“You’re just like a man,” Cheryl told her. “You know that, right?”
“You’ve mentioned it a few times.”
More like a hundred, Hayden thought fondly, polishing off the rest of her margarita as Brad Pitt had his way with a war-booty lover. She glanced around the room and realized that all of the other women had departed when Cheryl brought the dvd out after opening a seemingly endless stream of lingerie, much of which was peeking out of boxes strewn around the room. On the other side of the bolted door, she could hear the slightly intoxicated laughter of twin sisters as they climbed into a waiting taxi.
Unlike Hayden’s Spartan apartment, Cheryl’s place was brimming with Christmas decorations: a team of miniature reindeer and a pair of matching red stockings cluttered the fireplace mantle, accompanied by an ample length of tiny white lights. Off in the corner was a not-so-small Christmas tree, weighed down with mismatched decorations. As she took in the décor, Hayden thought not for the first time that she had never had much in common with Cheryl and wondered again at their friendship. But their differences were more a source of relief to her than she dared admit.
Much to her surprise, she’d enjoyed the party. The past year had brought a flurry of marriages and she’d pretty much reached her limit. If she had to force herself to smile for yet another picture of her wearing a pastel bridesmaid’s dress that made her look even more flat chested than she already was she thought she might lose her mind completely.
The strange thing was the idea that most of the women she knew seemed to be settling down didn’t bother her. Unlike Cheryl, who always had boyfriends, she was the kind of girl that didn’t date much. Cheryl had been trying to find her a boyfriend since they were in second grade together down in New Orleans. But the romantic scenarios Cheryl invented for her never seemed to materialize.
To her credit, Cheryl never gave up. When her company transferred her to Boston, she wasted no time before embarking on a quest to find Hayden a serious boyfriend, preferably one who was friends with her fiancé Tim.
Cheryl picked up a red thong, then held it up and inspected it skeptically. “You think Tim will go for this?” she asked nervously.
“Definitely.” Hayden leaned back and crossed her legs on the coffee table. She knew she should help
her friend start picking up the place, but she couldn’t seem to summon the energy to do it. On the screen, Brad was taking off his armor.
“Maybe I should try to lose a few more pounds first,” Cheryl said, still studying the flimsy lingerie.
“You do not need to lose weight,” Hayden told her. “You’re gorgeous just the way you are.”
Cheryl giggled, setting the thong back in its box and reaching for the pitcher of margaritas on the coffee table. She refilled her glass then leaned across the couch to fill Hayden’s. “There must’ve been someone,” she said, her voice suddenly serious. “Someone you were in love with.”
She took a sip of her margarita. “Nope.”
“Come on,” Cheryl coaxed, drawing out the vowels drunkenly. “Nobody’s that tough. I mean—maybe when you away at college? Some guy you never told me about—somebody on the force—“
Hayden reached for a chip and popped it into her mouth, then washed it down with another swig of her margarita. “You know there hasn’t been.”
Cheryl rolled her eyes, as if she were more exasperated than she really was. In a burst of energy, she jumped off the couch and disappeared into the other room. When she reappeared she was carrying an ouija board.
“Prove it,” she commanded, setting down the board on the coffee table and seating herself cross-legged style on the floor.
“No way.” She held up her arms in protest as she fought off memories of elderly women hunched over a faded board as her mother manipulated its cheap glow-in-the-dark planchette. “You know I hate that stuff.”
The more she protested, the more Cheryl insisted. She had no choice but to give in. As the two of them sat with their fingertips poised over the white planchette, Hayden felt it start to move, slowly at first then faster. In the midst of the stuffy, over-decorated room, the board seemed somehow out of place.
She tried to shake herself awake as the planchette picked up speed. She was running on not much sleep and even less food so she knew she couldn’t trust her senses. But it really did seem as if the planchette was moving on its own and at a pace so fast she could hardly keep up.
“What’s it spelling?” Cheryl asked a little breathlessly. “I can’t follow it.”
