Grant turned off the highway onto the narrow dirt driveway that led to my parent’s cabin. My heart skipped a beat in trepidation. I was not looking forward to this little trip, to say the least. I couldn’t bear to sell the cabin, but I never wanted to return to it, either, and yet here I was, doing exactly that.
I hadn’t slept well the night before, disturbed by dreams alternating between hunting in wild forests with Andreas, and being hunted through a wild forest by some faceless monster.
Four years was a long time to avoid a place. The long, winding driveway was overgrown and filled with ruts, tree roots, and small brush, but not impassable in Grant’s big truck. We rolled right over the bushes with ease. I felt a guilty twinge for not at least hiring a caretaker company to come by to keep things from falling apart, and made a mental note to contact one for future use.
After lurching through the driveway, we pulled up in front of the cabin. I looked out the windshield at the building. It was looking dilapidated, after being ignored for four years. I sighed, and reluctantly popped open the truck door. I had such mixed feelings about this place. The lake spread out behind the log cabin, iced in on this shore. The snow was beginning to melt, but long icicles hung from the eaves of the cabin, giving it an almost cheery mountain feeling, except for the sagging porch. I had fond memories of this place, I thought wistfully as I approached the steps leading up to the front door – the steps that were now warped with rot. There stood my mother’s porch swing, the seat tattered and weather-worn. She loved to spend sunny summer afternoons reading on her swing. The boat shed out back housed my dad’s little motor boat. We’d putter around on the lake fishing for trout while she read, and when we came home, triumphant with our catch, she’d smile, and fry them up, and we’d have fresh trout for dinner.
And then they were killed, murdered, butchered, really, and now all I could see when I thought of this place was their mangled bodies strewn about, and blood soaked floorboards. I clenched my fists in anger. Andreas gripped my shoulder, standing behind me. “Relax,” he whispered. “Take deep breaths, it will help.”
I followed his advice, and by the time I inhaled and exhaled ten deep breaths, I did feel a little better.
Grant was the first to climb up the steps. They creaked and groaned under his feet, but held. “Careful with the first stair,” he warned, “It’s a little soft. Rhi, you really ought to think about hiring someone to fix this place up before it falls apart.”
The remains of the yellow police tape were still stuck to the front door. Muttering a curse, I ripped the tattered shreds away, fit my key into the lock, and cracked the door open. The hinges squeaked, groaning at being forced into use after four years of rest, but the door swung inwards, and the dark recess of the cabin’s interior stretched out before us. I flicked on the lights. I might not ever come here, but I still kept the electricity bill paid.
Grant wrinkled up his nose, and stepped cautiously inside. The living room was covered with a thick layer of dust. My father’s rustic log furniture looked muted and soft underneath it. The bookshelves lining the wall were a dusty mess. Amazingly, no critters seemed to have wormed their way inside and made a home. I sent a silent thanks to my dad for such sound joints and construction. My mother had firmly insisted that there be no holes left unplugged, she was horrified at the idea of coming back after a long winter to find a nest of squirrels living in the couch or something. The cabin smelled of old death, mildew, and dust.
“What do you smell?” Andreas asked him.
Grant didn’t answer. He slowly walked around the circumference of the room, sniffing as he went, high and low. “This is the room where it happened, right?” he asked me. I nodded my head mutely. He made another pass of the room, paying extra attention to my father’s favorite leather arm chair, and a dark stain on the dusty floor. He straightened up and looked at us, shaking his head. “Something smells off, but I can’t tell quite what. There’s old blood on the floor and on that chair,” he pointed towards my dad’s chair.” He sighed. “My nose just isn’t sensitive enough in this form, I’m going to have to shift to investigate further. With that announcement, he ripped his shirt and shoes off, unbuckled his pants, and got on his knees.
I saw it, felt it, and heard it: a ripple of energy passing through and around Grant, as his body contorted and shifted; his hands became paws, his face grew and lengthened, hair sprouted, and in a matter of about ten seconds, a tall shouldered, full grown black wolf stood in front of us. I swear, I heard the silent howl of a wolf as he changed, and it echoed bone-deep, and called to me, pulling me, and I was helpless to stop it. As this beautiful creature that was Grant stepped out of the pants that now pooled uselessly on the floor, the very same ripple of energy overtook me, like the ripple of a pebble in a pond, and dragged me under.
