The Series That Just Plain Sucks: The Complete Trilogy by Charissa Dufour by Charissa Dufour - Read Online

Book Preview

The Series That Just Plain Sucks - Charissa Dufour

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1

In

Chapter One

…Audrey leaned forward, his intoxicating smell filling her lungs and making her head spin. She knew she should be afraid. But she couldn’t make herself feel what she didn’t feel, just as she couldn’t drive away the feeling of love that welled up inside her. Just like she knew she should be afraid, she knew she shouldn’t love him. After all, he was a vampire.

But it was too much!

He was too handsome, too brilliant, too talented for her to not love him. Any woman that knew him like she did would love him tobaca;aoivnakd;ahvna;shcOIenfw

Muffler! I shrieked as my ridiculous gray cat sauntered across my keyboard. Instead of scurrying away, he turned to look at me, planting his behind right on the D key. A sudden paragraph of Ds sprouted on my flickering screen. I rolled my eyes, lifted the cat off my desk, and stood up. Instantly, his chest began rumbling with a purr I was sure could be heard in the next apartment. With a sigh, I dropped him on the floor. I had been in the zone—which, of course, meant I needed to be interrupted.

I was right.

A recognizable ratta-tat-tat filled my apartment.

Two bits, I called out by way of acknowledgment, nudging a still rumbling Muffler from my legs where he was making intense circle-eights. Jordan, my best friend, entered.

Writing? he asked, glancing at the screen. His blond brows furrowed as he noticed Muffler's contribution.

Cat, I explained.

Ah. Without asking, he moved into my closet of a kitchen and began rummaging through the ancient fridge. He pulled out a soda; it was still a little early for beer. I ignored him and walked back to my computer, which was tucked into the far corner of my studio apartment. Jordan dropped onto my bed, which often acted as a couch, and cracked open the can of Mountain Dew.

So what are you up to? I asked, as I stood in the small space between my computer desk and my bed. I was used to Jordan stopping by randomly, but this felt different.

Well… He hesitated. I wanted to talk to you.

About what? I asked, flopping into my desk chair and taking a decidedly relaxed pose.

Jordan was clearly upset and I wanted to make him feel at ease. He took a long swig of his soda in an effort to buy himself some time. I waited patiently. There weren’t many people for whom I would be patient, but he was one of them.

Uh… I’m taking Chloe out on a date tonight.

On a date date? I asked, unable to hide my shock and concern.

Chloe was a dear friend of ours. In fact, Jordan, Chloe, and I had been the three amigos for a number of years. I’d met Chloe at the nearby grocery store where I worked and had quickly introduced her to my best friend—never imagining they would become an item. It wasn’t a complete surprise, but if I was being honest with myself, I’d hoped any symptoms of romance I’d noticed were the result of my overactive imagination.

As much as I wanted them to be happy, I knew this would change things. We would no longer be the three amigos: We’d be a dating couple and the third wheel.

Yeah, Jordan said. It sounded more like a question, as though he were asking for my permission. I hated that he felt this way. I had known Jordan since high school; a decade now. We found out much later that we’d both had crushes on each other, but never had the guts to pursue it. Despite the revelation, we never did attempt to date. In some ways, I wondered what we might have missed out on, and yet I was happy to know I would never lose his friendship. Our love was unconditional. I didn’t want him to feel like he had to ask for my blessing to date another woman, even if she was my friend.

I schooled my features into a smile. That’s awesome. I was wondering when you were going to ball up and ask her out.

Jordan’s pale lips turned up into a smile as his face burned red. It was a stark contrast to his extremely blond hair. Yeah… well… he stuttered, rubbing the back of his neck, which was also turning red. It was a gesture he often used when feeling awkward or uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it. I didn’t want to upset you.

Upset me? Why would it upset me? My two best friends together. What could be better? I lied through my teeth. Thankfully, Jordan had never been able to see through my lies. Perhaps he simply wanted to trust that we were close enough that I would never stoop to a lie. I had thought so too, until today.

So what are you up to? he asked, changing the subject suddenly.

I have the day off, I began.

Though I had worked at the grocery store since before high school graduation, three months ago I cut my hours back to part time so I could spend more time writing. I'd sold my second book, and my publisher was becoming more demanding. My books weren't hugely popular, but I did have a small mob of devoted readers. Between the part time job and the royalty checks, I managed to keep a roof over my head and food in my fridge—most of the time. It didn't allow for much else, including socializing. Things like movies and dinner cost money.

But I’m going out with Isaac tonight, I added quickly.

Isaac didn't seem to mind paying for our dates. He taught a few night classes at the local university and made decent money, so I didn't mind letting him pick up the tab. We had gone out a handful of times over the past month, but so far we seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern.

I never felt like I knew him better at the end of our dates. He shared just enough to not seem distant, but not enough for the relationship to progress. I, on the other hand, shared everything. Jordan always teased me about talking too much, and I knew it was true, but didn't put much energy into changing it.

Jordan glared in my general direction. Despite the fact we had never dated, he continued to be my staunch protector. Any guy I dated, or even ogled, he considered to be a psychopath. Overprotective he may be, but I knew—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that if I was ever in trouble Jordan would come to the ends of the earth to save me, cliché as it may be.

I waited until he got the glare out of his system.

Yes, I know how you feel. I'll be careful. It's not like I've jumped into the sack with him or anything!

That's just it! I'd almost feel better if you had. It's not normal that he's so careful with you. Normal guys try to kiss their girlfriends. Try to grope them.

I stared at him.

Wait! You want him to grope me? I was completely lost. Everyone says women don't make sense, but this conversation seemed to be pointing in the other direction.

No! I just wish he was a little more normal. There's something off about him. I know you see him as a gentleman, but it goes beyond that. And I—I just want you to be careful… on your guard.

