The snow had finally stopped falling, leaving a perfect, white blanket draped over the steep hill behind the house. It was blindingly bright, in spite of the paleness of the winter sun. Tufts of snow balanced along the branches of the large oak tree in the back yard. Icicles, seeming both beautiful and deadly, lined the edges of the roof.
There was a sweet innocence about the scene. It was quiet here in a way that was rare in this day and age, with humans proliferating like cancer, covering more and more of the planet with each passing moment. This was the kind of bucolic scene that wound up on calendars or amateur artwork.
Most people understood the beauty of a place like this, but they never experienced it. They never cherished it.
The small farmhouse was nestled in the rolling hills of Vermont, with over a mile of vacant, snow-covered land on all sides. The residents believed themselves to be so safe in the seclusion of their idyllic world that they did not bother to lock the doors of their home. Nor did they draw their curtains.
They did not know that he was watching them.
He could not say what had drawn him to them, to her. He had never been able to explain such things. Sometimes it was a smile or the sound of her voice, other times it was her modesty or her conceit. Rich and poor, pretty and plain, sweet and sinful—through the centuries, he'd had them all. For a time, he'd actually been afraid that he would grow bored. But humans were a constant source of diversity. No two were exactly alike, not even the twins that he'd taken a few lifetimes ago. He would never have enough of them.
In this case, he thought that maybe it was her purity that enticed him, or the simple wholesomeness of her family. Their sort of righteousness bred true strength or true weakness, but he was not sure to which end of the spectrum this particular girl belonged. Yet.
The girl was fascinating, even from afar. Through her bedroom window, he had studied the effervescence of her china blue eyes, the tiny waist that he could easily span with his hands, and the youthful narrowness of her hips. She was even younger than the other girls that tended to attract his attention, and maybe that was the reason for her exuberance, her sheer enthusiasm for life. She was always animated as she spoke—gesturing wildly as her cherubic mouth moved so quickly that he could barely read her lips. Her parents often told her to keep her voice down, but that melodic sound gave him chills every time he heard it.
Oh, imagine what her scream would sound like…
He'd gotten a taste of it once, while watching her sled down a hill with her younger brother. Her shrieks of glee were so delicious that forcing himself to remain in the shadows instead of seizing her right then and there seemed like the most difficult thing that he'd ever had to do.
Well, perhaps not the most difficult. There was always Alexandra. He could never forget Alexandra. It was his curse that she would haunt him until the end of time.
No matter. Alexandra was dead and this angelic girl, the one called Lindsay, was very much alive and ripe for the taking.
He kept himself in check as he watched her through the living room window. She was seated at the desk, biting her lip as she did her homework. This was one of his favorite times of the day. The sight of her gleaming, white teeth stabbing into her pouty bottom lip made him ache with desire.
She was wearing a silver cross around her neck, as she always did. She and her family were devout Catholics. He watched them leave for church early every Sunday morning. He heard them say grace before every meal, say their prayers before they went to sleep. Her prayers were gloriously selfless, except for her pleas for God to forgive her sins and to save her immortal soul.
But God wouldn't keep her from him. He knew that well enough. At some point, they had all screamed for some all-mighty power to rescue them, but he had yet to be struck down and the girls had never been saved from him. Sooner or later they learned that once they were in his power, he was their god. He could bring them pleasure or pain. He could make the pain feel like pleasure and eventually they all begged for it. And then they were of no use to him. It was the journey that enticed him, not the destination.
Clichés sometimes arise for good reason.
He wasn't sure how much longer he could wait. He enjoyed the anticipation, but his mouth watered every time he looked at Lindsay and he burned with need. It had been too long since he'd last had a slave. The girl that he'd taken in place of Alexandra had only amused him for a few months. And while a few girls had sparked his interest since then, he'd eventually decided that they were not worthy of him.
Damn Alexandra. She had poisoned him. It had been five years since he had destroyed her and she still plagued his thoughts and dreams. She'd held him captivated for nearly three decades—far longer than he had ever kept any one girl. There had been something so addictive about her pain. It was endless. Even after he had broken her, it had still been pure rapture to crush the shards that were left until she was nothing but dust.
Unlike all of his other fledglings, she had inherited his one unique power when he'd made her. Most vampires could only read a person's conscious thoughts. But he and Alexandra had the ability to dive below the surface thoughts to swim in the depths of the person's soul. The unconscious mind was their playground.
