That was the beginning, Lucky thought drowsily. She was so comfortable here in his arms, so at home with him. She snuggled in closer, his ongoing conversation background music to her thoughts. The games they played, the dance between them, it all came down to these quiet moments, when she could rest in his arms.
She had no way of knowing how he felt, no way of knowing if he held any particular feelings for her. Sometimes she thought he must, but others, he seemed to be making sure she knew she was only one of the devoted crowd around him. She wondered, from time to time, if he was aware of her struggles with the situation, if he knew what it cost her. It was hard, sometimes, very hard, but for now, she was with him, and content.
As though he sensed her thoughts, he looked down, held the phone away from his ear for a second, and tilted his head down to give her one of those smoky looks that always sent her heart melting into her shoes. "Sorry to be so long. You okay, babe?" She nodded—what other answer would he expect from her?—and he rewarded her with an approving smile.
It was a good night for reminiscing, a good time to remember what the early days had been like.
Seven checked the address she'd scrawled on the back of the card one last time before she knocked on the door. She was at the right place. She put the card carefully back in her purse, and took a deep breath.
The vampire had told her someone would call, and he hadn't lied. The next day, 10:30 a.m. precisely—not too early, not too late—her phone had shrilled, the caller identifying herself as Belinda Cochran. The conversation had been cordial, if not particularly illuminating. She was invited to come and join the group, at this address. No, she needn't dress up, much. Mr. Kostan preferred an informal atmosphere. No, there was no telling when, or even if, he might stop by. No, no particular agenda or activities, just good company of like-minded individuals. Mr. Kostan simply wanted to offer a select group of young ladies an alternative to those horrid, noisy clubs in the evening. No, there was no telling who would be there, or how many. It was whoever chose to turn up for the evening. Anytime was fine, and stay as long, or as short, as you like, dear.
"Why do I feel like I've been cut out of the herd?"
A short laugh. "My, but I can tell already why Mr. Kostan wanted you invited. Do come and join us, dear. It's a very safe place."
She thought about not going, of course. It could be anything. No need to make up her mind on the spot; Belinda told her that while there was always someone on premises, most of "Mr. Kostan's girls" didn't show up until evening. She had to wonder, was she one of Mr. Kostan's girls? Just from that one brief meeting last night? The vampires had their somewhat inscrutable ways, she knew, but this seemed odder than usual.
It was only the work of a few minutes to Google Josef Kostan, and another few to dive into the university library's site and hit Lexis/Nexis. Even minimal research netted astonishing results. Josef, the vampire she had met the night before, was well known in financial circles, and from what she could glean in a quick search, several times richer than God. Articles marveled at his acumen, his philanthropy, and his youth. As far as the human world knew, he'd come out of nowhere, a few years ago, taken over the reins of a family empire, and started making money in a way that made more experienced financial whizzes weep in envy. His personal life was a cipher, no one knew exactly how old he was, where he had been educated, or, in fact, any details at all. Seven thought she could guess why. He kept business and pleasure separate, for a rather obvious reason, even if that wasn't exactly on the web.
She started wondering if somehow, with his first bite last night, she'd been marked off limits to the other L.A. vampires. That hardly seemed fair. She'd like to think she had some say in the matter, after all.
Here on the doorstep, she had to fight an urge to turn and run. These people—she had no way of knowing if they'd be friendly, or even if they were people she'd want to be friends with. She feared it would be a hothouse, filled with jealousy as they competed for the attention of the vampire. On the other hand, she was here by invitation from that same vampire, and one night wouldn't kill her.
Besides, it was her best chance of seeing Josef Kostan again.
While she dithered, the elevator dinged behind her, and in an odd way, the noise sealed her fate.
"Another one hesitating on the brink," a voice behind her said, with a peal of laughter. She turned to see the women who had been at the club with Josef. "You're Seven, right?"
She nodded. "Yeah." Both these girls were several inches shorter, pretty in an ethereal fashion that was very far from her own looks.
The one with the blue hair—Turbo?—pushed on the door. "Come on in. You wouldn't have found the place without an invitation, and Belinda's not much for ceremony."
The other girl nodded, smiling shyly, and the three of them crossed the threshold together.
Seven didn't remember too many details, later, from her first evening. She remembered Belinda, an older woman, maybe fifty, greeting her warmly, giving her what she called the "nickel tour." She'd already been impressed at finding the apartment, well, she guessed it was more of a penthouse, in such an upscale building. She also guessed that whoever Belinda was, Josef Kostan owned the place. If not the whole building. What Belinda showed her was a spacious, nicely decorated living area, with access on one side to a private rooftop terrace. A kitchen/dining area with a tasteful spread of healthy-looking snacks and one half-empty box of gooey bakery goodies. Belinda tsked over that, indulgently.
"These girls," she said, "always bringing in the sweet treats."
Two powder rooms. A fully stocked bar, "…although Mr. Kostan usually disapproves of drunkenness, for obvious reasons. And the Macallen is here for his consumption only." Belinda smiled. "He does like a good scotch, most evenings."
