I turned with my eyes to the ground and slowly followed them upward. I saw the black converse sneakers, then the navy blue jeans that fit him perfectly. I saw the white arms descending from the black sleeves of his snug button-up shirt. And then I saw the creamy white neck sprouting from beneath the collar and giving way to a smoothly rounded chin, a chiseled jaw, the perfect nose and arching brows, and all of it crowned with that beautiful wavy hair that went down to his shoulders.
His hair was a color I had not seen before. It was a strange yet perfect mixture between blond and gray. No, it would be a crime to use such simple, plain colors to describe it. It was more like liquid gold with a faint silvery shine. It was the color of electrum, like the metal had been cut into a thousand flawless curling strands.
But the thing that held my attention the most was his eyes. From the darkness of his shadowed face, his eyes gleamed in a way that seemed to violate some vital law of nature. They were mesmerizing. Two orbs of deep ocean blue with violet at the center. They were focused unblinkingly on me so I could not look away. I saw no hostility in those eyes, no anger, no emotion at all.
And finally I wasn’t afraid anymore. If he was going to kill me, then what better way to die? I had come here somehow knowing that I would not be going back. I didn’t want to go back to that life, to the pain of losing Stephen, to the chaos of all that had happened. I wanted a change, an end. And I wished that he would just get it over with.
What happened next I would never have conceived even in my most indulgent of dreams. With speed so swift I did not even see him move, he embraced me.
It was such a soft embrace, his hard arms folding around me so gently as though he feared I might break. And I just stood there, a statue, in shock, not understanding why he would hold me so sweetly.
He let go slowly and pulled back to look me in the eye.
“Hello, Crimson,” he said, his voice laced with seraphic magic, sweet and even.
“You know my name,” I breathed, dazed as one lost in Orpheus’ poppy field.
He laughed and the sound rang like elysian chimes in my ears.
“Yes,” he said, smiling with a secret I was not privy to. “I have for some time now. Why don’t you come inside, so we can talk.”
With one hand softly at my back, he led me into the house.
The living room was filled with lavishly expensive and rare things—lovely old French chaises, a beautiful cherry wood coffee table, an antique grandfather clock with authentic gold hands and numbers, paintings by the masters, statues and busts and ancient Greek pots…It was like a museum in here, only vastly more comfortable.
He sat on the pink and gold wood-framed French loveseat and beckoned me to join him. I shakily sat next to him, and he looked at me with such a sweet, coddling smile, as if I was something precious. If I wasn’t in the twilight zone before, I sure as hell was now.
“Please, just relax,” he said. “Don’t be so stiff. I want you to be comfortable.”
Wanting to appease him, I sat back in the cushion and tried to loosen my tight shoulders. All I could think was, Oh my God, I’m actually sitting right next to Nicholae!, and it made my stomach twitch.
“Perhaps if you hear me talk, you will calm down,” he said. “A year ago, I got a call from my lawyer Phil Jackson. He informed me that my accounts were being monitored by a foreign intruder. So I met with him and together we tracked it down to the source. It wasn’t difficult for him to follow the trace back to your computer, especially since the protection software you were using wasn’t very good.”
Damn that Damien, I thought. I was so sure that, by Damien’s instructions, I would be safe. I had no idea that anyone, especially Nicholae himself, would ever be aware of my presence.
“I was intrigued,” he went on. “A mortal had discovered that I wasn’t just some fictional character, and she was watching me, my accounts, my addresses, everything. My first question was, who exactly is this mortal? And second, what is the nature of her interest in me?
“So I had Phil run a background search on you. He gave me your address and I went to your house that very night, which was already two weeks after you had started tracking me. I was surprised when I found you. You were a sixteen year-old girl, beautiful and clever, and the reason you were tracking me was because…you loved me! You had read all of my books and, despite knowing who and what I was, you still adored me and wanted to meet me.
“I became very interested in you, so I started watching you. At night I would come to your house and just sit outside your window or walk around your neighborhood, listening in on your thoughts, you conversations, the TV shows you watched…” He smiled, and it was so heartbreakingly beautiful. “I know you won’t believe me, but…it was so easy to fall in love with you. You are so sweet, so innocent. You’re intelligent and creative and refreshingly naïve. And your mind works so quickly. You pick up new information and new subjects like a sponge in water. For example, when you found out about me, you forced yourself to learn about computers, even though you had no personal interest in them at all.”