“Probably just gibberish,” Hayden said. Almost in spite of herself, she was tracking what letters the planchette was stopping on.
“M-O-R-E,” Cheryl was saying, “W-I-L-L-D-I-E-I-F. MORE WILL DIE IF.” An uncomfortable silence settled over the room. “More will die if what?” she said, raising her eyes to Hayden at last.
She didn’t answer. Was she pushing the planchette without realizing it? Or was Cheryl playing some kind of trick on her? She must be. She had to be. Because Hayden did not believe in ghosts, especially ghosts that could be channeled via cheap board games.
The planchette was still moving. Y-O-U-W-O-N-T.
“More will die if you won’t risk eternity,” Cheryl repeated. “Risk eternity? I don’t get it. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Hayden took her fingertips off the planchette and attempted a smile. “Hey, it’s pretty late. I don’t think the board’s going to divulge the name of my long lost love. I think I’ll get going, if it’s okay with you.”
Cheryl nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty tired too. Want me to call a cab?”
“It’s only a couple of blocks.” Hayden stood up and began strapping on her holster. “And I’ve got protection.”
The footsteps didn’t surprise her. The sound of them, always following her at exactly the same pace, echoed across the empty street. She could feel the reassuring shape of her Glock in the holster buckled around her waist. The trouble was she couldn’t rid herself of the feeling that the weapon would be useless against whatever force she was going to have to confront.
Still, a little ammunition never hurt.
She reached for the Glock and in a single fluid motion whirled around to face her stalker. Hayden steadied her gun, aiming it at the heart of the man who stood a few feet away from her.
“Why the hell are you following me?” she demanded, forcing the fear out of her voice. He may have scared the bejesus out of her but she’d be damned if she were going to let him know that.
He was tall, nearly six feet, and very well built. His thick brown hair was on the long side and framed his face like a lion’s mane. His features were strong, even fierce, and his dark eyes blazed at her in the darkness. If his features had been even a bit stronger, if the lips had been the slightest degree fuller or the jawline slightly more pronounced, the man would have struck her as vulgar, even ugly. But as it was, he possessed the beauty of the untamed.
She understood instantly that he was angry at her. It wasn’t a generalized anger that she’d just happened to get in the way of. She had felt that kind of fury before. No, this anger was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. Quite simply, he hated her.
And he wanted her dead.
She studied the man’s face in an effort to remember him. Because surely she knew him—must have known him in some capacity in the past. Hate didn’t sprout from nothing. It needed fertile ground to take root before it could develop into the full-blown animosity she was confronting.
She also realized he was reading her thoughts, reading them as easily as if she had been talking aloud to herself. The weapon didn’t trouble him at all. She felt that too. Was she reading him? She didn’t think so. Or at least, if she was it was something he was controlling. He was letting her see only what he wanted her to know.
Worst of all was the way her attraction to him washed over her, threatening to topple her already precarious sense of control. She just hoped to God he wasn’t reading that. Because if he had any idea how closely her fear was coupled with the craziest surge of sexual excitement she had ever felt, she would be at his mercy.
Without answering her unspoken question about the nature of his antipathy toward her, he moved closer toward her. He stopped six inches in front of her Glock. “You understood my message?” It wasn’t a question, exactly, but neither was it a statement. He wanted her to explain. There was a trace of an accent in his voice, something foreign yet intangible.
Well, she wasn’t going to play his little game. She had a few questions of her own.
“Who are you and what do you want from me?” she asked tersely, cocking the gun.
He stood with his heart lined up with its barrel and said nothing. His eyes were so dark they were nearly black, terrible in their intensity.
She couldn’t bring herself to look away, nor could she kill the electricity generated by that intensity.
Never had she experienced anything like it. It was almost addictive, the way the heat radiated from his cold gaze and his muscular body, the way it enveloped her. She couldn’t move, couldn’t think.
