenly remembering she was still on the phone, she snapped herself out of it. “Who is…?” But the caller had already hung up. She glanced at the clock on the wall—7:09 PM. She’d get there in plenty of time. 

She started to reach for her purse…Wait. What the hell was she thinking? She didn’t even know who that was on the phone. She hadn’t recognized the voice, and they hadn’t identified themselves as an authority figure of any sort. It could just be someone playing a cruel joke. It had happened before a few times when Keira first disappeared.

She pushed the unpleasant memories determinedly out of her head. That was seven years ago. Why would someone do that again after all this time?

And what if it wasn’t a joke? What if it was for real? Could she take that chance? Could she believe that maybe it was an actual lead about her sister? After all these years? 

You bet your ass she could. 

She grabbed her purse and practically ran out of the office, yelling to Mark that she was leaving for the night, and nearly fell flat on her face when her heels hit the slick floor in the reception area. She was out the door and halfway across the parking lot before he’d managed to rush to her desk. 

Hopping into the driver’s seat, she tossed her bag over to the passenger side and started her eco-friendly Prius. Executing some hand over hand action backing out of her parking space, she caught a whiff of herself and wrinkled her nose. Ew. 

Hitting the gym at lunch for her kickboxing class again was a necessary evil, but as usual, the time crunch didn’t give her much time to clean up afterward. So she drove home to shower and change into more comfortable clothes, making it there in record time. 

Jumping out of her car, she locked it with the key fob as she ran up the steps to her porch. The keys fumbled in her hands and she almost dropped them three times before she finally managed to get the front door unlocked. 

Bursting into her house, she ran upstairs, flicking on lights as she went. At her dresser, she yanked open the top drawer and grabbed some clean underwear. Wrenching another drawer open, she yanked out the first pair of jeans she found and threw them both on the bed. 

Her work clothes were halfway off by the time she reached her closet. Hopping on one foot at a time to remove her heels, she threw her clothes in the hamper and her shoes into a corner. 

Spotting her comfy lavender sweater, she tossed it on to the bed with the rest and streaked into the bathroom to shower, clenching her teeth as the cool water hit her skin. Dumping some shampoo on her head, she scrubbed her hair and body with the same suds. Clean and rinsed, she shut off the water just as it was starting to warm up.

Dressed and (sort of) blow dried, she threw on her sneakers, grabbed a Lara bar to eat on the way and ran out the door again, barely remembering to lock it behind her. 

By 8:20 pm she was walking into The Vineyard, stopping just inside to let her eyes adjust to the dim lighting. She’d never been to this place, even though it was only five minutes from her house. 

Taking in the shoddy interior, it looked like every other small town watering hole. Same old red leather booths. Same kerosene lamps along the wall. Dance floor, if you wanted to call it that, was to her left, complete with a drunken couple slow dancing to a fast song. Bar straight ahead. 

She headed in that direction, deciding a drink to calm her nerves would do her good. Other than the inebriated dancers and a few stragglers, the place was fairly empty for a Friday night. 

Strange.

Finding an empty stool at the end of the bar, she sat down and turned it slightly sideways so her back was to the wall and she could keep an eye on the entrance. 

The bartender put down the glass he was cleaning at the other end of the bar and shuffled down to her. “What’ll it be, darlin?”  His voice was as ragged as his grey hair, but his pale blue eyes twinkled merrily. Grabbing a cloth, he sprayed the bar with disinfectant and wiped it down. 

She liked him immediately.

“I’ll take a Jack and Coke, please.” She set her bag up on the now clean bar and made herself comfortable. 

“Strong drink for such a little girl,” he teased, giving her a contagious smile. 

She saw he was missing a tooth, right in front. She smiled back. 

As he shuffled back down the way he had come, Emma looked around again. Upon further inspection, she saw that although the furnishings were old and the floor was beat up from all of the boots that had trod across it, the place was at least clean. 

Maybe I should come hang out here sometime. Socialize and shit. She snorted and rolled her eyes at herself. Like that would ever happen. 

Emma never went anywhere except work and the gym. And honestly, she was surprised she still had this job after being there a full year. Usually she didn’t last at any one place more than a few months before she’d have to quit and move on, and not always because she wanted to. She’d had some really cool jobs in the past and had worked with some really nice people. 

But, inevitably, it would happen. She’d get irritated with someone over something stupid, a stapler would fly off their desk and into a wall all by itself, and then the sideways looks and whispers would start. Her co-workers would now be afraid of her. They would stop coming by her desk for small talk. Stop inviting her for lunch.

It would be her childhood all over again. 

Once, they’d even started a petition to have her fired due to “feelings of unease and inherent creepiness.”

Inherent creepiness? Emma snorted to herself again. Really?

Her regular workout routine helped though. She found that if she wore herself out physically on a daily basis, the “incidents” happened much less frequently. So she jogged and went to kickboxing class, sometimes doing both in the same day. Unfortunately, she hadn’t figured this out until after Keira disappeared. What had started out as a way to help her cope with the trauma ended up having a life changing side effect.

