Theresa hated parties. Oh, who was she kidding? She hated just about every kind of social gathering there was – especially the ones that required schmoozing, platitudes, and smiling until her jaw ached.
"Thanks so much for coming," she said to yet another ageing socialite squeezed into a party dress that would have undoubtedly suited her husband's young mistress very well but herself not at all. Theresa hurried away before the woman could drag her into further conversation.
"I am networking my guts out." A woman in a low-cut, slinky black dress that hugged every curve – and invented a few new ones – appeared by Theresa's side.
"Michelle! Thank God," Theresa said. She gave her friend the first genuine smile she'd worn all night.
"Which circle of Hell is this?" she asked in an undertone as Michelle passed her a flute of champagne.
Michelle laughed. "Well," she said, "That depends on how badly you want to hurt Timothy for making us endure this."
Theresa glanced in the direction of the man who owned the gallery both women worked for. "So, so badly," was her answer.
"Oh, well then," Michelle said, snagging a canape from a passing waiter's tray. "I think violence is the seventh circle."
Theresa groaned. "You mean it can get worse?"
"It's about to." Michelle nudged her friend and nodded in Timothy's direction. He had abandoned the over-tanned, under-dressed woman he'd been flirting with to approach his employees.
"Ladies, ladies," he said in a faux foreign accent that never quite managed to sound convincing. "I am deeply in love with both of you."
They exchanged a look of annoyance. Theresa had to choke down a snort of laughter when Michelle rolled her eyes. Timothy loved every woman he'd ever met exactly the same amount – which was much, much less than he loved himself.
"Which one of you lovely ladies would like to greet your many admirers?"
Michelle smacked Timothy's hand away as it tried to snake around her waist. Your turn, she mouthed to her friend. Theresa's stomach lurched sickeningly. Public speaking was not her forte.
Theresa and Michelle liked to joke that the only reason they kept Timothy around, aside from the whole he-owned-the-gallery-and-could-throw-them-out-on-the-street thing, was that he loved all the public speaking, kissing butt, and smiling for the cameras stuff that they both hated. They also agreed that the only reason he dragged them into the spotlight with him on occasions like this was that he was a closet sadist.
Of course, the "s" word changed from time to time, but the intent was the same.
"Come on," Theresa said, passing her glass to Michelle, "let's get this over with." She let just enough of her annoyance seep into her voice that Timothy – wisely, she thought – didn't attempt to take her arm.
She followed Timothy to a display at the far end of the spacious room. It helped a little if she focused on the click-clack of her heels on the hardwood floor, rather than the interested faces of the snobs and critics around her. A very little.
To his credit, Timothy didn't stop to indulge any of the guests who called out to him as they passed. He led Theresa to stand beside a painting done in shades of red and orange. Somewhere in the oil painting's wild, dancing flames, was the twisted figure of a woman; her face was raised to the heavens, crying out for help to a God that had forsaken her. It was, amongst the dark, eerie paintings that lined the gallery's walls that evening, the one that unsettled people the most.
Hardly surprising, since it was the same image that had haunted Theresa's dreams for as long as she could remember.
Vlad stood in the shadow of a monstrous wrought iron sculpture. It snarled at the gathered art lovers with jagged, broken teeth and reached toward them with gnarled claws. Crystal drops of berry-red blood dripped from both, not quite reaching the twisted, misshapen figures crushed beneath its cloven feet. Vlad hated it. His companion, Alec, on the other hand, adored it.
"Isn't it exquisite?" the dark-haired man asked as he brushed a hand across the creature's bat-like wings. "These fools couldn't possibly appreciate its beauty," he continued. "Perhaps I should by it myself."
"Do and you can find yourself a new place to live," Vlad snapped. The crowded room made him irritable. The fact that Alec had dragged him to the showing in the first place made Vlad irritable. Alec's enjoyment of the event made him even more irritable.
Hell, everything Alec had ever done or said made Vlad irritable.
Six centuries of enduring Alec's snide comments and endless taunts and yet there Vlad was, suffering through some pointless party because Alec had insisted he attend.
I should have killed him when I had the chance, Vlad thought, not for the first time.
Alec laughed off his companion's threat. "Please," he said, throwing an arm around Vlad's shoulders, "who would feed the guilt you love so much if I weren't around?"
Shrugging off Alec's touch, Vlad scowled. He hated it when Alec started talking about things like guilt and remorse – something the other man took every opportunity to do – because it never failed to remind him of…
Vlad's gut tightened at the name, even as he turned toward the speaker. Then he saw the woman in question and the rest of the world dropped away.
Well, of course. That was what the greasy little peacock had introduced her as – but it was his Theresa.
No. No, of course it couldn't be his Theresa. She was dead and gone more than six hundred years past. He'd watched her burn, for Christ's sake. Theresa was dead, yet…
The woman that spoke was the image of his long-lost love. Oh, her hair was shorter and she held herself with the ease of a twenty-first century woman, but in every other way she was his Theresa. Her voice, as she spoke about art being a form of release, about how she used it to face her nightmares, was the same.
The sound took Vlad back to long, sticky summer days spent making love on the banks of a still lake. To running his fingers through her long curls as they shared their hopes and dreams. To nights of slipping out of the monastery to meet her behind her father's barn. To-
To the charred stump of a wooden post, the cry of an angry mob, and the smell of burning flesh.
Vlad grabbed at the first thing his hand touched, trying desperately to hold on to some sense of reality. It took a long moment for him to realize that it was Alec he clung to. Alec – who laughed as Vlad turned, expression stricken, to stare in horror at him.
"I knew you would be surprised!" Alec said jovially, a little of his native accent leaking into the words. "I thought you would have spotted her earlier but I'm glad I didn't miss it. Oh, Vlad!" he laughed, "You should see your face!"
"You?" Vlad said, stunned. "You did this?"
"Don't be foolish," his companion mocked. "I'm not God," he said, laughing at his own private joke. "But when I saw her photo online, I knew the two of you just had to be reunited so I…"
Vlad had stopped listening. His entire focus was on the woman who, for all intents and purposes, was the only woman he'd ever loved. A roaring filled his mind, drowning out all other thoughts and sounds. He watched helplessly as the woman spoke to the crowd, occasionally gesturing to a painting behind her. Then she glanced in Vlad's direction. Their eyes met.
Nothing else existed. There was no party, no gallery – nothing but the two of them. Her expression turned to shock as recognition filled her eyes. Confusion followed.
The man who had introduced her, all ponytail and tuxedo, cleared his throat loudly, making Theresa turn her attention back to the crowd. She blinked rapidly, as though she'd forgotten about their existence, and thanked them woodenly, abruptly ending her speech. A murmur ran through the crowd as she turned her attention back to Vlad.
"Well," Alec said, prying his arm free of Vlad's grip, "go to her, already."
And he did.
The moment her eyes fell on the fair-haired man in the shadows, Theresa forgot all about the crowd of people staring at her. She forgot about the wealthy clients she was supposed to be wooing and the critics she was supposed to be wowing. Nothing reached Theresa – not the open-mouthed stare she got from her best friend or the narrowing of her boss's eyes as she walked away in the middle of her speech.
Her attention was focused entirely on the stranger. He wore a dark suit under a long, black coat with the collar turned up, in striking contrast to his pale skin. His hair fell in honey blonde waves and his eyes were the blue of a summer's sky. He was, without a doubt, the most gorgeous man Theresa had ever seen.
That, alone, wasn't what captivated Theresa, though. She was attracted to him, certainly, but there wasn't something… else. Something she couldn't quite put her finger on. Something that tugged at the corners of her mind, nagging at her.
Theresa was absolutely certain that she had never seen the man before – she would remember seeing someone that good looking – yet there was a feeling of recognition that she couldn't shake. It was like seeing a face in a crowd that she knew she should be able to place but couldn't. He was strange and familiar to Theresa, all at once.
He seemed to be victim of the same strange spell Theresa had fallen under. Without taking his eyes from her, the stranger moved toward Theresa. They were pulled together by some force outside of themselves, like magnets unable to deny the attraction that drew them together. They met in the centre of the room, oblivious to the many watchful eyes.
I know you! Theresa wanted to scream. Except, of course, that she had never met him before.
So why did it seem that her body knew exactly what his would feel like against it?
"Hello," she said out loud, rather breathlessly.
"Hello," he answered.
Silence that was in no way silent stretched between them. The moment was pregnant with tension, with expectation, with-
Theresa reluctantly dragged her attention away from the stranger's face to glance at the man who had spoken. A few inches shorter, the newcomer was as dark as the other was light. His hair and neat goatee were both thick and black. His eyes belonged to a shark, dark and fathomless. Though he wore what might have been interpreted as a friendly smile, he made Theresa uneasy.
She had an instant, unexplainable dislike of the man.
"Your work is beautiful," he said, taking a hand that Theresa hadn't offered him. He placed a kiss on the back of it and her stomach churned. It took every ounce of willpower she possessed not to wipe her hand on the back of her dress when he released her.
"Thank you," Theresa said obligingly. Her tone was cool, even to her own ears. She didn't know why but she didn't think she could be any politer than that.
"Alec," the blonde man said, a sharp edge to his voice, "would you give us a moment, please?" It didn't sound much like a request.
The man called Alec glanced between them once then, with an exaggerated wink in Theresa's direction, said, "Of course! I think I'll see if I can find a bite to eat…" He disappeared into the crowd.