I was drowning. I was howling. I was panting. I was alive! I stretched out my paws, shook my back, and howled to the sky. Only there was no sky, only a wolf and a man, and a ceiling overhead. I knew them, and yet I didn’t know them. Grant and Andreas might as well have been foreign to me. I haunched my shoulders and growled at them, bristling. Grant backed up, not threatening, but not surrendering, either. Andreas, on the other hand, took a step towards me. I snapped at his hand, not wanting him to catch me. I was free! And I wanted to run!
And run I did, turning tail and running straight out the door hanging open behind me.
“I’ll catch her, Andreas shouted. “You stay here and sniff around!” He ran out after me.
I bounded down the stairs, and paused to sniff. I caught the scent of a rabbit, and yipped with glee, pouncing off down its trail, my nose to the ground, intent on the hunt. Suddenly Andreas appeared in front of me, blocking my path. I bunched up my shoulders and growled at him again, warning him to get out of my way. Damn fool of an angel, he didn’t listen. “Rhiannon,” he said softly, “Calm down and think like a human for a second.” He took a step towards me.
With a howl, I jumped on him, knocking him to the ground. He latched onto me tightly, and we rolled. He was strong, but I was wolf! We wrestled, and I was enjoying the game. I licked his face, and bit his chin playfully. “Cut that out!” he laughed, wiping off his face. He finally pinned me, burying my snout in the snow. I huffed in defeat. “Are you going to listen now?”
I whined, trying to say yes. I wasn’t a wolf, I knew that. And yet I was, and I didn’t know how to change back. I whined again, trying to tell Andreas I was stuck, and in a little bit of a panic. I missed my thumbs, I wanted my voice. He stood up and laughed. He scratched my neck. “Come on, puppy, let’s go for a little walk, as soon as you’re out of range, you’ll change back.” I jumped back up, and pranced, happy to be mobile again, happy he had a sensible answer. I smelled the rabbit’s trail again, which got me all excited again, and I just about darted off into the underbrush after it, but Andreas grabbed me by the scruff of my neck. “Quit getting distracted, Rhiannon!” he ordered. With a whine, I turned away, and followed him down to the beach. We walked a ways down the shoreline, until I couldn’t feel the pull of the wolf any longer. The energy around me changed, and with a tingle and an itch, and what felt like every joint in my body popping, I transformed again, back into a human, and there I was, on my hands and knees, stark naked in the snow.
I jumped up, first embarrassed, second cold, and wrapped my arms around me. “Don’t you dare look!” I shouted, hopping back and forth on my bare feet in the snow. My teeth were already chattering.
He laughed hard, but turned away, and handed his coat to me over his shoulder to cover up with. “It’s not like I haven’t seen you in various stages of dress and undress over the past few days, you know,” he teased.
“Yes, but none of them were completely undressed,” I snapped back, shivering. “Now let’s get back to the cabin, my feet are freezing!”
He turned toward me, laughter still in his eyes. “Would you like a lift, my wolf girl?” he offered, grinning. I gratefully climbed onto his back and wrapped my arms around his neck. He gave me a piggy back ride all the way back to the cabin, where Grant, still a large black wolf, was intently sniffing the blood stain on the floor. I grabbed my clothes and ran for the dusty kitchen, which provided me a bit of privacy, and quickly dressed again. My shirt was nearly torn in two, but my pants were still mostly intact, although the button at the waist had popped off. I pulled on the shirt and tied it in the middle to hold it together, figuring my coat, which was still sitting in the truck, would cover the rest. Although Grant was still a wolf, and I could feel the pull of the wolf, I didn’t feel the overwhelming urge to change again.
By the time I got back into the living room, Grant was human once again, and just buttoning up his pants. “Sorry about that, Rhi,” he apologized swiftly. “I forgot about the increased urge to shift when others do.”
“It felt like I was caught up in pond ripples,” I said.