The bartender shuffled her way again. “Here you go, pretty lady.” His elderly hand set her drink down in front of her without spilling a drop. “That’ll be $3.50. Wanna start a tab?”

“No, thank you. I’ll just go ahead and pay it.” Emma pulled her wallet out of her bag to dig out some cash. “I’m really not much of a drinker, you know. Just needed something to calm my nerves.” Handing him a five, she told him to keep the change. 

“Thank you, darlin.” He turned around to ring her up. “So! What brings you into our fine establishment tonight? I don’t recall seeing you in here before. Though you do look kind of familiar…” Propping his elbows up on the bar across from her, the old man settled in for a chat. 

Emma turned her stool around to face him fully, not wanting to be rude. Taking a sip of her drink she revealed, “Um. I’m meeting someone here actually.”

“Mm hmm.” Slapping his hand on the bar, he concluded, “A boyfriend! I knew someone as nice and pretty as you had to be taken.” He made a sad face, his bushy eyebrows and sagging jowls making it more comical than sad. “Though an old man could hope.”

Emma felt her face heat up at the compliment, and giggled. “Well, he’s definitely not my boyfriend. So you may still have a chance.” She winked at him. 

“Is that right? In that case, let me buy you a drink...” Emma giggled again as he turned around, pretending to look for the bartender. She was glad for the banter, it took her mind off of her nervousness. “Actually, I don’t really know who it is I’m meeting here, other than the fact that it’s a man. Someone called me saying they had information about my sister, who’s been missing for years…” she dwindled off, not sure why she was sharing, other than it felt good to talk to someone.

He scrutinized her for a moment with his cloudy eyes, and then suddenly they sharpened with recognition. “You’re Emma Moss! That’s where I’ve seen you before. And it’s your older sister, Keira, who’s still missing, right?” He nodded to himself. “I remember now. I volunteered on one of the search teams.”

“You did? Oh.” She gave him a sad, grateful smile. “Well, thank you.” 

“They still haven’t found any new information, huh?” At the negative shake of her head, the old man gave her a sympathetic shake of his own. “That’s a shame, darlin'. It really is. I’m so sorry.” He laid his gnarled hand on top of hers and gave it a slight squeeze. “My name’s Ned, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Ned,” Emma responded politely.

He gave her a small nod in response, then his bushy brows furrowed down. “You don’t know who this is that contacted you?”

Emma shook her head again and took another sip of her drink. “No idea. I received a phone call right as I was leaving work tonight. All he said was to meet him here at 9 pm and that he had information about Keira.” 

She glanced up at Ned with an imploring look, feeling the need to explain. “I had to come, see what he has to say. She’s all I have left…” She trailed off again as the door opened behind her and she saw the kindly bartender squint suspiciously at the newcomer.

Glancing back over her shoulder to see who it was, she felt her breath rapidly leave her lungs in a whoosh! 

Good God. Who was that?

The male who had just entered was every bad girl’s dream, and probably the good one’s too. She could practically feel her panties hit the floor just from looking at him. 

Gauging him to be a little over six feet tall, he had dirty blonde hair that fell just past the top of his shoulders, the choppy pieces giving it a careless appearance. Piercing blue eyes seemed to glow almost eerily, with a life of their own, as he slowly perused the room. Clean-shaven, his slightly squared jaw was strong and confident. Sculpted cheekbones and a perfectly proportioned nose finished off one of the best looking faces she’d ever seen on a guy. 

Like, seriously. He put the Armani models to shame. 

Dressed in dark jeans, combat boots, and a long-sleeved black knit shirt—that did absolutely nothing to hide the lean, muscular body underneath—he was the most virile man Emma had ever seen.

However, in spite of his Hollywood pretty boy looks, he had an almost predatory air of danger around him. It surged from him like an almost physical substance, permeating the room as he stood casually just inside the door. Even the drunks on the dance floor sensed it, staggering as far away from him as they could get. This guy was trouble. With a capitol “T”.

Emma was still staring in awe when his gaze swung her way, locking on to her and not letting go. She inhaled sharply as those eyes roved over her face, then her neck, and down to her breasts, lingering there for a few seconds. 

Lifting slowly back up to her face, they burned right through her for a long moment, like he was imagining her naked and knew she’d enjoy it. A hot surge of desire tightened low in her stomach, surprising her, and she felt a rush of moisture as her innermost muscles clenched in response. 

Whoa. 

He closed his eyes then, and she watched him lift his nose and inhale deeply like he was scenting something, or someone, as an animal would scent their prey. Lifting the corners of his perfectly beautiful lips slightly as he pierced her with those eyes again, he smirked knowingly at her.

That smirk was like a slap in the face. What the hell was the matter with her? She gave herself an internal shake. A good looking guy walks in and she reacts like a hormone-laden teenager, when she should be worrying about the meeting about her sister. 

She glared at the stranger. Thank God he’s not the informant. He’s not supposed to be here until 9 pm, and it was only…Emma jumped down from her stool and straightened her spine as the Greek god started walking—no, prowling—directly towards her. As he got closer, she took a deep bracing breath and steeled her spine even more, determined not to let him affect her.

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© 2016 by Everblood Publishing, LLC