"I must apologise for Alec," the first man said. "He's…" He waved a hand helplessly, as if he couldn't find the right words to describe his friend.
Unnerving. Frightening. Unsettling.
Theresa could think of plenty.
"Theresa! What sort of speech do you call that?"
It was impossible to roll her eyes any harder than Theresa did then. Leave it to Timothy to choose that moment to stick his rather large nose in.
Before Theresa could tell Timothy to back off – or any of the many less pleasant things that crossed her mind – he continued, "If we fail to land the Livingston restoration job because you-"
"Excuse me." The voice that interrupted him was soft. Calm, but authoritative.
Timothy, startled, turned to stare at the stranger. "And you are?" he asked, not making any attempt at courtesy.
"I'm Vlad." He spoke in response to Timothy's question but his words were for Theresa alone.
Vlad. Why did that name make Theresa's heart leap into her throat?
"Is that supposed to mean something?" Timothy asked unkindly.
Theresa nearly groaned aloud. Timothy had the unique ability to turn any situation into a pissing contest. If not endearing, it was usually tolerable. Not at that moment. Theresa lost her patience with him – something she almost never did.
"Isn't there a wealthy widow around here somewhere you should be separating from her money?" she asked shortly.
Timothy's eyes narrowed at Theresa's tone. "We'll discuss this later," he told her before leaving.
She had no doubt that they would. At length. Theresa was willing to endure the threat of just about any future lecture if it made Timothy scarce. As she watched him walk away, Theresa noticed Michelle weaving her way through the crowd, toward them. Hoping her friend would get the point, Theresa shook her head once.
Michelle understood. Perhaps a little too well. A knowing grin spread across the other woman's face. She gave Theresa a thumb's up before turning on her heel and walking away. Theresa noticed that she went in the opposite direction of the now-angry Timothy.
Theresa turned her attention back to Vlad. He looked back at her intently, his pale blue eyes bright with some emotion she couldn't name. She cleared her throat while she tried to think of a way to break the ice.
"Well," she said lamely, cursing herself. Why couldn't she think?
Come on, Theresa! She scolded herself. You've got him to yourself. Now what?
Luckily for her, the DJ chose that moment to play a slow song. With a lopsided grin that made her heart flutter wildly, Vlad held out a hand that Theresa gladly took.
The ballad that played was sweet and slow. It wrapped Theresa and Vlad in a pleasant cocoon. The might have been alone, for all the party's bustle reached them. The clink of glasses and laughter were drowned out by the sound of Theresa's wildly beating heart. The light in Vlad's blue eyes shone brighter than the electric candelabras Timothy had pulled out for the occasion.
For the length of that one song, Vlad was Theresa's whole world.
At first, Vlad held Theresa stiffly, formally even. But, as they swayed together to the sweeping melody, he slowly relaxed into the embrace. One hand slid from its uneasy resting place on her waist to press against the small of Theresa's back, drawing her nearer. They were close enough that their clothes brushed – but not close enough for their bodies to do the same.
The tantalizing thrill of almost-but-not-quite sent Theresa's senses into overdrive. She was ultra-aware of Vlad's hand in hers; of the gentle pressure at her back that guided her around the dancefloor. She knew that he felt the same because a fine tremor ran through him when she laid her head on his chest.
There was no way to explain the way that she felt, except to say that it felt as though she'd just gotten home after a very long trip. Touching Vlad, being held by him, was so familiar that it was almost painful.
She pulled back far enough to look up at him-
And everything changed.
The Vlad who had stared at Theresa with unabashed wonder just minutes before was gone. In his place was a Vlad with blood-red eyes that burned with an inhuman hunger. He opened his mouth to reveal two sharp canines.
Theresa screamed and recoiled. As she backed away, she stumbled over something on the floor and went sprawling. Horrified, Theresa realized that the something she'd tripped over was a someone. Or, rather, had been. Glassy eyes stared up unseeingly at Theresa from a face frozen forever in an expression of terror.
It wasn't the only one. The gallery, which had been full of music and chatter, was silent. The DJ slumped over his sound equipment, blood seeping into the keys on his laptop. Waiters and waitresses lay in heaps around the room, champagne mingling with their blood. God, there was so much blood. It stained tablecloths and dotted paintings. It trickled from the mouths of corpses and pooled under fallen bodies.
Confusion battled fear for dominance within Theresa. Neither had a chance to win. Vlad fell upon her then, his fangs snapping at her throat.
Theresa nearly fell out of bed as she struggled to break through the nightmare that had claimed her sleeping mind. Her pulse raced. Sweat dotted her brow.
God. It had been so real. Until the moment Vlad turned into a monster, the dream had mirrored their dance perfectly. Right up to the point where the music ended and Vlad made some lame excuse to escape Theresa's company. He never returned.
No wonder her sleeping mind fabricated such a horrible end to the night.
Frustrated, Theresa rolled over in bed – and was surprised to find herself looking at a delicate silver crucifix on a chain. She reached out slowly to pick it up with fingers that suddenly shook.
It was the cross Theresa's mother had given her for her sixteenth birthday. Theresa hadn't thought about the necklace in years; hadn't worn it in much longer. The necklace lived in the bottom of her jewellery box. How on earth had it ended up on her pillow?
Theresa was out of bed in a heartbeat. She hurried to the window that overlooked what passed for her apartment building's backyard. Locked tight. Unnerved, she moved through the apartment, turning on every light she passed and checking every lock. By the time she finished, Theresa found herself almost wishing that she had found an open window.
Because if she really was alone in the apartment, how the hell had the crucifix gotten from Theresa's jewellery box to her pillow?
Certain that sleep would not return that night, she went to make herself a strong pot of coffee.
The moment the song ended, Vlad excused himself and hastily made his way from the gallery. Outside, in the cool evening air, he took deep gasps of breath that he didn't technically need. A remnant of his days as a human, the motion did help calm him – though it did nothing to slow the burn of hunger igniting his veins.
This was a terrible mistake, he thought. Why would Alec do this to him? Why would he put Theresa in Vlad's path without warning? Alec had to have known the effect it would have on Vlad…
Of course he did.
Why would Alec do something that would intentionally bring Vlad pain? What a stupid question. Bringing Vlad pain was Alec's favourite pastime. He'd been perfecting his methods for hundreds of years; it would be a shame to waste them when such an easy opportunity presented itself.
Vlad had no one to blame but himself. He could have listened to his father, who had warned him to feed before returning to the monastery the night he became a vampire. Or, he could have just killed Alec when he came to his senses and found himself holding the half-dead abbot. He definitely should not have panicked and begged his father to save Alec.
A mistake Vlad had spent the last six hundred years paying for.
But this… this went too far. Vlad felt more than capable of doing what he'd failed to do all those years ago. With his bare hands.
He sent the probing thought into the night and quickly received a distracted, Busy! in return. Choking down a growl of frustration, Vlad went in search of his tormentor. He found Alec on his knees in a storage closet.
Alec's companion – What had Theresa called him? – started when Vlad threw open the door.
"Oh, for the love of-" Vlad looked away as Timothy rushed to tug up his slacks.
Pulling out a black handkerchief from his pocket, Alec dabbed daintily at the trickle of blood on his chin. "I did tell you that I was busy," he said with an unapologetic smile.
Vlad stepped aside so a very flustered Timothy could pass. The long-haired man was dishevelled and red-cheeked.
"I'll be in touch!" Alec called after Timothy as he hurried away.
Alec stood, folded the handkerchief, and returned it to his pocket. "Now," he said, "what can I do for you?"
"You've done quite enough," Vlad snapped. "What's the meaning of bringing me here?"
Alec's brows drew together in a look of mock confusion. "I would have thought that was obvious," he replied. "Unless you've grown tired of waiting for your little wi-"
He didn't get to finish the sentence. Vlad grabbed Alec by the throat and slammed him into the shelf behind. Several jugs of some chemical were knocked to the floor as his body crashed into the metal racks. One burst open and glugged its contents onto Vlad's shoes. He didn't notice.
"No jokes," he snarled. "No games. Not this time."
Alec jerked free of Vlad's hold. He caught himself before he hit the floor and pulled himself upright. Straightening his shirtfront, Alec gave Vlad a hurt look. Vlad didn't buy it. Too much time in his company had proven that Alec didn't have feelings to hurt.
"I thought you would be happy to see Theresa again," Alec said. "It's been so long since her last reincarnation, I was starting to think she wouldn't-"
Vlad turned and walked away. He clamped a lid down on that thought. Hard. His emotions were already too raw to dreg up the many times he'd failed to find Theresa before it was too late. Happy? Was happiness one of those emotions?
He'd thought so – until Theresa had hesitantly laid her head on his chest as they danced. The hair had fallen away from her neck and Vlad had been mesmerized by the vein that pulsed there, beneath the flawless skin. His gums had ached with the effort to keep his fangs from sliding out. If the song hadn't ended when it did…
His gums ached now, as a matter of fact. Just thinking about Theresa made hunger pound through him. Vlad needed to feed – and quickly. Before he convinced himself that it was a good idea to go back into the gallery, sweep Theresa up in his arms, and-
"Let's go," he rasped, heading for the exit.
Alec gave Vlad a curious look but followed. "Where to, my friend?"
Vlad ground his teeth together. Friend was not a word he would have used.
"To hunt," he said. "Then away. Far away."
Walking out into the night, Vlad left the gallery – and Theresa – behind. For good.
Or so he thought.