Irrationally, she had the impossible desire to touch her lips to his and dissolve in the fire of his embrace. As he studied her with a calculated look, Hayden tried to read his expression and gave up. He was impenetrable to her. If he wanted at all her he certainly gave no indication of it.
Finally, in a half-desperate plea, she blurted out, “Would you mind telling me why you hate me so much?”
The spell was broken. She lowered the Glock, defeated.
This seemed to please him. In an almost business-like gesture, he took the gun out of her hand and inspected it, then deposited it inside his long dark coat. “That’s none of your concern. Nor is it important. Not as far as the matter at hand is concerned.” He did not look at her as he spoke.
“You mean the girl—”
Her question exasperated him and it was as if a few sparks flew out from his being when he answered curtly, “Who else would I be referring to?”
Without another word, he began walking away rapidly and Hayden stood staring dumbly after him, uncertain what she should do. On the one hand the man claimed to have information that pertained to the dead girl and maybe he did. On the other were a few not-so-insignificant details: her lack of back-up, the fact that nobody had the slightest idea where she was or that she had no clue where he was heading.
Or that he had deftly robbed her of her weapon.
“Jesus H. Christ.” She went on swearing under breath as she watched the distance between them stretch to a full block. She sprinted after him, loathing the idea that he would hear her running and that the sound of her footsteps would not be a surprise, merely a confirmation of what he already expected to happen. “Dammit, dammit, damnit.” She swore breathlessly as she ran, hating her sense of powerlessness even as she gained on him.
When she finally caught up with him, he stopped and eyed her with something that may have been satisfaction. “I’m glad to see you’ve had a change of heart.”
Hayden fought the urge to do something stupid. Like punch his unearthly pale face. Or, even better, knee him in the groin and make a lunge for her weapon. Or kiss him.
She averted her gaze and tried to recall just how much she loathed alpha-male types. No such luck. Instead she took a deep breath and forced herself to smile. “That’s a bit of wishful thinking on your part,” she remarked lightly. “For all I know you may be the murderer.”
So much for not showing her hand, she thought wryly, as he turned from her and went on walking without a word.
After a quarter of an hour spent in silence, she saw that they had turned a corner and were now heading in the opposite direction. She wondered vaguely if there would be any point to resisting and felt rather than heard his answer. At the sensation of his impatience with her resistance to his directives, she jumped, just as she had when someone touched her shoulder from behind. Yet, inexplicably, another part of her couldn’t help liking the invisible thread that pulsed between them.
At that, she felt the anger rising up within her. “Listen, if you have information about the case you must come forward,” she began. “If you’re afraid for your safety we can—”
“Protect me?” he repeated. “Excuse if I seem arrogant for point this out but it is I who can protect you.”
“Only you won’t.”
“Do you know the identity of the killer?” Hayden asked. Or are you the killer? The thought skittered across her mind a second time, but she suppressed it quickly. That was one sentiment she couldn’t afford to hang onto. Her only real protection, she guessed, had nothing to do with the Glock he had deposited in the inner recesses of his dark coat. Nor did her cell phone offer much by the way of security. No, her only defense against this odd being walking beside her hinged on her ability to keep her mind clear. Which, under the circumstances, was no easy feat.
“As I said, that’s not relevant at the present moment.” He cast a sidelong glance at her, causing a frisson of alarm to ripple through her body.
Belatedly, it occurred to her to wonder whether he was leading her into a trap of some kind. The buildings were slipping past them so quickly now it was as if she were driving, not walking. Up above, the nearly full moon had sunk low in the sky. Soon, the sun would rise and the city would catch fire.
He knew the identity of the killer. Of that much she was certain. “Will you tell me the killer’s name?” she asked. “Or something about him. Anything at all. If I can locate whoever committed the crime, I can bring him in for questioning.”
He stopped abruptly and turned toward her. “If only it were as easy as that.”