He smiled and he lifted his hand to brush my cheek with his fingers. His touch was cold against my cheek, making me shiver. But it was so gentle and tantalizing that it warmed my belly and sent static across my skin.
“I was completely enamored by you, I still am,” he sighed, his gaze soft on my face. “I decided that I was going to bring you over, to turn you, if you were willing. But I couldn’t do it just yet; it would be too difficult for you, to leave your friends and your family so early. And I wanted to give you the chance to come to know me on a personal level before you decided to accept eternity with me. I had to introduce myself in just the right way. I would wait until your eighteenth birthday, after you graduated high school and could leave your family as you would naturally. I vowed to myself and to you that I would not enter your life until then.
“But then you found your chance to meet me through your own devices. You were going to come to New York with your high school band and planned to sneak off and meet me—there was a slight dilemma. I couldn’t just stand you up and leave you to wonder around this bloodthirsty city by yourself. After careful thought, I decided it would be fine to let our encounter happen sooner. And…I wanted to see you, to hold you as soon as I could. So, I dropped you plenty of hints, buying small things close by so that you would know I was in the city. I was going to be here waiting for you when you came, and I would do whatever I could to sweep you off your feet. Did I do a good job?”
“You have no idea,” I said dazedly.
“Good.” He stared at me for a moment, making me blush and look away.
I didn’t know what to say. All this time, he had known I was on to him, and he had fallen in love with me??? I was no one special. Why should he love me?
“I almost had to blow my cover twice, though,” he said. “I should have known you would get yourself in trouble up in the mountains. You with all your insatiable audacity, of course you would get yourself lost. I heard your voice in my sleep, calling for help, but I could do nothing about it until the sun went down. I prayed that I could get to you before something else did, begged for the sun to be generous and set more quickly so I could save you. As soon as night fell, I ran to you as fast as I could. It was the first time in my life that I felt like my speed was not enough.
“I got to you just as the bear was about to have you. You had fainted only seconds before, and the bear was so very close to ending your life. I ripped him from you and scared him away. Then I knelt by your side and tended to your ankle. I smashed the rocks as precisely as I could without hurting your foot any further. Once I had it free, I sealed your wound. I dug my nails into my palm until it bled, then rubbed my blood into your ankle. Your skin healed as quickly as mine did.
“After I took care of any cut or scratch I found, I lifted you into my arms and carried you to your house. I told your mother the lie that would be easiest for her to believe, that I was a forest ranger.”
“So it was you who saved me,” I said, remembering all the strange details from that episode that didn’t match up until now. “I really thought I was going crazy.”
“Sorry about that,” he chuckled beseechingly. “But it doesn’t matter now. You’re safe.”
His eyes were starting to hypnotize me again, and I had to make my eyes focus on something else. Then I remembered something he said.
“Wait, you said you almost blew your cover twice,” I said. “So then the second time was—”
For the first time, I saw sadness cross his pretty face. His eyebrows creased ever so slightly with what looked like guilt.
“Stephen,” I whispered.
He nodded gravely.
“I’m so sorry, Crimson,” he said almost pleadingly. “I didn’t think it would hurt you like it did. I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I was only thinking about what he almost did to you.” His mask of sorrow turned into a sneer and his fists clenched at his sides. “You have to understand that I could not let him go unpunished for what he did. I was so blinded by rage! If he had waited a little longer, into nightfall, I would have attacked him there right in front of you. I was glad it did not come to that, and that he hadn’t accomplished his violation of you. But I could not let him live. I had to kill him!”
His anger cooled as he looked at me, and his eyes returned to their pleading shimmer.
“I am so sorry for the pain that it caused you,” he said, eyes glossy. “You must hate me for it.”
“No, no, of course I don’t!” I exclaimed. That was the very last thing I would ever feel toward him. I don’t even think it’s possible for me to hate him. But did he know why Stephen’s actions had hurt me so? Did he know that I was already damaged goods?
“You are not damaged goods,” he asserted, placing his hand gently on my knee. “You were a victim who has blossomed into an amazing young woman. Never for a second believe otherwise.”
No one had ever said such a thing to me before. No one had ever known about my father before, only my mother and we never spoke about it.
“Can you ever forgive me?” he asked.
