The wind was cool, the fall night crisp. A waxing moon hung lazily in the sky, so low it seemed close enough to touch.
Or maybe it just seemed that way because I was perched nine stories in the air, atop a narrow metal grate that crowned Chicago’s Harold Washington Library. One of the library’s distinctive aluminum owls—either one of the best architectural features in the city or one of its worst, depending on who you asked—sat above me, staring down as I trespassed in his domain.
This was one of the few times I’d ventured outside my Hyde Park home in the last two months for a reason unrelated to food—it was Chicago, after all—or my best friend Mallory. As I glanced over the edge of the building, I began to seriously regret that decision. The library wasn’t exactly a skyscraper, but it was tall enough that a fall would most certainly have killed a human. My heart jumped into my throat, and every muscle in my body rang with the urge to kneel down, grasp the edges of the grate, and never let go.
“It’s not as far as it looks, Merit.”
I glanced over at the vampire who stood to my right. Jonah, the one who’d convince me to come out here, chuckled and brushed auburn hair back from his perfectly chiseled face.
“It’s far enough,” I said. “And this wasn’t exactly what came to mind when you suggested I get some fresh air.”
“Maybe not. But you can’t deny the view is fabulous.”
My white-knuckled fingers digging into the wall behind me, I looked out across the city. He was right—you couldn’t fault the intimate view of downtown Chicago, of steel and glass and well-hewn stone.
But, “I could have looked out the window,” I pointed out.
”Where’s the challenge in that?” he asked, and then his voice softened. “You’re a vampire,” he reminded me. “Gravity affects you differently.”
He was right. Gravity treated us a little more kindly. It helped us fight with more verve and, so I’d heard, fall from a height without killing ourselves. But that didn’t mean I was eager to test the theory. Not when the result could be bone-crushingly bad.
“I swear,” he said, “if you follow instructions, the fall won’t hurt you.”
Easy for him to say. Jonah had decades more vampiric experience under his belt; he had less to be nervous about. To me, immortality had never seemed so fragile.
I blew the dark bangs from my face and peeked over the edge of the railing one more time. State Street was far below us, mostly deserted at this time of night. At least I wouldn’t crush someone if this didn’t work.
“You have to learn to fall safely,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “Catcher trained me to spar. He was big on falling down correctly.” Catcher was my former roommate and best friend Mallory’s live-in beau. He was also an employee of my grandfather.
“Then you know being immortal doesn’t mean being careless,” Jonah added, extending a hand toward me, and my heart jumped, this time as much from the gesture as the height.
I’d put myself—and my heart—on a shelf for the last two months, my work as Sentinel of Chicago’s Cadogan House mostly limited to patrolling the House’s grounds. I could admit it—I was gun shy. My newfound vampire bravery had mostly evaporated after the Master of my House, Ethan Sullivan, the vampire who’d made me, named me Sentinel, and been my partner, had been staked in the heart by my mortal enemy . . . right before I’d returned the favor to her.
As a former grad student in English literature, I could appreciate the perverse poetry of it.
Jonah, captain of the guards in Grey House, was my link to the Red Guard, a secret organization dedicated to providing oversight to the American vampire Houses and the Greenwich Presidium, the European council that ruled them from across the pond.
I’d been offered membership in the RG, and Jonah was the partner I’d been promised if I’d accepted. I hadn’t, but he’d been nice enough to help me deal with problems GP politics made too sticky for Ethan.
Jonah had been more than happy to act as Ethan’s replacement—professionally and otherwise. The messages we’d exchanged over the last few weeks—and the hope in his eyes tonight—said he was interested in something more than just supernatural problem-solving.
There was no denying Jonah was handsome. Or charming. Or brilliant in a weirdly quirky way. Honestly, he could have starred in his own romantic comedy. But I wasn’t ready to even think about dating again, I didn’t think I would be any time soon. My heart was otherwise engaged, and since Ethan’s death, mostly broken.
Jonah must have seen the hesitation in my eyes. He smiled kindly, then pulled back his hand and pointed toward the edge.
“Remember what I told you about jumping? This is the same as taking a step.”
He’d definitely said that. Two or three times now. I just wasn’t buying. “It’s a really, really long step.”