He nodded in understanding. “Apt description. How’d you like being a wolf?” He grinned.
I grinned back at him. “Very liberating.” It was as if every care had melted away, and all I wanted to do was run and hunt and play. Talk about a stress-free lifestyle.
“You should try it one full moon with me and an entire pack!” he exclaimed. That was an invitation I would definitely consider taking.
“Enough distractions,” Andreas commanded. “What did you smell?”
“I smelled lots of blood, old blood,” he told Andreas. “And here’s the kicker – I smelled old traces of a vampire.” His face looked grim.
Andreas looked stunned. “That makes no sense.” He shook his head. “Why would a vampire do this? What possible motive could one have?”
“I know, right?” Grant shrugged. “Vamps just don’t leave their victims lying out like that for people to stumble on, and vamps don’t go strangling and dismembering their victims, either, let alone waste blood,” he added for emphasis.
Andreas knit his brow. “I’m going to go check with the trees,” he informed us, and stepped back out the door. I followed, preferring the outdoors to the smell of must and death. He stepped up to the tall Douglas fir that stood next to the porch, laid a hand on the bark, and closed his eyes. I waited on the porch and watched. A moment later he looked up at me. “I get a trace of vampire,” he said bleakly.
I was fascinated. “How can you do that?”
“Come here,” he gestured. I stepped down to the tree. He took my hand under his, and placed it on the trunk. “Can you feel the tree?” he murmured. “Can you feel that energy?” I nodded my head yes, feeling the zing of it humming under my palm. “Now picture the night of the murder in your head, and focus on that.”
I didn’t want to think about that night, but I forced myself to, anyway, gritting my teeth. I pulled up the pictures from my memory, choking back bile as I did. The hum of the tree shifted, taking on a darker tone, with a certain flavor that seemed vaguely familiar, and yet I couldn’t quite identify it. I frowned.
“Did you feel it change?” Andreas asked. I nodded my head again. “That tone is what a vampire feels like. Trees can’t talk, but they can sense things, and one who knows what to look for can feel their energy.” He let go of my hand, and went to the next tree.
It made sense to me. It was reminiscent of Lucas; of that whole damned club of his, actually. I looked up at the tree, and patted the bark, saying a silent thank you.
Grant was standing on the porch watching us. “I’m only getting a feel for one vampire,” Andreas said, after touching half a dozen trees.
Grant nodded his head in agreement. “Although the smells are weak, I only smelled one, mixed with the smells of Rhi’s parents, and of Rhi, of course.” He stepped down the porch to join us, and we walked back to the truck, in silent agreement that it was time to leave.
Grant pulled out of the driveway. Before the cabin disappeared from view, Andreas gave it one final glance. “Before that night this was a happy place. You and your parents loved it here,” Andreas said thoughtfully. He turned his head toward me. “I don’t feel that this was a random event, someone deliberately targeted these people,” he said gravely. I felt dismayed. “Why would vampires target your parents? What could they know or have done that was worth killing them for?” he asked me.
I was stumped. I shrugged my shoulders. “They were so ordinary! I have absolutely no idea, but I’m going to find out. I know a vamp I want to have a little chat with.”
“You know a vamp?” Grant sounded surprised.
I just rolled my eyes. “Don’t ask,” I muttered.
It was after noon by the time Grant dropped us off at my house. I was just about to unlock the door and head inside, when the wind shifted, carrying a familiar and wholly unwelcome scent to my nose. I screwed up my face in distaste.
“What is it?” Andreas asked, knowing instantly something was wrong.
“David,” I growled. I took off running, following my nose, feeling for all the world like Toucan Sam on a mission – the nose always knows. He was in a beige sedan, parked in the lot for Arbor Lake Park, just up the road from my house, tucked behind some trees. It gave him a great vantage point for spying on the side of my house and driveway, and afforded him a screen of privacy at the same time.
I was furious. I tore the driver’s side door open, grabbed him by his jacket, and with my adrenaline pumping, yanked him forcibly out of the car and slammed him up against the side. He seemed completely surprised, and completely guilty. “What are you doing, David?” I shouted, shoving him for emphasis. “Spying on me?” He was a foot taller than me and nearly twice my weight, but I was full of fury and enhanced reflexes, and I had the advantage.