This was such a twisted situation. I just learned that the boy I had loved was murdered by the man I have loved since reading his first written word. But I had only loved the version of him I knew on paper. Was he truly the man from his stories? Could he possibly live up to the perfect image I had built up in my mind? And he had killed Stephen. He was a killer. I knew this, yes, had always known it, but now that fact had touched my life. But after what Stephen had done, had I myself not wanted him dead? Wouldn’t I have done the same thing if someone I loved had been hurt in that way? How was I supposed to feel about this? It’s not like there was a societal precedent for things like this. Was there any person in the world who could give me an answer?
But I had already forgiven him. I didn’t feel any anger or resentment toward him for it. Did that make me a bad person? Shouldn’t I be the least bit angry at the person who killed my friend?
I looked at him and the expression on his beautiful face was heartbreaking. It was clear that he could hear everything I was thinking. Of course, I knew from his stories that vampires could read minds, but having theoretical knowledge of something and actually experiencing it are two very different things. I was completely exposed to him, an open book. He could hear all that was going through my mind, and it was clear that it was deeply upsetting him.
“Yes, I do forgive you,” I said. “I can’t explain why. I do miss Stephen very much, despite what he did to me, but I don’t blame you for your reaction to his betrayal.” God, I wanted so much to comfort him, to restore his pretty face from the self-torment that darkened it.
“If you will allow me, I will try forever to make up for it,” he said.
His deep ocean eyes delved meaningfully into mine, and we just stared at each other for a long moment.
There was so much I needed to process. Not just this latest revelation behind Stephen’s death, but everything else Nicholae had said. He was offering me eternity, eternity as a vampire. Of course, I had fantasized about it all my adolescent life. But now that death had touched me, I realized what it meant to take a life. If I became a vampire, I would have to kill people, or animals. I would have to bring death to something in order to live on a daily basis.
“That’s not necessarily true,” Nicholae interrupted my inner monologue. “There are those of us that only take safe amounts of blood from humans, then strip those humans’ memories and let them get on with their lives. Although, it does take quite a bit of control to do so, to draw back before taking a fatal amount of blood. But it can be done.
“These are all the things I want you to consider before making your decision. I want you to be fully aware of the benefits and the consequences of being a vampire. Understand, truly understand, that being immortal means that you will never die of natural causes but you will be doomed to watching loved ones die over and over again. But being immortal also means that you will get to be witness to so many wondrous things. You will get to see the passage of time as no one else can, to see the progress of technology and the growth of nations. And, if you are lucky enough to find friends in the blood and love in the blood…” he reached out and took my hand, holding it for a moment as if it were a treasure. “Well, everlasting love is what we all aspire to find. I had all but given up on that before I found you, or rather you found me.”
And there it was again, perhaps the most important thing he had said, the one thing that was the farthest beyond belief, that he had fallen in love with me. I wasn’t usually one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I needed to understand why.
“Why?” I asked. “What is so special about me that you would choose to be with me rather than anyone else? You must have known hundreds of girls in your lifetime, and with your telepathy, you have seen into the hearts of countless thousands. I just don’t understand what makes me different.”
“That’s just it, Crimson,” he said “I couldn’t explain it if I tried. You have an amazing strength in you, an inner beauty that shines so much brighter than your physical allure. Your mind works in a way wholly unlike anyone else I have come across, and it fascinates me. And your soul, it comforts and grounds me in a way I’ve never felt before.
“Do you remember a few nights after you had started tracking me, you were sitting outside on your back porch, my latest book on your lap. I had been watching you for a few days, growing more and more interested in you. In truth, a bit infatuated already. I was strolling along the sidewalk around your neighborhood, telepathically tuning into you, and stealing glimpses of you through your fence as I passed by.
“You were so excited by everything you were learning about me, you were just buzzing with hope. Then you did something I wasn’t expecting, you started to talking to me.”
The memory of that vaguely returned to me. Me sitting in the rocking chair on my back patio, stroking the cover of his book.
“Ahh, Nicholae,” I had whispered. “I have discovered your secret. How brilliantly you pulled it off. You wanted the world to know your story, but in a way that was safe for you, for your kind. Passing it all off as a work of fiction through an eager human writer.” I had looked down at his book and flipped through the pages. “I can’t believe it’s all real. You actually lived through all the events in these pages. You must be the most fascinating person I’ve ever heard of.” And then I had thought about everything I had read, really thought about it, all the tragedies he had been through. “And perhaps the most tortured. To have survived so much heartache. I can’t imagine the burden your soul carries. If I could meet you, I would help you carry it. I would rescue you from the sea of despair you must be in, even if you yourself don’t even realize you’re drowning.”