I nodded reluctantly, knowing full well my face showed my dissatisfaction. Jordan’s assessment of Isaac made me think he didn’t like me. It's so easy to feel discouraged.

Look, sighed Jordan, clearly wanting to make me feel better. He seems to really like you.

Yeah, maybe, I half agreed. Between Jordan’s appraisal and Isaac’s general distance, I was beginning to wonder.

I didn’t want to end it. What I knew of Isaac I really liked; besides, he wasn’t too hard on the eyes either. But despite my inclination to continue the relationship, I knew I wasn’t in love with him. For that to happen, he would have to open up.

You don't think so? Jordan's tone turned into excitement, almost relief.

I was too upset to give him the dirty look he deserved. He just seems cautious. Like something's in the way of us—you know—becoming exclusive.

He's probably married, Jordan said flatly.

He's not married! I snapped, annoyed with my friend’s willingness to think badly of Isaac. I threw a pencil at him and managed to bounce the eraser end off his shoulder.

Jordan shrugged, ignoring my missile.

I don't know what it is, I said. Maybe he's just not that interested in me.

No, he's interested in you. I’ve watched him. His eyes follow you as if in the midst of your friends, you might get snatched up by a monster. He looks ready to, at a moment’s notice, throw you over his shoulder and run.

I know some part of me should have been disturbed by Jordan's description, but instead I just felt like giggling. A hot guy was watching me? Score! Not the most intelligent response, I know. Evidently Jordan saw the first hint of laughter in my eyes. He gave me a look that said you’re kidding me, right?

You shouldn't be excited about that, Jordan said, his voice was clear and deliberate, as if he were talking to a child. Look, I know I tend to judge the men you date a little too harshly, but I'm serious. Isaac really gives me the willies. I'm not saying break up with him. I'm just saying be careful.

I pursed my lips, trying to genuinely heed his words. Finally I nodded, figuring that was the best I could do.

Jordan sighed, knowing his message had only half sunk in. I just couldn't take him seriously. This was Isaac, after all, a complete gentleman. When he kissed me goodnight, it was always short, with his hands in very safe locations. Sometimes I just wanted to grab him and show him what could be done with a tongue.

Before either of us could say anything else, Chloe burst into my apartment. I hadn’t heard her ascend the flight of stairs necessary to get to my door. She didn’t knock. I knew better than to expect such a courtesy. She still wore her black grocery-store apron, but that didn't last long. She dropped her purse on the small table next to my door, nearly hitting the cat, yanked the apron off, and flung it onto her purse.

This was her usual ritual when entering my apartment after a long day of work. She went to my bathroom and immediately scrubbed her face; another ritual that allowed Chloe to keep her ebony skin clear and beautiful despite working in the deli department where the deep-fat fryer was king.

When she emerged, she retrieved her purse and apron. Ready? she asked, her eyes focused only on Jordan. I didn’t think it was due to any aversion, but more from the fact she was nervous and uncomfortable.

I felt like a fly on the wall of my own apartment until Jordan turned toward me. You’ll remember what I said?

I nodded. I’d do anything to get them out of my home.

Chapter Two

Jordan gave me a distrustful look before escorting Chloe out of my apartment.

Their departure left me feeling uncomfortable and anxious. I had intended on getting back to my writing, but the nervous energy they’d left behind demanded a more relaxing activity. I didn’t want Isaac to arrive while I was all worked up.

I grabbed the little black dress I intended to wear and headed to my bathroom. Though I was anything but a fashionista—jeans and a T-shirt were my normal apparel—I did have one or two little dresses. I stripped out of my Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt and turned the water on. The sweatshirt had belonged to my mother. Both my parents had kicked the bucket after a brutal car crash a few years back. I know it sounds harsh, but that's how I cope, so don't judge.

The truth is, I loved my parents deeply, and they had loved me. We had a strong relationship, even when I was in high school. My mom had been my best friend, my fierce protector, and my greatest fan. My dad was the mortar that held our little family of misfits together. Now I lived by myself, in a studio apartment, struggling to pay my own rent. Such was life. But now they were gone and couldn’t help me; I had to remind myself to keep the tears from forming in my eyes.

Before I could get the rest of my clothing off, the bathroom was steaming up from the shower. The bathroom in my apartment is one of those tiny things where a guy could stand in the shower and piss in the toilet, or sink, without missing. I'm pretty sure RVs have larger bathrooms. In the end, I not only straightened my red hair, but I also put on makeup.

Between the makeup, the black dress that left little to the imagination, and the delicate heels, I hardly recognized myself in the mirror. It felt a bit like playing dress up or Barbie. Except, today Ken would actually be arriving at my house.

Isaac is the type of guy that makes a girl's brain turn into liquid and slowly dribble out of her ears. Though he had no distinct features, all his non-distinctiveness consolidated into sheer hotness! His dirty blond hair lay in casual disarray, his nose sat in a slightly cockeyed way, and his facial hair was… there. Like most movie stars, he somehow managed to keep it at the length of stubble without ever letting it get longer or shorter. How men do that is a complete mystery to me.

I went to my Mac PowerBook, saved my document and switched it off. New, the damn thing had cost my dad nearly three grand. Now after ten years, it was worth more as a relic than as a computer. Nevertheless, it continued to run an old word processor program, which was the only thing I really needed it to do.

I had just finished straightening up my desk when I heard a heavy knock that sounded nothing like Jordan’s quick, rhythmic tap. A smile pulled at my lips. Maybe with the help of my little black dress he’d show a little more interest.

Coming! I called.

Isaac stood in the stairwell, dressed in dark wash jeans, a white button-up shirt, and a dress jacket. I have to admit, he didn't look like a college professor. Not that I ever went to college. Weren't professors supposed to be old, with out-of-date glasses and long gray hair pulled back into ponytails?