“It is,” Jonah agreed. “But it’s only the first step that sucks. Being in the air is one of the greatest things you’ll ever experience.”
“Better than being safely on the ground?”
“Much. More like flying—except we don’t do ‘up’ nearly as well as we do ‘down.’ This is your chance to be a superhero.”
“They do call me the ‘Ponytailed Avenger,’” I grumbled, flipping my long dark ponytail. The Chicago Sun-Times had deemed me a “Ponytailed Avenger” when I’d helped a shifter in a bar attack. Since I usually wore my hair in a ponytail to keep it away from the errant katana strike (my bangs not included), the name kind of stuck.
“Has anyone ever told you you’re particularly sarcastic when you’re scared?”
“You’re not the first,” I admitted. “I’m sorry. I’m just—this is freaking me out. There is nothing in my body or mind that thinks jumping off a building is a good idea.”
“You’ll be fine. The fact that it scares you is reason number one to do it.”
Or reason number one to turn tail and run back to Hyde Park.
“Trust me,” he said. “Besides, this is a skill you need to master,” Jonah said. “Malik and Kelley need you.”
Kelley was a former House guard now in charge of the House’s entire guard corps. Unfortunately, since we were now down to three full-time guards (including Kelley) and a Sentinel, that wasn’t exactly a coup for her.
Malik was Ethan’s former second in command, Master of the House since Ethan’s demise. He’d taken the Rights of Investiture, and the House had been given to his keeping.
Ethan’s death had sparked a nasty case of vampire musical chairs.
As a Master, Malik Washington had gotten back his last name; Masters of the country’s twelve vampire Houses were the only vamps allowed to use them. Unfortunately, Malik had also gotten the House’s political drama, which had thickened since Ethan’s death. Malik worked tirelessly, but had to spend most of his time dealing with the newest bane of our existence.
Said bane was Franklin Theodore Cabot, the appointed receiver of Cadogan House. When Darius West, head of the GP, had decided he didn’t like the way the House was run, “Frank” had been sent to Chicago to inspect and evaluate the House. The GP said they were concerned Ethan hadn’t effectively managed the House—but that was a total lie, and they’d wasted no time sending the receiver to check our rooms, our books, and our files. I wasn’t exactly sure what data Frank was looking for—and why so much interest in a House an entire ocean away?
Whatever the reason, Frank wasn’t a good houseguest. He was obnoxious, autocratic and a stickler for rules I hadn’t even known existed to the exclusion of everything else. Of course, I was becoming pretty well acquainted with them; Frank had papered one wall of the House’s first floor with the new House rules and the punishments that went along with breaking them. The system was necessary, he’d said, because House discipline had been lackadaisical.
Maybe not surprisingly, I had taken an immediate dislike to Frank, and not just because he was a blue-blooded Ivy League business school graduate with a penchant for phrases like “synergy” and “out of the box thinking.” He’d salted his introductory comments to the House with those words, offering up the not-so-subtle threat that the House would be taken over by the GP on a permanent basis—or disbanded—if he wasn’t satisfied with what he found.
I’d been fortunate enough to come from a family of means, and there were other vampires in the House who had old money backgrounds. But it was Frank’s attitude of entitlement that really irked me. The man wore deck shoes, for God’s sake. And he was most definitely not on a boat. In reality, despite the role he’d been given by the GP, he was actually a Novitiate vampire (if a wealthy one) from a House on the east coast. A House, granted, that had been founded by a Cabot ancestor, but which had long since been given over to another Master.
Worse, Frank spoke to us like he was a member of the House, as if his money and connections were a passport to status within Cadogan. Frank playing at House membership was even more ridiculous since his entire purpose was to itemize the ways we weren’t following the party line. He was an outsider sent to label us as nonconforming and pound us, square pegs, back into round holes.
Out of concern for the House and respect for the chain of command, Malik had given him the run of the House. He figured Frank was a battle he couldn’t win, so he was saving up his political capital for another round.
Whatever the drama, Frank was back in Hyde Park. I was here, in the Loop, with an ersatz vampire partner determined to teach me how to jump from a building without killing someone . . . or pushing myself beyond the limits of immortality.
I looked over the edge again, my stomach curdling with it. I was torn by dueling urges to drop to my knees and crawl back to the stairs, and to hurl myself over the edge.
