Darkest Hour (New Adult Paranormal Romance)

 

DARKEST HOUR

 

CATHERINE BULLARD

 

 

Copyright © 2013, Catherine Bullard
All Rights Reserved
Sandstone Publishing

 

All rights reserved. This book or any portion
thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the
express written permission of the author, except for the use of brief
quotations in a book review.

 

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters
and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s
imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Sandstone Publishing © 2013  All rights
reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2013 Catherine
Bullard
Sandstone Publishing

All rights reserved.

CHAPTER
1

 

 

Elsbeth stood at the edge of the dark
forest, silently watching the young man sitting by the lakeshore, his knees
drawn tightly to his chest. Moonlight floated down to grace his handsome,
bronzed face, and she followed its trail with her eyes, slowly tracing his
prominent cheekbones, his full lips, and his strong, dusted jaw.

She knew his face almost as well
as she did her own—but then, she’d been watching him for weeks. Her
discovery of him had been quite an accident; the evil prey she’d been chasing
had taken refuge in these very woods. On the way back from the chase, sated
with a bellyful of blood, she’d spotted him, sitting just as he was
now—pensive, with just the right mixture of wonder and puzzlement on his
face that she was intrigued as to what was going on inside of his mind.

Biting her lip, she considered
crossing the small patch of grass separating them. She hadn’t done so the first
time because her face and clothing had been stained with blood—and she
hadn’t found a place to wash off. Right now she had the opposite
problem—she hadn’t fed, and he smelled good enough that as a new vampire
she was worried about not being able to resist him. And she didn’t bite
innocent humans.
Ever.

“What are you doing?”

Elsbeth whirled around, her dark
hair swirling behind her as she bit back a gasp. Malachi, a powerful member of
her Seethe, stood scant inches away, his face wreathed in shadows. His eyes,
normally a cold stone blue that reflected the nature of his heart, burned
bright red with the bloodlust brought on by the overwhelming need to feed. No
matter how he tried to tempt her with his inhumanly beautiful looks or his
honeyed words, she had only to look into his eyes to see him for what he truly was—a
soulless, unmerciful monster, the kind that gave vampires a bad name.

“What business is it of yours?”
she asked, firming her chin and keeping her voice steady. If she betrayed any
fear he would quickly exploit the opening—such was how the strong preyed
on the weak. And Elsbeth knew that as an older vampire, Malachi was many times
stronger than she.

“I have noticed your increasingly
frequent absences whenever we go out to hunt,” Malachi responded. “You have
formed an unnatural attachment to this human. Why?”

Elsbeth’s mouth dropped open.
“You have been spying on me?” she hissed, fingernails digging into her palms in
an effort to stop herself from striking out at a fellow member of her Seethe.
“What gives you the right?”

“You have spurned my advances at every
opportunity,” he snapped, baring his teeth so that his sharp, white fangs
gleamed through the shadows.

“I wanted to find out what was
preventing you from devoting your attention to me.”

“You arrogant bastard!” If she
hadn’t been so keen on avoiding the attention of the fisherman, she would have
launched herself at him, consequences be damned. “My interest in this human has
nothing to do with my lack of interest in you. Even if he and every other man
on this Earth were gone, I still would spurn your advances.”

Malachi’s eyes widened. “The
human has obviously done something to your mind,” he whispered, and Elsbeth
could actually hear genuine horror in his voice. “You’ve been poisoned by this
wharf rat.” He took a step forward, past Elsbeth.

Trepidation shot through her
veins as she stepped into his path. “What are you doing, Malachi?” she asked,
spreading her arms out in an instinctive effort to shield the human from
him—a human whose name she didn’t even know.

“Getting rid of the filth that
has blinded you.”

“But he’s done nothing wrong!
It’s against the laws of our Seethe to harm any human who has done no wrong!”

Malachi curled his lip. “Humans are
nothing more than cattle, destined only for the slaughterhouse. It matters not
whether they are good or evil. Now step aside.” He tried to push her away but
she stood her ground, slapping his arm away.

“You’re a monster!” she hissed.

“I said, step aside!”
he
snarled, striking out and backhanding her. The force of the blow was enough to
send Elsbeth smashing to the ground, stars winking in front of her eyes as her
entire world spun. She was barely aware of Malachi shooting past her, making
use of his superhuman speed to catch his victim off guard, but the shriek of
the male human was enough to jolt her out of her stupor.