Wow! he said in a breathy tone as he took in my little black dress. Every woman should have one of these, I thought as my face warmed with a typical blush. You look perfect.

My smile grew. Call me a sucker, but I love compliments, especially when they come from a guy who looks like he should be modeling Calvin Klein underwear. I grabbed my purse from the small entry table and followed him out, barely remembering to lock my front door.

I lived in a small complex of tiny apartments designed to remind you of old Europe. It was mostly inhabited by ancient ladies who walked around with water cans, even though this was Olympia, Washington—the Land of Continual Rain. Seldom did a day go by without a great deal of the wet stuff falling from the sky. Each exterior door was surrounded by pots of flowers, breaking up the concrete pad. Even the windows were decorated with living plants. I loved the homey feel and mothering neighbors. Also, the rent was cheap.

We pounded our way down the narrow stairs, no doubt annoying Miss Ferguson, my little old gray-haired neighbor. Miss Ferguson was the sweetest senior citizen in the complex, which is saying a lot considering that most of the residents were senior citizens. When we stopped at the exterior door, I could hear her grumbling through the thin walls. I didn't worry about it. She may put on a mean face, but I knew she was nothing but goo and nougat on the inside.

Isaac led me to his car, a silver 2004 Hyundai Tiburon… whatever that is. I'm not a car person, though I can admire a pretty one, and like Isaac, this one was pretty. He opened the door for me and I slid in, trying to pretend like I always wore slinky black dresses and heels that could easily break my ankle. I failed.

He drove us into Lacey, one of the towns wedged up against Olympia; Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater were basically all one large city. Wednesday night proved to be a perfect night to go to Red Lobster, my favorite restaurant. There was no wait and our server practically lived at our table, to the point where her constant concern for our meal grew annoying. I wanted to be alone with Isaac.

I waited for him to peruse the menu, having already made my choice before we walked through the door. I scanned the seafaring art on the wall. It was that or stare at him, which I didn't think he'd like. The picture on the wall in our booth was that of a lighthouse with an enormous wave crashing into it, the moment caught in perfect clarity by what I imagined must have been an overly-expensive camera.

The writer in me started to think about how a lighthouse attendant would survive such a storm and what daily life was like. I imagined the man, his beard kept long and his body decked in flannel and rubber, hunkered down around a small heater, waiting for the storm to pass. Maybe he would hold on to the picture of the woman he had loved in his youth, but she hadn't loved him enough to brave the perilous life of a lighthouse attendant. What a lonely existence it would be.

From somewhere in the real world, Isaac closed his menu and began to stare at me. Eventually, I realized I was being watched. I grinned sheepishly and folded my hands on the table. Lost in thought? he asked.

Just wondering how a lighthouse keeper would survive such a storm. I pointed at the picture.

Your brain never stops, does it?

I blushed. I couldn’t tell if it was a compliment or not. Before I could respond, the waiter returned with our drinks and took our order. I got shrimp, shrimp and more shrimp. Isaac got a chicken Caesar salad.

Boy, he knows how to make a girl feel fat, I thought, examining our order. But I couldn't complain; if salad was how he kept his trim figure, well then: yah lettuce!

I wasn't fat myself. I'm not silly enough to think it when it's not true, but that didn't mean there weren't things I didn't like about myself. When I was in elementary school I got hit in the face with a shovel—long story—and had a slight bump in my nose as a result. I didn't like that, for sure.

Magic, Isaac asked abruptly.

Huh?

The lighthouse keeper would survive by using magic, he explained in a matter-of-fact tone.

I didn’t know whether I was supposed to laugh or not. Was he serious? Well, my grandmother always thought magic was pretty powerful, I said with a smirk.

What do you mean by that? he asked, leaning forward in his seat and resting his elbows on the table.

I snagged a cheese biscuit and broke off a piece, which I quickly popped into my mouth to give myself time to think. My grandma, a rather eccentric person, believed in fairies, vampires, and wizards. Maybe it was her stories that made me write vampire romance novels. Unlike me, she believed them to be as real as the table I sat at or the biscuit I ate. I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell Isaac I had a certifiably crazy relative. I finally decided he’d hear eventually.

Well, my grandma believed in vampires and stuff like that. She always told this story about how my, like, super great-granddad was a magician… or wizard…or whatever. And not like the entertainer kind, but the real kind. My grandma believed the story all her life. I think it's a load of bull.

Isaac smiled at me, an unknown secret bringing a gleam to his eyes. That's interesting. Do you know what his name was?

I don't remember.

Well, where'd he come from?

I frowned. Isaac seemed extra intrigued by my stupid story. Why was he so interested in my family's past? Jordan's warning echoed in the back of my mind. Before I could inquire, our food arrived, distracting me from our conversation.

Isaac didn't ask about my crazy grandmother, or her stories, again.

Chapter Three

So how are classes going? I asked, trying to pull the conversation away from my crazy relatives.

He shrugged before putting a bite into his mouth. Good enough. Lots to grade, he added, when he realized I was waiting for more of an answer.

Covering anything interesting?

Not really. Hunter gatherers. Most boring subject to teach. I could do the whole course in thirty seconds—some hunt some gather. There, the end. Isaac shoveled another bite of salad into his mouth.

I smiled. It was the longest speech he'd ever offered me.

The conversation, if you can call it that, continued for another half hour. I was almost relieved when we didn't order dessert. I felt dissatisfied when he finally signed the receipt. He just didn't really share, and I wanted to know more about him. I wondered what made him tick, why he chose to be a teacher, who cut his hair—anything!

It was hard not to wonder if he found me intellectually beneath him. After all, he had a PhD, I had barely finished high school. Were we simply too different?

We exited the restaurant into a sizeable gale. The wind blew into our faces, driving the rain at an unnatural angle. I'd forgotten to grab a jacket. Okay, forgotten isn't quite the word I'd use: Chose not to might be a bit more accurate.

