my phenomenal editor and a dedicated champion
of the books. This is our tenth project together,
and it's still as crazy and exciting as the first.
Many, many thanks to my fantastic agent Robin Rue. So happy to be working with you. To Caroline Phipps, my steadfast friend who's always willing to do a midnight line-edit. To Gena Showalter, because my life's a more meaningful (and riotous) trip with you in it.
And to Roxanne St. Claire, a.k.a. G.U.F. Did I happen to mention you're my rock?
August 24, 1927
I'll kill you for spurning me... .
Struggling to block out memories of Louis Robicheaux's latest threat, N��omi Laress stood at the top of her grand staircase and gazed out over the packed ballroom.
As she might cradle a babe, she held bouquets of roses swathed in silk. They were gifts from some of the men in the crowd of partygoers below, a motley mix of her rollicking set, rich patrons, and newspaper reporters. A sultry bayou breeze slid throughout the space, carrying strains of music from the twelve-piece orchestra outside.
... you'll beg for my mercy.
She stifled a shiver. Her ex-fianc��'s behavior had become more chilling of late, his atonement gifts more extravagant. N��omi's long-standing refusal to sleep with Louis had frustrated and angered him, but breaking off their relationship had enraged him.
The look in his pale eyes earlier tonight... She gave herself an inward shake. She'd hired guards for this event - Louis couldn't get to her.
One admirer, a handsome banker from Boston, noticed her aloft and began to clap. The throng joined in, and in her mind she envisioned a curtain going up. With a slow, gracious smile, she said, "Bienvenue to you all," then began descending her stairs.
No one would ever sense her anxiety. She was a trained ballerina, but above all things, she was an entertainer. She would work this room, dispensing teasing nibbles of sarcasm and softly spoken bons mots, charming any critics and coaxing laughter from even the most staid.
Though her arms already ached from cradling so many bouquets, and flashbulbs went off in glaring succession, her smile remained fixed. Another gliding step down.
She'd be damned before she'd let Louis ruin her night of triumph. Three hours ago, she'd given the performance of a lifetime to a sold-out house. For tonight's soir��e celebrating her newly renovated estate, Elancourt, the Gothic manor house was resplendent with the glow of a thousand candles. Through her dancing, she'd paid for the painstaking restoration of her new home and all the sumptuous furnishings inside it.
Every detail for the party was perfect, and outside, a sliver moon clung to the sky. A lucky moon.
Her dress for this evening was a more risqu�� version of the costume she'd worn earlier, the satin as black as her jet hair. It had a tight bodice that she laced up the front like a bygone corset and a slit in the skirt that almost reached up to where her garter belt snapped to her stockings. Her makeup was styled after the Hollywood vamps - she'd kohled her eyes with a smoky hue, donned lipstick of oxblood red, and painted her short nails a dark crimson.
With her jeweled choker and dangling earrings, the ensemble had cost a small fortune, but tonight was worth it - tonight all her dreams had finally come true.
Only Louis could ruin it. She willed herself to ignore her apprehension, inwardly cursing him in English and in French, which helped ease her tension.
Until she nearly stumbled on the stairs. He was there, standing at the periphery, staring up at her.
Usually so perfect and kempt, he had his tie loosened, his blond hair disheveled.
How had he gotten past the guards? Louis was filthy rich - had the bastard bribed them?
His bloodshot eyes were burning with a maniacal light, but she assured herself that he wouldn't dare harm her in front of so many. After all, there were hundreds of people in her home, including reporters and photographers.
Yet she wouldn't put it past him to make a scene or expose her scandalous history to everyone. Her uptown patrons winked at her and her friends' colorful antics, but they had no idea what she was - much less of her past occupation.
Chin raised and shoulders back, she continued down, but her hands were clenching the roses. Resentment warred with her fear. So help her, God, she'd scratch his eyes out if he ruined this for her.
