Hayden stood before the wrought iron gate, fighting the urge to turn and run. A gravel driveway bordered by twin rows of pines disappeared in moonlit shadows. Off in the distance a row of enormous windows blazed but the effect was anything but welcoming.
Fishing a flashlight out of her handbag, she clicked it on and aimed its beam at through the bars of the gate. Was Valentin already there, waiting for her? He’d said she should let herself in, so Hayden surmised that the place would be open either way. Or maybe the entire evening was all part of his idea of a sick joke.
After all, she was in Salem, home of everything supernatural. Or at least everything that tried to pass itself off as supernatural. All day she’d been torn between the impulse to believe Valentin and the need to cling to the rational. For most of it, she’d had no intention of actually driving to the address on the card.
Then she saw the second body.
Of course, if Valentin were the killer then driving alone to his mansion wasn’t exactly the best plan she’d ever come up with. To make matters worse, she had taken her own car without bothering to tell anyone where she was going. She’d brought along her cell phone and her gun but she didn’t think either of them would do her much good.
She was nearly at the end of the drive when a dark shape skittered across the edge of the gravel and disappeared into shadow. Forcing herself not to think about what it might be, she deliberately slowed her pace. She’d be damned if she was going to start jumping at shadows.
The massive outline of the mansion loomed up before her. Its stone front, complete with thick gray columns and an imposing entryway, looked even more intimidating than it had from afar. Did the man really live here all alone? Obviously, he was rich as Midas if he could afford a place like that. Her Beacon Hill apartment cost a small fortune to rent (at least for a cop), but what about this place, with its English gardens and manicured lawns?
Old money, she guessed. Nobody accumulated that kind of wealth in a single lifetime.
As she came to the end of the driveway, she wondered again why she hadn’t told anyone where she was going. Probably because any rational person would have tried to talk her out of it, she admitted to herself. If anything happened to her now no one would have the slightest idea where to start looking. Her fellow cops would probably wonder if the city’s newest serial killer had gotten to her.
Maybe he had. Because how else could Valentin have been right about the second murder? It was possible he may have guessed there would be a second killing, but how had he known about the girl’s age, or that there had been a message written in blood?
Like the first victim, the teen-age girl was nothing more a bloodless corpse by the time she was discovered, her neck pierced in exactly the same manner. She too had been a prostitute, a redhead who looked remarkably like the first—though in her case the track marks that ran up and down both arms made it easier to explain why she had been working the streets.
She wondered at the word carved across the girl’s abdomen. Annika. An unusual name, but not so unique that it would lead to an actual person. Hayden had run it through the computer and come up with nothing useful, just as she had expected. Nor had Valentin Grigorievich—the name listed on the deed of the Salem estate—given her any answers.
So who was Annika? And how was she connected with the dead girl? Or with Valentin?
I won’t learn anything hanging around outside. Not to mention the fact that it was horror-movie creepy out there. She took a deep breath and strode up the walkway to the heavy oak door. She raised her fist to knock only to find that it was unlocked. Slowly, she pushed the door open as quietly as she could and stepped inside.
Was he watching her? Could he feel her fear? Her heart started thumping against her ribcage. Hell, she was a cop. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t been in dangerous situations before.
Of course, she hadn’t had any run-ins with men who claimed to be vampires.
The word triggered a memory of Valentin’s eyes on her in the moment immediately after he’d kissed her. Much as she hated to admit it, Hayden couldn’t deny there were other reasons she had shown up in Salem besides her desire to find the killer. She did want to find the bastard—no doubt about that. Even without Valentin’s warning, Hayden was sure if she didn’t act quickly it would only be a matter of time until another girl turned up dead.
But not all her reasons were quite so altruistic.
She wanted to see him. In spite of everything, she couldn’t ignore the crazy rush of happiness she experienced at the prospect of talking to him again. She wouldn’t kiss him again, she’d already decided that. And she definitely didn’t trust him. He might have thrown her a few crumbs of information about the killer but he wasn’t telling far more than that. She was also sure he had his own reasons for letting her know about the second prostitute.
The inside of the mansion was silent, empty. The décor was more or less what she had expected, based on its imposing exterior. The white marble floor of the entryway shone under an enormous crystal chandelier and on the far side of the room a wide curving stairway disappeared into darkness.
She’d never seen a place as luxurious, other than in magazines featuring homes of the rich and famous. Off the main hall were a number of doors, one of which had been left wide open. She got a glimpse of the floor-to-ceiling rows filled with expensive-looking books and wondered if Valentin might be inside.
She hesitated, then crossed to the open door and peered inside. Valentin’s study. The room where she was supposed to wait.
Should she search the upper floors of the mansion or would that be a violation of Valentin’s trust? On the other flip side, if he were the killer shouldn’t she be searching for clues? As she glanced at the curving staircase over her shoulder, she found herself wondering about his bedroom in a decidedly unprofessional manner.