Hayden caught something in his face then, a twinge of emotion other than hatred. She fought to read it, to read him, but he could feel her trying and was blocking her. Whatever it was, it made him vulnerable. Because it hadn’t been easy for him to keep her mind at bay, the emotion—sadness? pain? love?—had been too strong.
“You have a choice to make.”
“I know,” she said, her mind registering surprise, even shock, at her admission. What on earth was she talking about? Was it because she believed he meant what he said and knew without understanding anything that he was right? She didn’t think so. “But I don’t—I can’t—
If he noticed her faltering, he chose to disregard it. “It’s late, later than I had planned,” he said with a glance at the violet sky, “—which was why I was forced to resort to tonight’s childish tactic, for which I apologize.”
He isn’t sorry at all, she thought suddenly. It was simply a matter of pride. Valentin—yes, that was his name!—didn’t like to think of himself as weak in any way. The knowledge came to her in a rush, in a quick surge of understanding. She smiled to herself. “Well, if you want me to believe you actually do have information that can help me, you’re going to have to do a hell of a lot better than that, Valentin.
While I appreciate your flair for melodrama, I have better things to do than sit around while some guy who thinks he’s a vampire plays some silly head game with me.”
A muscle worked in his jaw, suggesting that her little speech had put him off balance. He hadn’t foreseen that she would be able to pick up on his name, she guessed, nor had he expected her to successfully resist his attempts to control her. He hadn’t thought she could read him, or at least not without his consent.
She felt his thoughts drawing back from hers until their minds were distinct again. It was an unfamiliar sensation, like the tide receding on a stormy day, and it left her feeling unaccountably empty.
“Don’t think too much of the fact that you know my name,” he said evenly, with a whisper of a smile.
“My name is nothing. It means nothing, can give you no information other than what you’ve already gained.” He reached into his coat pocket and removed an ordinary business card. “Tomorrow you will come to this address. The gate will be unlocked, as will the front door. Seat yourself in my study and wait there until I arrive. I need not warn you about bringing friends or exploring the premises.”
She glanced at the card and noted that the address was somewhere in Salem. Go figure, she thought wryly, trying not to think about the threat in his voice. While she had no intention of doing as he’d asked—ordered, actually—she couldn’t help wondering what the consequences of ignoring his instructions might be.
Further off, the horizon had lightened to a deep shade of salmon pink. How many minutes until full sunrise? she wondered, then chided herself for her gullibility. An hour with the man and he nearly had her believing in vampires without so much as uttering the word. What next? she thought, feeling a little punch-drunk from the lack of sleep. Werewolves? Shapeshifters? Witches? Fallen angels? She may as well be one of the bevy of foolish women who used to visit her mother.
Valentin was standing a few feet away from a black Jaguar XF parked alongside the curb. Her spine tingled as she watched him cross to the car and disable the alarm.
“Don’t worry,” he said, turning back toward her. “I have no intention of kidnapping you. It should be a fairly simple matter for you to hail a cab from this location. And I do apologize for any inconvenience I may have caused you. Were it not of the utmost importance I shouldn’t have troubled you.”
She sighed in exasperation. “Do you always talk like a character in an old novel?”
His eyes met hers. “A good deal of the time, yes,” he said. “When I was learning English that is how the majority of the population spoke.”
She nodded, suppressing a crooked grin. Now that she thought about it, she was feeling downright giddy. “Right-o, Sir Valentin.”
He raised an eyebrow, as if she were the unbalanced one. “Your skepticism is invigorating,” he said, “if not efficacious.”
“Please,” she said, suppressing a grin. “Don’t expect me to believe your bullshit. I’m a cop, remember? Maybe I’ll buy that you just might know something about the killer. But if you think I’m going to fall for your pathetic Dracula imitation, you’re crazier than I figured. And that’s saying a helluva lot.”
“I believe,” he went on calmly, “it’s high time for you to get some sleep, Hayden.”