“I just wanted – ” he started to explain.
I cut him off. “I don’t care what you want! I want you out of here.” I stepped back, and shoved him towards the car door. “You’ve got about ten seconds to disappear, or I’m calling the police for harassment.” I was livid. He just wasn’t going to let this die, was he? Had I been so blinded with rose colored glasses during the two months we were dating that I didn’t see the psycho side of David Walker?
I watched him peel out of the parking lot and disappear down South 124th Street before finally turning around and heading home again.
Andreas was standing at the side of my driveway, watching the entire exchange, but letting me handle it on my own for once. “Thanks for not interfering,” I muttered.
“You might have a problem there,” he commented as we headed inside.
I growled. “Tell me about it.” I pulled my cell phone out of my purse, intent on calling the police to find out my options, when I noticed I had voice mail. Stupid cell phone service; I never even heard it ring.
I checked my message. It was Kat, wondering what was up. I cursed. We were supposed to do lunch today, and I completely forgot. I called her back to apologize.
“Are you all right?” She asked, concern in her tinny, fake-sounding digitally-reproduced voice.
“Yeah yeah, everything’s fine,” I said dismissively. “I just got busy. You know me, if I don’t write it down, I don’t remember it. How about lunch tomorrow? Same time, same place?”
She agreed, and I hung up.
Andreas looked irritated. “You can’t do that. You can’t go there alone.”
I crossed my arms and gave him a fiery look. “Watch me,” I said tightly. “You’ve got to give me some space. I’m not your prisoner, and I resent being treated as such. This is all your fault to begin with, and I can’t exactly explain your presence to my best friend, now can I? If you insist on participating, you can do it from across the street where I can’t see or hear you.” With that, I marched upstairs to take a long, luxurious bath, since the bathroom was the only room Andreas seemed willing to afford me any privacy.
My doorbell rang that evening. Andreas and I had just finished dinner, and were ready to head out to go vampire hunting. It was Grant. “Your chariot awaits,” he said with a grin and a flourish.
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t need two keepers,” I said sarcastically.
He gave me a mock wounded look. “Hey, we’re in this together. I’ve known you too long to see you go through this without a friend,” he said sincerely, patting my shoulder.
I smiled in gratitude.
Grant chauffeured Andreas and I downtown, back to the night club Splash. I wasn’t entirely sure where to find Lucas, but I figured it couldn’t be too difficult.
At least it seemed we had all dressed for the occasion. I’d slipped into a pair of tight jeans, tall heels, and a red tank top that brought out the red-gold highlights in my hair – or so I believed, at any rate. I wore a silver locket around my neck, just as an added line of protection against the vampire. Andreas had actually done an incredibly brave thing and left me alone for all of thirty seconds while he popped back to his cabin (I assumed) and grabbed fresh clothes. He was in his usual jeans, but wore a white and navy pin-striped button-down shirt that made the blue of his eyes positively pop, and his customary cowboy boots. I approved. Grant, my mountain wolf-man, was dressed in black slacks and a black button-down shirt, his beard neatly trimmed and groomed. I figured if we were going to go clubbing, even an investigative excursion, there was no sense looking bedraggled.
Splash was open, but sparsely populated, which wasn’t surprising for an early Monday evening. “Is Lucas in?” I asked the door man.
He shook his head. “He won’t be here for another hour.”
I beamed at him radiantly. “Thanks! Can you tell him Rhiannon is here when he shows up?” The doorman nodded his head, more to just get rid of me than anything else, probably. I grabbed my two men, one in each hand, and lead them across the club, choosing the same seats I had last time with Kat and Rob. The music was thumping, but no one was dancing yet. A couple of guys played pool, a few folks sat at the bar, but for the most part the club was pretty dead.