But then he spoke the words most likely to get me moving.
“Dawn will be here eventually, Merit.”
The myth about vampires and sunlight was true—if I was still on this roof when the sun rose, I’d burn up into a pile of ash.
“You have two options,” Jonah said. “You can trust me and try this, or you can climb back through the roof, go home, and never know what you might be capable of.”
He held out his hand. “Trust me,” he said. “And keep your knees soft when you land.”
It was the certainty in his eyes that did it—the confidence that I could achieve the goal. Once upon a time, I’d have seen suspicion in his gaze. Jonah hadn’t been a fan when we’d first me. But circumstances had forced us together, and whatever his initial doubts, he’d apparently learned to trust me.
Now was a good time to make good on that trust.
I held out my hand and death-gripped his fingers in mine. “Soft knees,” I repeated.
“You only have to take a step,” he said.
I looked over at him, ready to “Roger” my agreement. But before I could open my mouth, he winked and took a step, pulling me along with him. Before I could protest, we were airborne.
The first step was bone-chillingly awful—the sudden sensation of the ground—and our security—disappearing beneath us, a sickening lurch that flipped my stomach and shuddered through my entire body. My heart jumped into my throat, although that at least kept me from screaming out a bubble of fear.
But that’s when it got good.
After the nasty initial drop (really nasty—I can’t stress that enough), the rest of the journey wasn’t much like falling at all. It felt more like hopping down a staircase—if the distance between each tread was a lot longer. I couldn’t have been in the air for more than three or four seconds, but time actually seemed to slow down, the city decelerating around me as I took a step to the ground. I hit the ground in a crouch, one hand on the sidewalk, with no more impact than if I’d simply jumped up.
My transition to vampire had been scattershot, and my abilities had come “online” slowly enough that it still surprised me when I was able to do something the first time around. This move that would have killed me a year ago, but now it left me feeling kind of invigorated. Jumping nine stories to the ground without a broken bone or bruise? That was a home run in my book.
“You’ve got hops,” Jonah said.
I glanced over at him through my bangs. “That was phenomenal.”
“I told you it would be.”
I stood up and straightened the hem of my leather jacket. “You did tell me. But the next time you throw me off a building, I will bring the pain.”
He smiled teasingly, which made my heart flutter uncomfortably. “In that case, I think we have a deal.”
“You ‘think’? You couldn’t just agree not to throw me off a building?”
“What fun would that be?” Jonah asked, then turned and headed down the street. I let him get a few paces ahead before following behind, that teasing look he’d given me still in mind.
And I’d thought the first step off the roof had been nerve-wracking.
# # #
Cadogan House was located in Hyde Park, a subdivision south of downtown Chicago. It was also home to the University of Chicago, whose grad school I’d been attending when I’d been made a vampire. Ethan had changed me, beginning my transformation only seconds after I’d been attacked by a rogue vamp—one not tied to a particular House—sent by Celina Desaulniers. She was the narcissistic vamp I’d staked just moments after Ethan had been killed; she’d sent the rogue to kill me to piss off my father. As I’d later discovered, my real estate-peddling father had offered Ethan money to make me a vampire. Ethan declined the offer, and Celina had been miffed by my father’s refusal to make the same offer to her.
The girl was a piece of work.
Anywho, Ethan named me Sentinel of the House. To help protect the House, and to avoid listening to Mallory’s midnight (and noon . . . and six a.m. . . . and six p.m.) romantic escapades with Catcher, I moved into Cadogan House.
The House had all the basics—kitchen, workout room, an Operations Room where guards kept an eye on the House, and dormlike rooms for about ninety of the three hundred Cadogan vampires. My room was on the second floor. It wasn’t huge and it wasn’t lush, but it was a respite from the drama of being a vampire in Chicago. It had a bed, bookcase, closet and small bathroom. Plus, it was just down the hall from a kitchen loaded with junk food and bagged blood provided by our awfully named delivery service, Blood4You.
I parked my orange Volvo a few blocks up, then hiked back to the House. It glowed in the darkness of Hyde Park, new security floodlights—installed when the House was renovated after an attack by growly shape-shifters—pouring across the grounds. The neighbors groused about the floodlights until they considered the consequences of not having them—the protection darkness would afford supernatural trespassers.