Aside from my bulky winter jacket, left over from high school and only worn when it was below zero, my only coat was a worn leather number, and which would have clashed hideously with my little black dress. Coatless was the only fashion choice available to me tonight.

We scurried to his car and hopped in. I was already drenched. Typically, Washington skies drizzle rather than pour. Granted, they do it without any sign of stopping for days on end, but today was apparently special. I laughed, but Isaac took on a suddenly serious look. I didn't know what he could be thinking.

On the drive home I had hopes that maybe, for a change, Isaac would come up to my apartment. I didn't really have anything to offer him to drink, though, as Jordan had taken my last soda. I tried to tone down my frivolity, but the closer we got the more excited I grew. Butterflies began doing little flips in my stomach. Whatever had suddenly changed his mood was big. I could tell that much. By the time we reached my apartment on the outskirts of downtown Olympia, the rain had let up.

Isaac parked around the corner from the entrance into the complex. When we got out, I immediately headed for my place. It may not have been actively raining, but that didn't mean it was dry either. Before I'd taken more than a step, Isaac was at my side, his hand gripping my arm too tightly. Panic shot through me. First of all, how did he get to my side of the car so fast, and secondly, why was he holding on to me?

I tried to pull my arm free, but his grip hardened. My eyes widened in instinctual fright. He spun me around until my back rested against his chest, and a hand clamped over my mouth. I suddenly realized I could have been screaming this whole time! He jerked me back into an alley just as the rain picked up. Was he really attacking me? This was Isaac after all—the gentleman. My brain said no, but the panic, making my heart beat faster and my limbs tingle, said yes. When we reached the darker shadows of the alley, I realized this was very real.

Now, I don't know a lot about self-defense, but I do know all guys have one extremely sensitive area. I tried to kick at it with my heels. Not an easy task when someone is dragging you away with what felt like inhuman strength. What little part of my brain was working realized that Isaac would naturally seem much stronger. He pushed me up against the wall of what I thought to be the dry cleaners, though I was a little turned around. Can you blame me?

My eyes widened when he took his left hand off of me and bit into his own wrist.

What the hell? I thought at the time, and tried to use that moment to pull free, but found that he was too fast and way too strong. He had me pinned against the wall again before I had taken two steps. Using his hip to hold me against the wall, he pried my mouth open with his free hands and filled it with his bleeding wrist. I gagged and sputtered, trying not to swallow. When he ran out of patience, he plugged my nose and tipped my head back. I couldn't help but swallow; if I didn't I was going to suffocate.

People always say blood is like sucking on a penny. I don't know what they're talking about; it's warm, sticky, and damn nasty! After a few swallows he pulled his wrist away. Tears began to stream down my face, mixing with the rain and Isaac’s blood that now covered my chin and neck. What was going on? Again, I tried to scurry away, but it was no use: he was just too strong. I had always known Isaac worked out, but in this moment he seemed beyond human. Or maybe the whole drinking blood thing had me freaked out.

Some people define fear as a stimulus that aids in an animal's—or human's—survival instinct. Of course, when you experience it, such a definition falls short. On the other hand, the Bible says to only fear Him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. No offense to Luke, but when you're faced with death, you're too busy fearing your killer to think beyond that. Neither the Bible nor the dictionary could describe what I felt as Isaac bent over my wet shoulder and bit into my neck.

Wait, what? He bit me? Yes, oh yes, he bit me. My mind raced wildly as the unnatural happened right there in the alley. Was his gentleman façade meant to cover up a serial killer? Was he trying to emulate my books? Did that even happen?

A piercing pain shot through my neck, down my shoulder, and out my fingertips, breaking off my brief train of thought. I began to scream, but that just reminded him to recover my mouth with his free hand. The pain increased as he readjusted his bite.

What? Once wasn't enough? Fire shot through the two bite locations as his teeth dug deeper. Were human teeth always this sharp?

If I live through this, Jordan is never going to let me forget it, I thought absently as I wiggled against his painful grasp. My energy quickly began to fade. I started to feel cold and sleepy. I kept trying to push him away. I wasn't the type to just give up, but my shoves were getting pathetic. Even in my hazy frame of mind, I knew there was no hope. My limbs started to feel like they were made of overcooked spaghetti. With the last of my strength, I tried to shove his head away. When that failed, I slumped against his solid body. Fade to black.

Chapter Four

When I woke, there was nothing slow or peaceful about it. One minute I was completely out, the next I was on my feet and aware of everything around me. I was in an empty cage made of iron bars. The bars were securely planted into the concrete ceiling and floor of what seemed to be a basement. The cage looked completely inescapable—except for the door standing wide open. That seemed rather pointless. The cell was empty, except for my own frantic body. The room’s walls were bare, expect for one door open to a set of steep stairs.

Though I spotted a short man with a shocking array of red hair sitting in a folding chair, reading a magazine, I didn't wait to exchange pleasantries. I bolted through the open door and out of the room. Two guards stood on the other side of the door. I heard them trying to pursue me, but I was too fast. Don't ask me how I suddenly became so athletic; maybe sheer terror had given me wings. Whatever the case may be, I bolted up the concrete stairs and found myself in a wide hallway without windows. I glanced one way, and then another. At one end, a narrow staircase headed upward. I charged up it, taking the steps three at a time. Though some might be able to do that with ease, at five foot four, I found it a little harder than impossible. Somehow I made it to the exterior door before the pursuing men had reached the hallway.

I slammed against the release bar and propelled myself into the sunny morning rays. At first I was surprised to see the sun peaking over the buildings of downtown Olympia—it doesn't do that often here. The next second, I was screaming in pain and writhing on the sidewalk. I looked at my bare arms and legs. Red blisters were quickly forming on my flesh. It looked as though my skin was actually boiling. Before I could seek some sort of remedy, my two followers had arrived and stepped out into the sunlight. They did not begin to boil, but picked me up by the arms and legs and carried me back into the building.

