Bonaventure was an eerie, but magnificent cemetery. The Spanish moss hung low on the branches of the Live Oaks, providing an ominous sanctuary for mourners. The rain had ceased, but a thick blanket of fog had rolled in, shrouding the ground in obscurity. Thunder continued to rage, shaking my poor car. Cassius guided her down a winding path before pulling to a stop at the bottom of a hill by a mossy pond. He pushed open the driver’s door and stepped out.
“Honey, I’m home,” he called out in a sing-song voice, spinning in a circle with his arms lifted skyward.
I got out of the car and leaned against the passenger door, trying to appear bored. “Feel better? Can we go now?”
His face grew somber and in the split second it took for my brain to register his change in demeanor, his hand was at my throat, slowly cutting off my airway. I drew in a breath and realized that the strangely long and pointed nail of his thumb was pressed to the major carotid artery of my neck. His predator-yellow eyes narrowed, and his voice was low and threatening.
“I can feel your very life force under my thumb. With a single twitch, I can wipe your miserable existence away.”
The smell of burning flesh stung my nose and I fought the urge to pull away. I didn’t need to give him any reason to suddenly develop a ‘trigger finger.’ However, it was Cassius that yielded first. He released me and shrank away just as flames sprang to life in his palm. He shook his hand furiously to expel the blaze.
This motherfucker just caught on fire!
My eyes were wide in disbelief as I watched him cry out in anguish. I put a hand to my throat where his hand had just been, my skin ice cold and covered in goosebumps. How the hell had I burned him? What was wrong with me?
He stared up at me, his pain settling into sadistic amusement. “That’s why he wants you.”
“What? What the hell are you talking about?”
His unsettling laugh seemed to disturb even the storm as the rumblings dwindled in intensity and became less frequent. “You can try to deceive me as much as you please, but I know he will come for you. And when he does, there will be a new kind of hell on Earth. And nothing your beloved can do will stop it.”
As if on cue, the angry roar of an engine ripped through the silence, drawing my attention to the dirt pathway that winded over the hills of the cemetery. Abel’s black truck spewed rocks and clumps of mud in its wake as it sped furiously toward us.
I shifted my gaze back to Cassius as he knelt before a family plot of headstones, wispy strands of mist swirling intermittently over the engravings. “I’m a native Savannahian,” Cassius mused.
The wind started whipping furiously, sending a flurry of autumn colors spinning into the air. I could hear Abel screaming, but was unable to make out anything cohesive. The dark clouds overhead opened a new wave of torrential rain, plastering my shirt to my skin and sending goosebumps over my pale flesh.
Cassius nodded to the graves. “Look for yourself.”
Suddenly, I heard heavy breathing and realized that Abel was now at my side. “We’re done here, Cassius,” he growled, his green eyes darkening as his face contorted into an unworldly scowl.
Cassius stood and began circling him, taunting him with each word that crossed his poisonous lips. “Oh no, no, my dear friend. We are just getting started.”
I groaned. “Are you two done with this pissing contest yet?”
They both stared at me wide-eyed.
“Look, Cassius, it’s cold, I’m soaking wet, and I’m damn tired of the cat-and-mouse games. Just tell me what you want so we can all get the hell out of here!”
He gestured to the row of tombstones and the fog seemingly obeyed his command, parting its heavy curtains to reveal the engraved names. The tombstone at the far end was constructed of limestone and molded into the shape of a cross. The inscribed marker had been worn away by years of neglect and I had to struggle to make sense of anything discernible, but as I read aloud, my chest tightened, constricting my ability to breathe.
“Cassius La Croix, B. 1777, D. 1798, beloved son and brother.” My legs grew weak, buckling under my weight. I stared up at him. “Y- you’re dead?”
He smirked. “Undead. Much like our dear Sebastian.”
Abel’s head snapped up at the mention of his brother’s name. Otherwise, he appeared unbothered by the revelation. “Something tells me you didn’t drag her out here just to show her your grave. So, what gives man?”
My eyes bugged. ”Just? I know I’m technically still the ‘new girl in town’, but Cassius showing me anything is NOT normal when he should be six feet under!”
