He followed the girl as she tailed the vampire ahead of her. The world seemed void of anyone else, the sounds of the city hushed in the distance. It was only the three of them, alone on the darkened streets. They each avoided the splashes of orange light cast by the street lamps and stayed in the shadows, closer to the buildings they passed.
There was something captivating about the way she walked—silent but determined. Her back was rigidly straight and she kept her head up, letting her long, dark hair spill down her back. For a human, she was dangerously confident, and that told him that she didn't know the man she was stalking was a vampire. But if she wasn't a hunter, then what the hell was she doing? A girl shouldn't alone in this neighborhood at this time of night, especially not one with a body like hers.
Her figure was what had caught his attention a few blocks back. She was tall and lithe, with legs that were deliciously long. It was a natural reaction to stop and watch her pass by, but he couldn't say what provoked him to follow her. He had work that he should be doing. Staring at some girl's ass as she walked through a seedy area was not on his agenda.
But he couldn't make himself stop.
There was anger in her steps, something primal and alluring. Her hips barely swayed as she walked and she kept her hands in front of her, probably in the pockets of the jacket she wore. This was not a girl who was aware of her body as anything more than a machine that accomplished the tasks she needed it to do. And for some reason, he found her more attractive for it.
She was puzzling. Even if she didn't know that the man she was following was a vampire, he still outweighed her by at least sixty pounds. If she was planning on robbing him, then she had a death wish. And yet, she seemed so focused and calm. He realized that this wasn't the first time she'd done something like this.
He could always read her thoughts to find out, but was reluctant to do it. It's not that he had qualms about invading people's privacy. Quite to the contrary, actually. No, it was that he was enjoying the mystery of her as a strange sort of foreplay. And as soon as he delved into her thoughts, she would be just another girl. There would be no more reason to follow her. He wanted to hold on for a little while longer.
The vampire in front of her stopped walking to pull a pack of cigarettes out of his back pocket. While he took one out and cupped his hands around it to light it, the girl saw her chance and moved swiftly towards him. With a low sidekick, she knocked the vampire forward, onto his knees.
She tried to kick him again, but the vampire dodged her. He stood up and grabbed the girl by her throat, slamming her back against a wall. And then the vampire was bending his head down to bite her as she struggled.
He watched it happen in fascination, but then he was moving towards them before he even realized it. Seizing the collar of the vampire's shirt, he wrenched him off the girl and she fell to the ground. The vampire came at him, but he withdrew a stake from inside his coat and stabbed the vampire in the chest.
Ashes to ashes…
The fight had lasted less than a minute, and then everything was quiet again.
Dust to dust.
Turning back to the girl, he saw that she hadn't moved. She was huddled against the wall, staring up at him, transfixed. Some blood dripped down her neck, but the vampire hadn't had the chance to bite her too deeply. Still, the sight of the blood made him ache.
Her light hazel eyes were gorgeous as she looked at him, a beautiful swirl of blue, green, and gold. Pink scars raked down one of her cheeks, all the way to her throat. They had been ugly gashes once, but now they only added to her strange beauty. She was breathing too fast through her parted lips, and her chest heaved.
He reached down to her. Slowly, she reached up to take his hand.
Energy crackled around them as he touched her. He fluidly pulled her to her feet and into his arms. He understood at once what was happening, but the girl didn't. And she started to panic. He could feel the arrhythmic beat of her heart against his chest. Her terrified scream filled the silence around them.
He stroked her silky hair and tried to quiet her. "Shhh," he whispered. "It's all right. Don't be afraid."
The gentleness was so unlike him, but it came to him naturally with her. His soulmate.
When she calmed down, she stepped away to see his face. She smiled a little and his breath caught. "I—"
There was a sickening, wet noise. Her eyes rolled back as her head fell forward. He looked down and saw a bloody hand protruding from her chest, holding her still-beating heart. Behind her stood Aiden St. Helen, his gray eyes shining with deranged satisfaction. It was his arm impaling her, his hand covered in her blood.