The redhead waited at the bottom of the narrow stairs, well away from the swath of light that penetrated the deep bunker, with his magazine tucked under his arm. The burly men set me down in the hallway, while the redhead knelt beside me, staring at my damaged flesh. To my astonishment, the damaged skin was healing before my eyes. Within seconds, it was back to its normal Washington pastiness.

The redhead waved the other men away. They went back down the steps into the room with the cage. My name is Josh, said the remaining man.

What's going on? I demanded.

I'm not going to hurt you.

His statement didn't comfort me, so I didn't respond.

I need you to listen very careful—

What is going on? I snapped, my ability to cope with weird stuff long gone. When he didn't answer me immediately, I rose to my feet and began to march down the hallway, away from the door leading into the sunlight. Josh rose with me, grabbing my arm before I could make it two steps.

I will tell you, but you have to prepare yourself for something you might not believe. And you have to let me finish before you go running off.

I nodded slowly, after which he released my arm.

So… um… He stuttered, obviously trying to find the right words. Well… you see… uh… look there's no easy way to say this…

I tried to imagine what he might be leading up to. Had I contracted some horrible disease that made me boil in the sun? That seemed a little farfetched.

You see… you’re a vampire now, the red-head finished.

I don't know what response he expected, but evidently my loud and slightly hysterical laughter wasn't it.

You're a funny, funny man! I said, thumping him on his shoulder.

He stared at me, waiting for the laughter to die away. When I noticed his serious look, I stopped. Crap, this guy was for real.

Great! I’m in some sort of basement fortress with a lunatic. Or maybe a crazed fan.

What happened when you went outside? he asked.

I hesitated. It was a fluke? I hadn't meant to ask a question.

Josh gestured toward the door at the top of the steps. In an act of sheer defiance, I marched up the steps, pushed the door open, and immediately regretted it. The sun shone through the opening, searing my skin again. I jumped back, letting the weight of the door pull it shut. Like before, the damage on my arm healed in a matter of seconds.

The short man stood at the bottom of the steps, waiting patiently.

It couldn't be true. Vampires were fictitious creations of Hollywood and those who wanted to make money—I should know! I was one of those slimy bastards out to make a buck. Of course, my vampires didn't burn in the sun. Sure, I’d seen Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire, but it seemed too ridiculous for my books.

Evidently I was wrong. Very wrong!

What would happen if I stayed in the sun? I asked.

You would die, turn to ashes, he said.

For real? There was no belief tinting my tone of voice, as I thought back to when Kristen Dunst turned into ash.

Josh nodded solemnly. The twinkle in his eye suggested he was struggling to keep a straight face. It was enough to send me into a tizzy.

No! I shrieked, pushing past him and stomping back down the hallway. I didn't know where I was going, but I had to do something in protest. It couldn't be! I couldn't accept it.

With quick steps, Josh caught up and kept me from reaching the next doorway. It was a double door made of thick wood that looked like oak and it didn't match the undecorated interior of the concrete hall. On the other side of the hallway was another, wider staircase leading up to a set of metal doors.

Listen! He grabbed my arms to force me to stand still. Can you hear the music playing in there? he asked, nodding toward the wooden doors on our level.

I hesitated a moment, pretending to listen. The thing was I didn't have to try to hear the music. It came through loud enough. Mozart? I asked, not quite certain which classical composer it was.

Chopin actually. And the T.V. up there? He nodded toward the second floor.

I didn't hesitate this time. I hear a basketball game and a talk show and, um, the news, I added as more sounds came to my ears. How many TVs did they have up there?

He nodded again. And conversations?

There were many to choose from. I could hear two women discussing a man, who was evidently quite attractive. A man was commenting on his new car. I heard another man order a drink and the waiter respond. Other people were laughing and telling jokes. I heard one person talking about werewolves. I shuddered, the new skill thoroughly creeping me out.

It can't be, I whispered.

It's true. Are you hungry?

I stopped to assess how my body felt. Though there was an underlying craving for something I couldn't name, I felt fine. Well, more tired than fine. I belatedly remembered Isaac attacking me. My fingers reached up to my neck on their own accord. There wasn't a scratch, much less the gaping wound that should have been there. Had it all been a dream, or, rather, a horrible nightmare?

Do you remember who attacked you?

I felt my stomach twitch and my shoulders tense. Panic took its place in my gut; I remembered the incident all too clearly. Isaac… Wilson, I croaked, my throat going tight while my eyes burned, as though they had tears to shed.

Isaac? Josh asked, an emotion I couldn't translate flickering across his face. C’mon, let's get you settled for the day.

He draped his arm over my shoulder in a familiar manner and escorted me past the carved double doors. We passed a few other doors, spread far apart. At the end of the hallway lay another staircase leading into a lower level. The next long hall was lined with numerous doors. He opened the third one and escorted me in. I became thankful for my escort, as this place was a labyrinth of passages.

The room looked like a spacious studio apartment built for the upper class: expensive furnishings and decorations, even if the space was built for only one person. I'd expected another sterile, concrete bunker. There was nothing sterile about this room. The walls were covered in cherry wood paneling, the real stuff, not the seventies’ knock-offs, and numerous framed movie posters. The left wall held signed Star Wars posters, noticeably omitting the prequels. Under the posters sat an expensive-looking, wood futon—oxymoron, I know—and two matching globe chairs, all with the subtle oddities of hand crafted furniture. The right wall contained a modern-looking queen bed that seemed almost out of place. Over the matching nightstands hung posters for Ben Hur and Casablanca. The far corner held a large bathroom with a thick curtain that could be drawn around it. Though the room didn't contain a kitchen, it did have a decent sized fridge tucked into the corner.