Just before she reached the bottom step, he began elbowing his way toward her. She tried to signal the burly guard at the opened patio door, but the crowd enveloped her, effectively trapping her. She attempted to make her way to the man, yet everyone wanted "to be the first to congratulate her."
When she heard Louis pushing people behind her, N��omi's soft-spoken apologies - "Pardonnez-moi, I'll just be a moment" - turned to "Let me pass!"
He neared. Out of the corner of her eye she spied his hand fiddling with something in his jacket pocket. Not another gift? This will be so embarrassing.
When that hand shot out, she whirled around, dropping her bouquets. Metal glinted in the light of the candles. Eyes wide, she screamed -
Just before he plunged a knife into her chest.
Pain... unimaginable pain. She could hear the blade grating past her bones, felt a force so jarring the tip pierced through her very back. As she clawed at his arms, ugly sounds erupted from her throat; those nearest her backed away in horror.
This can't be happening... .
Only when he released the knife with splayed fingers did her body collapse to the floor. Rosebuds scattered around her, their petals wafting around the jutting hilt. She stared dumbly at the ceiling as warm blood seeped from her back, pooling all around her. She perceived the silence of the room over Louis's harried breaths as he knelt beside her, beginning to weep.
This isn't happening... .
The first hysterical scream rent the quiet. People fled the scene, shoving and tangling all around them. She heard the guards finally yelling and fighting past the crowd.
And N��omi lived still. She was dogged, a survivor - she would not die in her dream home on her dream night. Fight -
Louis fisted the hilt once again, jarring the knife inside her. Agony... too much... can't bear this... But she had no breath to scream, no strength to raise her limp arms to defend herself.
With a choking bellow he twisted the blade in the pocket of her wound. "Feel it for me, N��omi," he gasped at her ear. Pain exploded, radiating out from her heart to every inch of her body. "Feel what I have suffered!"
Too much! The temptation to close her eyes nearly overwhelmed her. Yet she kept them open, kept living.
"See how much I love you? We'll be together now." The knife made a sucking sound when he yanked it from her. Just before he was finally tackled to the ground, he sliced his own throat ear to ear.
Her blood had begun to cool by the time a doctor crouched to grasp her wrist. "There's no pulse," he said to someone unseen, his voice raised over the commotion. "She's gone."
But she wasn't! Not yet!
N��omi was young, and there were so many things she had left to experience. She deserved to live. I'm not dying. Her hands somehow clenched. I refuse to!
Yet as the breeze picked up once more, N��omi's vision guttered out like a candle. No, no... still living... can't see, can't see... so scared.
Rose petals caught on the wind and tumbled over her face. She could feel each cool kiss of them.
Outside Orleans Parish
Stay sane, act normal, he chants to himself as he strides down the rickety pier. On either side of him, water black like tar. Ahead of him, muted light from the bayou tavern. A Lore bar. A lone neon sign flickers over flat skiffs below. Music and laughter carry.
Stay sane... need to dull the rage. Until the endtime.
Inside. "Whiskey." His voice is low, rough from disuse.
The bartender's face falls. Like last night. Others grow skittish. Can they sense that I ache to kill? The whispers around him are like metal on slate to his ragged nerves.
- "Conrad Wroth, once a warlord... madder than any vampire I've seen in all my centuries."
- "A killer for hire. If he shows up in your town, then folks from the Lore there'll go missing."
Missing? Unless I want them found.
- "Heard he drains 'em so savagely... nothing's left of their throats."
So I'm not fastidious.
- "I heard he eats them."
Distorted rumors. Or is that one true?
Tales of his insanity spreading once more. I've never missed a target - how insane can I be? He answers himself: Very fucking much so.
Memories clot his mind. His victims' memories taken from their blood toll inside him, their number always growing. Don't know what's real; can't determine what's illusion. Most of the time, he can scarcely understand his own thoughts. He doesn't go a day without seeing some type of hallucination, striking out at shadows around him.