I will track Risa down, and find some rather creative things to do to her before I rip her heart out…
Jonas Carden screamed as he awoke in a cold sweat. He gasped as he looked around him and tried to figure out where he was. People were staring at him warily.
Small seat, loud rush of wind, sudden jerks of turbulence.
To New York City.
To see Risa.
Oh, thank god. She was still alive. Just a dream.
Carden breathed. The dream still overwhelmed him, feeling more real than the waking world. He wiped the sweat from his face with a shaking hand. The passengers in front of him, deciding that he wasn't threatening to take over the plane, turned back around.
A flight attendant crouched down in the aisle next to him. "Sir, is there a problem?" she asked.
Carden exhaled slowly before answering. "No. I'm just losing my mind," he said pleasantly.
The woman smiled sympathetically. She was older, in her late forties, maybe. But she ignored the calls of two other passengers to stroke Carden's arm. "Is there anything I can get you?"
Vodka, he wanted to say, but thought better of it. His mind was foggy enough without alcohol and he needed to be clear-headed to find Risa. He shook his head. "When will we land?"
"We'll be starting the descent in a few minutes," the flight attendant answered. "Now, you just let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Okay?"
She smiled flirtatiously as she left to help other passengers. Carden hardly noticed.
The perks of being attractive weren't bestowed only on women. With his well-muscled body and arresting face with dark brown eyes, Carden was used to being fawned on by women of all ages. And of course he took advantage of it as often as possible. His eyes had gotten him out of traffic tickets, his smile had gotten him tables at expensive restaurants without a reservation, and his body had lured numerous women into his bed.
But as the plane drew closer to New York, he could think of nothing but Risa. It didn't matter if he was awake or asleep, she plagued his mind. He hadn't seen or spoken to his soulmate in over eight years. He'd buried his feelings for her a long time ago and if it weren't for that bastard, Aiden St. Helen, they never would have resurfaced.
As it was, Carden felt like a walking train wreck. It was as if he'd only just left Risa. He remembered the softness of her lips, the taste of her skin, the hum of the soulmate link. And lurking within him were the memories of her bitter curses, the madness in her eyes. Guilt and loss.
"Are you a bad flyer?" the elderly man sitting next to him asked.
The sudden question startled him. "Not usually," Carden finally replied.
"Must have been one hell of a dream, then."
He snorted. "You have no idea."
The old man paused and then smiled. "Women will do that to you."
Carden was taken aback. "How did you know?"
"Take it from me, boy," the man laughed. "I've been chasing after women for seventy-two years. You can't let them get you by the balls like this. Once they know they've got you, it's all over."
"You're probably right," Carden said with a self-effacing smile. The old man wasn't too far off. "But I haven't seen her in a long time. I think I've wrangled my balls back."
"Then forget about her. Go out and find some curvy blond who uses her mouth for something more than nagging. You're too young to be whipped, boy."
Of course Carden couldn't tell the man that, although he looked like he was in his twenties, he was actually forty-three years old. Most human men his age would have already gotten married and had a few children. A lot of lamia would have, as well.
The old man's words still got to him. Carden had sworn that he would never come back to New York, would never come back to her. But all it had taken was one threat, and here he was, desperate to find her.
How was it that the very thought of her was enough to completely cripple him, even after all of this time? Was that some unavoidable side-effect of the soulmate principle?
May cause dry mouth, drowsiness, and emasculation.
No. Not this time.
"Don't worry," he said to the old man as the plane touched down in New York. "I'm not a glutton for punishment."
The man gave him a knowing look. "Oh, you're already too far gone."
Okay, Carden had had enough of this conversation. He suddenly felt like grabbing the man by his overgrown nose hairs and tossing him out onto the runway. Instead, he skimmed through the old man's thoughts to find something to use. "So, hey, how does it feel to be dying?" he asked acidly. "Do you ever worry that your son and daughter won't come to the funeral, after you left their mother to run off with your secretary?"
The old man paled.
Without another word, Carden stood up and retrieved his shoulder bag from the overhead compartment and waited in line to get off the plane.