Better to start with the study, she decided quickly, suppressing her curiosity about the second floor. And at least this way she wouldn’t risk Valentin’s anger if he returned earlier than he had said he would. Glancing at her cellphone display, she noted that it was a little before 10 p.m. So she still had a little time.
It was definitely his study. A fire burned low in the grate, casting a red glow across the dark, antique furniture and the book-lined shelves. Velvet curtains were drawn shut across a set of French doors and on the coffee table an enormous bouquet of crimson roses bloomed. The flowers gave off a powerful, erotic scent unlike anything Hayden had ever encountered and for a second she felt lightheaded. Sitting down on the green velvet couch across from the fireplace, Hayden forced herself to take several deep breaths.
Get ahold of yourself, she thought. Enough is enough.
An antique mahogany desk stood at the far end of the room. She walked over to it and pulled open the center drawer. Nothing, except for the usual stash of paperclips and pens, note paper and extra staples. The other drawers were empty as well.
No vials of blood, no spare set of fangs, no subscription to The Vampire Times. She sighed and turned toward the door, half expecting Valentin to be spring out from behind it. He might not be back for hours, she told herself.
If he showed up at all. Maybe this whole charade was simply an elaborate diversion. Maybe at that very moment he was out committing another murder, secure in the knowledge that she was nowhere near the scene of the crime.
There were answers in the mansion but she wouldn’t find them if she stayed where she was. Turning resolutely toward the study door, she headed back toward the staircase and headed for the second floor, taking the steps two at a time. If Valentin Grigorievich was the killer she sure as hell was going to catch the bastard.
The upstairs lay-out was similar to the one below, except there was no light other than moonlight slanting through a window at the far end of the hallway. Again, she found herself facing a row of closed doors. She checked for security cameras and found none, but that didn’t mean someone wasn’t watching.
She tried a door and found it locked. Tried another.
Either Valentin lived in a mansion of locked rooms or he had planned carefully for her arrival. She reached the end of the hallway without finding a single door unlocked. Only one remained. She placed her hand on the knob and turned it.
The door opened.
She felt along the wall for a light switch but there didn’t seem to be one. She clicked on her flashlight and shined it across the darkened room. If she had thought the entryway was luxurious, the bedroom—Valentin’s?—was even more so. Long red velvet curtains were drawn closed, blocking any light from outside. At the center of the room an elaborately carved canopied bed rose nearly to the ceiling. The same erotic scent she had encountered in the study pervaded the bedroom. She cast her light around the room in search of roses, but found none.
The cavernous room had an empty feeling, as if it weren’t used very often. She ran her finger over a dresser, expecting to find dust, but it was spotless. Maybe nobody actually slept there—but someone had been cleaning the place, it seemed.
She walked across the plush carpet and stopped before the closets. A surge of fear rippled through her before she flung both doors open only to find herself staring at rows upon rows of expensive suits. After carefully closing the doors she made her way toward the enormous bed and laid back on it. She felt sleepy, so sleepy she could hardly keep her eyes open.
As she drifted off she had the sense that Valentin was in the room with her. He leaned down over her, so close she could feel the cool intensity of his bare skin, then lowered his face to hers and kissed her closed eyelids. His lips brushed across her cheeks and the tip of her nose before he began sucking her lower lip, gently at first, then with more force. She felt herself getting wet, felt her hips rising and falling to the rhythm of his body. As he mounted her and spread her legs she realized she was naked.
When he entered her the impact was so powerful she had to fight the urge to orgasm at once. She’d never experienced anything like it: the feel of her own desire twined so tightly with another man’s almost as if they were the same person. As he began thrusting, faster and faster, she felt herself getting closer and closer to climaxing. He was too—but she also understood that their union wouldn’t be enough for him and that he was steeling himself against the desire sink his fangs into her. Hayden bared her neck and offered it to him, wanting it too, begging him to give in. At that moment she didn’t care about consequences. At that moment it mattered not at all that her existence as a human would come to end when his bite pierced her skin.
All she wanted was the perfection of that final release. The only thing that mattered was losing herself in a union so complete nothing could sever it.
Yet even as she tried to pull his lips toward her neck, she understood she was slipping away from him. The thread that connected their thoughts was growing thinner and in another moment it would snap, breaking forever the connection between them. She felt her head thrashing from side to side as her body began to convulse. She was frantic for it to end, frantic for him to stop driving her toward this frenzy. Hayden clenched her insides in an effort to stop him from thrusting deeper into her but it didn’t work. He kept pushing, harder, faster, until she felt her soul would shatter into a thousand pieces.
“Stop,” she whispered, placing her hands on his chest and pushing him away, “please stop.”
Before she’d finished her sentence the pressure of his body was gone. She opened her eyes. The room was dark and empty, the only sound the ticking of an unseen clock. She felt for her flashlight and tried to switch it on.
She swore, clicked the switch on, off.