Josh motioned me toward the futon. It was one of those contraptions that could fold into nearly any shape. Before sitting, I rearranged my dress, hoping to look a little less bedraggled. I even tried to run my fingers through my matted hair. Josh took a seat at the other end of the futon, clearly trying to not make me uncomfortable.

Is this for real?

Josh nodded. Now, what is your name?

Ashley Hawn, I said.

The author? he asked.

I nodded.

Josh jumped up off the couch and dove across the room to a bookcase I hadn't noticed before. He grabbed two books and tossed them into my lap. I quickly recognized the cover art as my own. It was funny to find a fan in such a weird situation, but I couldn’t bring myself to laugh.

They're funny, he said with a snicker.

They weren't written to be funny, I said, my voice sounding dead even to my own ears. Why would Isaac do this?

I don't know. I've never heard of Isaac ever turning someone.

You know him? I yawned. Despite being unconscious all night, I still felt exhausted, as though it was late in the night rather than early morning.

He nodded. There aren't that many of us scurrying around Olympia. Now this time of transition will be rough, and will probably take a while. Do you have anyone who might notice your absence? Family? Friends?

No family. Two friends who would notice. And I have a couple days off, too.

Will you call your friends and tell them you're sick or something? Something that will keep them from checking on you for the next week or so.

Part of my mind said that was a very bad idea. After all, this guy could be a serial killer.

A very high-end serial killer, I thought as I glanced up at the room. Still, I couldn't explain away the new sensations coursing through my body, or the way I had reacted to the sun. Either way, I wouldn’t be able to go home till the sun set. I reached for the phone he offered and dialed Jordan's number.

This is Jordan, he announced in his business tone.

It's Ashley.

Hey shorty.

Hey Jordan.

What's up? It's Ash, he said, his mouth pulled away from the receiver. I assumed Chloe was with him. Hey how was your Isaac time, he asked, slurring the words into a sneer.

Be nice, I heard Chloe say, sounding as if she held the phone herself, though I knew she wasn't. That was too weird.

I cringed, remembering how Isaac had overpowered me. Um… nothing special really. Probably a good thing, cause I'm sick now. Feeling pretty awful.

That sucks. Ashley's sick, he said for Chloe's benefit. I'll bring you dinner tonight.

I can make soup, she offered.

No! I snapped, a little too quickly. There was a lengthy pause. I mean, I don't want you to get this from me. It’s pretty nasty. I'll call you in a few days. Enjoy some time with Chloe.

Okay… drawled Jordan.

Talk to you later, I added before hanging up the phone. The conversation had not gone as planned. It sounded like one of those horrible lies one hears on sitcoms where you wonder why the other person doesn't realize they're being lied to.

He buy it? Josh asked.

I nodded hesitantly before yawning again.

Don't worry, Ashley. I won't hurt you... Get some sleep, Josh added as he bent down and pulled a thick blanket out from under the futon. He added a pillow to the bedding before standing up and shifting over to the curtain that concealed his bathroom.

But I have so many questions.

And they'll wait until you get some rest.

I hesitated, wondering if Jordan or Chloe would miss me while I was out sick. Considering their new dating status, I figured they'd be too distracted to regret my absence. I nestled down onto the futon, glad to fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Five

I woke some hours later, my leg draped over the blanket and my dress hiked way too high. I quickly covered myself while searching for Josh. Right on cue, Josh pushed the curtain aside and appeared at the edge of the bathroom area, his red hair glistening in the soft light coming from the lamp on the far night stand.

How bout I take you home so you can get cleaned up before we start introducing you to people, he suggested. I liked that idea. He helped me up and we left his room.

What is this place? I asked in a whisper as we headed up the steps, passing another man who watched us closely.

This is where those in my seethe are safe.

Seethe?

Family of vampires. This place is like our headquarters.

You live here? I asked.

I have a room, but I also keep a private apartment.

I heard a door from behind me open and shut. It’s been ages! came a female voice from what sounded like a great distance.

All right Emma, I’ll try and come visit you, stated a disembodied voice, much closer at hand. We turned to see a tall man with a wide jaw, dark brown hair carefully styled, and green eyes that faded to red near the center. He was carefully sliding a sleek cellphone into his pocket. I felt a little mesmerized. He made Isaac look like a hillbilly. So much for not meeting anyone until I cleaned up. This her? he asked from the doorway.

Yes, sir, responded Josh in a respectful voice. Nikolai, may I introduce Ashley Hawn. Ashley, Nikolai Krasniy.

The tall man nodded to me and turned toward Josh. She finished?

Josh nodded.

Good. Nikolai glanced quickly at me. Get her cleaned up and bring her to meet Mikhail.

I bristled at his tone and choice of words. Though I knew I looked like the loser of a mud wrestling match, I didn't appreciate him pointing it out. A gentleman wouldn't have brought attention to it. I wanted to make some snarky response about his own need to get cleaned up, but the truth was he was just too pristine. Not to mention he was wearing the suit of all suits. Now, I've seen some pretty nice suits before, but this one was in a league of its own. It hung from the man in sleek, well-ironed lines.

Instead of talking back, I glared up at him. It was the best I could manage. I wondered if he'd look as nice after going through what I had. He noticed it and condescended to ignore me. Josh, sensing the tension forming, took me by the arm and led me away, my bare feet pattering against the floor. We went to the door where I had first discovered my sensitivity to the sun. Thankfully, the sun was set and I walked out without the slightest discomfort.