“No!” She dashed across the damp grass,
her eyes impossibly wide as they latched on to Malachi, who cradled the human
in his arms, fangs deeply embedded in his neck. The man’s eyes were glazed, his
lips parted—already sliding into the stupor induced by the vampire venom
Malachi had injected into his veins through his fangs. That was how vampires
were able to overpower their prey so easily; they snuck up behind them using
their superhuman speed and reflexes, and sank their teeth into the human’s flesh
before the victim had time to react.

“How dare you!” Elsbeth shrieked,
pulling a dagger from her boot and slicing the side of Malachi’s
neck—beheading was one of the few ways one could kill a vampire, and
while Elsbeth wasn’t planning on taking his life, she wanted him to believe
that she would if she had to. Malachi released the human’s neck with a roar of
pain, springing away, but he was unsteady on his feet. Elsbeth rushed forward
to attack him again, bloody knife singing through the air right before it
ripped through Malachi’s shirt, slicing just above the collarbone.

“Enough!” Malachi roared, holding
up his hands in defeat. His eyes blazed with hatred, sending chills down
Elsbeth’s spine. “You would kill one of your own kind in defense of a single human
life?”

Elsbeth tossed her head. “His
life is worth ten of yours, Malachi. You are soulless.”

“And you are not, Elsbeth?”
Malachi whispered, clutching the bleeding gash at the side of his neck. The
words cut her to the quick, and she took a step back. “We are vampires. It is
in our nature to be soulless.”

“I may not have chosen to be a
vampire, but I can choose whether or not to be a monster.” Elsbeth said firmly,
clenching her hands to keep them from trembling.

Malachi stepped back, drawing the
shadows of the night around his body.

“This isn’t over…” he hissed, and
then vanished.

Elsbeth whirled around to check
on the human, who lay face up on the lakeshore, deathly pale and still. She
sank to her knees in the damp sand, her fingers fluttering over his face and
down his neck, checking for a pulse.

“Oh God, oh God, please don’t let
him be dead.” She didn’t know how she’d be able to live with the knowledge that
if she had simply kept her distance he would be alive. Oh, how could she have
been such a fool as to overlook Malachi as a threat?

Her fingernails slid through the
blood coating his neck, but she finally managed to find a pulse, and sighed in
relief. He would live. He would make it through this. His death would not be on
her conscience—for who else’s conscience would it rest upon? Malachi
certainly didn’t have one, as he’d proven by his actions tonight. He’d struck
her and tried to kill a man; then turned around and acted as if it were all for
her benefit.

Sighing, she gathered up her new
charge in her arms, and wrapped the shadows around her so she could fade away,
back to her lair. He would survive, but that didn’t mean she shouldn’t bandage
him and find him new clothes.

She only hoped that when he woke
up he wouldn’t hate her for what he was about to become.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

 

Thomas moved in and out of
consciousness. He didn’t know who he was, where he was, or why he was—he
felt like he was lost in the never-ending swarm of hallucinations that swam
through the darkness of his dreams, brought on by the burning fever that
plagued him.

The only moments of respite he
found were either when the darkness claimed him, offering him oblivion, or the
other ones—where a beautiful woman hovered over him as she pressed a cool
cloth to his forehead and wiped the sweat from him.

The hallucinations would always
claim him before long, so that he could never remember exactly what she looked
like except for those full, cherry-red lips from which words of comfort
spilled, carried to his ears on a voice of satin. The image of her and the
sound of her voice were the only two things that allowed him to cling to his
sanity.

He did not know how much time had
passed, but eventually the fever broke, and he sank into a peaceful sleep.

When he woke, it was to the sound
of that same satin voice—humming an unfamiliar, but soothing melody. His
eyelids drifted open, and he turned his face away from the ceiling and toward
the voice that had anchored him during his nightmares.

The woman continued to hum,
gliding an ivory-handled brush through unbound layers of long, silky, black
hair that shimmered in the candlelight. Her eyelids were at half-mast, long
lashes fanning her pale cheeks, and those cherry-red lips were unmistakable.
She wore a long, crimson dress that covered every inch of her body, yet molded
to it in a way that left very little to the imagination. Her figure was
exquisite, with high, round breasts, long, slim torso and flared hips—a
perfect hourglass.

His body reacted to his mind’s
train of thought, and he shook his head. He didn’t even know this woman. In
fact, what was he doing here? Why wasn’t he at home, in his own bed? Memories
of being attacked by the lake flashed through his mind—the terror he felt
at fangs flashing before him, and then the pain of having them sink into his
own flesh.