The House was relatively quiet tonight, a band of protesters snuggled into blankets on the grass between the sidewalk and the wrought iron gate that surrounded the House. Their numbers were down from the masses that had swarmed the grass before Mayor Tate had been stripped of his office, arraigned, and imprisoned in an undisclosed location. The change in leadership had calmed down the city’s voters.
Unfortunately, it hadn’t calmed down the politicians. Diane Kowalczyk, the woman who’d replaced Tate, had her eye on the oval office, and she was using Chicago’s supernaturals to prop up her future campaign. She was a big supporter of the proposed supernatural registration law, which would require all sups to register our powers and carry identification papers. We’d also have to check in every time we entered or left the state.
Most sups hated the idea. It was antithetical to being American, and it sang of discrimination. Sure, some of us were dangerous, but that was true of humans, as well. Would human Chicagoans have supported a law that required them to prove their identity to anyone who asked? I doubted it.
The humans who’d decided we were all untrustworthy dedicated their evenings to letting us know just how much they hated us. Sadly, some of the protestors were beginning to look familiar. In particular, I recognized a young couple—a boy and girl who couldn’t have been more than sixteen, and who’d once chanted hateful words at me and Ethan.
Yes, I had fangs. Daylight was lethal, as were aspen stakes and beheadings. Blood was a necessity, but so were chocolate and diet soda. I wasn’t undead; I just wasn’t human. So I’d decided that if I acted normal and was polite, I could slowly challenge their preconceptions about vampires.
Chicago’s Houses also were getting better about challenging misinformation. There was even a bulletin board in Wrigleyville with a picture of four diverse, smiling vampires beneath the words “Come on over!” The billboard was supposed to be an invitation to get to know Chicago’s Houses. Tonight, it was a reason for forlorn-looking teenagers to wield hand-painted “Come on over—and die!” posters.
I smiled politely as I passed them, then held up the two gingham bags of burgers and crinkle-cut fries. “Dinner time!” I cheerfully announced.
I was greeted at the gate by two of the mercenary fairies who controlled access to the Cadogan House grounds. They offered the merest of nods as I passed, then turned their attention back to the street. Fairies were notoriously antivampire, but they were even more antihuman. Cash payments from the House for their security services kept that balance.
I hopped the steps to the portico and headed inside, where I was greeted by a knot of vampires staring at the wall where Frank had been hanging his declarations.
“Welcome to the jungle,” said a voice behind me.
I turned to find Juliet, one of the remaining Cadogan guards, watching the vamps with a forlorn look. She was slender and redheaded, and an elfish look about her.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“More rules,” she said, gesturing to the wall. “Three new additions to the wall of shame. Frank has decided vampires are not to congregate together in groups larger than ten other than in officially sanctioned gatherings.”
“All the better to revolt against the GP?” I wondered.
“I guess. Apparently ‘freedom of assembly’ isn’t one of the GP’s favorite rights.”
“How very colonial,” I muttered. “What’s the second?”
Her expression went flat. “He’s rationing blood.”
I was so stunned by the idea it took me a moment to gather my wits. “We’re vampires. We need blood to survive.”
She looked disdainfully at the paper-dotted wall. “Oh, I know. But Frank, in his infinite wisdom, decided Ethan spoiled us by having bagged blood too readily available. He’s cutting the Blood4You deliveries.”
Although we usually drank bagged blood, Cadogan was one of the few vampire Houses in the United States—and the only one in Chicago—that allowed its vampires to drink blood from humans or other vamps. The other Houses had abolished the practice to better assimilate with humans. Personally, I had taken blood from only one man—Ethan—but I could appreciate that the option was available.
“Better us than Grey House,” I mused. “At least we have other sources.”
“Not this time,” Juliet said. “He’s also banned drinking.”
That idea was equally preposterous—but for a different reason. “Ethan made that rule,” I protested. “And Malik confirmed it. Frank doesn’t have the power—”
But Juliet cut me off with a shrug. “It’s part of his evaluation, he says. A test to see how well we handle our hunger.”
“He’s setting us up for failure,” I quietly said, looking over the crowd of vamps, now chattering nervously. “There’s no way we make it through a receivership, two months after losing our Master and with protestors at the gates, without someone freaking out from lack of blood.” I looked back at her. “He’ll use that as an excuse to take over the House, or close it altogether.”