Asshole. The guy didn't know what he was talking about. Sure, Carden had come to New York to see Risa. So what? She was his soulmate; it was in his best interest to make sure that she was okay. But that didn't mean that he was going to fall at her feet when he saw her. Hell no. He would find her, make sure that she was alive and well, and then leave without her knowing he'd even been here. He would go back to Los Angeles and force the memories of her back into the recesses of his mind, where they belonged.
Carden stormed down the terminal, occasionally pushing people out of his way. Sure, it was rude, but he didn't give a damn. It made him feel better.
As he finally stepped outside of the airport, he saw a young businessman with slicked-back hair and manicured nails hailing a cab. There was a cell phone pressed against his ear and Carden heard him droning on about stock options. Oh, this would be good.
When a taxi drove up, Carden dashed over to the car and slid inside before the businessman could get to it. The guy stomped his foot angrily as Carden slammed the door shut. He just blew the businessman a kiss as the cab pulled away from the curb.
"Where to?" the driver asked him, unaware of the altercation.
Checking the clock on his cell phone, Carden saw that it was only 8:30AM and he knew that it would be easiest to find Risa after dark. Well, he was starving and exhausted anyway. He needed a place to crash.
"Hudson Hotel," he finally replied.
New York City was disgusting. Risa Sinclair was standing in an overcrowded subway car, the Sneaker Pimps blasting through her headphones. But she wasn't listening to the music; she was too distracted by the small, frail woman with horrible bleach-blond hair that stood across from her. Blood slowly oozed from an open wound on the woman's neck, staining the collar of her grimy shirt. Letting go of the overhead rail, the woman wiped at the blood, smearing it across her skin with her bare hand, and then, using that same hand, grabbed onto the rail again.
God, what was wrong with these people?
Sensing Risa's stare, the woman glared. Her fake eyelashes lowered. "What are you looking at?" she snapped.
Risa didn't answer. She just looked away, grateful that she was wearing gloves in this biohazardous waste zone.
But even more nauseating than the Open Neck Wound woman was the family of tourists sitting a few seats down. The mother and father wore fluorescent fanny packs and both kids proudly sported tee-shirts and baseball caps that proclaimed "I Love New York".
Sure, Risa thought. Give it some time.
She remembered how much she had loved New York when she was a child and her family still lived in the city. She'd loved how busy it was, how alive. Now she could only see the filth, the violence, and the despair. It was bound to happen in her line of work.
It had been a long night. First there was the would-be rapist that she lured into the bathroom at the back of a dance club. Then the punk that had tried to mug a mother of four on her way home after a double shift. The skinny guy that smelled of stale sweat that was selling crack. And finally, just as she was about to make her way back home, there was the group of teenagers that jumped a girl on the subway platform.
Risa had killed them all. Just a quick snap of the neck and it was over. So many humans walked around, believing themselves to be invincible. But she was all too aware that, in reality, humans were painfully fragile.
As the subway lurched, the burly man next to Risa jostled her, and then remained too close. Glancing out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that the man was staring down at her chest. She turned and elbowed him in the side, pretending that it had been an accident.
When the man didn't seem to take the hint, Risa began coughing in his direction, working up a good amount of phlegm in her throat. She wiped her hand on the man's shirt. "Oh, sorry," she croaked. "My consumption is getting worse. I hope it's not contagious."
Curling his lip in disgust, the man stepped back from her.
Risa smiled. It was the little things that got her through the day.
Finally, she reached her stop and aggressively pushed her way onto the platform. She was immediately assaulted by the familiar smell of urine and ammonia. It seemed to be the official scent of the New York City subway system and even after all these years, Risa couldn't help wrinkling her nose.
From the subway station, she had a two mile walk to the house. The early morning air was chilly, so she pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her head and slipped her gloved hands into the pockets. It had been colder during the night, of course, but Risa never seemed to feel it until she was on her way home.
The streets were emptier here, the sky-rise apartment buildings giving way to duplexes and single family homes. Technically, Risa still lived within the city limits, but she felt that it was far enough out to be a sort of refuge. The pace was slower, the noise softer, the air cleaner. Or maybe it was all in her head.