He bolted up, breathing hard, and
the woman turned his way, clouds of black hair swirling around her face as her
eyes widened. With the lashes no longer obscuring them, he saw they were pitch
black—the iris nearly indistinguishable from the pupil. Even through
their inky blackness he was able to make out the concern in them, but that
didn’t stop the chill from sliding down his spine.

“Are you all right?” she asked,
instantly by his side, soft hands smoothing the hair from his forehead.

“Who are you? I don’t recognize
you, and I know nearly all the women in my village. And I certainly have never
been in this room before.” Thomas looked around at the opulent furnishings,
shaking his head. He’d never been around so much wealth in his life. He was a
simple fisherman trying to help his family survive.

She hesitated. “My name is
Elsbeth. I rescued you after you were… attacked, and brought you to my home to
rest.”

Those fangs flashed in his mind’s
eye again, and a full-body shudder wracked him. He touched the spot on his neck
where he’d been bitten, but felt no pain, no scabs—not even any scarring.

“Your superhuman healing has
taken effect.” Elsbeth smiled, but it was belied by the uncertainty swimming in
her eyes. “Any scarring from the bite has been erased.”

Thomas scowled. “What is this
nonsense?” he asked, ignoring the cold, heavy sensation that had slipped into
his stomach. “Vampires do not exist, and I certainly do not have superhuman
healing.”

Elsbeth sighed, sitting down on
the bed and taking his hand in hers. “I know this is hard to accept, but you do
have these things. Malachi, one of my fellow vampires, bit you. I have taken a
vow to never harm an innocent human, and so intervened before he could kill you,
but you will be weak for several days, perhaps even a week.”

Thomas snatched his hand away,
horrified. “You are a vampire?”

She parted those red lips wide
and ran her tongue along impossibly large incisors. “I am, but you are in no
danger from me.”

“No.” He shook his head. “No,
this is not possible. I’m getting out of here.” He swung his legs over the side
of the bed and lurched to his feet. The world swam around him, and his knees
threatened to buckle.

Elsbeth caught him around the
waist before his strength failed and pushed him back onto the bed. “I told you
that you would be weak,” she admonished gently, tucking the blanket over his
body. “Please, rest for a bit. I will bring you food.”

Her voice had changed, becoming
slow and thick, like molasses, and her eyes were glowing red. Thomas knew she
was using some kind of trickery to compel him back to sleep, but he was
powerless to fight it. His mind was turning to mush, his thoughts slipping away
before he could grab hold of them.

“Sweet dreams,” she whispered in
his ear as he slid into sleep once more.

 

* * *

Elsbeth wanted to cry. The man’s
eyes had been filled with such blame, fear, and loathing that she’d barely been
able to face him. This was all her fault. She should have stayed away from him.
Vampires and humans lived in separate worlds, and she had no right to intrude
on his life in any way, even to watch him from afar. And now, because of her childish
infatuation, he was forever changed, thrown into a fate he had not asked for.

Blinking back the tears, she
firmed her chin and continued down the hallway toward the kitchen so she could
prepare something for him. Vampires did not have to eat, but Elsbeth continued
to keep her pantry stocked with food in memory of her human life; when she had
enjoyed cooking—the aromas and sounds had always lifted her spirits and
soothed her heart. They still did.

She pulled out the pots and
ingredients she needed and then carried a bucket outside to fetch water from
the nearby well. The moon hung bright against the starry sky, nearly full, and
she smiled to herself. It was a shame the windows were all completely sealed—it
would be nice to admire the night sky from her kitchen as she cooked. But since
becoming a vampire she could not tolerate sunlight, and so she had taken
precautions to ensure she would never be exposed to the deathly rays while within
the confines of her home.

With the bucket filled to the
brim with fresh water, she carried it back inside, placing it on the wood stove
to boil. It took over an hour of chopping; slicing and seasoning before she was
ladling beef stew into a large wooden bowl. Leaning down she inhaled deeply,
greedily taking in the intoxicating scents before carrying it back to her room
where her charge was waiting.

When she entered she found him
still sleeping, his dark blond lashes resting against his bronzed, razor
cheekbones. His features were chiseled, but his lips, which were slightly
parted, lent him the look of an innocent. A smile tugged at Elsbeth’s own lips
as she set the bowl of soup down on the bedside table, and then settled down
beside him on the soft mattress.