Cassius’ eyes twinkled with humor. “Yes, there seems to be a lot of that going around lately—people not wanting to stay in their graves and whatnot.”
Abel offered me a hand, but I brushed it aside and defiantly rose on my own. The guilt I had spent the better part of my day trying to suppress had morphed into feelings of betrayal and contempt. Nothing in this god-forsaken town was as it appeared. I started shivering, my hands rubbing my arms as I clung to the warmth provided by the temporary friction. Abel took off his jacket and wrapped it around me. Despite the anger coursing through my veins, I accepted.
Abel nodded to Cassius. “She’s freezing. You wanna fucking talk? Fine, man. Let’s go someplace a little less suited for your cold-blooded body.”
CASSIUS and I rode with Abel and ten minutes later, I found myself in a familiar sparkly red vinyl booth. We were back in the tin-can diner, but our previous waitress was nowhere to be found. Instead, we had Plain-Jane. She spoke in a voice that barely resonated above a whisper, and her chocolate-brown eyes never deviated from the floor. She took our drink order and then shuffled away.
Abel joined me on my side of the booth while Cassius sat across, his intense eyes studying us intently. “Warmer, Sweet Pea?”
Before I could formulate a response, he had already answered his own question. “Of course you are. Your skin has a pink flush to it and your carotid arteries are coursing with fresh blood,” he moaned, his eyes rolling into the back of his head.
I moved my hair over my neck and smiled sarcastically at him. “Thanks for noticing.”
Plain Jane brought us our drinks, then took our food order before disappearing.
I took a sip of my Coke. “So, dare I ask what unfortunate faction of the undead army you serve in?”
Cassius’ lips twitched in amusement. “I’d much rather show you,” he answered, his voice dangerously low.
“Don’t even think about it,” Abel threatened through clenched teeth.
Cassius smiled, then stretched his arm across the table, palm up. Calmly, he retrieved the knife from his silverware and with one quick, fluid motion, made a precision cut across his wrist. A steady stream of blood gushed from the open wound, trickling onto the Formica table.
I shook my head in disgust. “You need therapy.”
He tilted his head and shushed me with his eyes. “Look.”
I shifted my gaze from his face to his arm, blinking in disbelief. His wrist was clean and uninjured, showing no evidence of having been cut just seconds before.
“H-how did you do that?” I demanded.
“It’s what he is,” Abel sneered. “He walks during the day courtesy of a ring bearing his family crest, he gorges himself on the blood of the innocent, he has heightened senses and strength, and he heals nearly as quickly as he’s injured.”
“V-vampire?” I stammered, barely able to muster the word.
Cassius’s leer covered half his face. It was the smirk of the Devil. Plain Jane came back to our table, delivering our food.
“Do you need anything else?” she mumbled to no one in particular.
Abel leaned toward her, his eyes studying her intently. “Look at me,” he commanded.
The room reverberated with his even, no-nonsense tone. Immediately, she lifted her head and met his gaze, but said nothing. She looked as though she were frozen in place, like an empty vessel waiting for a soul to be delivered. Her eyes were glazed over, but she stood taut, awaiting further instruction.
“Go to the back and don’t come over here again until after we leave. Do you understand?”
She nodded. Once released from her trance, she kept her eyes to the floor and hurried away.
I stared at Abel. “What the hell was that? What’d you do to her?”
His eyes met Cassius’. “I saved her from becoming a selection off someone else’s menu.”
My head spun, trying to soak in all the bizarre events of the day. I felt the migraine start to pulsate at the base of my skull before wrapping around to my temples, shooting scorching tingles of pain and pressure across my forehead. “I can’t handle any more of this. I’m being haunted by your dead friend, your brother is a sadistic asshole, Scarlett’s boyfriend is a soul-sucking vampire, and you’re manipulating people with mind control. At this rate, I’d rather hear about Galen and Kinsley’s sexual escapades or listen to the dramatics of Fallon and Harlow’s lesbian trysts.”
I stood up and started walking for the door. Much too quick for my brain to process, I found myself face-to-face with Cassius, his amber eyes narrowed into slits. A sinister smile spread across his face and two pointy fangs emerged, pressing into his bottom lip.
