He was waiting for her when she breezed through the door of the coffee shop. It had taken weeks to figure out a pattern to her comings and goings. Night after night staking out the little coffee shop at the end of the street hoping for a glimpse of her.
She was older than the women that normally attracted him. Young college grads were so much easier to deal with. But something about her intrigued him which, with his past, was unusual.
He knew he should just file his curiosity about her away and let her pass through his world, safe and unharmed. Yet every night since he first laid eyes on her he found himself seeking her out.
“Hey Bastion,” she greeted the server with a smile.
“Hey Em. How was class?” The young blond man behind the counter grabbed a paper cup to start her drink. She never had to order anything. The two of them had a routine.
“Pretty good. My little dancers are coming along.”
“Are they ready for the recital?”
She laughed in answer. It carried across the room and struck him squarely in the chest. He took a breath, imaging its warmth spreading through his limbs.
At first he’d thought her cheerful demeanor was artificial. A phony smile and laugh to hide a deep sadness she was carrying around. After a few nights of watching her from behind the safety of his long brown hair he realized it was genuine. It was just as real as the incredible sadness he’d felt from her.
He’d moved into the top floor of the apartment building she lived in two days before he overheard her weeping though the vent in his bedroom. It had barely been perceptible but he caught the soft sounds in the darkness. It had pulled him away from the piece he’d been working on. The same piece he’d been ignoring while he spent his time watching her.
The sorrow in those quiet sobs drew him to want to comfort her and it had been years since he’d felt that way about anyone. Something drove him to find out what had broken her heart so badly that it seemed to swallow her up at night.
While it was a nice thought but, had he given in to his desire to slip into her apartment to find her, wrap his arms around her, and tell her everything would be alright. That she was safe from whatever it was that was causing her so much pain, he might have ended up in jail or possibly evicted from the building. Being thrown out would have put a big wrench into his current plans of laying low for a while.
So he took the only other viable option and stalked her.
Bastion nodded to the lone customer in the shop. “You haven’t noticed?”
“You’re being silly.” She snapped the lid onto her drink. “It’s just a coincidence.”
“Come on Em.” Bastion winked. “Go say hi.”
“Good night Bastion.” She picked up the bag he had set on the counter for her. “I’ll see you Thursday.” As she turned her smile dimmed down several watts. Her neighbor had packed up his stuff and was walking towards the door. Her steps slowed. He got to the door first and choose that exact moment to pull out his phone to check for messages. When he didn’t move out of the way she had no choice but to walk right up to him. “Excuse me.”
His eyes looked up and he smiled slightly. “Sorry.” His smile deepened. “You live in my building.” She nodded, trying not to make it obvious that she was entranced by his unusual green eyes. “Were you headed home?”
“Ya. It’s been a long day.”
“Do you mind if I walk with you?” He pushed the door open with one hand and stood back to let her go ahead of him.
“I don’t mind,” she answered softly. Behind her she heard a tiny squeal. Clearly Bastion had overhead the exchange.
“Good night Sebastion.” He didn’t turn to look at the server, just followed her out into the humid air of the evening.
They walked to the corner without another word. Once they’d turned she couldn’t take the silence.
“So, how do you like the building? You’ve been there about a month?”
He smiled down at her. “It’s been good so far. You’re pretty quiet and the neighbors on the other side, the Walls, have been very friendly.”
“Has she brought you cookies yet? I swear she spends all of her time baking. The kids in the building love her.”
“She did. Chocolate chip. And I’ll deny it if you tell anyone but they were better than my mom used to make.”
She laughed. “Your secret is safe with me.”
“You’re a dance teacher?”
She nodded. “At a studio a few blocks away. I have a serving job on the weekends. I love my little dancers but I still need to pay my bills you know?” She breathed a little sigh of relief as they approached the building. “What do you do?”
“It’s convenient. I can do it almost anywhere.”
“That would be nice. Are you working on anything in particular right now?”
“Actually I’ve been kind of stymied lately. I have an idea for something but I haven’t been able to find the right pictures to work off of.” He frowned. “I might need to take some new ones.”
“You’re a photographer too?”
“I take a lot of my own pictures. When I can find the right model of course.” He stopped with his hand on the door leading into the building. “Have you ever done any modeling?”
“Me?” she laughed, “Ah no.”
“Really? I think you’d be a very interesting subject, especially since you’re a dancer.”
She was still smiling as she walked through the doorway. “No one has ever asked. Maybe I missed my calling?”
“Maybe.” They climbed the stairs quietly, stopped on the landing to her floor. “Would you consider it?”
“I guess it depends on what I’m being asked to do.”
“If you’d like I can send you an outline of what I’m looking for. Can I have your number?” He held out his phone with one hand while offering to hold her drink with the other.
He smiled as she tapped her digits into his contacts. Finally, he had the opening her needed to get to know her better.
