My assistant, a young college graduate named Michael Newton, called my name from the doorway. Looking up from the screen of my laptop, I made an attempt to stifle the scowl that threatened. He knew better than to interrupt while I entered my research data unless it was important, so it must have been…important.
"Yes, Mike?" My irritation must have shown despite my best efforts, because he turned red and stammered.
"Oh! Um. I'm sorry for interrupting. I know you said not to, but Dr. Black would like to see you."
I raised a brow in surprise. Dr. William Black was my boss at the Institute. He wouldn't ask to see me, knowing I was close to finishing the last of my data entry, unless it really was urgent.
"Okay, Mike. Thank you. Tell him I'll be right there."
Mike nodded and darted away. I saved my work and reluctantly closed the laptop. I got so caught up in my research and studies it was difficult to switch gears, especially when my most recent findings appeared to be so promising. I consoled myself with the knowledge that the data and observations would still be there when I returned to my desk. William wouldn't request to see me unless he had something significant, and possibly even more interesting, that he wanted to talk to me about.
I made my way through the wide, brightly lit hallway to William's office. His secretary, Sue, smiled a greeting and gestured to the open door.
"He's expecting you, Dr. Swan. Go on in."
"Thanks." I paused in the doorway, knocking on the frame, and Dr. William Black looked up from behind his desk.
His wide, lined face creased in pleasure when he saw me. He pushed his wheelchair out from behind the desk, and I met him halfway across the spacious room.
"Bella. Thank you for coming so quickly." He gripped my hands in his, and I returned the warm, gentle pressure.
"It's no problem, William. What have you got?"
He wheeled smartly in a circle, going back to his desk and picking up a thin file. "We have a new subject, one that's proving very…different."
"Different how?" My interest was definitely piqued.
"Well, it's hard to explain. I'd love to get your opinion on him." He handed me the file.
I opened it on my lap, scanning the pages. It didn't take long, for there was little information printed on the sheets. Finding a full-page photo, I stared in surprise. I was used to the unusual beauty of our subjects, but this—boy? man?—was even more exquisite than most. Intense red eyes gleamed from the paper, his luminescent, pale skin making them even more vivid. Dark, unruly hair echoed the red tone of his eyes, sparking with brilliant fire. Sculpted cheekbones, heavy, brooding brows, full lips, and an angular jaw completed the male splendor of his face. I forced my eyes from the photo and focused on the facts.
"Edward," I murmured, looking questioningly at William, who watched me closely.
"He only gave us his name after some intense negotiation," he informed me with a half-smile.
"Negotiation?" I repeated, shocked.
"I told you he was different. He wouldn't speak at first and absolutely refused to give us any information about himself when he finally did, but then…he wanted something."
"What did he want?" My curiosity ran rampant.
The smile spread across his face. "He wanted books. And music."
My jaw dropped, but I quickly recovered. No subject had ever negotiated with us, let alone for something so…so…civilized. Most demanded their release in no uncertain terms, and when that wasn't granted, became violent and half-crazed. Vampires did not take well to captivity.
The Institute had been studying vampires for over one hundred years, although the past decade and a half had been exceptionally busy. Fifteen years before, a group of vampires decided they no longer wanted to exist in the shadows while the inferior beings they saw as good for nothing other than food had all the freedom and benefits the world had to offer. They'd gone on a rampage to take over the human world and had come very close to succeeding. What they hadn't counted on was the spirit and dogged will of the human race to survive. In the end, it was the vampire race that came close to being exterminated, thanks in a large part to the information gathered by the Institute. My predecessors had figured out a way to kill the immortal, indestructible beings and succeeded in eliminating almost all of the creatures. What few were left remained in hiding, systematically hunted, captured, and studied to flush out and round up the rest.
An expert in vampire psychology, or as expert as any human could be, I'd dedicated my career to learning all I could from and about them. My studies were both frustrating and rewarding as most of the traditional, human methods weren't applicable. They were fascinating creatures. Vampires could stand still as stone for days, weeks, even months if their hunger didn't get the best of them, giving nothing away, all the while their amazing brains worked, analyzed, and calculated. They could think of one million and one things at a time, take in extraordinary amounts of stimuli with their superior senses. They were dangerous, brilliant, and intriguing.
I loved my work.
The only thing I didn't love was the necessity of interacting through a thick, protective barrier. I had been in a room with a vampire, almost face to face, only once in my career. They were deadly—too strong, too dangerous, and too unpredictable—and it was something I never forgot. Lowering my guard for even a split second could mean instant death. Employees of the Institute were very careful, very well trained, but still human. That made us prone to mistakes and prime targets for our subjects, who constantly craved, constantly yearned, for our blood.