We walked through the dimly lit streets of Olympia toward my apartment, passing a few teenagers and the occasional politician—Olympia was the state capital, after all. The city also had quite a few colorful bars which were slowly filling. We reached my apartment in less than two minutes, with only one or two pointed looks at my lack of shoes and matted hair. But this was the land of hippies; my matted hair could just be dreadlocks, and my lack of shoes a choice of conscience—anti-child labor maybe? Then again, I didn’t know too many hippies that wore little, slinky black dresses. We weaved through the courtyard and into the narrow staircase leading up to my door. I could almost hear Josh's thoughts as I stopped at my paint-chipped door—people actually live in these dumps? Belatedly, I realized I didn't have my purse with me anymore, and thus my keys. I glanced at him and he seemed to understand. He reached for my door handle, twisted it easily, and pushed it open. I heard a crunch as the deadbolt tore through my wall and cringed. That was going to cost. Thankfully, Josh's inhuman strength distracted me.

How the hell had he done that? Seeing vampire strength in real life was a far cry from reading about it in books.

We entered my dingy apartment. I looked around, the whole place taking on a new light while in the presence of a stranger.

You live here? he asked, echoing my previous thoughts.

I tried not to take offense at it. Unlike some people, I'm not rolling in it. My books aren't that popular.

I moved into my apartment, hoping to find some comfort food. Do you want anything?

No.

I can still eat food right? I mean, Isaac ate in front of me.

Yes, you can eat food, but it won't be as satisfying.

I shrugged and closed the fridge door, no longer really interested in food. Nothing looked good. I couldn't figure out what I was craving.

Why don't you go shower? Josh suggested. I'll wait here.

I hesitated a moment before realizing there was nothing of value for him to steal.

I gathered up clothing that in no way resembled a cocktail dress—jeans and a T-shirt—and shuffled into the bathroom. Once out of the shower, I dressed and returned to the main room. I threw my wet hair up into a ponytail and stuffed my feet into my most waterproof pair of boots. Josh sat on the edge of my bed, petting Muffler. I filled Muffler's bowls while the cat was happily distracted. On the way out of the door, I grabbed my brown leather jacket, and I followed him down the stairs and out onto the street.

So do—do vampires, like, live forever? Like in my books?

Well, we don't die of old age, but we can still die. And far more easily than in your books.

Then how old are you? I asked, an uncomfortable idea forming in my mind.

I was born in 1952 and turned at the age of twenty-one.

So, you're really sixty years old? I ask after a brief pause to calculate his age. Math wasn't exactly my best subject—hence the writing.

Josh chuckled at the clear sound of shock and disgust. Yes. I'm an old fart in your eyes—though barely middle-aged compared too many of my seethe. Well, soon to be your see…

Josh was cut off by a blow to the back. He fell to the ground, blood spurting from his broken nose and tainting the sidewalk. I turned to see a man dressed in dated black jeans, a black sweatshirt, and a knit hat pulled down to his eyebrows. At first I thought it was just your average mugging—whatever that means—but the attacker immediately turned toward me, arms outstretched, as though I was the item he intended to steal. He ignored Josh. I panicked, not having the faintest idea how to defend myself.

My panic sadly didn't produce a speedy retreat. Rather, I became glued in place, my eyes wide with fright. My breath caught painfully in my chest, keeping me from screaming. Thankfully, the blow to Josh's head hadn't muddled his thoughts. He pushed himself off his knees, launching himself into the attacker's legs. The man in black toppled over onto Josh's back.

Without really thinking about it, I jumped forward and slammed my fists into his back. I felt a newfound power surge through my muscles. The man grunted and rolled off Josh. Evidently my blow was harder than I realized, because he didn't get up as quickly as Josh. The redhead swung his leg into the attacker's rib cage. I heard a faint crack of ribs breaking. Was I supposed to be able to hear that?

Well, I am a vampire now, I thought in a smug mental voice.

Josh jumped in between me and the other man as our attacker climbed back to his feet, his body hunched slightly toward his left side. Give her to me, the stranger ordered, his voice constricted with pain.

Josh and I both hesitated, too surprised by his demand. Who are you? Josh finally asked.

The man grinned, circling to the left, which forced Josh to shift. I stayed behind Josh, as I sensed he wanted me to do. Considering I had no idea what was going on or how to fight, it seemed a good idea.

Who sent you? asked Josh in an effort to get any response from the stranger.

My primus, of course, stated the man, with a chuckle, right before he lunged at Josh. Josh was at least six, maybe even nine inches shorter than his attacker, but he was a great deal faster. Josh managed to take two steps forward and duck before their bodies collided. He used his low center of gravity to flip the other man over his shoulder while taking hold of one of the man's legs. The move resulted in our attacker slamming head-first into the pavement. His skull collapsed in a sickeningly crunchy splat.

I don't know what response I expected from myself, but I'm sure it was not throwing up. Nevertheless, I dropped to the ground and started heaving, but there wasn't anything in my stomach to expel. I barely managed to spit up some useless bile.

Josh moved before I could finish. He leaned over the man and quite literally tore his head from his shoulders. The body instantly turned to dust. I gasped and scooted away from the pile that was slowly turning to mud, thanks to the annoying drizzle.

W-w-what just happened? I stammered after swallowing a few times to get the taste out of my mouth.

We'll talk when we're safe, he said, spitting blood from his lips in a totally manly, and not at all gross sort of way. Josh pulled me to my feet and guided me away from the site. We were still a number of blocks away from the vampire bunker. Josh nudged me down an alley, presumably to avoid notice. After all, he couldn’t clean his bloodstained face. Strangely, the broken nose didn’t seem to be bleeding anymore. We weaved through the alleys, avoiding the attention of the local night life.

Josh yanked on my leather jacket, pulling me to a stop beside a nondescript door. He banged on the door in a rhythmic fashion and stepped back. It swung open a second later, nearly taking my nose off. A man I didn't recognize glanced at us before stepping aside and to let us in.

What happened to you, Josh? the man asked as he followed us down the steps.

Chapter Six

Where's Mikhail? Josh snapped, ignoring the man’s question.