Abel stepped in front of me and put a hand on Cassius’ chest. The scowl on his face made him look possessed—a man unleashed. How could he be so brazen in the face of death, or rather, undeath?
“Come near her again and I’ll drive a stake through your cold, undead heart. Are we clear?”
Cassius gave a deep, throaty laugh. “Your hollow threats mean little to me, Abel. He’ll come for her. Best be ready.”
I STARED out the passenger window of Abel’s truck, my arms crossed defiantly over my chest. I could feel his laser-green eyes upon me, growing increasingly exasperated with the silence between us.
“So, you’re obviously still pissed at me.”
I glowered. “And they say you’re just another pretty face.”
He flashed a panty-dropping grin at me. Not this time, Bucko! I was now impervious to all sexual tactics he might try to use against me. Or at least, that’s what I told myself anyway. If push came to shove and he started undressing...well let’s just hope it didn’t come to that!
“Well, if that’s what they say, then I’d hate to prove ’em wrong.”
I sighed, unamused. “It’s not just that you failed to tell me that Cassius is a card-carrying member of the Bloodsuckers Union of America. It’s this place, it’s your brother, it’s you, and Genesis, and---”
My voice broke and I could feel the tears start to well in my eyes. I had reached the brink of sanity and plunged right over. My shoulders shook as sobs racked my body. Oh, God. It was happening. I was ugly crying.
Numerous rocks pelted the undercarriage of Abel’s truck as he pulled over to the side of the road. He put the vehicle in park and took me in his arms, his hands caressing my hair as he kissed the top of my head. Leaning against me, he brought his lips to my ear. “I know you’ve been through hell lately. And I’m sorry, God I’m so sorry. I only want to protect you from all this...all the otherworldly drama that engulfs this damn town.”
I stared up at him, certain that my cheeks were stained with mascara streaks. “This isn’t your fault, Abel. I know this isn’t easy for you either and I’ve involved you in all of this—”
He cupped my face in his hands, his intoxicating green eyes staring into my soul. “I was involved way before this, trust me. But believe me when I say that I want everything that you are. The good, the bad, the weird.” He gave a small smile, his eyes unwavering. “For years, I wanted what Sebastian had—undying love and devotion for another. Now, I have that and so much more...because I have you.”
Holy crap. I felt my heart pound furiously, ready to burst from my chest. I swallowed the lump of emotion in my throat as the pad of his thumb stroked my bottom lip. He leaned in and pressed his lips gently to mine. God, I missed his kisses, his touch. I so needed him right now, needed his strong arms surrounding me, protecting me. Our kiss deepened, causing my skin to tingle with electricity as his invigorating scent wrapped around me.
The walls I had built against him immediately collapsed as I swung my legs over the gearshift, straddling him. His hands fanned at my waist, securing me in position while his mouth traversed the side of my neck. Each tantalizing sensation sent shivers down my spine and my emotions into a tailspin. Each kiss, each embrace became more passionate and intense. No longer were we sitting on the side of a desolate road in Abel’s truck. Suddenly our bodies were transported to an alternate reality where only he and I existed. A place where we couldn’t be disturbed or distracted. A place where blinding spotlights weren’t aimed in our eyes.
My eyes flew open, making out the blurred red and blue lights of the police cruiser parked behind us. Each window of the truck’s cabin was covered in steam, obscuring us from view. Abel groaned and leaned back against the headrest as I reluctantly slunk into the passenger seat. A few seconds later, we heard a light tapping at the driver’s window. Abel rolled it down and a familiar pair of brown eyes peered in at us.
“Abel. Miss Vaughn,” Chief Miller greeted with a smile that reached the corners of his eyes.
“Something wrong, Chief?” Abel asked nonchalantly as he folded his arms behind his head.
“I was about to ask you the same. Not exactly the safest place to park on this road.”
Abel nodded. “Yeah, well...I had a phone call so being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I pulled over here to take it.”
Chief Miller’s eyes narrowed as if contemplating the validity of his story. He stroked his chin and after a brief pause said, “I see. Where were you coming from?”
“Hal’s Diner. Best food around!” I interjected.