Oddly, he wasn’t at the coffee shop the following Tuesday. She’d become used to seeing him there in the corner and getting a glimpse of his exotic good looks that the stab of disappointment when she spotted the empty table wasn’t a complete surprise.
“Hey pretty lady,” Bastion greeted her with his usual thousand watt smile.
“Hey Bastion. Has he been in today?”
His lips twisted in a frown. “No. Did something happen the other night?”
“Not at all. He just walked me home and left me at my door.” Her fingers tapped the counter softly. “He was a perfect gentleman.” Bastion’s eyebrows rose. “I was surprised too. I thought for sure he’d try something. Guys like that always do right?”
“Yes, thank god,” he said with a laugh, “Hey, it lets us introverted types off the hook when they’re forward like that.”
“Introvert my ass.” She snapped the lid onto her cup and reached into her pocket to pull out a few bills.
“What are you trying to say?”
“That you, my friend, are no introvert.” She took the proffered bag from his outstretched hand. “Thank you.”
“Ya, I guess you’re right. Not all of us have your kind of restraint.” He leaned against the counter. “Sweetheart, if you ever get the opportunity promise me you’ll take it.”
“With him?” He smiled. “You have lost your beautiful little mind. That guy has entitled pretty boy stamped all over him. There’s no way I’m getting mixed up with that.”
“Who said anything about dating him?” He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “Aren’t you dying to see what’s under those impeccable jeans?”
“I’m reformed, remember.” She laughed and turned to head to the door. “Hey.” She turned back. “Are you working at the other place on Saturday?”
“Just like every other Saturday.” He smiled. “Has Sam convinced you to dance yet?”
“I’m still thinking about it.” She pushed the door open. “I’ll see you Saturday.” He blew her a kiss.
It was a short walk home but that night it seemed shorter than usual. When she got to the building she looked up at the windows lining the top floor but didn’t see any lights shining through the ones she estimated to be Balthazar’s. With a little sigh she marched up the stairs and continued to the fourth floor.
The door to her apartment closed behind her shutting out the world at last. She walked to the kitchen and opened the fridge to set the bag inside. Dinner would have to wait until after she’d had a chance to soak in a hot bath.
Bastion had guessed right, Sam had been asking her to take a turn on the stage at her second job for a couple of weeks. It was nothing unusual, he’d been asking on and off since she’d started as a server there over a year ago. At first she’d considered it. The money was too good to dismiss the suggestion without giving it some thought, but in the end her morals had won out. She couldn’t have imagined doing anything like that while anyone in her family could possibly be effected by it but now things had changed.
She left the water running in the tub while she went to the bedroom to strip off her practice clothes. The small bundle was tossed in the hamper on her way back to the washroom. She leaned against the counter sipping her latte while she waited for the tub to fill. It didn’t take very long, not that she would have noticed if it had. She was busy thinking.
Her breath escaped with a soft hiss as she stepped into the tub. One of the great things about the old building was the abundance of hot water. She never had to worry about being able to slip into a nice steaming hot bath at the end of the day, even if it happened to be during the usual bath time of the several children that occupied the building.
She let her head rest against the edge of the tub, sighing as the heat eased the tension that had built up throughout the day. Within a few minutes she’d relaxed enough to stop thinking about the stressed out parents that had peppered her with questions and concerns at the end of class. She looked forward to the end of year performance every year but some parents took it so seriously that it sometimes cast a little cloud over it. The excitement of her little dancers was worth it in the end though, she just had to remind herself of that a little more often as the big day got closer and closer.
The tears waited till she had been in the tub longer than she had intended. It was inevitable. They always seemed to catch her when she finally left her day behind. She sniffed softly trying not to let the sadness take hold. She stood and wiped them from her face with the backs of her hands, smearing the mascara that had melted down under her eyes with the wet heat of the bath.
Her hands snatched up a towel hanging off the counter, wrapped around herself and stepped out of the tub. The water she hadn’t bothered to dry from her skin dripped onto the plush mat very much like the tears that continued to fall from her eyes in spite of her efforts to ignore the pain that was threatening to swallow her up. She quickly yanked the plug free and tossed it on the shelf next to the tub. The chain rattled against the tile before it bounced back and landed behind the old claw foot tub.
“You can just stay there,” she mumbled and turned for the door.
She gripped the towel with one hand and wiped at her face with the other as she padded towards the bedroom. A shadow moved in front of the window next to the bed. She froze just inside the doorway.
“Hello?” she said quietly, not really expecting anything to answer but fully prepared to faint if something did.
The shadow stood. “Emmeline,” it greeted her.
“Balthazar!” She pulled the towel tight against her chest. “What are you doing in my bedroom?”
“I was on my way down to give you some prints and I heard a bang. I thought something might have happened to you.”
“How did you even get in here?”
“The door was unlocked,” he lied smoothly. She didn’t need to know about his talent with locks.