A grenade with the pin pulled, they say. Only a matter of time.
Stay sane... act normal. Glass in hand, he chuckles softly on his way to a dimly lit table in the back. Normal? He's a goddamned vampire in a bar filled with shifters, demons, and the sharp-eared fey. Christmas lights are strung up in the back - through the eye sockets of human skulls that frame a mirror. In the corner, a demoness lazily strokes her lover's horns, visibly arousing the male. At the bar, an immense werewolf bares his fangs, bowing protectively as he tosses a small redhead behind him.
Can't decide if you should attack, Lykae? That's right. I don't smell of blood. A trick I learned.
The couple leaves, the redhead all but carried out by the Lykae. As they exit, she peers over her shoulder, her eyes like mirrors. Then gone. Out into the night where they belong.
Sit. Back against the wall. He adjusts the sunglasses that shade his red eyes, dirty red eyes. As he scans the room, he resists the urge to rub his palm over the back of his neck. Watched by someone unseen?
But then, I always feel like that.
He swoops up the drink, narrowing his eyes at his steady hand. My mind's decayed, but my sword hand's still true. A ruinous combination.
He takes a liberal swallow. The drink. The whiskey dulls the need to lash out. Not that it has disappeared.
Small things enrage him. An off look. Someone approaching too quickly. Failing to give him a wide enough berth. His fangs sharpen at the slightest provocation. As though a living thing hungers inside me. Ravenous for blood and a throat to tear. Each time he acts on the rage, others' memories blight more of his own.
He still has enough sanity to stalk his targets - his brothers. He will mete out retribution to Nikolai and Murdoch Wroth for doing the unspeakable to him. Sebastian, the third brother, was a victim like him, but must be slain - simply because of what he is.
And my time grows nigh. Like an animal, he recognizes this. He's found them in this mysterious place of swamps and haze and music. He's seen Nikolai and Sebastian with their wives. He might have felt envy that his brothers laugh with them. That they touch them possessively, with wonder in their clear eyes. But hatred drowns out any confusing jealousy.
Offspring will follow. He'll kill their females as well. Destroy them. Destroy myself. Before my enemies catch up with me.
He adjusts the bandage under his shirt on his left arm. The slashed skin beneath it will not heal. Five days ago, he was marked by a dream demon, one who tracks him by this very injury. One who promised that most coveted dream and most dreaded nightmare would follow the mark.
His brows draw together. The hunter will soon become the hunted - his life is nearing its end.
A whisper of regret. The thing he regrets most. He tries to remember what he covets so dearly. Another's memories bombard him, exploding in his mind. His hand shoots up to clasp his forehead -
Nikolai enters the bar, Murdoch behind him. Their expressions are grave.
They've come to kill me. As he expected. He thought he could draw them out by returning here again and again. He lowers his hand, and his lips ease back from his fangs. The bar empties in a rush.
Then... stillness. His brothers stare at him as if seeing a ghost. Insects clamor outside. Rain draws near and steeps the air. Just as lightning strikes in the distance, Sebastian enters, crossing to stand beside the other two. He's allied with them? This he hadn't expected.
He removes his sunglasses, revealing his red eyes. The eldest, Nikolai, stifles a wince at the sight, but shakes it off and advances. The three seem surprised that he'll stay to engage them, that he hasn't traced away. They are strong and skilled, yet they don't recognize the power he wields, the thing he's become.
He can slaughter them all without blinking, and he'll savor it. They haven't drawn their swords? Then they walk to their doom. Can't keep them waiting.
He lunges from his seat and hurdles the table, knocking Sebastian unconscious with a blow that cracks his skull and sends him flying into the back wall. Before the other two can raise a hand in defense, he snatches them by their throats. One in each tightening hand as they grapple to free themselves. "Three hundred years of this," he hisses. Their struggles do nothing; their shocked expressions satisfy. Squeezing -
Wood creaks behind him. He shoves back and heaves his brothers at a new enemy. Too late; that Lykae's returned and slashes out with flared claws, ripping through his torso. Blood gushes.