We just sat and waited, nursing drinks. I had a Diet Coke, Grant had an Alaskan Amber Ale, and Andreas sipped orange juice. After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only really about an hour, I saw Lucas step into the club, wearing black slacks and a black and blue striped button-down shirt that was barely buttoned. God, he looked beautiful. The doorman whispered something into his ear. He nodded his head, looked around, and saw me. A slow, sensual grin spread across his face, revealing his perfect white teeth. Combing his fingers through his sable locks, he sauntered over to our table.
He picked up my hand and kissed my knuckles. “Rhiannon Maddox,” he sighed. “To what do I owe this extraordinary pleasure?” He completely ignored my companions. His eyes bore into me, and I felt like the center of his universe, and the rest of the world just seemed to melt away. My heart was pounding, and my stomach flipped. How could somebody who made me feel this… well, good, be an evil bloodsucking vampire?
I shook my head to clear my thoughts. I pulled my hand away from him. “Lucas, we need to talk,” I told him, with upmost seriousness.
He frowned, obviously disappointed, and then acknowledged my companions with a cursory glance for the first time. His nose wrinkled distastefully. “Come this way,” he gestured. He led us to a back office, very similar in style to the one he had at the vampire club, only sans see-through wall. He sat at his blonde wood desk, and we sat at the opposite side in his guest chairs.
“I must say, my dear,” he said, as soon as we sat down, “I never thought I’d see you again, and I’m only too delighted to find myself proven wrong. I am not, however, particularly keen to see the company you keep.” He said, shaking his head in disapproval.
Andreas glowered at him. “Don’t even try it, bloodsucker,” he warned.
Lucas smiled sardonically. “Oh please, angel, you think I have no self control at all? You smell good, but not that good. Besides,” he sniffed, “the wolf smells too distasteful to make the idea appealing, anyway. I already know what Rhiannon tastes like. Another time, perhaps.” He drummed his fingers on his desk.
I let out a sigh of relief. “Lucas, I need your help,” I said, placing my palm on his desk.
He raised an eyebrow, intrigued. “The mysterious, delectable Rhiannon needs my help? Please elucidate me,” he smiled, leaning forward on his elbows.
I cleared my throat, determined not to let his presence distract me, and explained about the murder, and our own little investigation of earlier that day. I described the scene of the crime to him, and that we had sensed a vampire there, as well.
He raised a brow when I was finished. “It’s been four years, and who would even remember something like that?”
I looked over at Andreas for encouragement. He patted my knee. “The thing is, vampire,” he said slowly, “You know as well as I do that no vampire would murder anyone like that. It was a staged crime scene, with plenty of wasted blood. It just doesn’t add up.”
Lucas looked thoughtful. “I see your point. Even a vampire for hire wouldn’t waste blood,” he mused. “It makes no sense. If a local vampire was involved, assuming they are still local, I can track them down for you,” he said. “For the right price,” he added, with a grin.
“What, oh what, can I possibly offer you, the great immortal bloodsucking vampire?” I said sarcastically. I was beginning to feel like everybody wanted a piece of me, and I was being stretched too thin.
Grant elbowed me.
Lucas smiled widely. “Well, for starters, what are you, my mystery?”
I shrugged. “That’s part of the mystery we’re trying to solve. Ever since Andreas saved me last week I’ve been picking up other people’s abilities when I’m around them.”
Lucas nodded his head, understanding dawning, and a slow smile spread across his face again. “So he saved you; that explains why you taste like an angel.” I nodded my head in mute agreement. “And you were absorbing my abilities?” I nodded my head again. “Which explains why you started smelling like one of us, and acting like one of us.” He was smiling so deeply I was afraid he would split his face in two.
Andreas squeezed my knee again. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, as his scent wafted in my direction. He smelled… well, better than cheesecake. Like the best thing since sliced bread, and I was finding focusing on something else, anything else, other than the idea of tasting this mouth-watering angel sitting next to me, becoming supremely difficult. I looked at Lucas wide-eyed. He knew. My neck started to itch and burn. In irritation, I yanked my silver locket off from around my neck.
He eyed me shrewdly. “You’re smelling blood right now, aren’t you?” I nodded my head, and gulped. “The angel, you’d like to taste him wouldn’t you?”