This power allowed him to feel Alexandra's fear and pain. But, more than that, she could feel the pleasure that she brought him and he fed on that as well. It spiraled to unrivaled heights of ecstasy. And it inspired in him a…creativeness that he never would have found without her.
After all this time, he had begun to believe that he would never find another girl who could compare to Alexandra.
Until Lindsay. Her every gesture, her every breath enthralled him.
He crept closer to the house as the sun began to set. He had no fear of her seeing him. Even if the hairs on the back of her neck rose under the intensity of his stare and she came to the window, her human eyes couldn't discern his body from the shadows.
But she didn't even lift her head. She was concentrating too hard on her math homework, even though it was unnecessary. Lindsay could have answered all of the problems correctly in mere minutes, but she believed in the quality of her work. She believed in working diligently at everything that she did.
It was a quality that she shared with him.
Her long, light brown hair spilled down her back and she put down her pencil for a moment so that she could run her fingers through it. The thick, straight locks were her only vanity and she loathed herself for it. Night after night, she begged God to forgive her for this mortal sin and to give her the courage to cut it all off so that she could be free from temptation. But Lindsay still hadn't found the strength to sacrifice her silky hair and he found that one weakness, that tiny imperfection, remarkably delicious.
He focused on the girl and felt her soul brush against his mind. The exquisite friction nearly brought him to his knees.
Lindsay's head suddenly snapped towards the window, as if something outside had startled her. Her face paled. Breathing quickly, she got up from her chair and walked to the window. She squinted, staring out into the darkness.
Then the girl walked to the doorway and flicked off the lights. She knew that as long as the lights were on, whatever was outside could see her, while she could not see it.
Too bad the thing watching her was a creature of the night. Even in the dark, he could see her at the window perfectly well.
After a few minutes, she turned the lights back on and sat down at the desk again. Apparently, she had decided that she'd imagined the strange sensation that had scared her so badly.
But he knew better.
He watched her now, more intrigued than ever. She had felt the touch of his mind against hers. Perhaps there was some witch blood in her family. Or perhaps she was as sensitive and intuitive as Alexandra had been.
He smiled to himself.
Time would tell.
The bell over the door jingled as Alexandra Harper entered the café and stomped the loose snow off of her boots resentfully. Vampires were supposed to be unaffected by the cold, but for some reason that rule didn't seem to apply to her. Even after living in Montreal for over a year, she still couldn't bear the bitter winds, the icy sidewalks, or the endless flutter of snow. And it was only December. The worst of winter was yet to come.
The café was small, but cozy. There were several tables and plenty of large, over-stuffed chairs. The manager was obsessed with jazz music, so there was almost always some Coltrane or Mingus playing. Best of all, it was hardly ever crowded and it didn't have the sterile, mass-produced feel of a Starbucks.
It was one of her favorite places in the city, but Lex hadn't been there in over a month. When winter started to settle in, she tended to barricade herself in her apartment.
She sat down at a table in the back and rubbed her hands together briskly, trying to coerce some feeling into her fingers.
A few people looked at her as she started to unzip her coat and anxiety instinctively unfurled within her. It was an effort to remind herself that these people didn't know what she was or what she'd done. They were only watching in bewilderment as she peeled off layer after layer of clothing—her desperate lines of defense against the cold. Once she was done, there was a pile of Gortex, fur, and wool on the seat next to her that was half her height. Even the humans here thought that it was overkill.
Lex tried to smooth down her frizzy curls of black hair, but it was useless. The static electricity that had built up underneath her hat was a force to be reckoned with. Reece used to say that it was cute, but she just found it irritating that her hair resembled lengths of twine from October to May.
She tapped her heels nervously, wishing that she hadn't had so much caffeine earlier. She'd developed an addiction to diet soda over the past few months and now, with everything going to hell, Lex found herself drinking entire bottles of it per day.
It was obviously unhealthy, but she wasn't exactly the queen of good coping skills. And besides, she was immortal. She doubted the aspartame could take her down.
The door opened again and a gust of icy wind infiltrated the warmth of the café as Karissa came inside. She looked stunning, as always. The cold air seemed to enhance her perfect complexion and gave her cheeks the kind of flushed glow that makeup companies would kill to bottle. Her short, chestnut hair wasn't disheveled from a hat or from the wind. And of course, the girl's smile was bright and engaging. Karissa was the only human that Lex had met whose beauty made even Night People envious.