The man didn't hesitate, but pointed toward the intricate double doors, his brows furrowed in confusion. Josh stormed down the hallway, and I did my best to keep up. He took my wrist, pushed the nearest door open, and entered the room. Again, my expectations fell short.

The entire room was arranged like a furniture store that catered to the modern shopper. Matching couches, with straight lines and harsh corners, were bunched into small living room sets, including coffee tables and end tables of all shapes and sizes. The walls were covered in entertainment centers, symmetrical book cases, and the occasional fireplace. Modern art, conveying no meaning whatsoever, beckoned the eye not to notice the lack of windows. Well-dressed individuals sat in conversation, drinking from crystal glasses.

In contrast to the ultra-modern look, classical music played softly in the background and two enormous, antique grand pianos sat in the back corners surrounded by special seating for those who chose to listen to the performers. Just to the left and right of the door stood two matching pool tables. The one to the left was in use.

A young man, barely out of adolescence, leaned over the edge of the table and tapped a ball into the corner pocket. His curly hair hung down past his ears and hid his face. What happened? he asked without turning to look at us. Was he psychic?

We were attacked, sir.

I glanced back and forth between the bloodstained Josh and the younger man. There was something between them I wasn't catching. Josh stood stock still, his shoulders pulled back, as though he were a cadet being inspected by his commanding officer.

Clearly, sighed the teenager. He turned to look at us, leaning his backside against the edge of the table while idly picking up his glass and sipping an amber-colored liquid. I doubted he was old enough to drink alcohol. I had to remind myself that age could be deceptive with vampires, and after seeing a man turn to dust, I couldn't really doubt their existence anymore.

Though I wanted to doubt. I wanted to very badly.

A man from Richard's seethe ambushed us, demanding I give him Ashley.

Ashley? asked the youth, glancing at me for the first time. I was starting to get annoyed. Being ignorant wasn't pleasant. And having a teenager eye me with disdain was even worse. So this is the stray?

I bristled at his words. Stray?

This is Ashley Hawn. Ashley, this is Mikhail Bartrey, my primus, he added, emphasizing the title in a not-so-subtle hint. Isaac Wilson changed her, but abandoned her.

Isaac huh? And now a man attacked you, broke your nose, and demanded her back?

Josh nodded.

It seems, little Josh, you have managed to stumble into a complete mess, growled the youth while he dropped his pool cue onto the table, the movement disrupting most of the remaining balls.

Josh nodded, keeping his eyes on the ground.

And what makes you so special? Mikhail asked, his bright eyes searching me with interest.

I shrugged and glared defiantly at him. I was hungry, confused, and annoyed; such emotions never brought out the best in me. Mikhail cocked an eyebrow at me, not backing down despite my ferocious glare, which has frightened puppies and babies alike.

I've never heard of Isaac siring anyone, much less doing so and leaving them, commented Mikhail before taking a sip of his drink. He seemed determined to ignore my insolence. That just annoyed me more. I'm like one of those brat children that act out for attention. Not very mature, I know.

Something must have scared him off? suggested Josh.

I tried to think back to the attack, but I couldn't remember anything useful.

Wait! What's siring? I demanded.

Shshsh, hissed Josh.

Oh shshsh yourself, I snapped, tired of being in the dark. All the rules that held my reality together had changed, crumbled. I had to know the new rules.

Your sire is the vampire who turned you. Now be quiet, ordered Mikhail.

I glared at him, unable to think of anything worth saying in response.

What would scare off Isaac? Mikhail asked.

Josh's eyes widened at the thought. Evidently the answer was something really big and nasty. It was hard to believe, I thought as I remembered the pain of his attack. Mikhail nodded at Josh's silent response.

I think the bigger question is 'why would Isaac turn her in the first place,' said Josh.

Mikhail took another sip of his liquid, the wheels in his head clearly turning. The silence dragged on, though the others in the large room continued to talk in subdued voices. I glanced at Josh, who was still eying Mikhail. I was about to say something, anything, when Nikolai, the man in the fancy suit, stepped forward from the other side of the pool table. I hadn’t even noticed him standing there.

It seems the best solution would be to kill her and be done with it, he said.

Excuse me? I snapped, appalled.

Josh stepped forward and grabbed my arm, but I shook him off as I marched right up to the tall man. When someone is more than a foot taller than you, it's not wise to pick a fight. What can I say; I'm not very wise.

You just wanna whack me for your convenience?

If your life is a threat to this seethe, then yes, Nikolai said in a matter-of-fact tone.

Without thinking, I pulled back my arm and swung at his face. I didn't even get halfway through the swing before he had me pinned to the pool table, the cue ball digging painfully into my cheek. Not a good idea, he whispered in my ear, a faint hint of a Russian accent leaking through.

Let her up, Nikolai, Mikhail ordered in a calm voice. She'll learn.

After a few seconds of hesitation, the suit let me up. I shrugged him off and stomped a few steps away. A new, more intense silence settled over us. I slowly realized the other conversations had ceased as well. Only the music filled the uncomfortable stillness.

You aren't going to kill her, are you Mikhail? Josh asked in a humble, yet plaintive voice.

Have you taken a liking to her? scoffed Nikolai. I glared at him from a safe distance. Would it be so shocking if Josh did like me? I was likable!

It isn't fair. She shouldn't have to die for our safety. It is not her actions that threaten us. Besides, do we really want to do that without knowing what Isaac wanted with her? Josh asked. That seemed to sink in. Mikhail eyed me, his wheels turning again.

We'll keep her for now, announced Mikhail after a few seconds consideration. And she'll be under your protection, Nik.

What? Why me?

This is more than Josh can handle. He's young and inexperienced. What would happen if he went up against Isaac?

No, no, no, I interrupted. He'll just leave me on Isaac's doorstep, or worse, kill me himself! I added, waving toward