Theresa cursed as a pot of varnish hit the floor. It exploded in a glossy mess, splattering the easel, workspace, and – ugh – her jeans. She threw her gloved hands into the air in a helpless sign of frustration.
The ever-present sound of a gas torch whooshed into silence. Michelle shoved her mask back and called out, "You okay?"
Grabbing a rag from her worktable, Theresa dropped to her knees and started mopping up the spilled varnish. Good thing they'd both chosen to ignore Timothy when he'd suggested they "make more of an effort" with their appearances because, he said, visitors were welcome to stop by the gallery any time. A little more varnish wasn't going to hurt Theresa's jeans any.
"Just tired," she told her friend. "I didn't sleep well last night."
Michelle removed her thick gloves as she crossed the room. She wore a wicked grin that told Theresa they were about to play Show and Tell. Slapping the soggy rag down on the floor, Theresa let out a sigh of frustration. She really didn't want to have to explain to her best friend how she'd met the man of her dreams – and sent him scurrying away faster than she could say, "Thanks for the dance."
Should have called in sick, she thought miserably.
"Did it have anything to do with the handsome stranger you were dancing with last night?"
Michelle passed Theresa another rag, then propped one hip against the table and watched her scrub the floor. Theresa gave her friend a glare that did exactly nothing to erase the other woman's grin.
"Maybe," was all she said.
Laughing, Michelle offered her a hand up. Theresa slapped a wet rag onto her palm instead, which only served to make her friend laugh even harder.
"Well," she said, "I won't ask if you got lucky. You'd be in a much better mood if you had. What went wrong?"
What went wrong?
Everything had been going so well… they'd danced; there was definite chemistry there. Then, as the last strains of the song faded into nothing, Vlad had leaned in, as if to kiss her, and-
And then he disappeared. Theresa hadn't seen Vlad again that night. She'd stayed until the very last guest stumbled out of the gallery, even though her mood had turned more and more sour as the evening had worn on, hoping to see Vlad again.
Which probably explained, in some weird way, the bizarre dream that she'd had last night…
Thinking about the dream sent a cold shiver down her back. It wasn't so much the image of Vlad in the centre of the bloody carnage that unnerved Theresa, as what she found on her pillow afterward. That, she still couldn't explain.
She couldn't tell Michelle about it, either. At best, Michelle would accuse Theresa of having too much to drink and misplacing her jewellery – never mind that Theresa hadn't worn that particular necklace in nearly a decade. At worst, Theresa would get concerned looks and have to constantly reassure her friend that she really was okay.
Neither option appealed to her.
Theresa rose. Pulling off her gloves, she chucked them in the bin, along with the rags. "Well, what?" she asked.
Michelle raised her eyebrows. "You really are out of it today," she said. "I asked what went wrong."
Shrugging, Theresa capped the rest of her chemicals before she could do any more damage and covered the 18th century oil painting she'd been working on. She rubbed her bleary eyes with the back of her hand.
"I wish I knew…"
The fair-haired stranger she'd met at the party was the first man Theresa had been attracted to in longer than she could remember. It was only natural that he was also the first man who had featured in what Michelle would have undoubtedly called a "wet dream." Which was just one of the many reasons Theresa would not be mentioning the dream to her best friend.
The other reasons? Well...
They were called wet dreams for a reason.
The dream started out innocently enough. Theresa opened her eyes to find herself in a bed that wasn't her own, one with four tall post and a canopy of gauzy curtains that reached the floor. It was large and luxurious; decadently soft and lined with satin sheets. Theresa stretched out, enjoying the slide of bare skin against the smooth material.
A peek under the bedclothes confirmed her suspicion. Completely naked. A blush crept across Theresa's cheeks. She did not sleep in the nude. That was the moment the dream changed.
Theresa became aware of the room outside the bed. A warm light glowed somewhere in the distance, not bright enough to illuminate her surroundings but enough to highlight the dark shape moving toward Theresa. Her breath caught in her throat as the form reached the foot of the bed and reached out to pull the curtain aside.
A smile spread across Theresa's face as Vlad – clothed in nothing but a pair of loose-fitting, pants – climbed onto the bed. It disappeared when she saw the look he wore. Vlad didn't look happy to see Theresa. No. His expression was... intense. Focused.
The mattress gave under Vlad's weight as he moved toward Theresa. If she had been able to look away from the smouldering embers of his eyes, Theresa might have marvelled at the play of muscles across his bare chest, along his lithe arms, as he neared. He moved slowly, deliberately, unerringly to straddle her.
With only a slick satin sheet and the thin material of Vlad's trousers between them, Theresa could feel the same powerful muscles pinning her to the bed. That, and the hard length of his arousal. It never occurred to Theresa to be afraid. She was too busy glorying in the flash of excitement zinging along her nerves.
"Theresa," Vlad's said, looming over her. Her name was an invocation.
It was a plea.
The bedclothes fell away as Theresa rose to meet Vlad. Cool evening air hit her exposed breasts and teased the nipples to hard points. A delicious shiver ran along her spine. She wanted more. Sliding her hand along the ridges of Vlad's chest, Theresa reached up to wrap an arm around his neck. She dragged him down for a kiss, falling backward onto the bed as she did.
Vlad's embrace was somehow familiar, his kiss as natural as breathing. His weight atop Theresa was comforting, rather than oppressive. She'd barely even met the man yet, for some reason that she couldn't even begin to contemplate, Theresa's body responded to Vlad as if it had always known him. Had always belonged with him. To him.
Theresa kissed Vlad until her head spun, her breath came in gasps, and her flesh burned with desire. She wanted more than the chaste dance they had shared at the dance. More, even, than a dizzying kiss. She wanted everything he had to offer. Her fingers inched along the waistband of Vlad's pants – only to fall away as Vlad reared back.
Disappointment coursed through Theresa, chilling her blood and dampening her arousal.
"Don't you want me?" she asked, not bothering to hide the hurt in her voice. Dreaming made her bold. Theresa would never have had the courage to speak her pain in real life.
The groan that escaped Vlad in response was animalistic. Primal.
"Always," he ground out. Vlad fought some sort of struggle within himself as he stared down at Theresa. Whatever the battle was over, it was clear that Vlad was losing.
Not fair, Theresa thought. This is my dream. He can't deny me here.
"Then have me," she said aloud.
Vlad's expression shattered. The war was lost. With a groan that was some mix of despair and delight, Vlad dipped his head.
Theresa was surprised when, instead of meeting her lips, Vlad buried his face in the crook of her neck. His lips were cool against her flushed skin, making her shiver as his hands slid up her back to grasp Theresa's shoulders. She arched into him, tilting her head to give Vlad better access.
His lips caressed her throat, opened, then-
Theresa gasped as Vlad bit down hard, his canines piercing her flesh. The pain was sharp and intense. It shattered the haze of arousal they had wrapped itself around them. The dream became a nightmare as Theresa struggled futilely against Vlad's hold.
The more she fought, the worse the pain became. Theresa cried out in agony as the blood was brutally torn from her body. She pummelled Vlad's back with her fists but failed to elicit any response from him. His mouth continued to work at Theresa's throat; sucking, gulping, tearing her life away.
"Vlad," she sobbed, frantically dragging her nails into his back. "Vlad, please."
"Stop!" Theresa shot up in bed, her cheeks wet with tears. When her hand flew up to her neck, Theresa was surprised to find that it, too, was wet.
She stared in horror at her trembling fingers. They were covered in blood – her blood, seeping from the twin wounds on her neck.
No, Theresa thought. No. This isn't real. I'm still dreaming.
Across the room, the window that Theresa had triple-checked before bed slammed shut.
Theresa didn't bother to lift her head from the worktable when she heard the door open and shut. If it was a client, Michelle could deal with it. If it was Timothy… well, Michelle could deal with that too. Theresa was too tired to deal with anything herself at that moment.
Another sleepless night had Theresa sluggish and irritable. Which was, along with the sexual frustration the latest dream had awoken, the least of the things playing on her mind. There was also the matter of a crucifix moving, seemingly of its own accord, from Theresa's jewellery box to her pillow. Not to mention a window slamming when she knew very well it had been locked when she'd gone to bed. And… And…
The other thing was too incomprehensible to dwell on. She'd surely lose her mind if she tried.
Thinking about the raw, angry wounds on her neck made them throb. Trying not to think about them was impossible. The harder she tried, the harder it became it keep the word from her mind.
Ridiculous. Vampires weren't real. They were fiction, make-believe. Yet…
Yet something had caused the wounds. Something real. It was only the dreams that had made Theresa think about vampires. Two dreams about vampires in two nights… and waking up with what could only be bite marks on her neck…
She was losing her mind. Yes, that was it. Theresa was off her rocker and had attacked herself in her sleep. It didn't make much sense – but it made a whole lot more sense than being attacked by imaginary monsters.
"Are you listening to me?"
Theresa lifted her head, blinking at the onslaught of bright light that met her eyes. Timothy and Michelle stood next to her workstation. Michelle looked concerned, while Timothy just looked annoyed.
"No," Theresa answered honestly. She was too tired to play games with the man, even if he was her boss. "What do you want?"
"How about employees who do their jobs?" Timothy said snidely.
Michelle gave him a dirty look. "Are you okay, babe?" she asked Theresa.
No. Not even close.
But Theresa couldn't say that – especially in front of Timothy, who would use it as an excuse to criticise her work for weeks to come. Instead, she glared at him and repeated her earlier question.
"What do you want, Timothy?"