“Your words struck a chord in me,” Nicholae said presently. “I hadn’t ever really admitted to myself how much pain I was in night in and night out, how lonely I was. And you, this young human girl who had never even met me, you had the depth of soul to see into mine, and the caring nature to want to mend me. That was the night I fell in love with you, the night I knew without a doubt that you were the most precious thing in my universe.”
His handsome face was glowing with an affection I had never seen before, a love that was unselfish and raw, and it was aimed at me.
Before I knew what I was doing, I kissed him.
My lips met his, rose petal soft despite the hardness of his inhuman body. They received mine, tender and submissive, not demanding as Stephen’s had been. His lips said without words that I had all the power here. I breathed in the scent of him, sweet and indefinable, filling my senses to the point of drug-induced euphoria. My breathing grew heavy as I slowly moved my lips against his, opening them in invitation. When he opened his mouth and ever so softly caressed my tongue with his, my body went into overdrive.
Driven by an overwhelming desire for more of him, I kissed him hungrily, trying to devour his mouth, and he kept pace so perfectly, like we were in sync, two parts of a whole working together.
I had never wanted someone so much in my entire life. I had never felt such a physical or emotional ache such as this. Lust was not an accurate enough word, though it was the only in my vocabulary that came close. My breasts hummed to be pressed against him, so I did. My loins throbbed for him, so I climbed on top of his lap, electrified when I felt the hardness between his legs press against my throbbing, the evidence of his equal desire for me. He closed his arms around my waist, still so gentle, and I reveled in the feel of his fingertips running over my lower back. I was in a frenzy, unaware of anything but the feel of him everywhere, the smell of him driving me wild!
I had to have more! I reached blindly for his belt.
He broke our liplock and pulled me back, the sudden loss of sensation shocking my system.
“Not yet,” he said breathlessly. He easily lifted me off his lap and planted me back on the couch, then he stood up and combed his hair back with his fingers, sighing heavily.
As my fast breaths drew in fresh air untainted by his intoxicating scent, my lust quelled, but only enough for me to think a bit more clearly. I had totally lost control with him. I had never felt such desire for someone, and I had often praised myself for my self-control. But with Nicholae, in that moment, I knew nothing else but my hunger for him.
“It’s what we do,” Nicholae said, his voice thicker, rougher. “Our scent is meant to draw you in, to make you surrender to us. It doesn’t always effect humans so strongly though. I wasn’t expecting this reaction.” He let out a breathy laugh.
“I’m sorry,” I said, feeling ashamed and embarrassed.
“No, please, don’t be,” he implored. “How a human already feels toward us increases the effect, it just took me off guard, that’s all.”
I nodded, then was drawn in by the sight of the bulge in his pants and my body throbbed again.
“Why did you stop?” I asked.
“I want to take things slow,” he said. “You mean too much to me. I want everything to be perfect.”
This was such a strange feeling for me. I had always kept others at arm’s length. Even when I started to have feelings for Stephen, I hadn’t wanted to be overly physical yet. And here I was, only having known Nicholae for not even an hour, and giving myself to him was all I could think about. Was that really just because he was a vampire? Was it all due to chemistry? But no, in truth I had known him for years, through his books. I had fallen in love with him a long time ago, and he in the flesh was even better than I could have imagined he’d be.
I wanted nothing more than to rip his clothes off with my teeth and explore the carnal world I had turned my back on over a decade ago, but I knew he was right. I was grateful that one of us was being rational.
“Now…tell me what you want to do,” he said, taking a cautious step toward me. “It’s Halloween night, your favorite holiday, so what would you like to do? We can do absolutely anything you want.”
I want to kiss you more, I said to him in my mind. “But since we have ruled that out for the moment, I just want to talk to you. I want to know absolutely everything about you.”
Just then my stomach growled quite loudly, and I realized I hadn’t eaten anything in hours out of anxiety.
“We will talk as much as you want to tonight, but you must eat first,” he insisted. “I don’t often entertain mortals, so I don’t have any food here. Let me take you out to eat.”
“Our first date, so soon?” I teased. “Just don’t expect a reward for paying for dinner.” He laughed nervously, seeming grateful that I was making light of our shared torment for each other.