The Keys, Caldwell, New York
here was a place in Axe’s life for masks. Whether they were literal and hid your face, or figurative to protect your soul, he was supremely comfortable with camouflage. Knowledge, after all, was power only if it gave you insight into your enemy. If insight was applied to you?
He’d rather have a knife to his throat.
And everyone was his enemy.
Standing in a crowd of over a hundred sexually aroused humans, he was ready to feed his dark side—-you know, toss some fresh meat over the chain--link fence of his sex drive and stand back as the meal was consumed, the gnawing hunger briefly satisfied.
It never lasted. But that was why he’d joined this club.
The Keys was a private, members--only gig, and there were only two rules. No minors. Always with consent.
After those conditions were satisfied? You could scratch the itch of whatever sin you wanted: glory holes, gang bangs, girls on girls on guys. There were rooms for fetishes, and pits for fucking, and every tie--up, chain--down, in--the--air you could ask for.
Especially here in the Cathedral.
Of all the spaces in the sprawling, multi--block compound, this was largest and the loftiest. Filled with swirls of white smoke, pierced by purple and blue lasers, empty of furniture and fixtures except for the altar, only the hardest of the hardcore were allowed in here.
And masks were always worn, even on nights when the rest of the club didn’t require it.
Through the eye holes of his fitted skull plate, Axe looked up, way up, to the altar.
It was like a scene out of The Silence of the Lambs, a human body suspended high above the floor, arms outstretched, head tilting to the side, swaths of fabric fanning out like wings all around the torso. The Hannibal--arisons ended there, though. Not a man, a woman. Not clothed, but naked. Not real blood on the flesh, but a viscous wash that fell like rain from the ceiling, hitting her breasts, dripping over her stomach, licking down her thighs so that she glistened under the remote lights.
Not dead, but very much alive.
“Do you want that?” he was asked from behind.
Axe smiled and didn’t bother hiding his fangs.
None of them knew that he was an actual vampire. And not as in a neo--Victorian Dracula--wannabe with cosmetically altered canines, high--heeled boots, and a fake black rinse through his already dark hair.
As in the real deal. Different DNA. Different traditions and language. Different biological imperative that, yes, involved drinking blood from a vampire of the opposite sex.
Different sex drive.
“Yeah, I’ll take her first,” he said.
As the staff member whistled loudly and put his hand up to summon the rolling scaffolding, a rush tripped and fell over the crowd, excitement building for the first show. And for a split second, Axe considered materializing up there just to freak them all out, just because he could, just because he liked creating chaos.
Instead, he scaled the front of the metal framework with the ease of a spider over its web.
When he was up at the woman’s level, her body responded in a starving arch, her head falling back, her mouth opening, her eyes begging him. She wasn’t drugged. She was achingly aware, the scent of her sex flaring, her flesh calling out for release.
She’d wanted him. Out of the many below, she’d wanted him specifically.
“Take me,” she said. “Take—-”
He reached out his gloved hand and closed her mouth with his fingertips. Bending over her, he bared his canines and went for her throat. But he didn’t bite her. He ran the tip of one fang up her jugular.
With a jerk against the chains she had volunteered for, she orgasmed for him right then and there, the alchemy of the public display, the danger he represented, the kind of sex she needed, coalescing into a release that flushed her face and made her moan as she thrashed.
Down below, the pleasure she felt rippled through the teeming bodies.
And he was aroused, yes. But not like they were. Not like she was.
Never as any of them.
However, the screaming voice in his head that told him he was a piece of shit was dimmed down by the sex. The fire of his rage against himself was doused by the distraction. The packed house of recriminations under his real skull were, momentarily, displaced.
So yes, this worked for everyone.
Reaching up to his own throat, he released the cord of his cloak and dropped the heavy weight from his shoulders. He had black leathers on and nothing else but his tattoos and piercings.
Axe’s hands went to her body and traveled, with his mouth, everywhere.
And the storm he was deliberately creating raked over the decimated landscape of his soul, obscuring the ragged, desolated mess he was.
She was getting what she required, and so was he.
Good thing. He needed to be at the Black Dagger Brotherhood training center in about an hour, in some kind of shape to continue his education. Being a soldier in the fight against the Lessening Society? Walking the line between life and death?
Now that was finally going to get him what he was after.
Inner peace through acts of war: Because he had to believe if you were facing off with the undead, surely you were too busy trying to stay alive to worry about anything else.
State University of New York, Caldwell Campus
Elise, blooded daughter of the Princeps Felixe the Younger, smiled at the human male across the library table from her. “Of course I’d stay late. I’m not going to leave you to deal with all this by yourself.”
“All this” was a debris field of final papers sufficient to cover every square inch of surface except for two feet in front of her and two feet in front of Professor Troy Becke. Although the submissions for Psych 342 had been filed electronically, Troy believed in printing them out for grading purposes—-and after having been through midterms with the man, Elise had to agree. There was something different about holding the work in your hands and being able to write your thoughts down. It had to do with the lack of speed, she’d decided.
Too easy to scan if you were doing things electronically, and she was such a quick typist; having to handwrite things gave her time to really think things through.