He threw his hands up in a gesture of defeat. "You tell her," he said to Michelle. "I have to pack."
Theresa turned her attention to Michelle as their boss stomped from the room. "Where's he going?"
"We're," Michelle corrected. "We're going."
That got her attention. The last time the three of the had travelled together had been to a county house in the south of England to repair a series of paintings that had taken smoke damage during a fire. The damage had been significant and extensive enough to require the talents of both women. Timothy – who had plenty of credentials but absolutely no practical ability whatsoever – had, they assumed, gone along to ensure they didn't enjoy themselves too much while they were there.
It had to be a big (and lucrative) job for all three of them to close the gallery and go travelling. Theresa was intrigued, despite herself.
"Where are we going?" she asked. "Please tell me we're flying. I really hope I didn't miss my only chance to push Timothy out of an airplane."
Michelle laughed her easy laugh. "Well, actually…"
Theresa shoved the hair out of her face. Several strands clung to the scarf she wore to hide the marks on her neck.
"Come on," she said, trying to keep the impatience from her voice. "Tell me what's going on."
Grinning, Michelle picked up a paintbrush and toyed with its sable tip. "Remember that creepy guy from the party?" she said. "You know… he was with that guy you-"
"Alec," Theresa supplied before her friend could launch into a list of Vlad's attributes.
"That's right," Michelle said with a nod. "Apparently, he called the gallery today to make arrangements for us to travel to some monastery he owns."
She handed Theresa the brush. "Pack your kit, kid," she said, grinning. "We've got a restoration gig in Europe."
A million thoughts struggled to break through the mire of Theresa's mind; very sensible thoughts like, 'Is my passport in date?' 'Where did I put my suitcase?' 'What's the exchange rate for Euros?' All very sensible, very practical thoughts – and not at all important compared to, 'I might get to see Vlad again!'
Excitement made the strange dreams that had preoccupied Theresa fade into the background. For the first time in two days, Theresa wore a smile as she went to pack her equipment.
By the time the plane took off for Oradea, Theresa was running on caffeine, anticipation, and no sleep. She'd spent the night pacing her apartment; too afraid of what might happen if she were to fall asleep to even attempt it. Of course, there had been a fair amount of packing and re-packing too.
Her usual wash-or-burn jeans and tee-shirts were out, even if they were the smart choice for the work ahead. The rest of her wardrobe was made up mostly of sweats for binge-watching and dresses for the parties Timothy loved to blow his cash on. Oh, why hadn't she given in when he'd nagged her to go business casual at work?
Because painting in a pantsuit is more ridiculous than pole dancing in clogs?
Because Timothy is a chauvinist pig who thinks a woman's worth is somehow tied to her appearance?
Because he doesn't pay me enough to blow money on clothes that aren't practical?
All very good points. On any other day.
At that moment, however, Theresa would have killed for a pantsuit or two to pack. As it was, she had to dig to the very depths of her closet to find something even halfway decent to wear. Her suitcase contained her interview, funeral, and church clothes – along with her favourite little black dress and lingerie she'd bought on a whim but had never worn.
Hopefully that would change by the end of the trip…
Ugh. What was wrong with her? Stressing out over a man she'd barely met – who, by the way had walked out on her after their one dance. It was disgusting.
But Theresa's brain and libido disagreed on that point.
The plane hit a pocket of turbulence and jostled Theresa out of her reverie. Her fingers tightened instinctively on the armrests as the seatbelt lights came on. The plane jerked again, making her stomach clench. God, she hated flying.
A glance at the on-board map told her that they still had well over six hours to their destination. Another six hours of being squished between Michelle and some overweight, under-deodorized man while Timothy enjoyed the luxury of business class. Jerk.
Michelle, sleeping peacefully since the plane had taxied from the runway, was no help. She was one of those people who jetted off to exotic locations every time she had a little vacation time and spare cash. Travelling was second nature to Michelle. Theresa was more of a stay-at-home-and-attack-her-to-read-pile kind of vacationer – which made the infrequent trips she made for business that much more difficult. The plane lurched again, as if to prove the point.
Her portly companion reached over to put a small plastic cup on the tray in front of Theresa. Inside was an even smaller bottle of vodka.
"Looks like you need this more than I do," he said.
Theresa offered the man a polite smile, though she made no move to take the glass. "Thank you," she said, "but I don't really drink."
The plane rose and dropped again quickly. Theresa gasped and clutched at the armrests.
"Maybe now's a good time to start," the man said, patting the back of her hand kindly. He slid his complimentary headphones over his ears and started flitting through in-flight movies.
Theresa eyed the vodka. She couldn't even remember the last time she had real alcohol. College, maybe? No… Michelle's divorce, two years ago. The party was still a bit fuzzy but Theresa remembered taking shots of tequila and, sometime later, taking shots at Michelle's wedding dress with a paintball gun.
She glanced at her best friend. Curled up as best as possible in the small space, Michelle's head rested on the shoulder of a total stranger who was easily ten years her senior. He didn't look in the least bit bothered.
Six hours of worrying herself sick or six hours of drooling on some random guy's shoulder?
Theresa cracked open the vodka. Two trips from their heavily-made-up stewardess later, she finally drifted off to sleep.
If Theresa had thought that being in a cramped, public space would do anything to stop the strange dreams that plagued her, she was about to learn that she was very, very wrong.
The first thing Theresa noticed was the large, leather-bound tome that lay open before her. Its pages were thick and its words – written in a language she couldn't comprehend – had been painstakingly inked by some devoted hand. The second thing she noticed was the man reading from it.
He wore dark robes, with the hood thrown back. Summer sun beat down on his blonde hair, making it glint like gold. He followed the words with one slim finger as he read; his touch as tender as a caress.
"And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love..."
Vlad stopped, his voice trailing off. As the silence stretched from one minute to the next, Theresa gently bumped his shoulder.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
A shake of his head brought Vlad back to the moment. He smiled at Theresa.
"Yes," he said, reaching out to take her hand. "I was just thinking about love."
"You were?" Theresa swallowed the nervous giggle that tried to escape at his words. She gently pulled her hand free. "What about it?"
"Well," he started, "I was raised in the monastery, practically from a babe." He toyed with the edge of the woollen blanket they lay on. "I have heard that word more times than I could ever hope to count. But..."
A tremor started in Theresa's hands. She clasped them together, tightening on the hand-carved wooden cross Vlad had given her earlier that afternoon. Anticipation hung heavy in the air around them. It held the feeling of something big about to happen; whatever Vlad had to say, it would change both their lives forever. Theresa was almost as afraid to hear it as she was thrilled.
He turned to look at her, his eyes full of mirth, joy, and... and something else a man of the cloth ought not have in his eyes.
"But I never really understood what prefect love was until-"
Theresa's breath caught in her throat. She almost couldn't find the air to say, "Until?"
The mirth faded from Vlad's eyes, making the emotions that remained more intense.
"Until I met you."
There. It was said. The thing that had been growing between them these past weeks had finally found its voice. And there was no going back.
Vlad leaned into Theresa. They were already so close that there was very little space to fill – but fill it he did. Theresa lifted her lips to meet his kiss. It was soft and innocent. Tentative and hopeful. It was the first of many they would share before the evening bell called Vlad back to his prayers. It was-
The dream shifted so quickly it left Theresa reeling.
One moment, she was enjoying the gentle exploration of Vlad's kisses under the hazy summer sun; the next, she was hurrying from a thatched roof cottage, carefully sidestepping a hound dozing on the lawn. She clutched the shawl tight around her shoulders as the late autumn air bit her cheeks and nipped at her bare toes.
Excitement zinged along her nerves. She couldn't wait to see Vlad again. It had only been three days since they'd met in the woods outside the monastery but it felt like three hundred. Theresa hated to be apart from Vlad for any length of time. She wished they could live together as man and woman were meant to – as husband and wife – but knew that the abbot would never allow him to leave.
It was wrong, Theresa thought, to blame a son for the sins of his father. Vlad had nothing to do with the atrocities perpetrated by his father, the man they called "The Impaler". How could he have? Vlad had been naught but a babe when his father was driven from the land; no one even knew for certain whether that ruthless killer even knew one of the women he'd savaged had born him a child.
Still, the abbot had appointed himself the child's saviour. Vlad would earn his place in Heaven, even if Alec had to drive him there at the end of a whip. Though Vlad had never shown even the slightest hint of his father's propensity for violence, Alec was certain the evil was in there, somewhere, just waiting for the right moment to burst free – and only he could keep it in check.
Theresa disliked the man for his ability to keep her and Vlad apart. She hated him intensely for the crisscrossing of old scars and fresh wounds that stretched across Vlad's back. If anyone was a monster, surely it must be the person who could inflict so much pain on such an innocent, peaceful man.
It must have been thinking about the twisted abbot that made Theresa jump when a dark figure emerged from the shadows behind the barn. A hand flew to her mouth to cover her gasp. Then, she saw the shape of a monk's robe and Theresa relaxed.
"Vlad!" She breathed a sigh of relief, rushing toward him – only to be brought up short when the robed figure reached up to push back its hood.
The moment it took Theresa's mind to understand what was happening was too long. Rough hands caught her from behind before she could run. Another figure, flanked by two larger ones, was bustled out of the darkness.
"Do you see?" Alec said with a satisfied grin. "I told you your darling daughter had seduced a holy man."
Daughter? Did that mean...?
She struggled against the hands restraining her but to no avail; their grips only tightened painfully.