Research had found vampires could survive on a diet of animal blood instead of human, although they disdained the source and refused to eat when they were first brought into the Institute. Incapable of starving themselves, their hunger and instinct always overcame their principles and disgust. The creatures resisted at first, but all eventually succumbed. Not only did it change their eye color from red to a deep gold, but it also weakened them. Still far superior in strength and reflexes to humans, it was an advantage, no matter how small. The best times to study them were after they were first brought in and fighting their natural inclinations, half mad with hunger and fury at being captured, and the first time they succumbed to drinking animal blood. Broken, desperate, and reduced to base instinct, their guards were down, their true nature showed, and I gained valuable information just by observing them.
But William was right. That particular vampire, Edward, was different. Calm and self-possessed, never showing frustration, never showing anger or fury at his circumstances or to us, his captors. He refused to speak except when he wanted something, and even then, it was always polite and respectful, if firm and unyielding. He also refused to drink the animal blood, but I knew he would eventually give in, just like they all had.
I spent the first two weeks simply observing him, both in his private room and when he interacted with the other vampire residents of the facility. Our R&D department had developed a clear material that acted as a glass-like barrier, one vampires couldn't break even with their amazing strength. Inches thick, it afforded a surprisingly clear view. Each individual living space, as well as the much larger communal area, had an observation room separated by the barrier, where humans could see and communicate with the vampires through an intercom system. The wall was clear, but when blacked out it served as a one-way screen behind which we could observe without being seen or heard.
Each vampire had its own room that was more a glorified cell, even though William disliked the term. All were equipped with a chair, table, and cot, despite vampires having no need of those comforts. I was always interested to see how the vampires reacted to furnishings, and Edward was no exception. He used the table for his books and digital music player, ignored the chair, but would often sit on the bed, which he pushed into the corner, bringing his knees up to his chest and lowering his forehead, hiding his face, as he listened to music. He would also read in that position, propping the book on his thighs.
In the common area, he sat in the same position in a corner away from everyone until it was time to return to his cell. He never interacted with the others when they were together for community time; in fact, the other vampires went out of their way to ignore him. They weren't hostile or overt, but the snub was obvious. Vampires were not social creatures, preferring a solitary existence rather than pack situations, but the avoidance went beyond that. They interacted with each other, but never with Edward. He sat in the corner with one of his books or his music player, and all the others left him completely alone. It was noticeable and curious. I wanted to know why. Edward's calm, almost regal manner intrigued me, how he seemed to float through his existence, accepting, dealing, but always observing without appearing to pay attention.
As the days passed, his eyes grew black from hunger, his gaze darting to the carts loaded with blood from various animal sources that were wheeled in. He watched the other vampires drink with close scrutiny, the first interest he'd shown in them since he'd been brought to us. After a few more days of that behavior, he would drop his head back against the wall when the carts were brought in, throat working, fists clenching, and I knew it wouldn't be long before he had to drink.
On a hunch, I tried something different. Typically, vampires were only fed in the common room, mostly because of the first-timers, as we liked to call them. It humbled them to give in in front of others of their kind and in front of us, the humans who had captured them. That surrender broke the resistance to their circumstances and gave us a semblance of control and power over the supremely dominant creatures. Edward had proved surprisingly problematic to analyze, even for me, who made it my vocation to evaluate those most difficult of beings, so I decided to try an unusual approach.
He still hadn't been allowed to see me. I'd been observing him behind the blacked-out barrier, as was my custom, until he broke and finally drank the animal blood. I'd found them to be at their most receptive, their most open, at that moment. With that particular subject, I thought it might be best to change my procedure. I noted the tremors in his hands when the blood cart was brought in to the common room, quivers of hunger, desire, compulsion, and frustration, and knew it was time. Vampires weren't used to denying themselves anything, especially food.
I was in the observation room when the door to his cell opened to allow him into the common area. He had been reading, and glanced up resignedly when the click sounded, signaling the release of the lock. A look of surprise flashed across his face, chased by wariness, when a mechanized cart rolled into the room. The expressions were gone in less than an instant, but I'd seen them and made careful notes. It was the most reaction he'd shown since being brought to me—to the Institute.