"He comes here often?"
"Oh, yes, child." Belinda ushered her into a quiet study, full of bookshelves and dominated by a leather couch. "Now this room is generally off-limits. Mr. Kostan invites freshies in here himself. You understand, he prefers not to feed from one with six others looking on."
"That seems very civilized of him."
Belinda looked straight at her. "While we're alone, one or two things you should know. We don't tolerate jealousy or bad behavior here. That will get your standing invitation revoked in a hurry." She smiled and laid a hand on Seven's arm. "Not that you seem the type, but I have to tell every newbie that.
"And another thing. Mr. Kostan's friend, Mick St. John, also comes by here frequently. I've never known him to feed fresh—not for the last twenty years, anyway—but he seems to enjoy being around humans who are, well, accepting."
"Just be friendly and talk to him, you'll do fine."
Back in the main room, several of the girls were engrossed in a movie, while another worked industriously on her laptop, off in a corner. Seven found a seat, and pulled a book out of her purse, laying it in her lap. From what she could see, no one would take it amiss if she read, but she also didn't want to seem standoffish or unfriendly. A sense of pleasant anticipation settled over the room. Belinda had retreated to a small, elegant French writing desk, and busied herself with something. Seven was obviously on her own.
When the vampire did arrive, he seemed amused at the general rush to greet him. Seven felt awkward, being new, and thinking it would be out of place for her to claim greater acquaintance than she had in truth. She rose, watching the melee around him, book in one hand, her place marked by a finger between the pages.
After Josef had given his harem sufficient greetings, and settled down to luxuriate in their closeness, he smiled over at Seven. "I see my hothouse has a new bloom tonight."
The girl he called Turbo rolled her eyes and swatted at him. "Could that be any cornier?"
He smirked down at her. "Would it be better in a fake Transylvanian accent?"
Giving Seven a wry glance, he shook his head a little. "Pay no attention to these hooligans, Seven," he said. "I trust they've been friendly?"
Seven wondered if he could hear her pulse rate jump a little as he addressed her. "Oh, yes, of course."
"Good. What's that you're reading?"
"A novel." She blushed.
"I see." His look, she thought, was entirely piercing, as though he could see straight into her. "And do you think Kostova got it right?"
Seven shook her head, looking down, unable to meet his eyes. "They never do," she whispered.
He laughed at that, and then his attention was distracted by one of the other girls. A short time later, it was one of them he chose, ushering her into the private study with a quip. Seven thought some of the others seemed disappointed, but no one commented.
When Josef emerged, alone, a quick gesture brought Belinda over for a low-voiced conference. Soon after, he took his leave, the regulars lining up to give him a kiss on the cheek and receive a last caress for the evening. This ritual completed, he motioned to Seven to come to him.
Raising a hand to her cheek, he said, "I'm glad you came by tonight. I'd like to see you here again."
Seven nodded. "I think you will," she said.
At first, she told herself she wouldn't be going over to Belinda's every night, but somehow it grew easier and easier to drift by. As she came to know the other women there, she found her own apartment echoingly empty when she stayed home.
And then there was Josef. She found him endlessly fascinating, however he interacted with the freshies at Belinda's place. Acerbic of wit, tactile as a cat, she began to see a wisdom in his experience, and a sort of calculated kindness in his actions. She was never able to determine how he selected the freshie, or occasionally two, he would feed from; there was no set rotation and the faces present varied from night to night. Yet his fancy always seemed to light on the one most in need of his attention, or somehow most deserving. And when her own turn came up, she found that he took what he needed with exquisite care and grace.
Once, in those early days, when they were alone, she asked, "Don't you get tired of all this hooraw?"
He favored her with an amused smile. "Seducing my supper, you mean? There are nights when a bottle seems infinitely preferable." His expression grew more thoughtful. "Most times, however, the idea of a sweet little armful of willing girl on my lap is not such an unpleasant prospect." He paused. "And, sweetheart, living blood is never dull."
Seven looked down at her fingers twining nervously together. "Josef, you know, if you ever just want—a glassful, or something, I—"
"Are you trying to tell me gently you don't care for my bite?" he asked. "Not businesslike enough to suit you?" He sat back on the leather upholstered sofa, stretching his arms out along the back.
Seven was horrified. "Oh, no! No, I only wanted to—to please—you're laughing at me, aren't you?"
"Yes," he said. "Now sit down here and let me show you how businesslike I can be." He pulled her into his lap, but this time, when she offered up her wrist, he shook his head, using one hand to brush her long red hair back from her throat. "Do you trust me?" he breathed against her neck, the cool rush of air from his lips causing her to quake.
"Yes," she said.
He was not the first to take blood from her throat, but she had never felt it the way he made it feel for her that night. She hadn't needed Belinda's oblique hints before that, now she was one of "Mr. Kostan's girls," the freshie clubs were no place for her anymore. That was all right; she had no desire to go. She wondered if she was giving up something of herself too easily to this charming, ancient enigma, but by the time the thought occurred, the deed was done.