A torch flared into life, illuminating the scene. Vlad! Gagged, he was bare to the waist and sweating, despite the chill. Theresa could only imagine how he must have fought against his captors as they waited for her to keep their rendezvous. He struggled now – but, unlike Vlad, the two burly villagers that held him were no strangers to physical labour.
Theresa's father stepped into the light, his usually kind face twisted in disgust. She recoiled from his gaze as if he'd struck her. He was usually a gentle, patient man who had never so much as raised his voice to his daughter. What had so altered his perception of Theresa that he would look at her with such undisguised hatred in his eyes?
What? Or, who?
"Alec," Theresa said as understand slowly dawned. Of course, who else?
The backhand came so unexpectedly that Theresa would have been knocked to the ground if not for the hands holding her in place.
"How dare you speak my name with such familiarity," Alec spat. "Unlike Brother Vlad, I am not a victim of your lustful ways. You have no hold over me, harlot."
Embarrassment beat at Theresa's cheeks, turning them red. "I am no harlot!" she snapped back.
Alec stepped toward her. With a sneer, he said, "Do you deny having sexual relations with this monk?"
Tears stung Theresa's eyes but she fought to keep them from falling. She looked at Vlad, whose own eyes were damp and full of fear. He shook his head. Theresa could almost hear his voice in her head, urging her to deny it. To protect herself. She shook her head in response.
Never. She would never deny their love. Regardless of what it might cost her.
Vlad dropped his head. The fight went out of him, all at once.
"I love Vlad," Theresa said, raising her chin defiantly. "I am not ashamed to admit it."
And I'm ready to face the consequences, she thought. Whatever they may be.
Her father would certainly turn her out – and there'd not be many in the village willing to offer her solace and risk garnering his displeasure. She would have to leave, go someplace far away but, if Vlad were with her, Theresa could face that. She could face anything, with him by her side.
"There!" Alec said triumphantly. "You have it, from the whore's own mouth!"
Theresa didn't get the chance to argue. He continued, "She has admitted to seducing a holy man. What more proof do you require?"
An angry murmur from behind told Theresa that the mad abbot had a larger audience than she'd thought. It was unsettling to think that her neighbours were watching the display.
"We need no more proof," came a woman's voice. Theresa's stomach clenched painfully as she realized that it belonged to Mihaela, the eldest woman in the village. It suddenly occurred to Theresa that, whatever was happening, it went far beyond an illicit romance.
"You came to us with claims that one of our own was consorting with the Devil. We did not believe you but we agreed to hear you out. The proof that you have given us is beyond doubt. There is only one course of action we can take, to ensure the evil ends here, with her."
Consorting with the devil? What-
Alec leaned in close to say, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." His expression was sombre but Theresa imagined she could see the glee in his eyes.
Panic coursed through her. "I am no witch!" she insisted.
"Take her to the courtyard," the old woman commanded. Theresa was lifted off her feet and dragged away.
The village commons was lit by many torches and filled with Theresa's neighbours, family, and friends. Not one of them looked happy to see her. She scanned their faces, hoping to some sympathy. Some friendship. There was none, only hostility and judgement.
Her village had turned against her. Or, more accurately, had been turned against her. By Alec.
The rage that filled her at the thought of the abbot's manipulation was short-lived. All-consuming terror took its place when Theresa saw the tall pole erected in the centre of the village; branches, logs, and bales of dried hay piled high around it.
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
Theresa screamed as she was dragged to certain death.
Theresa learned that few things made secret TSA agents drop their cover faster than blood-curdling screams on a packed international flight. She also learned that undercover agents carried firearms – which, incidentally, caused other passengers to scream as well. Thirty-five thousand miles above the Atlantic Ocean turned out to be a very bad place for such misunderstandings to occur.
By the time order returned to economy class, they were somewhere over Slovakia, juggling the landing cards, complimentary sandwiches, and warm towelettes that all seemed to come at once. The stewardess – who had been all smiles when she was doling out $5 a pop alcohol – practically threw Theresa's in her face. Theresa didn't blame her.
Mortified, Theresa was doing her best to keep her head down and not make eye contact with anyone. Michelle ran interference. Rather loudly.
"You have something to say, lady?" she snapped at an angry looking woman across the aisle. The woman huffed but turned to stare out the window.
Face aflame, Theresa said, "Don't," but not very loudly. She was glad for her friend's support; Michelle was easily the only person on the plane who didn't want to hit her. Or – she glanced at the now-uncovered TSA agent – shoot her.
Timothy must have heard the ruckus – how could he not – but he had obviously chosen to pretend he didn't know either woman. After a delay at customs caused, no doubt, by the trouble on the plane, they found him outside the terminal, chatting through an open window to a taxi driver.
"It's about time," he said. His accent sounded even phonier against the Romanians' around them. "I was about to give up on you."
Michelle rolled her eyes with a snort. Theresa just reached for a door handle. She climbed into the back, slamming the door on the tirade Michelle looked ready to burst into. Letting hr head fall back against the seat, Theresa let out a sigh that was part frustration, part relief, and part bone-deep weariness.
She nearly jumped out of her seat when a heavily accented voice said, "Long day?"
The driver raised one bushy, black eyebrow at Theresa in the rear-view mirror. He half-turned in his seat to give her a look that was slightly amused and not the least bit apologetic for making her jump.
"You could say that," Theresa told him as dismissively as possible. He didn't take the hint.
Theresa made a non-committal noise that the driver took for assent.
"Beautiful country," he told her with a wave of his hand. She assumed he meant the rest of the country, since all she could see was worn concrete and harassed travellers.
"I'm sure it is."
The door opened and Michelle slid in beside Theresa. Timothy chose to ride beside the driver. Both women were silently grateful.
Michelle rested her head on Theresa's shoulder. She was asleep before the black cab forced its way into the long line of traffic leaving the airport. When the driver launched into a history of the landmarks they passed, Theresa considered pretending to sleep herself.
"Prior to the first world war," the driver said over the wail of a horn blaring, "Oradea was called Nagyvárad. It was…"
Theresa tuned out the lecture. Her mind was still working to make sense of the dreams. If such a thing were possible.
They were so real; more like memories than dreams. Which was ridiculous, of course. What was there to remember? She'd only met Vlad once. And what of the village? She was sure that she'd never seen anything like that.
As for the fire… Theresa only wished that she'd never seen that before. It was the only part of the dream that was familiar to her. The nightmare had haunted her for as long as she could remember but it had never been quite so detailed before. And it had always started in flames.
She was chasing phantoms when the cab came to the stop at the bottom of a long dirt road.
"This is the Church of Lost Souls," the driver said cheerfully.
Michelle stretched and yawned. "Lost what?" she asked as she ruffled her wild mane of dark curls.
"The Church of Lost Souls," he said again. "It is said that the bodies that lay in the catacombs beneath the church are buried – but not dead."
"Buried but not dead?"
A chill trickled down Theresa's spine. Images of restless spirits and walking corpses filled her head.
"Thanks for the nightmares," Michelle said with a shudder. "Can we go now?"
The driver shifted the car into park. He tapped the meter. "Twenty-eight lei."
Timothy rifled through a handful of papers, frowning. "I thought Mr. Devac said it was a monastery, not a church…"
"The monastery is at the top of the hill. You go on foot."
Theresa craned her neck to look up the hill. She turned to give Michelle a look of disbelief and found her friend's mouth open and her eyes wide.
"No way," Michelle said. "It's gotta be at least a mile."
"More like two," the driver said.
Timothy shook his head. "You don't underst-"
"Nuh uh. These boots were not made for walking."
"You can't expect us to-"
But the taxi driver was determined. He refused to take them any nearer to the monastery. In fact, he tried to discourage them from going at all.
"I will take you to the nearest village," he said. "You will be safer there, yes?"
"Our work is here," Timothy argued.
The driver finally lost his cheerful demeanour and threatened to call the authorities if they didn't leave the cab immediately. He rolled down his window to offer one last remark before departing.
"There are worse things than death," he told them. "You will meet many of them if you continue your journey."
Theresa, Michelle, and Timothy stared after the departing cab. Then, they grabbed their cases and began the trek up the hill to the monastery.
Alec beat Vlad for his own good. For his own salvation.
Not – not – because it pleased him to do so. Certainly not because it aroused him to do so. That would be a sin... and it was Alec's job to save Vlad's immortal soul from damnation, not to give into it himself.
That was the promise Alec had made to himself when the infant was delivered to their doorstep by a weeping woman who swore that the vilest man in the world had taken her against her will; had done such horrendous things to her that one member of Alec’s monastery had fainted dead away, just hearing the words spoken.
She had entrusted them with her son's future, his deliverance, terrified that he might become like his father if left unchecked. Alec was determined to give him no such opportunity.
As the infant grew to toddler; from toddler to child; from child to teen, Alec was there, always watching. Guiding. Teaching and, yes, sometimes punishing. When it was the only way forward. The only way to correct Vlad’s wild behavior.
Growing up in a monastery was not the most carefree childhood, it had to be said, but it was, in its own way, the safest place for Vlad. It kept him safe from the people outside the walls who, if they were to learn of his parentage, would surely demand his head in retribution for the evils committed by his father – a man the child had never once laid eyes upon. In the same vein, the holy ground kept Vlad same from that man’s reach, should the evil prince ever learn of his child’s existence.