“Quite possibly. Has he scheduled your interview yet?”
Not surprisingly, Frank had required each vamp to participate in a private interview. From what I’d heard, the interviews were fairly standard “justify your existence” deals. I was one of the few vamps he hadn’t yet spoken to. Not that I was bummed, but each day that passed without an interview made me that much more suspicious.
“Still nothing,” I told her.
“Maybe it’s a show of respect or something. Trying to respect Ethan’s memory by not interviewing you first?”
“I doubt our relationship would sway the GP’s evaluation of the House. Maybe it’s strategic—he’s holding out so I anticipate the conversation, worry about it.” I held up my dinner. “At least I have comfort food.”
“And speaking of which, it’s a good thing you brought that in.”
“The third rule: Frank has banned convenience food in the kitchens.”
Strike three for Frank. “What’s his rational for that one?”
“It’s unhealthy, overly processed, and expensive, he says. It’s all apples and cabbage and granola in there right now.”
As a vampire with an appetite, that almost hurt more than anything else Frank had done.
Juliet checked her watch. “Well, I should get back to it. You heading upstairs to eat?”
“Luc and Malik wanted to talk, and I promised I’d bring grub. What are you up to?”
She gestured toward the stairs that led to the House’s basement level, where the Ops Room was located. “Just finished a shift on the monitors.” She meant the closed-caption televisions that captured security footage from the House grounds.
She rolled her eyes. “People hate us, blah blah blah, wish we’d go straight to hell, or maybe Wisconsin, since it’s closer, blah blah blah.”
“Same old, same old?”
“Pretty much. If Celina thought outing vampires was going to usher in a happy vampire fairy tale, she was sorely mistaken.”
“Celina was mistaken on a number of fronts,” I said.
“That is true,” she softly said, and I caught the hint of pity in her voice. But pity was as exhausting to bear as grief, so I changed the subject.
“Any sign of McKetrick?” I asked. McKetrick, first name unknown, was a military type who’d decided vampires were the republic’s new enemy. He had black gear, combat weapons, and a strong desire to clean us all out of the city. He’d harangued Ethan and me one evening and promised we’d be seeing more of him. There’d been a couple of sightings since then, and I’d gotten a few more details about his military background from Catcher—think questionable tactics and chain of command issues—but if he had a master plan for vampirocide, he hadn’t yet made it clear.
I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better, or worse.
“Not even a ruffle.” She tilted her head to the side. “What were you up to outside?”
“Out. Working out, I mean.” I stumbled a little on the explanation, as I hadn’t yet confessed to the guards that I’d been working with Jonah. Our time together had been triggered by our Red Guard connection, and that secret wasn’t mine to tell, so I’d avoided the subject of Jonah altogether.
One more lie woven into the already tangled web.
“It’s always good to stay in shape,” Juliet said with a wink.
A wink that suggested I hadn’t been so sneaky after all.
“Well, it’s been a long night,” she said. “I’m going to head upstairs.”
“Juliet,” I called out, before she’d gotten too far. “Have you ever jumped?”
“Jumped?” she asked with a frown. “Like in the air?”
“Like off a building.”
“I have.” Understanding dawned in her eyes. “Why, Sentinel—did you make your first landing tonight?”
“I did, yeah.”
“Congratulations,” she said. “Just be careful that you don’t go too far or fall too fast.”
Words to live by.
# # #
Frank had co-opted Malik’s office—the office that had once belonged to Ethan. Malik had barely had two weeks in the room before Frank arrived and announced he needed the space to evaluate the House.
Malik—tall, cocoa-skinned and green-eyed—was deliberative. He picked his battles carefully, so he’d deferred and moved back into his old office down the hall.
It wasn’t large; the room was nearly filled by Malik’s desk, shelves of books and personal mementos. But the small size didn’t keep us from meeting there regularly. Bound together by our grief, we were more likely to be crammed into the office in our spare time than anywhere else in the House.
Tonight, Malik and Luc sat on opposite sides of a chess set atop Malik’s desk, Lindsey sat cross-legged on the floor a few feet away, magazine in hand.