He gave a small chuckle. “Few would agree with that sentiment.” He paused as his gaze flickered about the truck’s cabin. Finally, his eyes sliced back to ours and he gave a tight smile. “You two best be heading home now. It’s getting late.”
“Will do. Thanks, Chief,” Abel replied, starting to roll up his window.
“Abel,” Chief Miller interrupted.
Ugh, almost in the clear.
“What’s that?” Abel asked, temporarily relapsing on his story.
“Your call,” he repeated, his mouth tightening again into a firm line.
Abel quickly recovered, even managing a small smile. “Oh, my dad. He had a few things to go over for Mom’s party next week.”
Chief Miller’s eyes dawned with realization. “Ah yes, your mom’s birthday. You will pass along my warmest salutations, won’t you?”
“Of course, Ace,” Abel confirmed.
The police chief nodded, then tapped his palms against the window frame. “Thanks, Abel. Drive safe.”
Abel nodded his compliance, then pulled back onto the road as Chief Miller strode back to his squad car. Moments later, we were alone on the country road with the truck’s xenon headlights searing through the darkest depths of night.
I fiddled with my hands, trying not to let my crazy cards show. Inside, the green-eyed monster was rearing its ugly head. Why hadn’t he asked me to his mom’s party yet? Did he not want me to go? Was he planning to ask somebody else? Because if so, I would kick the little tart’s-
“What are you thinking?” Abel asked, derailing the crazy train of thoughts barreling through my head.
I shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “Oh, nothing. Your mom’s having a birthday party?”
He raised an eyebrow, trying to establish my directive. “Yeah. My dad throws a party every year. This one’ll be huge though. It’s her 50th.”
“Oh, that’s cool.”
“You’re coming right?”
Ahhhh, there it was. Finally! I felt my insecurities subside. “Well, I’ll have to check my busy social calendar. With it being a last-minute invite and all...” I trailed off, venturing a look in his direction.
“Well, you hardly need a formal invitation. It was kinda just assumed that as my girlfriend you would be there.”
My heart imploded. With a day that had seemingly taken a hard right towards Hell, I was now soaring among the clouds. Never had a single word had such a strong effect on my emotions. I was 98 percent certain that nothing would ever top this moment. “Good answer,” I murmured, nuzzling my lips against his neck.
With a crooked grin, he guided the truck through the rusted gates of Bonaventure Cemetery and down the path to my awaiting Mustang. The luminescence of the full moon bathed most of the graveyard in soft white light. Yet the forest beyond was impermeable, still shrouded in ominous darkness.
Abel looked at me, his eyes brimming with adoration. He framed my face with his hands, then brought his scrumptious lips to mine. I leaned into him, not wanting the kiss to end. When he finally pulled away, he took a piece of my heart with him.
“Text me when you get home, okay? I’ll wait up.”
I nodded in agreement and reluctantly headed for my car. The taillights of his truck had just disappeared from view when the wave of uneasiness swallowed me whole. I was suddenly all too aware that I was alone...at midnight...in a graveyard. Although it was probably futile, I locked the doors. The demons that stalked me didn’t exactly adhere to modern safety measures, but common sense still won out.
I turned the key in the ignition and was greeted by the cranking sounds of a drained battery. FML! Of course, this would happen to me now...here. I groaned and tried again only to be met with the same result. Frustrated, I banged my fists on the steering wheel and let loose a barrage of swear words that would make even the most senior sailor blush.
I threw my head back and cast my eyes to the roof of my car. Why couldn’t I catch a break? Why couldn’t things go my way---just for once damn it? I gripped the steering wheel with newfound determination and stared into the shadows that surrounded me. I was going home, and Ruby was going to get me there!
I gritted my teeth and twisted the key once more. The engine purred to life and Ruby’s headlights penetrated the timber’s under‐ brush. Dozens of eyes stared back at me, belonging to faces I couldn’t quite make out. Each pair of eyes was vacant, representative of souls that were no longer of this Earth. These were the souls of the damned and they were calling me home--home to the menacing forest that encompassed Bonaventure Cemetery and home to the darkest recesses of my psyche where sinister forces lied in wait.