As time went on and Vlad grew into a man, Alec had to be more proactive; had to take up the whip more often as the young man started to ask the sort of questions a lifetime in a monastery should have beaten out of him. Alec was forced to do it instead.
For all the good it did him.
It became something of a ritual. Alec would lecture the young man, who would give every impression of listening intently, then repeat the crime exactly as he had before. So, Alec would pile on extra prayers, extra chores, more penance. Vlad would do exactly as the abbot demanded, without seeming the least bit contrite. Then, he would repeat the transgression – this time, with more fervor. Vlad was, after all, a young man testing his limits.
The abbot had no experience in raising children but, if his own wayward youth was anything to go by, rebellion was just part of the job. Over time, however, Vlad’s minor acts of defiance grew into something worse, something more sinister. Alec could see Vlad’s father squatting deep inside the young man, just waiting for his opportunity to break free and claim the monk’s soul. Though he was sworn to stop that from happening, Alec feared he had exhausted all possibilities.
That was when she came into their lives, with her hair like sunshine and a smile radiant enough to hide the darkness in her heart. She blinded Vlad from the beginning, stealing his heart and turning his eyes from God. After much prayer, Alec could think of only one thing to be done – and he did it. They all suffered the consequences for that decision.
But that was hundreds of years ago and Alec had come to accept, even enjoy, his fate. Being a vampire suited him, once he could put aside the gnawing certainty that he had been damned. In time, Alec had even come to accept the feelings he’d harbored for his young charge for so long. It took more than two hundred years, but he was finally able to accept the fact that he was attracted to Vlad. There had been a time, perhaps, when he’d even loved the other man, but Alec no longer put stock in that emotion.
What people thought of as love was nothing more than the desire to claim another, to possess them in every way imaginable. He was convinced that, if he could only show Vlad that, the other man could put aside his remorse and self-pity long enough to make their un-lives together a bit more enjoyable. That was when she came into their lives again.
Alec came across Theresa’s photograph online, while he was looking for someone to restore the monastery’s many paintings and it was as though a light switched inside his head. He finally knew how to make Vlad see that the love he’d clung to for the past several hundred years was misguided. Now, all he had to do was resist eating the bitch before he could put his plan into motion…
The monastery sat atop a hill so large it only just fell short of being a very small mountain. It was only accessible by a long and twisting dirt path that, even if their taxi driver had been willing to drive it (which he wasn’t), narrowed so much as it went that the car would have been stuck halfway up. The building was an impressive structure, with high white walls that shielded the inner structures from view until Michelle and Theresa joined forces to shove one of the heavy, wooden doors inward.
“Whoa,” Michelle breathed, gazing around the spacious grounds.
Theresa was struck mute by the monastery, but not because of its cobblestone walkways or vaulted ceilings. She was speechless because she was absolutely certain that she had been there before even though, of course, there was no way she could have since she’d never been to that part of the world before. And, yet…
Yet she knew every weathered, wooden stair and every low awning. She knew that archway, there, lead to the monastery’s stables while the nail-studded door opposite lead to a kitchen where a large wooden stove would have baked dozens of loaves of bread every week for the monks who once lived there.
Logic told Theresa that she couldn’t know these things, but her heart told her that she did. She knew that the second and third stories, with their open-air walkways, were made up of small, simple rooms where the monks had slept. She knew that catacombs started beneath the spot where they now stood and ran all the way back down to what the taxi driver had called “the Church of Lost Souls.”
And she knew, without the smallest doubt, that Vlad was somewhere within the monastery’s high walls.
Theresa could feel Vlad’s presence the way the earth felt the pull of the moon. Though she had spent less than an hour with him, Vlad already controlled the ebb and flow of Theresa's life. She couldn't deny that it thrilled her every bit as much as it terrified her.
Perhaps, she was ashamed to admit, a little more.
“Wonder where everyone is?” Michelle asked. Dropping her bags on the ground, she shielded her eyes from the setting sun as she looked around the monastery's courtyard.
Timothy dug his phone out of his pocket and dialed a number. He took a few steps away as he waited for an answer.
The courtyard was well-manicured and neat, with tidy flower beds and hanging plants, but there was no proof of human activity to be seen. Theresa had to smother a shiver that climbed up her back. She could have sworn that there were eyes on her but, scanning the long, covered walkways, she saw no one. It was unsettling, to say the least.
“I’ve just spoken to Alec,” Timothy said, rejoining them.
Michelle gave Theresa a look. “Alec?” she said.
Timothy turned a brilliant shade of scarlet and cleared his throat. “Ahem, Mr. Devac,” he corrected.
“Uh huh,” Michelle said, rolling her eyes.
“Where is he, Timothy?” Theresa asked irritably. She was going on four days without a decent night’s sleep. It was starting to take its toll.
That, and Vlad’s proximity made her skin feel like it was supercharged. She was almost afraid to touch anything, lest she and it go up in flames.
The dream came back to her. This time, Theresa couldn’t repress the shiver that ran through her. Michelle shot her a concerned look but didn’t say anything.
“Mr. Devac has been… detained,” Timothy explained. “He’ll be with us shortly. He said to make ourselves comfortable.”
Theresa and Michelle looked around the courtyard. It was pleasant enough to look at but… comfortable?
A wooden bench sat alone under the shade of an ancient willow tree. Theresa doubted Timothy would be gentleman enough to stand so she and Michelle could share the bench and, even if being pressed up against Timothy didn’t churn her stomach (which it did), Theresa wasn’t sure she wanted to be that close to anyone after so many hours of travel.
“We could explore…” Michelle started but her voice quickly died off as she looked around at the long, shadowed walkways that stretched out above them. It didn’t look like the idea of wandering around the imposing – and more than a little creepy – monastery without a guide appealed to Michelle.
Theresa could have told her friend that they didn’t need a guide; that she could lead them straight to the monastery’s parlor, a place where the abbot had once entertained dignitaries, or to the frater, where long rows of rough-hewn tables and benches had seen countless meals. She could show them to the sacristy which, although out of the weather, offered little more comfort than where they stood. Or, there was the chapter house, a cavernous room surrounded on all sides by wide, stone benches.
There were plenty of places within the monastery that Theresa knew would be more comfortable than the courtyard that grew chillier as the sun descended, and she knew them all. She chose to keep that information to herself – partly because she didn’t want to have to explain to Michelle and Timothy how she knew their locations but mostly because Theresa didn’t know how she knew their locations.
It was a road that lead to a lot of unanswered questions, one that Theresa wasn’t quite ready to take. Instead, she turned the box housing her equipment on its side and sat on it, facing the large doors that they had entered through. Michelle shrugged and joined her, straddling the shatter-proof, black case that held her own equipment. Timothy looked down at them for a moment before turning and marching toward the courtyard’s only bench. Sitting down with a huff, he pulled out his phone and started firing off texts.
“Are you okay?” Michelle asked. She kept her voice low enough that Timothy wouldn’t be able to hear.
Theresa didn’t know what she could say that wouldn’t be a lie. She just shook her head.
Michelle reached out to take her hand. “I hit up the duty free before we left,” she said, giving Theresa’s hand a squeeze. “There’s a bottle of bourbon in my bag that’ll make everything okay,” she promised with a mischievous grin.
I really doubt that, Theresa thought miserably. She had the unshakeable feeling that nothing would ever be okay again.
Vlad woke that evening with a strange feeling in his gut. He couldn’t explain what had caused it; only that it made him restless and on edge. He felt like a children’s toy that had been wound too tightly, shaking with potential energy and ready to shoot wildly across the room the moment it was released.
The anxious feeling gave way to annoyance when he passed Alec's quarters and saw carnage through the room's open door. Two bodies, male and female, were draped negligently across the bed, dressed only in jagged wounds and fresh blood. Vlad wrinkled his nose against the rancid stench of death.
Typical, just typical. Leave it to Alec to foul his own bed. The man – if such a term still applied to Alec – was concerned with only two things and, when he had gotten those, anything that remained was someone else’s problem. Usually Vlad’s, since he was fool enough to actually care if his companion’s antics brought an angry mob to their door.
Vlad gave himself a mental shake. Yes, he cared. He cared because, somewhere, Theresa was walking around in the world and, as long as she did, he wanted to be part of that world.
It never got any easier, did it? How many times had she come back to him? Twenty? Thirty? Vlad wasn’t sure he wanted to remember the exact number.
He wished he didn’t have to remember at all.
He didn’t want to remember the time Theresa, dark-haired and dark-eyed, came as a slave from war-torn, desert lands. Or the time, mousy and shy, she had been on a holy pilgrimage when their paths crossed. He especially didn’t want to remember the time Theresa, haunted for years by visions she couldn’t understand, rushed at him with a stake in her hand and a fire fueled by fear in her eyes.
Each time Theresa had returned to Vlad, it had broken him. He had learned to dread her return, even as he longed for it because every time – every single time – the moment of joyous discovery had been quickly and brutally overshadowed by inescapable tragedy. No matter where Theresa came from, regardless of the skin she wore, their relationship always ended as suddenly as it had that first time. It was his curse.
That, and the damned blood crawling sluggishly through his ancient veins.
Theresa will come back to you, if you wait long enough.
Vlad slammed Alec’s door shut with such force that the frame splintered. The door swung inward again, mocking him.
You can wait for her. You can wait forever, if that is what you wish…
Clenching his jaw tight against the howl of rage that tried to escape as memory assaulted him, Vlad turned and stalked away from Alec’s blood-soaked room. He should never have sought out his father that fateful night; should never have accepted his birthright.