“And you thought it was okay to just waltz in and hang out in my bedroom?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you in the living room so I checked in here.”
“It’s okay. Now would you please go so I can get dressed?”
He stepped towards the doorway. “Emmeline.” She moved back to let him pass. “I am sorry to have intruded. I hadn’t heard back from you and I was worried that you were offended. When I heard that noise I didn’t think, I just came in.”
“It was probably the Johnson twins across the hall.” She ducked her head as he got closer.
He stopped in front of her. “Are you alright?” She nodded but didn’t look up. She flinched as his fingers tucked a stray tendril of hair behind her ear. “If you need someone to talk to I’m a very good listener. At least I’d like to think I am.” He frowned when she didn’t smile at his attempt at humor.
“I’m fine but thank you for the offer.”
“Okay.” His fingers brushed her neck trailing down the curve of her shoulder. “I left the prints on the night stand.” She nodded. “I hope you’ll say yes.”
“I’ll let you know after I look.”
“Deal. Good night.”
Ask me to stay. He waited, giving her a chance to say the words.
“Good night,” she whispered.
“Good night Em.”
It was an hour later when he caught the faint sound of her sobs. That time he didn’t resist temptation. He closed his laptop, set it on the night stand and left his apartment to creep down to her door. After unlocking her door carefully he slipped inside and listened to the soft sounds of sadness coming from her room.
She was curled up in bed, hugging a sheet against herself in the overly warm room. Her head snapped up when he stepped on a creaky floorboard.
“Balthazar.” She sat up, wiping at her face with the sheet. “Jesus. Did I leave the door unlocked again?” She scooted back against the headboard.
“I heard—” He stopped, certain that there was nothing he could say that wouldn’t make her reach for the cell on the night stand and dial 911.
“What?” She pulled the sheet higher. “There was no loud noise.”
“No. There wasn’t.” He stepped closer.
“Then what did you hear this time?”
“You.” He sat on the edge of the bed next to her. “I heard you.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was being so loud.” She looked down, her cheeks turning pink under the dim light of the street lamp shining through the open window.
“Then why are you here?”
“Because I’ve been listening to someone cry for over a month now and after I saw you earlier I finally know who it was.”
“I had no idea anyone could hear me.” She sighed. “I’m sorry I disturbed you. As you can see I’m fine. Thank you for checking on me again, I’d appreciate it if you left now.”
“You’re not fine,” he said softly turning to look at her.
“Sure I am,” she said, ignoring the little catch in her voice.
“Alright, you win. You’re fine.” He smiled and leaned closer. “Will you at least tell me what upsets you so badly that you lay here crying night after night?”
“It’s not every night,” she whispered.
“But often.” His fingers reached for her hair, brushing it away from her face. “Let me guess, some idiot man has broken your heart.” She nodded slightly. “Who would do such a stupid thing?”
“My brother.” Her voice was so quiet he wasn’t sure he’d heard her right.
“Did you have a fight or something?” She shook her head. “How did he hurt you?”
“He died.” Her voice wavered with new tears.
“Jesus.” His arm slid across the back of her neck, he cupped her shoulder and pulled her against him. “Em, I’m so sorry.”
“I couldn’t help him.” She let him wrap his arms around her.
“He was ill?” he asked softly.
She nodded. “Mental issues.”
“Had he been sick for long?”
“Since his teens.” Her breath hiccuped. “He was such a sweet kid and then the delusions started. Last year it got to the point where he couldn’t take it anymore.” She shook her head. “After our parents were killed I was all he had and I let him down.”
“It must have been awful for him.” She nodded. “You can’t blame yourself. There’s only so much any of us can do.”
“No. I should have called him back sooner. I could have talked to him, reminded him that the visions would go away like they always had. I could have stopped him.”
“Vampires,” she whispered the word. “He started seeing them in his first year of junior high. What ever he saw would scare him so badly he wouldn’t be able to sleep for days. It was so hard to watch him go through that, we felt so helpless.”
“I’m sure you did everything you could.” He gave her a little squeeze.
“We tried.” She looked up at him with a frown. “Why are you being so nice to me?” Her breath caught. His lips hovered millimeters from hers. It would be so easy to lean a little closer and taste him.
“I thought we were friends. Maybe I was wrong?”
“No.” She stared at his lips. “We’re friends.”
“Good.” He tilted his head to brush her forehead with his lips. “You should get some sleep.” She frowned but let him pull back the sheet so she could get out of bed and follow him to the door.
He leaned against the wood after the lock clicked into place. If her brother had been mixed up with vampires the situation was much more tenuous than he’d thought. He moved to the stairs running his hands through his long hair with a frustrated sigh.
You should leave her alone.
He looked back at her door through green eyes that had started to glow. With a shake of his head the glow faded. He knew no amount of arguing was going to alter his path.
I want her.