This neighborhood was still a far cry from Greenwich, where her family now lived. The wealthy Connecticut town was populated with enormous houses, small antique shops, and had four local beaches along the Long Island Sound. It had been a quiet, albeit rather boring, place to grow up. Risa missed it.
The large, old house that she now stayed in had once been occupied by a single family many decades ago. But in the 1960s, the house had been divided into seven small apartments. Risa was fairly sure that that was the last time any work had been done on the house. The brown paint on the outside was chipping, the windows were drafty, and the radiators barely worked in the winter. But, it was the best place that she could afford.
At first glance, Risa's apartment seemed vacant. All of the walls were bare. In the minuscule kitchen, there was a folding table, a wooden chair, and a single set of dishes in the dish drain. The living room was empty except for a trunk that was filled with an assortment of weapons. Risa kept her hardwood floors uncovered so that she could practice her martial art techniques more easily.
The only obvious signs of life were in her bedroom. She had a twin bed against one wall, a small, rickety desk with a laptop open on top of it, and a large pile of clothes in front of the closet door. She could never seem to find the motivation to fold them after she washed them.
She ought to buy a television, read some books, find a hobby. She knew that she really should do something besides work. Maybe try to socialize, actually talk to someone. In short, Risa needed a life.
She'd had one once, even after her father died. For years she'd gone to school, talked with friends, played with her little sister, spent her weekends shopping at the mall and watching movies. But that was before her work had demanded more and more of her, driving her into the streets night after night.
Risa walked towards the bathroom, peeling off her soiled clothes on the way. She couldn't wait to get into the shower. When she got back to her apartment in the morning, she would always stand under scalding water for a full half an hour, trying to burn off the city's residue. She skin was red by the time she got out.
Wiping at the mirror, Risa stared at her reflection. As always, she hated what she saw. Her dark hair was too glossy and her hazel eyes were too pale and luminescent. Everything about her was eerily beautiful, even the four scars that ran across her pale skin. It was entirely obvious to her that the girl in the reflection wasn't human; she didn't understand how people could miss it.
But then, she had gone sixteen years without noticing the unnatural perfection of people that she occasionally passed on the street, sat next to on the subway, cheated off of in class. Night People were everywhere and humans turned a blind eye to the things they could not explain.
Risa combed out her hair and collapsed naked on her bed. With a soft moan, she pulled a blanket over her and closed her eyes. She was so tired, but her mind drifted…
She thought of the way she used to look, before she'd been changed. Just a simple pretty girl, without all the supernatural gloss. In fact, she had never really paid attention to her appearance at all. There were far more important things to concentrate on. She'd always felt unremarkable, until the night that Jonas Carden's dark brown eyes widened as he looked at her. Even when she was human, he'd seemed to think that she was exquisite.
She thought of Greenwich, just a few miles away, and wondered what class her sister was in right now, what her mother was doing. It was better not to dwell on those things, but Risa couldn't help it. Her mind touched upon everything that caused a sharp twist in her gut.
After a time, Risa realized that she couldn't fall asleep. Her thoughts would not fade. They kept circling around and around.
Then, in the stillness of her room, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck standing at attention. She lay for a while, listening to her breath and to the beating of her heart, waiting. When the sensation didn't pass, she sat up in frustration. That's when she saw that she'd left her window open. The breeze must have been too cold.
After she slammed the window shut, she lay back down. But still, she found herself listening intently to the silence around her, trying to discern…something. She spent too much time in silence. Suddenly she wished that she had a TV, just for the noise. Just to bring her out of her own head, away from thoughts and memories that kept her trapped, running in circles.
For now she settled on an old method. She pictured herself lying in the grass on the lawn of her family's house. She imagined the sun, warm on her skin, and coolness of the ground beneath her. She concentrated on the smell of the air and the blades of grass that tickled her bare arms and legs. Risa gave herself up to the dream, not letting her mind drift back to darker places, and finally fell asleep.