Vlad definitely didn’t want to remember the night he had been forced to watch as fire had consumed Theresa, or the sound of her-
As if summoned by his thoughts, Theresa’s voice drifted across the monastery. It struck Vlad like a physical blow. He stopped dead, grabbing a nearby wooden beam for support.
No. No, it can’t be.
Theresa couldn’t be there. Not in Romania, not at the monastery.
Please, God, don’t let this be real. Let her be safe, thousands of miles from here.
But God wasn’t interested in the prayers of a monster.
Vlad all but flew across the grounds. He reached the courtyard in time to see Alec step from the shadowy archway that led from the stables and approach the small group of people gathered near the monastery’s entrance. One of the figures was a tiny woman whose riotous curls made up for any lost height. She stared up at a tall man in a rumpled business suit who made angry gestures with his hands as she berated him. The other was…
“Theresa Jennings!” Alec’s voice boomed, annoyingly cheerful as he embraced her. Vlad stiffened at the sight, itching to plant something sharp and nasty in his companion’s chest. Theresa also went rigid at his touch, which pleased Vlad more than it should have.
If Alec noticed her discomfort, he ignored it, releasing Theresa to greet the man that accompanied her. Vlad recognized him from the art gallery but couldn’t remember the man’s name – not that he tried very hard.
“Timothy,” Alec continued, taking the man’s hand. “I’m very happy to see you again.” His voice was so full innuendo that Vlad was surprised not to see it dripping down Timothy’s designer suit jacket.
Vlad thought of the gallery owner’s possessiveness toward Theresa the night they’d met and decided that there was one body, at least, he wouldn’t mind having to dispose of.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Alec continued, turning to the other woman. He raised her hand to his lips before saying, “I’m sure I would remember someone as attractive as you.”
The curly-haired woman ducked her head at the compliment, another victim of Alec’s well-practiced charm.
“Michelle Garcia,” Timothy supplied, reluctantly performing the introduction. “One of my employees.” His tone left no doubt about the nature of their relationship.
“How was your flight?” Alec asked conversationally.
Timothy and Michelle exchanged a look at that, but it was a Theresa that answered. “Not good.”
Michelle took her colleague's hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “Theresa doesn't like to fly,” she explained.
Timothy opened his mouth but quickly shut it again when Michelle shot him a warning glare.
There was something more, Vlad thought, something other than a fear of flying. Whatever it was, he was certain it had something to do with Theresa. She wouldn’t look at the other two.
“What a shame,” Alec said. “I find flight so exhilarating. But,” he added, glancing in Vlad's direction with a mischievous look on his face, “like you, I hate to fly in airplanes.”
Vlad stormed across the courtyard, swiftly putting himself between Vlad and Theresa.
“Brother!” Alec said with exaggerated cheerfulness. His eyes flashed dangerously as he said, “There you are. We have visitors!”
What are you playing at? The silent message was sent on a wave of outrage. It went unanswered.
Alec merely raised an eyebrow and said, “You remember Theresa Jennings?”
Though he told himself not to look at her, that nothing good could come from it, Vlad found himself turning anyway. His undead heart thumped heavily once then swelled so quickly at the sight of her that it nearly exploded out of his chest.
Her eyes were wide, yet Theresa didn’t look surprised to see him. Vlad thought of the strange feeling that he had awoken to and realized that it had been her. His body knew that Theresa was nearby, even before he knew she was nearby. His soul knew.
His soul had always known.
“Vlad,” she breathed, “I-”. Whatever else Theresa was going to say was swallowed up by more introductions that Vlad neither needed or wanted.
Vlad didn’t hear a word of it. The woman before him was his entire world. He was both horrified and overjoyed to see her there, in his home. Part of Vlad wanted to send her far, far away, where she could be safe from… well, him. The other part wanted to sweep Theresa up in his arms, carry her straight to his room, and-
It took Vlad a moment to realize that everyone was staring at him. He shifted uncomfortably under their scrutiny – and for… other reasons – as he said, “Sorry, what?”
Alec’s look was amused, as if the other man could guess Vlad’s thoughts. Hell, he probably could.
“I was just saying,” Alec told Vlad, “that you would be happy to show our guests to their rooms.”
To their rooms? Did Alec really imagine that Vlad would allow him anywhere near the place Theresa slept?
Theresa frowned but Alec spoke before she could.
“But of course you will,” he said, raising his eyebrows in a silent challenge. “Our guests have come a long way and are in need of rest.”
No, Vlad repeated silently. He wrapped the thought in venom before sending it to Alec. In response, the other vampire filled Vlad’s head with mocking laughter.
Vlad caught Theresa’s eye. “There’s a village, not far from here,” he told her, “with an inn. You’ll be-” safer “-more comfortable there.”
“Nonsense!” Alec interjected. “The inn may be quaint,” he conceded, “but it can’t compete with the priceless artifacts and medieval architecture the monastery offers.”
Vlad wasn’t sure whether he could trust himself to touch Theresa, but he did know that he didn’t trust himself not to do something stupid if she slept under the same roof. Desperate, Vlad took hold of Theresa’s arms as he said, “You’ll prefer the inn.”
A thrill ran through him at the touch. He wondered if Theresa had felt it too. It was impossible to tell. She quickly stepped away, breaking Vlad’s hold. “Come on,” she said to her companions. “We’ll stay at the inn.”
Timothy looked ready to argue but the tiny woman called Michelle silenced him with a glare. Vlad offered to call them a taxi while Alec, annoyed that things hadn’t gone his way or simply bored (quite possibly both,) promised to see the trio the next day and wandered off. Theresa didn’t look at Vlad again as they gathered their things to make the long trek down to the road.
Vlad watched their progress from the monastery’s entrance. He made sure they were safely ensconced in the taxi before, filled with murderous intent, he went in search of Alec.
Theresa half-expected the same shock of recognition she’d experienced at the monastery when they reached the “nearby” village (which was over thirty minutes away.) It wasn’t nearly as untouched as the monastery had been, though.
Hints of the past were tucked away between among (relatively) modern buildings. Cracked concrete and crumbling masonry sat side-by-side along a road so in need of repair it felt like riding over a cheese grater.
“You could have saved yourselves the trouble,” their driver – whose name, they learned, was Mihai – pointed out, “if you’d listened to me in the first place.”
His English was very good. Not that any of the occupants of his cab appreciated that fact. Theresa was lost in thought, Michelle was busy watching her friend, and Timothy was… well, being Timothy.
“We had every intention of staying at the monastery,” Timothy told the driver. The look he gave Theresa was pointed and rather sulky. She didn’t see why it mattered to Timothy where they stayed but she was too preoccupied, anyway, looking for landmarks that might trigger feelings of familiarity to spare her boss more than a passing thought.
As hard as she strained to take in their surroundings against the darkening light, nothing triggered that feeling of impossible recognition. Until they reached the inn.
The ancient building wasn’t just familiar. It was where she’d grown up; where she’d lived her whole life; where she belonged. Except, of course, it wasn’t. Theresa was a city girl. So how…?
They came flooding back to her, memories she couldn’t possibly have. There. That parking lot was where she’d played with their dog as a child. Over there was where she’d fallen down that flight of stairs in her haste to get to the harvest festival, earning herself a scar on her chin for her haste. And there… That parking lot was where Alec had lain in wait for her.
It was too far away to know if any of it was still the same, but Theresa knew that there was once a wide expanse of field just on the other side of the village. It was where…
A shiver tore through her. That was one memory she didn’t want to revisit.
How could these places, these people, climb out of her dreams to become reality? Was she losing her mind?
Michelle broke Theresa’s tortured reverie by nudging her gently. “We’re here,” she said.
Emotion – whether the memories were real or not, the feelings the elicited were – clogged Theresa’s throat, making it difficult to answer. Nodding mutely, she reached for the door handle.
Theresa collected her things mechanically, oblivious to both Timothy’s accusatory glare and Michelle’s worried expression. It was only Mihai’s sudden grip on her wrist that caught her attention. Instead of the insane chatter that seemed to come as naturally to the man as breath, he stared silently into Theresa’s face a moment before shaking his head. He released her.
“This is how it begins,” he said quietly to Michelle (though not quietly enough, apparently.) “Soon, she’ll be losing her appetite, then time. After that… there’ll be nothing left to lose.”
Michelle opened her mouth to reply but the driver spoke over her.
“Take your friend away from this place,” he warned, “while there’s still a chance.”
Timothy, whose mood grew sourer by the minute, interrupted with, “We’ll leave when we finish the job. Let’s go.”
He grabbed Michelle and pulled her away from the driver. Theresa followed without complaint. She refused to meet Mihai’s concerned gaze. If she didn’t, maybe he wouldn’t see the truth burning in her eyes: that it was already too late.
Theirs had always been a love/hate relationship. Even so…
Not once, in six hundred years, had Vlad come as close to ending Alec’s existence as he was at that moment. And that was counting the time when, as a newly turned vampire, Vlad’s hunger had driven him to drain the man dry.
Vlad simmered, barely keeping his fury in check until the taxi he’d ordered for Theresa and her colleagues had driven out of sight. Then, with a burst of speed and an inhuman snarl of rage, he hunted the other vampire down.
It was too much, too close to that first, horrific ending – the one that Alec, in his misguided piety, had orchestrated. When Alec had whipped the villagers up into a murderous frenzy with his overzealous devotion. It had taken centuries for Vlad to (nearly) accept that it had, at least, been driven by genuine concern for his soul. There were even times when Vlad found he could almost forgive Alec for that ancient transgression. The consequences had been horrific but it had, he told himself, came from a place of love.