He glanced thoughtfully at the dark barrier, knowing he was being observed, and then back at the cart. He swallowed as he stared at it and then tipped his head, setting his book down and easing to the side of the cot. Bracing his hands on either side of his thighs, his fingers gripped the frame so hard I heard it creaking through the intercom system. Black eyes flicked to the door and then back to the barrier, head determinedly held high instead of dropping in defeat like I'd seen with so many vampires. He nodded once, regally, as if granting permission or in noble acknowledgement of his downfall. Rising slowly, he unfolded his tall, graceful frame and glided to the metal cart.
Once there, he lifted one of the special bags we had made just for that purpose, bringing it to his face and inhaling. His eyelids fluttered, his fine, straight nose twitched, wrinkling infinitesimally in disgust, but his hunger was too great. He raised the bag, striking swiftly, and I heard his gasping moan. Hunching his shoulders protectively over his meal, he sucked hard, gripping and holding the blood to his mouth. He did the same with the second bag, still bent over it, acting like any starving man would do when offered a plate of food. Relaxing slightly with the third bag, growling a little and slowing slightly, he took time to savor as the sharp, searing pangs of hunger were appeased. The fourth bag he brought to his lips slowly, tearing through the seal with relish, and his eyes opened to focus unerringly on me as he drank. I started, even though he couldn't see me, and watched raptly, caught up in the almost sensual act. I licked my lips as he continued to feed, the soft sucking, growling, and moaning unraveling my clinical detachment.
It wasn't until he had drained the sixth bag that he moved away from the cart to lean against the wall, facing me, facing the barrier. I watched as his eyes swirled, the colors mixing and merging, going from deep black to the color of a sunset, all reds and golds and yellows and something darker, something deeper. The sight was fascinating, strikingly beautiful, and one that never failed to amaze me. The color settled into deep reddish gold as the blood moved through his system.
"Thank you." His voice was deep and soft, like stroking velvet.
The sound startled me, and I jumped, hitting my knee on the control board. One side of his mouth curled up, as if he could hear me banging around in the booth that was soundproofed, even from vampire ears. I stared at him through the darkened glass, considering my next move. Taking a deep breath, I hit the switch that would allow me to communicate with him.
"You're welcome." As my voice filled the small room he occupied, his head tipped and his eyes narrowed slightly. "Although you could have indulged at any time."
"Indulgence," he murmured, and I regretted my choice of words. I typically spoke with great care, always on my guard, not giving the creatures any more insight or information than was absolutely necessary. We never even let them know our names. "Yes. But that wasn't what I thanked you for."
I knew he meant letting him surrender in private. My gamble had paid off, for he spoke to me willingly, initiating the conversation, something he'd refused to do with anyone else.
"You're welcome for that, too."
A full smile broke across his face, and it made him look younger and even more beautiful. It made me want to smile back, so I scowled instead.
"Showing kindness to a vampire—to a captive," he said in that same soft tone, staring intently at the barrier. He couldn't see anything except his own reflection in the dark surface, but I shifted uncomfortably. "You're an unusual woman."
I ignored the comment. "You think it a kindness?"
"Isn't it?" He arched a heavy brow, the corner of his mouth quirking with some private amusement. "Allowing me to indulge my weakness in private? Or is that standard practice?"
I didn't answer his question, but asked one of my own. "Why do you see it as a weakness?"
He shrugged one shoulder, the gesture elegant and enticing. "Drinking animal blood is disgraceful, even if you've given me no choice. To give in, let the need overcome determination…to be helpless in that moment to base physical dictates…" He shrugged again. "They'll know, of course. The others. They'll notice my eyes, but at least they didn't see me…vulnerable."
"And is that important to you? Not being seen as vulnerable?"
His eyes gleamed with interest. "Of course. Isn't it to you?"
I ignored that as well. "You think taking sustenance in order to live makes you vulnerable, Edward?"
"From that source, an animal…yes. And you know we aren't actually living, don't you?" His voice held a mocking, almost teasing, and faintly derisive note, but directed more at himself than me.
I sat back, considering him. He interested me. His stare at the barrier, directly into my eyes, didn't waver.
"You called me Edward."
"Isn't that your name?"
"Yes." That half-smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. "It is. You have me at a disadvantage. May I know yours?"
His request was met with silence, and he gave another regal nod of his head, clearly saying so that's how you want to play this game. Sauntering over to the bed, he picked up his discarded book and resumed his usual position. Our impromptu conversation appeared to be over, so I hit the button that would let the others know the cart could be removed.
Huge thank you to my wonderful betas Sarahsumbrella and SunKing.
Even bigger thank you to you for reading.