Troy sat back and stretched. “Well, considering it’s ten o’clock at night only days before Christmas, I’d say it’s yeoman’s duty.”
As he smiled at her, she measured him. He was tall for a human, and he had bright blue eyes and the sort of face that was so open and friendly, it could make you forget that you were a stranger posing in a strange land, a foreigner who had come to visit and stayed because they were captivated by the freedom that was enjoyed by the natives.
“So that was my last one.” She put the printout on her stack of graded papers on the left and twisted in the chair to crack her spine, a little sunburst of relief easing at her waist. “You know, this was a good group of students. They really got it—-”
“I’m sorry,” he interjected.
Elise frowned. “Why? I’m your teaching assistant. This is my job. Besides, I’m learning even more now. . . .”
She let her voice trail off because she was pretty sure Troy wasn’t hearing a thing she was saying. He was looking around at the stacks that bracketed them in their alcove, his eyes not really focused.
As a vampire among humans, Elise was always a little twitchy, and she hopped on the scan train, glancing about in case Troy had sensed something she had not.
The Foster Newmann library was a place where students went to study even though print was dead and notes were now taken on laptops and chalk no longer existed in classrooms. Four stories high, and marked by stretches of shelving that were broken up by sitting areas, the facility was a place where she always felt safe, with nothing but her studies and her ambitions before her.
It was when she was at home, in her father’s mansion, that she was hunted. Pursued. Threatened.
Although that was just allegorically speaking.
Noticing nothing, she rubbed her eyes, the reality that she was going to have to return to that big old house making her head pound.
Seven years into her studies and she was starting to get close to her goal. Thanks to an undergrad major in psych, she had been allowed into the Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology program without a master’s. Her goal was to go into a private counseling practice for the race when she was finally finished, specializing in PTSD.
After the raids of two years before, there were a lot of vampires suffering from traumatic loss, and so few avenues for anyone to seek social workers and counseling.
Of course, the raids had also slowed her down, too, her father insisting that she cease her studies and decamp with her aunt, uncle, and first cousin out to a safe house far from Caldwell. As soon as they had come back, however, she had gotten on track again—-although tragedy had struck once more, making it all so much harder for her.
She hated lying to her sire every night. Hated the subterfuge about where she was going and who she was with. But what other choice did she have? The small window of freedom she’d been granted had been slammed shut.
Especially after her first cousin had been beaten to death four weeks ago.
Elise still couldn’t believe Al-li-shon was gone, and her father, uncle, and aunt were likewise in a state of renewed shock—-or at least, she assumed they were. No one was talking about the loss, the sadness, the anger. But they were reacting to it, for sure: Elise’s father was so tense and grim, it was as if he were going to snap at any moment. Her aunt had been locked up in her bedroom for a month. And her uncle was a ghost who wandered around, throwing no shadows, casting no footfalls.
Meanwhile, Elise was sneaking out of the mansion to go to school. But come on. She had worked for years and years to get this far, and if anything, the way her family was handling Al-li-shon’s loss was exactly why the race needed good, well--trained psychologists.
Stuffing things under the proverbial rug was a recipe for interpersonal disaster.
“I’m just tired,” Troy said.
Yanking herself out of introspection, she looked at the man. Her first thought was that he was hiding something. Her second was that she had to know what it was.
“Is there anything I can help with?”
He shook his head. “No, the problem’s on my side.”
As he tried to smile, she caught the scent of something in the air. Something . . .
“I think you better go.” He leaned down for the duffel bag he’d brought the exams in and started shuffling stacks of papers into it. “The roads will be getting bad because of the snow.”
“Troy. Can you please talk to me?”
He got up, tucking his loose shirt into his khaki slacks. “It’s all good. And I guess I won’t see you until after New Year’s.”
Elise frowned. “I thought you wanted me to do the syllabus planning with you for Psych four--oh--one, two twenty--eight, and the seminar on Bipolar Two? I have tomorrow night free—-”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Elise.”
What the heck was that scent—-
With a flush, she realized what it was. Especially as his eyes shifted away from her: He was aroused. Because of her.
He was seriously, sexually aroused. And he was not happy about it.
Her professor put his hand up. “Look, it’s nothing you’ve done. It’s not you, honest.”
As he didn’t go any further than that, she found herself wishing he would just come out with it all. Not because she was necessarily attracted to him, but she hated anything that was hidden. She had had more than enough of that from her family’s perennial stiff--upper--lip way of handling life’s inevitable unpleasantnesses.
Besides, it wasn’t as if she wasn’t attracted to him. He was appealing in an unthreatening kind of way. Smart, funny, and a heartthrob to his female students for sure. God knew she’d seen plenty of the humans he taught stare at him like he was a god.
And maybe she had thought about what it would be like with him. The touching. The kissing. The . . . other things.
She had no male prospects currently and that was not going to change anytime soon. Especially given the fact that she was fouled in the eyes of the glymera.
Not that anyone knew that, as the male she had lain with that one time had been killed in raids.
“I am of age,” she heard herself say.
His eyes flipped to hers. “What?”
“I am not young. Too young, I mean. For what’s on your mind.”