A moment earlier, when he handed her his card she felt his hatred in an almost pure form as it passed from his hand to the card to her fingertips. The small square of paper burned as she took it. She’d forced herself not to let go of the card, felt the pain travel up the length of her arm, all the way to her chest. For a moment she’d felt as if she couldn’t breathe, as if her lungs were filled with fire instead of air.
Now she wasn’t quite so sure. Yes, there was the animosity. But there was also a trace of a smile in his voice, though his expression remained frozen.
She steadied herself before she spoke, wondering what could possibly drive her to defy Valentin when she sensed—knew—he was the most dangerous man she had ever met. “I’m not coming, you know,” she said, taking a step toward him. “You can fool yourself about yourself if you want, but please don’t indulge your illusions when it comes to me.”
He said nothing at first, then bowed ever so slightly. His face was only inches away from hers now and she didn’t need to read his thoughts to know her noncompliance truly frightened him. “You must come,” he stated simply, after a short pause. “Everything depends upon it.”
Yes, it was there. She was sure of it now. The fear and the emotion. Whatever its source, it was the key to his vulnerability. Hayden pressed her advantage. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’ve got a case to solve.”
“I can’t waste my time chasing—”
“Vampires?” He finished for her and let the word ring out across the air as if it were a source of immense amusement for him.
“Or whatever it is you’re trying to pass yourself off as,” she shot back, forcing a note of cruelty into her voice. She was really laughing at him now and she wanted him to know it. She focused her mind on the vulnerability she had felt as if she were standing in full sunlight holding glass over a piece of paper. Otherwise she would have no chance against him.
It didn’t work.
He’d already adjusted his tactics, steeling himself so that she might as well have been beating her fists against his chest, like a child having a tantrum. She felt him pushing back against her mind and for a second she felt overwhelmed by it.
He stood gazing down at her, then lifted a hand and traced the outline of her cheek with his fingertip. Behind him, the row of skyscrapers that dotted the horizon had turned from crimson to the palest of pinks. “I shall expect you tomorrow night at 10 p.m.,” he said as if he hadn’t heard what she had told him.
She said nothing and the distance between them spun out. If the lightening sky concerned him, he gave no sign of it.
After it became clear she had no intention of responding, he cupped her chin in his palm and leaned his face toward hers. The touch of his lips was hot to the point of burning. As she responded to the sensation, meeting his kisses with an ardor that was almost painful, Hayden tried not to think about what was happening between them. She didn’t want to think at all, wanted only the dark, brutal melody of his tongue twining itself with hers, the crush of his full lips pressing against her own.
Hayden barely registered that his hands were in her hair, caressing her shoulders, running down her back. She was no longer a woman but something utterly different, a being without a body, pure sensation.
At the exact moment when she thought she would die of the exquisite fire of his touch, Valentin broke off the kiss and stepped away from her. “I nearly forgot,” he said, removing the Glock from his coat and placing it into her open palm. “I believe you’ll be needing this. It wouldn’t do, to let down your guard.”
Was there a trace of irony in his voice? She watched as he crossed toward the Jaguar, pondering the wisdom of attempting to follow him. When he reached the car he laid his hand on the door and stood a moment, looking at her. “There’s another, you know. A year younger than the first. He carved a message across her stomach.” His voice was flat now, the connection between them broken. “She suffered, Hayden. He cut her badly.”
She willed herself not to respond. It’s just a ploy, she told herself. It only seems real.
“Unless you act quickly there will be more.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Don’t you?” Still looking at her, he pulled the car door open and hesitated only a moment before disappearing behind tinted glass.
She watched as Jaguar pulled away from the curb and sped West in a race against the coming day. It’s just a ploy, she repeated without conviction.
How had he known the things he had? A thousand rational explanations clamored for her attention. It was the final, illogical idea, however, that wouldn’t dislodge itself from her heart. Even so, there was something off about the entire encounter.
Something was definitely wrong. She just wasn’t sure what.
The ring of her cell phone served as a temporary distraction. Fishing it out of her pocketbook, she glanced at the screen and attempted to quell her growing sense of dread.