The battery must have gone dead while I was sleeping, she told herself, as if that practical observation could wipe away all her fears. Her heart was still pounding and she was drenched in sweat. As her eyes began to adjust to the darkness she sat up and tried to determine if she were really alone. Aside from a few wrinkles on the silk spread that marked where she had fallen asleep, the bed was untouched. She was still fully clothed in jeans, turtle neck and black leather jacket, her Glock safe in its holster.
She’d been dreaming. Even as she told herself that she didn’t quite believe it. It had been a dream, that much was certain, but there was something about it that went beyond dreaming. She felt almost as if she had been dreaming someone else’s dream, not hers.
A stab of fear pushed its way into her mind. What time was it?
She had to get back to the study.
Sitting up, she ran a hand through her disheveled hair and tried to shake off the reality of the dream. Its presence clung to her, making her head hurt. Her body felt sore as well, in the same way it did when she was suffering from a bad hangover. To her left was a faint glimmer of light that she hoped indicated the door to the hallway. She groped toward it, stumbling into an unidentifiable piece of heavy furniture and nearly falling headlong onto the carpet.
“Shit,” she swore as the pain worked its way up her thigh. Come morning she was going to have one hell of a bruise.
Valentin’s voice floated out of the blackness, darkly sinister in its intent. “I believe I warned you against exploring the premises,” he said quietly. “But no harm done. My bedroom holds few secrets that I’m not willing to share.”
Was she dreaming again? No, this was real. He was here, with her, somewhere in the room. “I fell asleep,” she said lamely. Great excuse, Farrell.
“So I gathered.” His voice was closer now, so close she knew he could touch her if he chose to.
“Though your purpose in coming into this room extended beyond your need for sleep. Still, it’s understandable—your insistence on believing I’m the killer. Easier to go on thinking that than entertain the idea that there are things beyond the rational. Perhaps your mother—“
“My mother,” she said, cutting him off, “has absolutely nothing to do with this.”
“No,” she said tersely, hoping he couldn’t pick up on her sense of doubt. He was so close now she could feel his breath raising the hairs on the back of her neck. He had come up behind her, from the side of the room furthest from the hallway, almost as if he had materialized out nowhere, nothing. She felt even more profoundly disoriented than she had a few moments earlier, when she had awoken from the dream.
Surely her mother hadn’t been anything more than a cheap con artist, a sly, vain woman with a predatory nature. Surely Valentin was cut from the same cloth. Like Valentin, Destiny Farrell had tried more than once to convince her she was something more than what she seemed to be: a bona fide psychic, a witch, a woman whose mission extended far beyond the confines of their dingy lives.
The role changed from day to day but the underlying message was always the same—Destiny Farrell was a part of something far larger than people realized. The only difference between them was Valentin was a lot better at acting the part than his mother had been.
“If it helps you to think your mother has nothing to do with your actions, then do it,” he said. “But is it wise to sacrifice any more lives simply because you haven’t put the ghosts of your childhood to rest?”
How did he know about her mother? He was picking up on her thoughts, he had to be, and it irritated the hell out of her. There had to be a way to close her mind off from him.
In the darkness, his hands smoothed her hair a moment before moving down her arms and finding her breasts beneath the leather jacket. A chill ran down her spine as he massaged her nipples and pressed himself against her back. She could feel his hardness against her tight jeans, tempting her. The dream came back to her in all its intensity then and she fought the almost unbearable urge to slip her jeans down over her hips so he count mount her. It was only with a supreme effort that she took a step forward, removing herself from his embrace.
“How do you do that?” she asked warily.
“Read your thoughts?” If her resistance troubled him, his voice gave no indication of it. “Even humans are capable of reading each other’s thoughts. Most of them aren’t aware they have the capability. A few even have the ability to actually control the thoughts of others. But again, most humans have no idea of the powers they possess.”
She wavered between the desire to laugh in his face and to find out more. Curiosity won out. “Okay, for argument’s sake let’s say I buy into the fact that you can actually see into my head. And that you can control my thoughts, if you feel like it.” She broke off, unsure if she wanted to continue, then decided Why not? “So why did you make me dream about you?”
Now it was his turn to laugh. The sound echoed across the darkness, making her feel like a naïve school girl. She felt herself reddening and was glad he couldn’t see her face.
“Are you absolutely certain it was my dream,” he remarked, not bothering to hide his amusement, “and not yours?”
She opened her mouth to deny it, then closed it. Maybe it had been her dream…but it if were hers…she forced the possibility that she was attracted to him out of her mind. Whoever he was, he was definitely nuts. Killer or not. And he was strong, stronger than any being she had ever encountered. If it hadn’t been for the case at hand, she would have never have allowed a man like him into her life.
His breathing had become slightly ragged, as if he were making an effort to control it. Hayden thought she detected a slight scent of blood. She knew the scent—and all it implied—should turn her stomach but it didn’t. His mind mingled with hers, then, abruptly, he pulled away.
He might be dangerous but she sensed his fear of her as well. She had power too, power over something that mattered to him. But what it was she couldn’t fathom.
“Come with me,” he said, holding out his hand to her. “We haven’t much time. It’s nearly midnight.”