I clenched my teeth and gripped my chair tightly. Andreas scooted his chair backwards in alarm. “I don’t like feeling like this,” I hissed tightly. Grant, well, he just smelled bad, like wet dog amplified. I preferred that to Andreas right then, though.
Oh, but I was thirsty!
Lucas let out a whoop of laughter, delighted. “Look at you! Your eyes are red, your skin is pale, your breathing is shallow, and you’re practically drooling.”
I shot him an icy look. “I am not amused, jerk,” I said between clenched teeth. I was gripping my chair so tightly my knuckles were white.
He looked at Andreas. “All right, angel, here’s my price for my help: A date with the delectable Rhiannon.”
“No!” shouted Andreas vehemently, jumping forward out of his chair and slamming his fist on the desk.
Lucas leaned back in his seat calmly. “I’d think about it before declining, angel,” he said. “Rhiannon is going to be exposed to other vampires. That’s a given. And she’s out of control.” He looked at me, bemused.
I felt it, too. If I didn’t get out of here soon, I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I didn’t want to find out! Sweat poured down my back. I felt so parched, even though my mouth was watering. I groaned. “Yes, yes, whatever you say, just get me out of here please,” I whispered.
Lucas jumped across the desk, lightning fast, and grabbed my hands, peering into my eyes. “I can help you. One evening with you alone, without your friends. That’s all I ask.”
Grant jumped up, shouting his disapproval in time with Andreas. Their denials were faint in my ears, as I stared up into Lucas’ eyes. He stared at me, into me, intensely.
“Your friends have nothing to worry about,” he said somberly. “You are a precious gem, a one-of-a-kind.” He looked up at Andreas. “I’ve tasted her, I know this. I would never destroy her, or turn her, unless she wanted it. It would be like destroying the Mona Lisa,” he murmured. “That would be a greater sin.” He sat on the edge of his desk. “Vampires do have honor, after all. We don’t partake of the unwilling – usually. We don’t kill – usually. And we follow our leaders – usually,” he finished, a wry tone to his voice. “I promise you,” he said, glancing at both Andreas and Grant, “That if you agree to my terms, I will not only help you, but I promise that if any vampire in my area so much as threatens a hair on her head, they will have to answer to me,” he emphasized, “And yes, I have that kind of pull here.”
I swallowed. “So I don’t have to avoid my home after dark anymore?”
Lucas laughed delightfully. “You never did, you just didn’t stick around long enough to have this discussion the other night.” His eyes glinted in amusement. “Just because I want to taste you doesn’t mean I want to drain you. I may be a vampire, but that doesn’t mean I am an evil killer, contrary to pop culture, silly girl.” He was genuinely amused. “You’re so human it’s amusing, and so non-human it’s positively delightful.”
I forced myself to stand up, my knees shaking unsteadily, but maintaining control still. “You have a deal, Lucas,” I said tightly.
Grant and Andreas both objected, jumping to my defense.
“No!” I shouted. “Lucas is right. And he won’t let any harm come to me. I trust him.” And I did. Staring into his eyes, I knew the truth when I saw it.
He nodded his head. “But you, angel,” he added, “I can’t offer the same respect to. I know better than to mess with you, that’s like candy laced with barbs. I can’t say the same for any other vampires, though.”
Andreas nodded tightly. “I can take care of myself just fine. But if you harm a hair on her head, I promise to rain a storm of wild fire so fierce upon your head you won’t even have time to say last words,” he threatened venomously.
Lucas nodded. “Duly noted.”
“And you’ll have to answer to my pack, as well,” added Grant.
Lucas only rolled his eyes. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow at seven,” he told me. “Wear something… well, just wear something.” He winked.
On that note, Andreas and Grant each grabbed me by a hand and rushed me out of there. By the time we reached Grant’s truck the influence of the vampire had faded and I felt normal again, but shaken.
“I do not like the way you feel around him,” Andreas complained.
“You and me both,” I agreed. “Your whole pack would really come to my defense?” I asked Grant.
He shrugged, keeping his eye on the road. “I have no idea, I don’t have the authority to speak on their behalf. But it makes for a good threat, doesn’t it?”