Troy’s gaze flared as if that was the last thing he’d expected her to say. And then he looked at her lips.
Yes, she thought. He was safe, this human. He would never hurt her or pressure her, as that kind of aggression was not in his nature—-and even if it was, she could easily overpower him. Besides, she was never going to be mated, would never have a life wholly outside of her father’s control, never experience anything more than the distilled life stories in her course books.
“Elise.” He scrubbed his palm down over his face. “Oh, God . . .”
“What? And no, I’m not going to pretend I don’t know what we’re talking about here.”
“There are rules. Between professors and students.”
“You’re not teaching any classes of mine.”
“You’re my T.A.”
“I make my own decisions, no one else does.”
At least that was true here, in the slice of life she had in the human world. And she would be damned if some rule in a society that was not her own was going to keep her from doing what she wanted. She got way too much of that in her species.
Troy laughed in a harsh rush. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation. I mean, I’ve had it in my head with you a thousand times. I just never thought it would actually happen.”
“Well, I don’t care what people think.” And that much was true. When it came to humans. “And I’m not afraid.”
“I can’t say the same. I mean, I’ve never done this before. I know it’s a cliché, the whole teacher/student thing. But I’ve never crossed this line. I thought I was, you know, stronger than this. You’re different, though, and because you are . . . you’re making me act differently.”
There was a curious helplessness to him as he stared at her, as if he had struggled and lost a fight.
Now she looked at his lips.
As she did, his scent flared again and she saw his chest rise—-
“Professor Becke? Hi!”
The human woman who came up to him was petite and curvy and wearing perfume. With her makeup on and her blond hair curling around her shoulders, she seemed like she belonged on a poster advertising the university as an attractive and fun place to go.
“I’m in your survey class, or was in it, and my roommate—-she’s here also. Hey! Amber! Look who’s here! Anyway, I was the one who had to go home because my parents were getting a divorce, and you let me delay my exam. Well, I . . .”
All kinds of nouns and verbs continued to come out of the girl, and then Amber, the roommate, bounded over like a puppy. Meanwhile, Troy seemed scrambled, as if the intimacy that had flared before the interruption was a place he had to travel back from.
Gathering her coat and her backpack, Elise pushed her chair into the table and lifted her hand in a goodbye. As he nodded at her, there was a desperation in his eyes, as if a gift he had long hoped for was slipping out of his hands and falling into a ravine.
Elise made the sign for call--me up by her ear, and then she was striding out to where the reception area was. The older man who worked nights behind the desk was bent over his computer as if he were in the process of logging out of the network, his blue parka and his knit hat already placed on the counter next to a thermos she guessed was empty.
“Good night,” she said as she came up to the glass doors.
He grunted. Which was the best he ever did.
Outside, the wind was strong and cold as a slap, and she one--strapped her pack so she could zip up her coat. The walkway was illuminated by lampposts, and sure enough, delicate flakes were wisping in and out of the light as if they wanted to dance with each other, but were feeling shy.
For a moment, Elise glanced around and thought that Al-li-shon would never enjoy the quiet night again, never walk among swirling flurries, feeling the warmth inside her coat and the chill upon her cheeks. And Elise wished she had spent more time with the female. The two of them had been so different, so opposite, the bookworm and the wild child, but still, maybe there could have been some kind of opportunity to change the outcome. Shift the destiny. Flip back the switch that had taken Al-li-shon away from safety.
Not to be, however.
Elise stepped off onto the brown grass and strode away from the light, the parking lot, the classroom building that was close on the other side.
When the shadows fully claimed her . . . she dematerialized away, traveling in a scatter of molecules to her father’s sprawling Georgian mansion that was miles away from campus. Troy was on her mind, maybe as a distraction, maybe as a legitimate curiosity. Probably some of both. Still, the trip didn’t require much more than the blink of an eye and a wink of the will.
As she re--formed on her father’s lawn, Al-li-shon’s death converged with memories of Troy staring across the table of papers, his eyes burning, his body sending off its scent of arousal. Life could change in a moment, and didn’t that mean you should take advantage of however many nights and days you had?
Time wasn’t so much relative as an illusion. If she’d known her cousin was going to die, she herself would have made different choices. On that theory, if she knew she had a week left, or maybe a month, shouldn’t she see where things went with a male, even if he was just a human?
Troy had her number. And she had his. How did this work? They texted occasionally, but only about scheduling things.
A date was a “thing” to be scheduled, though, right?
Walking in the grand front door, she started trying out conversations in her head, ways of greeting and following up on—-
“Where have you been!”
Elise froze. And realized as she saw a grandfather clock and a set of stairs that was right out of Buckingham Palace that she had seriously screwed up: She’d come in through the formal entrance . . . and walked right past the open door to her father’s study.
With her coat on, and snowflakes in her hair, and her backpack on her shoulder.
Through the open door, her father had stood up from behind his carved desk, his shock and horror more appropriate to someone having crashed an SUV through his mansion.
And actually, his pale face, his peeled--wide eyes, and his ruffled evening coat might have been funny. Under other circumstances.
With a curse, Elise closed her lids and braced herself for the onslaught.