This, however, could only be seen as a vindictive act, designed to hurt Vlad.
It was a sentiment he intended to repay in kind.
Whether Alec’s apparent nonchalance was because he didn’t view Vlad as a threat or was because he looking for a fight (which was just as likely,) Vlad didn’t know. Didn’t know and didn’t care. The rage burning inside him demanded release.
He gave Alec no warning. Coming upon the man where he lounged in the modernized wing of the monastery they called home, Vlad caught Alec by the throat and lifted him into the air. Alec’s dark eyes bulged. His lips moved but no sound came out; Vlad’s iron grip had already crushed his windpipe. Alec was, for once in their many (many) years together, silent.
Vlad decided he preferred the other vampire that way.
But he would much prefer him dead – or, whatever passed for dead for their kind. He squeezed harder, until a satisfying crack filled the room and Alec went limp. The edge was wearing off, but Vlad’s blood still boiled, still screamed for retribution. He let Alec’s limp body fall to the floor.
“How dare you,” he growled. A broken neck wouldn’t stop the other vampire for long… but it would hurt like hell. “What were you thinking, bringing her here? Here, of all places?”
Alec’s only reply was resounding silence. Agony glazed his eyes, the only part that showed any signs of life. He wouldn’t make much sense until his nervous system knitted itself back together.
And Vlad wasn’t sure he could resist breaking something else while he waited.
He could either wait until his… (Companion? Frenemy? Eternal tormentor? There was no accurate word for the relationship they shared.) roommate pulled himself together and try to wring an explanation from him – which Alec wasn’t likely to give, no matter how many times Vlad severed his spinal cord – or, he could follow the tugging sensation in his heart that urged him to cross the few short miles between him and Theresa.
Theresa. He would always choose Theresa, a thousand times, in a thousand of her lifetimes.
“This conversation isn’t over,” Vlad snarled, kicking Alec once more for good measure. The sound of splintering ribs brought a savage smile to his lips as he turned and flew into the night.
Vlad had been remarkably patient with Alec’s constant wheedling and tiny torments over the centuries, but Vlad drew the line at putting Theresa in danger. A few broken bones was nothing to what he would do to the other vampire if Alec ever crossed that line again.
Alec often used the word “brother” to remind Vlad where their stories started but there was no blood between them. Well… not in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, it was Vlad’s father who had cursed them both with immortality – just as he had done with hundreds of others through the years. A few drops of poisoned blood didn’t make anyone siblings, though.
Oddly enough, until the moment Vlad ended the former abbot’s life (or, rather, thought he had ended it,) he had looked up to the other man as more than a brother. Alec had been more of a parent to Vlad than his own damned father could have been. True, Alec was overly strict. And some of the other monks did sometimes whispered that the abbot singled Vlad out for punishments that ran to the overenthusiastic… but not all human parents were good parents. And Alec was all Vlad had.
The abbot made his dislike of the woman perfectly clear from the moment she forced her way into the heart of the monastery, demanding food for her village during a particularly bad drought. Vlad – who waited patiently, head down and hands folded in the folds of his plain robe, behind the man who had raised him – was instantly impressed. Not only did the woman care enough about the people of her village to attempt to feed them all, she appeared willing to take on the whole church to do so.
He dared a quick glance at the woman. His reaction was both instant and physical.
The monastery sometimes played host to travellers in need of shelter. They even welcomed the occasional nun for extended periods of time. There was also the charitable work that sometimes brough ill or infirm women to their door. It wasn’t as though Vlad had never seen a woman… he’d just never seen a woman like her before.
The woman’s beauty was staggering. She had blonde waves that fell past her shoulders, sun-kissed skin, and full lips that made strange, unfamiliar feelings rise within Vlad. He didn’t realize he’d gasped out loud until Alec turned to glare at him. Clamping down on a groan of annoyance, Vlad lowered his head again, letting the cowl shield his face. He knew that look. Those narrowed eyes, the hard line of the abbot’s lips could mean only one thing. Another punishment was coming Vlad’s way.
Well, if he was going to be punished anyway…
Vlad looked up under the edge of his hood to watch as the woman squared off with the abbot. Though Father Alec was at least a head taller, she somehow managed to stare him down. Her expression was fierce as she argued her case.
“The food is from God, is it not?”
Father Alec waved a hand. “It is,” he conceded, “but that does not-”
She didn’t give the abbot a chance to launch into scripture. “If the food is from God, it should be used to feed His children. You must know they are starving.”
“The monastery cannot feed everyone during these difficult times.”
Vlad felt a wave of shame as the abbot again refused to provide aid. Their stores were, as they always were, full. The brothers would see this drought through with little to no inconvenience. The same could not be said for the woman’s village. From their vantage point atop the hill overlooking the valley, the withered fields were plain to see. How could Father Alec be so heartless?
“God will provide,” the abbot insisted, “in His own time.”
Father Alec had made up his mind and, as the monks under his care knew, the abbot’s will was unwavering. He wouldn’t change his mind, no matter how well-founded the woman’s argument was. Vlad felt a wave of pity for her. Perhaps there was something he could do… some way he could help…
The sound of Father Alec clearing his throat separated Vlad from his musings. He automatically dropped his gaze again.
“Please see our guest out,” Father Alec said. His tone suggested that it was not the first time the command had been given.
Wonderful, Vlad thought grumpily. That will be another few lashes.
“Of course, Father.” He motioned toward the massive archway that lead away from the monastery.
“And, Brother Vlad?”
He met Alec’s hard gaze.
“When you have finished that, join me in my study. We will pray together.”
Vlad choked back a sigh. Prayer. Alec’s prayers tended to be very physical. His God was not a kind god, demanding penance for many transgressions – many of which Vlad failed to see but Alec insisted had been committed. He would be in no hurry to finish his task.
“Of course, Father. This way, please, miss.”
He began to lead the woman toward the gate but stopped after only a few yards to look back over his shoulder. The abbot was busy talking to another monk. Good. Vlad quickly ducked into the shadow created by a stairwell, urging the woman to follow him.
“Quickly,” he said in a hushed, urgent tone.
She hesitated, looking from Father Alec to the gate. Her hesitation lasted only a moment. The woman followed Vlad into the semi-darkness.
Vlad found he was shocked and frustrated by the woman’s easy compliance – until he remembered that, unlike his fellow monks, she didn’t know what he was. It seemed she trusted Vlad completely because he was a man of the cloth, not knowing how deep his unholiness, his corruption ran. She couldn’t know that his father was the living – or… at least walking – embodiment of evil. And, Vlad, the only known human offspring of the monster known as Vlad the Impaler, was born with that evil dwelling deep within, hiding, waiting for a moment of weakness.
As Father Alec reminded him on a daily basis. Sometimes… Vlad wasn’t all that convinced that he was evil. He wasn’t even sure he believed in the whole original sin thing that they were supposed to be atoning for. What Vlad did know, however, was that the monastery had taken him in when his own horrified mother abandoned him and, for that, Vlad tried his best to live a godly life.
He doubted whether luring an innocent woman into a dark, isolated tunnel fit into that life, but he felt an irrepressible urge to help her.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said as she followed him through the shadowy doorway.
The woman gave no indication of being afraid. If he had been the monster Alec saw when he looked at him, Vlad would have had ample opportunity to do any number of nefarious things to her.
“I’m not,” she insisted. It sounded like she meant it.
Vlad shook his head. For reasons he didn’t understand, he liked the fact that she wasn’t afraid of him. For reasons he’d had beaten into him – literally and figuratively, he secretly wished she would be.
There were unlit torches mounted along the walls, but Vlad didn’t reach for them. He didn’t want to draw the attention of anyone in the courtyard. Instead, he kept one hand close to the cold stone and followed the path mostly by memory. The woman gasped as she tripped over an uneven stone, instinctively grabbing Vlad’s robe to catch herself.
“Sorry.” Her apology sounded breathless. She immediately released his robe.
Vlad turned to his companion. “It is I who should apologize,” he said. “Would it be… appropriate for me to assist you?” He asked because he honestly didn’t know. Relationships of any kind were forbidden for the monks of his order, but Vlad was unsure of how far that went. Holding a woman’s hand to lead her safely through a dark tunnel had to be permitted.
She hesitated a only moment before taking the hand Vlad offered. An unexpected thrill ran through him at the feel of her coarse palm against his. Just the touch was enough to tell Vlad that she spent her days hard at work. He was momentarily ashamed that his own were so soft. The lay brothers who made the monastery their home saw to the menial chores so that Vlad and his brothers could devote themselves to study. It had never occurred to him until that moment how unfair the arrangement was.
The woman seemed to give herself a shake. She closed her fingers around Vlad’s.
“Theresa,” she said as she followed him down the dark corridor.
Vlad threw a confused look over his shoulder but could see nothing more than a silhouette. “I beg your pardon?”
“My name is Theresa.”
Something odd clicked into place inside Vlad. It was as though Vlad had always known that name, as if it had been part of him once but he’d been missing it for a long time. Now that it was home again, the name completed him. He was so overcome by the emotion triggered by the sound of her name that he forgot to respond.
“Uh… Vlad?” Theresa asked as the silence stretched on.
“Where are you taking me?”
Vlad smiled into the darkness. “To the answer to your prayers.”