Also by Linda Mercury
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To the memories of my mother and my grandmothers:
Janet F. Smith, Evelyn Closs, and Edna Green.
And, of course, to
The Charming Man.
I gratefully express my profound appreciation to my Hooligans, for teaching me to write fiction instead of scholarly works (ever see an academic write a love scene? It is
pretty); my agent, Jewelann Cone of the Cascade Literary Agency; and my generous and brilliant editor, Martin Biro.
November 25, 1431
She swam in an ocean of blood.
The exhausted, dark-haired mother howled in pain and freedom as the crown of a baby's head emerged from between her legs. The woman panted and heaved, thrashing her sweat and gore-drenched body from side to side. Snow mixed with thunder and rain lashed the tower of the family castle, chilling the already icy room.
Vlad Dracul crouched at her feet, his face stiff and set under his moustache. His outstretched fingers curled into fists and opened again as he waited for the infant to emerge. Blankets, rags, and a pot of steaming water at his elbow kept him company. His jaw clenched with every echoing scream and his shoulders tightened with every passing moment. Not even the usual rushing of the river below covered the cries of Cneajna, his wife.
The violent storm outside had prevented the midwife's presence. Earlier in the night, the mother had demanded that only Vlad remain with her as the pain worsened. No one defied Cneajna, even as water and blood rushed down her legs and painted her body. Vlad knew, however, that the women of the castle waited in the downstairs chamber, ready to help if he called. He was absurdly grateful for their nearness.
Fearless in the face of death, Vlad had nearly fainted at the sight of his wife in labor. The smell of the birth blood that saturated the bed roiled his stomach in ways a festering abdominal wound never did.
Another contraction. She pulled the ropes tied to the fur-lined headboard of the birth bed. The wood groaned under her strength as wave after wave of labor shuddered her body. Vlad's heart winced at his woman's pale, sweating face.
Another scream shook the room and Vlad saw the first peep of a black-haired head. Under the power of the mother's undulating body, a tiny, angry face emerged.
After what seemed endless pushing, the wrinkled, red-coated baby escaped into the father's hands.
As he took the messy, wet infant, he frowned in disappointment. “A girl,” he said, his voice carefully neutral and quiet. The baby's chin and chest were coated in blood and water.
“Let me hold her before you do what you must.” Anger and failure visible on her face Cneajna held out her arms. Even on the edge of collapse, she remained matter of fact as always. She knew what would have to be done. Her tight mouth told Vlad that she very much did not approve.
No need to say more. The eldest, Mircea, at four, was vulnerable as their only son. The House of Basarab desperately needed heirs. Vlad needed strong arms to defend their home from the encroaching Ottomans. Not a daughter.
Vlad's frown deepened. The thought of exposure upset his wife, but they could not expend the time and energy on a girl. Alliances, dowries, protection, another mouth to feed. He held his hands out for the child. Reluctantly, his wife handed her over.
Then it happened.
The baby stared him down with an enraged gaze. A tiny but strong fist wrapped around his middle finger. Fingernails the size of a pea pricked his skin. The little girl knew what he planned.
This child would survive exposure and find a way to take revenge on any who wronged her. A strange shiver ran down Vlad's back. Minutes old, still wet, and the infant's will was a force to be reckoned with. Vlad did not want to be on the wrong end of a twisted Oedipus story.
In order to prevent ruin, they would have to do something unexpected.
He wiped the blood from the baby's face and contemplated the wild idea blooming in his head. Vlad prided himself on being practical, but this verged on the insane. It had to be done, though. He touched a gentle finger to the little one's already strong chin, silently sealing the deal between them. The Dracul family would raise this child instead of killing her, and in return, she would not destroy them.
Vlad handed the baby over.
“We keep her?” Surprise and pleasure warmed his wife's voice.
“Yes.” Vlad congratulated himself on his good decision.
The mother placed the baby's head at her breast. Milk sprayed the newborn in the face before tiny lips latched on. Smiling, his wife nursed their new son. “We will raise a boy, then?”
Cneajna could always read his mind. Vlad twisted his back, first to the left, then the right. Bones thunked together and he sighed in relief. For a quiet second, they smiled at each other, in accord once again.
The moment didn't last. She shouted his name, and he rushed to help with the afterbirth. Long, slippery minutes later, he gently wiped her body with warm rags. Finally, he was able to embrace his exhausted wife.
As they lay together on fresh bed furs, watching their new son eat, they tested Vlad's idea for flaws.
“What if we are found out?” he asked.
feared failure?” Fierce as always, his wife didn't even look up as she defied fate and charted a new destiny. “No one else can ever know. Not even our other children.”
He nodded, pleased. How this woman suited him. Vlad touched their son's soft forehead and kissed his wife's bare shoulder.
“Very well, then. I will name him Vladimir.”
Halloween Night, Present Day
His sun pierced her night.
Valerie Tate stopped dead at the sudden stabbing pain and clapped her leather gloved hands over her sensitive eyes. She'd been running full speed from rooftop to rooftop in an effort to bypass the clogged holiday traffic between her and her destination. Portland's nighttime rain had merely cloaked her progress instead of slowing her down.
The flare of light, brighter than a magnesium bomb exploding in her face, now left her stunned, blind, and helpless. Anyone looking out over the skyline could see her. Not something she wanted.