Alexandra glowered at the girl. It wasn't her friend's appearance that she envied, but her ability to actually enjoy the weather here. It seemed insane to her.
Once Karissa spotted her, she headed over to the table. Ogling the pile of winter gear next to Alexandra, she laughed. "How long does it take you to put all of that on?" she asked as she sat down.
"Not as long as it would take to grow back a limb lost to frostbite," Lex replied.
The girl smiled. "It's not that bad out. Did you grow up in Hawaii or something?"
Lex tried to keep her gaze steady and her expression neutral. There were only two people alive who knew about her past and Karissa was not one of them.
When she'd moved to Montreal with him, Reece had helped her create a fictitious past. Even the most trusted members of his team did not know that she was a made vampire who had been changed at the age of thirteen. They didn't know that she'd been a slave for twenty-seven years, eight months, three weeks, and two days. They didn't even know that Reece had been involved in the DC mission over a year ago in which one Wild Power was killed and another one—Alexandra—had been created.
No, the Lex that Karissa knew was a lamia that had simply decided to stop aging at thirteen because she was quirky. Because it was fun to be young. Her fake life had been a happy one, albeit a dull one.
Would that it were true.
"St. Petersburg, Florida," Alexandra replied calmly.
"That explains it," Karissa said with an amused laugh.
She braced herself for more questions, trying to remember the details she'd made up with Reece, but when her friend started to look around the café, Lex relaxed. She was in the clear.
"Did you order anything?" the human girl asked.
"No, I just got here."
Karissa stood up. "Okay. Well, let me buy you a coffee."
"It's okay. You really don't have to," she protested. The last thing she needed was more caffeine.
"I insist," her friend said with a smile and sauntered up to the counter.
Lex sighed as she watched Karissa flirt shamelessly with the man working there. After all this time, that was something she still couldn't do with Reece. She had flirted constantly with Tristan, the vampire that had taken care of her until everything went to hell in Washington, DC. But she'd never told Tristan about her past. Reece, as her soulmate, had a front row ticket to the show every time he touched her. She couldn't be playfully sexy when he knew how she'd been used. She could say all the right words in the perfect coquettish voice, but she would be hollow inside and Reece would feel it.
After a few minutes Karissa came back to the table and set down three cups of coffee. "He didn't charge me for the third one," she said proudly.
"That's good, considering we don't need it," Lex replied, rolling her eyes. Even though she didn't want to drink it, the cup of coffee was hot, so she used it to warm her hands. And holding on to something would hide how badly her hands were shaking.
"Nick asked me to bring one back for him," Karissa explained. "He says the stuff I make is absolute crap."
"Does the guy at the counter know that he just paid for your boyfriend's coffee?"
"Nope," she replied cheerfully.
Lex shook her head with a laugh. "How is Nick doing, by the way?"
Nick Camden was a member of Reece's team. Three weeks earlier, a Night World vampire had attacked him while he'd been patrolling the streets. He had suffered some severe internal bleeding, but had still managed to take out the vampire. He was Reece's disciple through and through.
The human girl grinned. "Well enough to take advantage of the situation by asking me to do every last thing for him. Make him eggs, fluff his pillow, hand him the TV remote that is mere inches away. He'll be back on his feet, hopefully annoying Reece instead of me, in another few days."
"I'm glad to hear it."
And then Lex couldn't think of any more small talk. She and Karissa were friends, but they'd never been close. It was hard for her to get close to anyone when she had to keep so much of herself hidden. She usually tried to maintain a comfortable distance between herself and other people so that they wouldn't realize how much they didn't know about her. To most of Reece's team, she was only known as "the boss's girlfriend" or "Cahill's soulmate". She quietly blended into the background.
An awkward silence fell between Lex and Karissa as each of them sipped their coffee and waited for the other to mention the real reason they were meeting. After an uncomfortable minute, Alexandra finally forced herself to do it. "Did you bring it?" she asked.
Karissa's smile faded. "Yes. But I don't think you should do this. It's a really bad idea."
Lex took a deep breath. She'd been expecting a last minute lecture. "Probably," she agreed. "But I don't have a choice."