He roars with fury and charges the werewolf, dodging claws and teeth with uncanny speed to barrel him to the ground. Just as his hands are about to meet around the Lykae's corded neck, the beast claps something to his right wrist.
A manacle? Clenching harder, he grates out a rasping laugh. "You don't think that will hold me?" Bones begin to pop beneath his palms. The kill is near, and he wants to yell with pleasure.
The werewolf cuffs his left wrist.
What is this? The metal won't bend. Won't break. They goddamned mean to take me alive? He leaps to his feet, tensing to trace. Nothing. Sebastian on the floor, pouring blood from his temple, has him by the ankles.
He kicks Sebastian, connecting squarely with his brother's chest. Ribs crack. He whirls around - in time to catch the bar rail the Lykae swings at his face.
He staggers but remains on his feet.
"What the fuck is he?" the Lykae bellows, swinging the rail again with all his might.
The brutal hit takes him across his neck. A split second of faltering. Enough for his brothers to tackle him.
He thrashes and bites, snapping his fangs. Can't break free... can't... They attach the manacles at his wrists to another chain. He kicks viciously, stunned when they trap his legs as well.
Choking with rage, he strains against his bonds with all his strength. The metal cleaves his skin to the bone. Nothing.
Caught. He roars, spitting blood at them, dimly hearing them speak.
"I hope you came up with a good place to put him," Sebastian says between ragged breaths.
"I bought a long-abandoned manor," Nikolai grates, "place called Elancourt."
Chills course through him even through his fury; pain erupts from the injury on his arm. A dream. His doom. He can never go to this Elancourt - knows this with a savage certainty. He's too strong for them to trace him - there's still time to escape.
If they take him there, they won't take him alive... .
Under a clouded nighttime sky, the spirit of N��omi Laress knelt in the drive at the very edge of her property line, gazing hungrily at the newspaper, lying wrapped in wet plastic.
Today the deliveryman - that capricious fiend - had missed the drive again, this time tossing the bundle squarely onto the desolate county road.
N��omi was starving for that paper, desperate for the news, reviews, and commentary that would break up the monotony of her life - or her eighty-year-long afterlife.
But she couldn't leave the estate to seize it. As a ghost, N��omi could manipulate matter telekinetically, and her power was nearly absolute at Elancourt - she could rattle all the windows or tear off the roof if she wanted to, and the weather often changed with her emotions - but not outside the property.
Her beloved home had become her prison, her eternal cell of fifteen acres and a slowly dying manor. Among fate's other curses, each seemingly designed to torture her in personal and specific ways, N��omi could never leave this place.
She didn't know why this was so - only that it was, and had been since she'd awakened the morning after her murder. She recalled seeing her haunting reflection for the first time. N��omi remembered that exact moment when she'd realized that she'd died - when she'd first comprehended what she'd become.
A ghost. She'd become something that frightened even her. Something unnatural. Never again to be a lover or friend. Never to be a mother, like she'd always planned after her dancing career. As a storm had boiled outside, she'd silently screamed for hours.
The only thing she could be thankful for was that Louis hadn't been trapped here with her.
She stretched harder. Must... have that... paper!
N��omi wasn't certain why it continued to arrive. A past article had recounted the problems inherent with "recurrent billing of credit cards," and she supposed she was the benefactress of her last tenant's credit card negligence. The delivery could end at any time. Every one was precious.
Eventually she gave up, defeated, sitting back in the weed-ridden drive. Out of habit, she made movements as if she was rubbing her thighs, yet felt nothing.
N��omi could never feel. Never again. She was incorporeal, as substantial as the mist rolling in from the bayou.
Thanks, Louis. Oh, and may you rot in hell - because surely that's where you went... .