Malik’s wife, Aaliyah—petite, gorgeous, and as humble as they came—joined us on occasion, but she was absent tonight. Aaliyah was a writer who spent more time in their apartment than out of it. I could completely understand the urge to hunker down and avoid vampire drama.
Luc, now House Second and former captain of the Cadogan guards, was blond, tousle-haired, and laid back. He’d been born and raised in the wild west, and I assumed he’d been made a vampire at the barrel of a gun. Luc had pined for Lindsey, my House BFF and a fellow guard who’d apparently stolen some time away from the Ops Room tonight.
Their relationship had been stop and go for a long time, albeit more “stop” than “go.” She’d been afraid a relationship would lead to a breakup, and a breakup would destroy their friendship. Despite her initial commitment-phobia, craving comfort after Ethan’s death, she’d finally agreed to give Luc a chance.
I’d spent the first week after his death in a haze in my room, Mallory at my side. When I’d finally emerged and Mal had gone home again, Lindsey showed up at my door in a total tizzy. She’d gone to Luc in her grief, and consolation had turned to affection—a supportive embrace to a passionate kiss that totally rocked her socks (or so she said). That kiss hadn’t erased her doubts, but she’d belayed her fears enough to give him a chance.
Luc, of course, felt completely vindicated.
“Sentinel,” Luc said, fingers hovering over one of the black knights, apparently debating his options. “I smell those burgers, and you’d better have brought enough for everyone.”
Decision made, he plucked up the knight, sat it down heavily in its new position, then raised his arms in the air triumphantly. “And so we advance!” he said, winging up his eyebrows at Malik. “You got a response to that?”
“I’m sure I’ll figure something out,” Malik said, his gaze now fixed on the board, scanning left to right as he calculated odds and evaluated his options. The chess game had become a weekly ritual, a way—or so I’d guessed—for Malik and Luc to exert some minimal control over their lives while the GP’s talking head sat a few yards down the hallway, deciding their fate.
I put the bags of food onto the desk, pulled out bacon-laced burgers for me and Lindsey, and took a seat beside her on the floor.
“So,” I said, folding down the burger’s paper wrapping. “Blood rationing?”
Luc and Malik growled simultaneously. Malik generally left Frank to his own devices—thinking the GP wouldn’t allow him to intervene without making things worse.
“The man is a stone cold idiot,” Luc said, taking an impressive bite of his triple-layer burger.
“Unfortunately,” Malik said, moving his chess piece and sitting back in his chair, “he is an idiot with the full authority of the GP.”
“Which means we have to wait until he royally screws the pooch before we can act,” Luc said, hunched over the board again. “All due respect, Liege, the guy is a douche.”
“I have no official position with respect to his douchery,” Malik said, pulling a box of fries out of the bag, applying a prodigious amount of ketchup, and digging in. I appreciated that Malik, unlike Ethan, didn’t need to be schooled on Chicago’s best and greasiest cuisine. He knew the difference between a red hot and a hot beef, had a favorite pizza joint, and had been known to take a late-night trip with Aaliyah to a roadside diner outside Milwaukee to get Wisconsin’s “best cheese curds.” More power to them.
“But we will allow him to hang himself with his own rope,” Malik added. “And in the meantime, we will monitor the vampires and intervene when the time is appropriate.”
The tone was all Master vampire, something Malik had gotten better at using over the last few weeks. I took the hint, dropped the subject and dug into my burger while Luc used a fry to point to various chess pieces he was again deciding between.
“Deliberative, isn’t he?” I whispered to Lindsey.
She smiled too knowingly for comfort. “You have no idea how deliberative he can be. How . . . thorough.” She leaned toward me, nibbling on a bit of bacon from her burger. “Have I ever waxed poetic about the glory that is the fuzzy-chested vampire wearing nothing but cowboy boots?”
Midbite, I squeezed my eyes closed, but it was too late to block the image of Luc wearing nothing but his birthday suit and sassy, red boots. “That’s my former boss you’re talking about,” I whispered. “And I’m trying to eat.”
“You’re thinking about him naked, aren’t you?”
She patted my arm. “And to think—I was actually hesitant about dating him. Oh, and speaking of which. Chaps. Enough said.”
“Enough most definitely said.” Lindsey was becoming my new, in-House Mallory, complete with conquest details. Sigh.