"Yes, you do. You can stay here and talk to Reece. You guys can work things out."
Alexandra effortlessly concealed how much Karissa's words hurt. She was an expert at masking her pain. "You're right," she said reasonably. "We probably could, but that doesn't mean it's what's best for him."
The girl set down her cup and leaned her elbows on the table as she rubbed her temples. "Honey, you're not making any sense."
No, Lex knew that her words wouldn't make sense to someone who didn't know the truth about her, who didn't understand how toxic she was. Well, she wasn't about to get into it now.
"You can't tell me that you haven't seen it," she said to Karissa. "He's different. When we first met, he was open and sincere. He knew what he was about. Now I don't even know who he is any more. I only know that he changed because of me."
"He's the team leader. People's lives are his responsibility. Of course he's bound to get stressed out now and then. I've seen it before. How could it possibly be your fault?"
Lex shrugged. "It's hard to explain."
Karissa pursed her lips, obviously annoyed at Alexandra's vague responses. "Have you tried talking to him about it?"
"More or less. It's like talking to a wall." And god knows that she understood walls only too well. In fact, she was sure that Reece had learned a few of his tricks from her. The witch that she'd met in D.C. knew next to nothing about shutting people out.
"I just don't understand," Karissa said. Her frustration was palpable. Lex had the feeling that the girl wanted to get up and shake her senseless. "You guys are soulmates. Can't you just zap into his mind?"
"No," Alexandra snapped before she could stop herself. Then she took a deep breath and softened her voice. "We've promised each other that we wouldn't use the link like that."
"I know," she whispered. "I didn't want to accept it either. That's the only reason I've stayed this long. But I can't be here any more."
Karissa shook her head sadly. Then she reached into her purse and threw a large, yellow envelope onto the table. "Here," she said. "New ID, passport, cash."
Lex checked to make sure that everything was there. "Thanks for doing this."
"I probably shouldn't have. Nick is going to kill me when he finds out."
"I won't tell anyone," she assured the girl. She didn't want to mention the fact that there wouldn't even be anyone for her to tell once she was gone. Lex was going to live the kind of life that she should've had since the night her maker had left her for dead—a solitary one.
"When Reece finds out that you're gone, he's going to figure out that you couldn't have gone off the map without some help. Who do you think he's going to question first?"
"He won't try to find me," Lex said softly. Oh, he might be concerned about her safety because she was a Wild Power, but he knew that she'd spent time over the past year learning to use her powers. She could do a fairly decent job of protecting herself. When Reece realized that he was free of her, she believed that he would be relieved.
Alexandra only hoped that once she was gone, he could once again be the witch that he'd been before he had met her.
Karissa reached out and placed her hand on top of Lex's. "How can you say that?" she asked incredulously. "He loves you. Don't you know that?"
She could only stare at her friend's hand.
There had been a time when she'd been tempted to believe that. For a short while after he'd brought her to Montreal, they had both seemed happy. It was something that she hadn't felt since she was a human child. It had been terrifying, but Reece had made her feel safe.
Some nights, when she'd woken up screaming after having a dream about her maker, he would gather her into his arms and hold her tightly. He'd whispered assurances into her ear as she'd wept with fear, sure that her maker would come for her now that she had so much to lose. And on those nights, when she'd been drifting off to sleep in his arms, she would think that maybe he wouldn't put up with all of her shit if he didn't love her.
But those nights seemed so long ago now.
Lex forced herself to smile bravely at Karissa. The last thing she wanted was for anyone to worry about her. And she certainly didn't want anyone to try to convince Reece to go after her once she'd left. She needed to act as if making the decision was a relief. She needed to act like she wanted to leave him. She couldn't let anyone see that her heart was breaking. "That's nice of you to say. But don't worry about me. I'm going to be all right. He is too."
The human girl looked dejected. But she wasn't nearly as disconsolate as Lex was. "Is there anything I can say that will change your mind?"
Tell me that Reece needs me as much as I need him. Tell me that he can't live without me. That my leaving him would destroy him rather than save him. Tell me that I'm crazy and that everything is perfect.
"No," she replied firmly. "Nothing."
Karissa sat back in her chair, as if conceding defeat. "Where will you go?"
"I don't know." Then Lex glanced at the cold, colorless world beyond the window. "Somewhere warm."