Her heart swelled with longing as
she simply sat and watched him sleep. Her womanly instincts were blazing and
she desperately wanted to lie by his side in comfort, to smooth the dark blond
strands falling into his eyes as she’d done before, and to run her hands over
those wonderfully shaped muscles. Only the bed sheets and a single pair of
breeches separated his skin from hers. Her cheeks heated at the thought, along
with the borrowed blood coursing through her veins. It was inappropriate for
her to think of him in this way while he was defenseless and unaware.
Especially considering what she’d done to him.

Sighing, she reached out and
touched his face gently, nearly moaning at the feel of his hot skin against her
cool fingers. “Your food is ready,” she murmured, willing for him to wake.

His eyelids fluttered before
opening, his green eyes muddled at first, and then piercingly brilliant and
bright. His nostrils flared as he scented the food, much like an animal might,
then turned toward the ceramic bowl.

“You made this?” he asked,
grabbing the bowl and picking up the silver spoon that she had placed in it. He
brought a spoonful to his mouth, and then closed his eyes. “This is good.”

“Thank you.” She smiled cautiously,
unsure if she should read too much into the compliment. They say the way to a
man’s heart was through his stomach, but she doubted a single bowl of soup was
going to earn his forgiveness. Even so, she couldn’t quite stop the flush of
pleasure from heating her cheeks.

He was silent for a long while as
he devoured the contents of the bowl, then set it aside and wiped his mouth
with the back of his hand. “I wouldn’t have thought vampires cooked.”

“I find it soothes me.” Elsbeth
ran a hand through her hair, nervous under his scrutinizing gaze.

“Do you eat it?” She could hear
the reluctant curiosity in his voice.

“No, but I cook it, and leave it
on the doorsteps of the less fortunate.”

His eyes widened. “So
you’re
the
one!”

Elsbeth’s jaw dropped. “Excuse
me?”

He shook his head. “Everyone in
my village has heard the tale. It’s been said that if you are truly in need and
pray to the Gods every night, he will provide you with sustenance. I would
never have guessed by looking at you that you’d be the one responsible.”

Elsbeth bit her lip to keep from
laughing. “Well, I certainly didn’t mean to become a local legend. I just enjoy
cooking, and I wouldn’t want it to go to waste.”

He continued shaking his head,
but this time a small smile played at his lips. “You must really cook an awful
lot. You’ve left veritable banquets outside people’s doors!”

Elsbeth smiled, and changed the
subject—her cheeks were heating with embarrassment. She had never
intended to have anyone think of her as some sort of paragon. “What is your name?”

“Thomas.” He seemed to sober, as
if he realized once more how little they knew about each other. “I’m a
fisherman.”

She nodded. “I know. I have been
watching you for some time.”

Thomas stiffened. “What for?”

Elsbeth rose, her supple body
moving gracefully. “I’m not sure. I was on my way home one night when I saw
you, sitting by the lake and looking at peace with the world.” She thought it
best not to mention
what
she had been doing; the fewer reminders she
gave him about what she was the better, for now. “All I know is that something
about the dreamer’s expression on your face tugged at my heart, and it still
hasn’t let go.”

She brushed her cool fingers
gently against his cheek, and then left the room.

 

* * *

Thomas had a fitful night of
sleep. His body was exhausted, but his mind would not settle down. The
dichotomy that had been presented to him in Elsbeth was simply too large to
ignore. He’d never really been certain about the existence of vampires, but the
stories he’d been told had taught him they were nothing more than soulless
beasts who did not value human life, damned by the Gods to forever be dependent
on the blood of others, and to never walk in the sun again.

The vampire who had attacked him
certainly fit that bill. If it weren’t for Elsbeth, Thomas was sure he’d be
dead—or worse, turned. But Elsbeth not only saved him, but by her own
admission had been watching him for weeks. He’d been at the mercy of a vampire
for countless days and he’d never known. Chills wracked him at the thought; it
reminded him of just how helpless and mortal the human race really was. If
she’d been the type of vampire told of in the stories, he would be long dead by
now.

But she wasn’t. Not only did she
save him, clean him, and offer him shelter, but she also fed the impoverished
families in his village. He’d been in her home, unconscious and defenseless for
untold hours, and she could have drained him at any time. But she’d only shown
him kindness and compassion.

Guilt nipped at the edges of his
mind at the brash way he’d treated her, but it was drowned out by a swarm of
questions and fears. What would happen to him now? She’d said that he was
developing super-human powers, but what did that entail? Would he ever be able
to walk in the sun again? To go back to his normal life? Would he have to
survive on blood for the rest of his life?

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