She crouched, one foot poised over the lip of a building's crown. One wrong step and she'd fall off. It wouldn't be a fatal drop, but it would certainly slow her down. Better to risk being seen up here, prancing about like some crazed musical number, than sprawled out on the pavement in the middle of the Halloween crowd.
Valerie probed the skin on her face. Unlike contact with magnesium and direct sunlight, she hadn't blistered or burned in response. Good. That would have ruined her evening's plans. Much depended on her appearance not gathering too much attention.
Blood seeped from under her eyelids in response to the too-bright shine. Under the cover of her palms, she blinked away the achingly intense spots floating before her vision.
How could this happen? Once, a magnesium bomb had detonated next to her. Even as her skin peeled back, she had kept going. Nothing broke her concentration during a mission. Six hundred years of killing had taught her well.
Shock gave way to curiosity. Curiosity then unraveled her single-minded determination. She wiped the tears of blood off of her face and carefully squinted against the glare that surrounded the figure below. As her vision cleared, she saw him, surrounded by the aura that had halted her.
What was he, this man three stories below her, innocently checking his text messages on a silver BlackBerry? As her eyes adapted, she studied him with all her undead senses.
Not soap, not cologne, but his essence was the second thing that struck her. The aroma of cloves, sweet and hot, rammed up her nose like a fist, overwhelming the car exhaust and excrement odors rising from busy Burnside Avenue. The fiery smell transformed her anger into something far more complicated. Hunger beyond blood clenched her stomach and parts below. Startled, she stood. She licked her teeth, swallowed her desire, and studied his face.
The endless Northwest autumn drizzle plastered blond hair to his skull. He glanced up from his little machine, obviously aware that someone watched him. To Valerie's surprise, he found her, even up high with her black clothes against the black night.
She locked her knees against a shudder when she saw his blue eyes. Not any shade of blue, but the color of icy seas under the full moon. Even covered in worn jeans and a frayed but high-end sweatshirt, his broad-shouldered body made her mouth pucker, ready to kiss. A generous bulge in his pants caught her attention, lewdly contrasting to the brightness of his innocent shine.
It didn't make sense. His perfect, confident posture and chiseled, patrician features marked him as the kind who should be swinging a tennis racket on some blue-blood tennis court.
Why this strong of a reaction to this man on this rainy night? She had sworn off sex for more decades than she cared to remember. Thousands of handsome, well-built, and brave women and men had passed in front of her over the years.
The most she'd felt was a few flickers of interest. Now, her thighs flexed against the hot kernel between her legs.
The headlights from a bus lit him up even brighter. And she saw his true nature.
A warrior, home from the front lines, sick of violence but caught in it. That eye-searing shine was not innocence, for lines of hard-won worldly knowledge bracketed his sensually shaped lips. Exhaustion creased the corners of those extravagantly gorgeous eyes and lived between his eyebrows. Instead of purity, he lit the night with the ferocity of his spirit.
He turned away from her to face the door of the building behind him, denial in every line of his body.
Valerie sucked in an unnecessary breath of cold, clove-scented air.
Only the best of humanity had that shine: people who were dedicated to making the world better for everyone, not just themselves. She'd seen that glow in such disparate people from Mother Teresa to a pubescent boy protecting two toddler girls from a rapist in Rwanda.
This one had a Higher Calling.
Higher Callings meant certain failure to their vehicles. She exhaled.
Poverty still ran rampant in Kolkata. Rwanda still seethed with heart-rending pain, even though Valerie killed the rapist and saved the children. Valerie twisted her lips at the memory. He'd tasted terrible. There simply wasn't enough mouthwash in the world to get rid of that foul aftertaste.
Worse, those well-meaning Higher Calling fools always tried to suck her into their causes. Those idiots dared to claim her fight, her redemption, was less worthy than their dreams.
No promise of sunshine was worth that risk. The steady rain cooled her arousal. Time to go.
The moon broke through the patchy cloud cover, illuminating the night. Disregarding gravity's pull, she leaned forward. It was too short of a drop to concern her now that she could see.
Darkness lay against his purity like rotted fruit on snow.
Valerie's own darkness quickened at what those throbbing spots revealed. Her damned soul laughed at the irony. It was inevitable now. This man had secrets of his own. Things he thought no one could forgive.
Just like her.
As though he couldn't help himself, he glanced over his shoulder at her. His own up and down glance caught her as surely as a wasp in hot tar. She knew what he sawâa slender woman dressed in an expensive black coat and trousers. Red lipstick, pale skin, nails painted in dark burgundy. Gray suede designer shoes, from some outrageous but already forgotten New York store. Feminine, dark, and very upper-class. This illusion would allow her to penetrate the security around tonight's target.
Passion sucked at her skin the moment he touched her with extended senses. The man was able to search her aura? Her nipples tightened into tight pearls.
The heat stroked and clung to her, ratcheting her arousal higher. Only fierce willpower kept her from an orgasm. Two could play this game. She returned his brazen, searing stare. When she lowered her eyelids and softened her lips, he shifted to the balls of his feet.
How could this be? Very few humans could probe secrets the way paranormal beings could. What was he to have such extraordinary powers?