“In that case, I’ll leave you to your imagination. But I strongly recommend the therapeutic application of fuzzy-chested vampire to grief. It works miracles.”
“I am sincerely glad to hear that. But if you keep talking, I will poke your eyes out with a toothpick.” I shoved a handful of napkins in her general direction. “Shut up and eat your burger.”
Sometimes a girl had to lay down the law.
I stood on a high plain in my modern-style black leather—my long hair whipping in the chilling wind that rolled past, swirling the mist that curled at my feet.
The clothing might have been modern, but the setting was ancient. The landscape was bleak and empty, and the air smelled of sulfur and dampness.
I felt the footsteps before I heard them, the ground rumbling just slightly beneath my feet.
And then he appeared.
Like a warrior returning from battle, Ethan emerged through the mist in garb out of time and place for twenty-first century Chicago. Knee-high leather boots, rough-hewn pants and a long leather tunic belted at the waist. There was a rust-red gash in the middle of his chest. His hair was long and wavy and golden-blond, and his eyes were vibrantly green.
I walked toward him, fear circling my heart, making a vise around it, squeezing my lungs until I was barely able to sip at air. I was glad to see him alive—but I knew he was a harbinger of death.
When I reached him, he put his hands on my arms, leaned forward and pressed his lips to my forehead. Such a simple act, but so intimate. A precious affection that made my chest ache with sentiment. I closed my eyes and savored the moment as thunder rumbled across the plateau, shaking the ground again.
Suddenly, Ethan raised his head and glanced warily around. When he looked at me again, he began to speak, the words flowing in a lilting language that sounded like it came from a time and place far away.
I shook my head. “I can’t understand you.”
His expression tightened, a line of worry furrowing his forehead, the words coming more quickly as he tried to get his point across. But the speed didn’t help.
“Ethan, I don’t know what you’re saying. Can you speak English?”
Panic in his eyes, he glanced back over his shoulder, then grabbed my arm and pointed behind him. A low, thick storm front was rolling toward us, the wind beginning to pick up as the temperature dropped.
“I see the storm,” I told him over the rising wind. “But I can’t stop it.”
Ethan yelled something out, but the words were lost in the howling wind. He started walking toward the thundercloud, pulling my arm in an attempt to drag me with him.
But I resisted, pulling back. “That’s the wrong way. We can’t walk into the storm!”
He was insistent, but so was I. Positive we’d be swept off the plateau and into the sea if we didn’t seek shelter, I began running away from the wall of clouds . . . and him. But I couldn’t resist a final glance back. He stood frozen on the plain, his hair whipping in the gale.
Before I could reach out to him, the storm reached us and broke, the wind knocking me off my feet, the pressure sucking the air from my lungs. The rain came as I hit my knees, blowing sideways and turning the landscape gray, the wind howling in my ears. Ethan disappeared in the onslaught, leaving only the echo of his voice on the wind.
I jolted awake, bathed in sweat, gasping for breath, the sound of his voice in my ears.
Tears slipped from my eyes as I pushed drenched bangs from my forehead, and scrubbed my hands across my face, trying to slow the feverish race of my heart.
My first dream of Ethan had been miraculous; we’d bathed in the sun—a taboo to vampires. I’d savored that last memory of him.
But this was the sixth nightmare in the two months since he’d been gone. Each was louder and more vivid than the last, and waking up was like emerging from a tunnel of panic, my chest squeezed into a knot. In each nightmare we were pushed to some crisis, but the end was always the same—he was always torn away from me. Each time I woke with his voice in my ears, screaming out my name in panic.
I dropped my forehead to my knees, grief pounding at my heart like a kettledrum. The helplessness of loss overwhelmed me. Not just from the loss of Ethan, but from the frustration—the exhaustion—of being visited again by a ghost who wouldn’t let me go. Tears fell, and I let them, wishing the sting of salt would wash away the hurt.
I missed his voice. The sight of him. The smell of him.
And probably because of that, I was stuck in a cycle that kept me dreaming about Ethan—watching him die over and over again. My grief had become a hollow I couldn’t climb out of.
When my heart slowed, I sat up again and wiped the tears from my face with a shirtsleeve. I grabbed the phone from the nightstand and dialed up the one person who could calm me down . . . .