Usually, at this point in the newspaper struggle, she'd be battling the urge to tear her hair out, wondering how much longer she could endure this existence, speculating what she'd done to deserve it.
Yes, on the night of her death, she'd refused to die, but this was ridiculous.
But even as desperate as she was for the words, she wasn't as badly off as usual.
Because last night a man had come into her home. A towering, handsome man with grave eyes. He might return this night. He might even move in.
She shouldn't get too excited about the stranger, to have her hopes crushed yet again -
Lights blinded her; the shriek of squealing tires ripped through the quiet of the night.
As a car shot forward onto the gravel, she futilely raised her arms to protect her face and gave a silent cry. It drove straight through her, the engine reverberating like an earthquake when it passed through her head.
The vehicle never slowed as it prowled down the oak-lined drive to Elancourt.
N��omi blinked, her strong night vision returning slowly. Even after all these years, she was still surprised that she was unharmed.
She recognized the sharp, low car from last night, so markedly different from the trucks that usually chugged by on the old county road. Which meant... which meant...
He's returned! The grave-eyed man who came here last night!
The paper forgotten, she materialized to Elancourt's landing, overlooking the front entrance. She moved as if to clutch the sides of the window there, her arms floating outspread.
And there sat his car in the drive.
Won't you move in? she'd wanted to beg last night as the man had examined the manor. He'd tested the columns, drawn sheets off some of the remaining furniture, and even yanked on the radiant heater in the main salon. Appearing satisfied that it was solid, he'd followed the contraption's underfloor pipes by stomping on the marble tiles.
The heater will work, she'd inwardly cried. Ten years ago, the manor had been modernized by a young couple who'd stayed for a time.
Yet she couldn't relate the merits of Elancourt to this mysterious stranger. Because she was a ghost. The act of speaking, or at least talking in a way that others could hear, had proved impossible for her, as had making herself visible to others.
Which was probably for the best. Her reflection was haunting even to her. Though N��omi's appearance was a close facsimile of how she'd looked the night she died - with the same dress and jewelry - now her skin and lips were as pale as rice paper. Her hair flowed wildly with rose petals tangled in it, and the skin under her eyes was darkened, making her irises seem freakishly blue in contrast.
She focused on the car again. Deep masculine voices sounded from within it. Was there more than one man?
Maybe there'd be two more "confirmed bachelors" like the handsome couple who had lived here during the fifties!
Whoever was within the car needed to hurry inside. Autumn rains had been tentatively falling all night and lightning had begun flaring in a building rhythm. She hoped the men didn't catch the front façade lit by the glow of lightning. With its arches and overhangs and stained glass, the manor could appear... forbidding.
The very Gothic traits she'd admired seemed to drive others away.
The vehicle began to rock from side to side on its wide wheels, and the voices grew louder. Then came a man's bellow. Her lips parted when two large boots kicked through the back window, shattering it, glass spraying out into the gravel.
Someone unseen hauled the booted man back inside, but then a rear door began to bulge outward. Were cars so weak in this age that a man could kick it out of shape? No, no, she'd dutifully read the crash test reports, and they said -
The door shot off its hinges, all the way to the front porch. She gasped as a wild-eyed, crazed man lunged out of the vehicle. He was manacled at his wrists and ankles and covered in blood. He immediately fell into a deep slick of mud, only to be tackled by three men.
One of them was her prospective tenant from last night.
She saw then that they all were covered in blood - because the chained one was spitting it at them as he thrashed.
"No... no!" he yelled, struggling not to enter the house. Could he possibly sense there was more here than could be seen? No one had before.
"Conrad, stop fighting us!" the tenant said through gritted teeth. His accent sounded Russian. "We don't want to hurt you."
But the madman named Conrad didn't let up one bit. "God damn you, Nikolai! What do you want with me?"
"We're going to rid you of this madness, defeat your bloodlust."
"You fools!" He laughed manically. "No one comes back!"