“Not in the way you do apparently,” I muttered more to myself than him.
“Think back to the very first time you saw me in the bar. What was the first thought that came into your head?”
“That I knew you, that we'd met beforeâbut it isn't possible!”
“Because I would remember itâI know I would!”
“And you will.”
Anasztaizia had told me vampires could move quickly, but I hadn't really understood what she'd meant. One minute Gabriel was filling the doorway, and the next he was standing by the bed. I swear to God all I did was blink. I never saw him move.
Taking my chin in his hand, he raised my head. The feel of his fingers stroking my jaw was electric, and, thirsting for his touch, I leaned into his palm. I'm ashamed to say it took a moment before my eyes met his, because I was too busy reacquainting myself with his torso. But when I did look up, it was a glorious moment.
Framed by thick dark lashes, his eyes had changed. The familiar hypnotic blue was now shot through with a gold iridescence, and they stared back with an intensity that scared me. Gabriel was the absolute carnal experienceâa thousand and one encounters that I could not name but wanted to experience in the worst possible way. Whether he was vampire or human, I couldn't shut off my feelings for him. I wasn't a faucet, for God's sake!
“A bond already exists between us,” Gabriel said, his voice raw with emotion. “It was created a long time ago, and is one that cannot be broken by either human or vampire law. I gave myself to you then, completely and without hesitation, and I do so again.”
As he stroked my cheek, I felt a faint tremble in his fingers. Words filled my head, words he had spoken to me the last time I'd been in his arms.
I am a Vampire's Promise . . . given by word . . . accepted by deed . . . and bound by ritual to keep safe that which has been surrendered.
“Yes,” he murmured, “indeed you are.”
“But I don't understand what it means.”
“And I cannot tell you.” A flash of pain flared in his eyes. “The memory must return of its own accord or it will carry no weight.”
I punched the pillow in frustration. “Shit! Why can't I remember any of it?”
“You will,” Gabriel promised. “Now that you truly know who I am, it will come back to you.” I searched his face, wishing I could be as certain. “Perhaps,” he said with a smile, “you just need the right incentive.”
Leaning down, he kissed me.
His tongue was a magnificent distraction inside my mouth. Teasing and tasting, it filled me with a sensual longing as he took all I had to give. Slowly pulling back, I felt Gabriel draw my lower lip into his mouth, scraping the swollen inner skin with his teeth. It wasn't until I felt a sharp prick that I realized he'd dropped his fangs. Blood welled up, and I gasped as Gabriel's tongue swept over the puncture as he lapped up my blood. He made a noise deep in the back of his throat, a sound that was definitely more purr than growl, and it sent a wave of unimaginable pleasure rippling through me.
My hands reached out and gripped his upper arms. My head was spinning, and I felt dizzy. I tried opening my eyes, but my eyelashes seemed to have locked themselves together. Gabriel released my mouth, pressing his lips lightly against my forehead as he laid me down on the pillows. I let go of my hold on him, but caught his hand and entwined our fingers.
I was looking down a dark tunnel. One that was filled with secrets and answers. One that I had to walk through, trusting there would be a light at the other end to guide me. I felt an awareness course through me, like nothing I had ever felt before. It filled me with a different type of desire. Something far beyond physical craving. The hunger I felt for Gabriel now had a different taste. It was richer and went far deeper. I couldn't articulate what I was feeling, but as I opened my eyes, I could see Gabriel felt it too. In his face I saw an understanding that had not been there before. Whatever it was that existed between us had taken a pivotal step forward.
Loosening his fingers from my grasp, Gabriel took my hand and held it against his chest. His skin was hot, almost feverish, but as my fingers laid over his breastbone I felt a warmth enter themâa warmth that sparked and glowed, moving through my hand, spiraling down my arm, and entering my body. It infused every muscle, every nerve ending, and every pore of my being with a sense of belonging. I was saturated with the essence of him, joined in such a way that any meaningful separation would bring nothing less than complete and utter desolation.
Being linked to another living, breathing individual had never felt so
and with that realization came a moment of absolute clarity. I
bound to Gabriel by word and deed and ritual, but there was something else I was aware of. I was also bound to Gabriel by choice.
I had designated him as the only male I would ever give myself to.
I couldn't say how or when it had happened, but I knew with an unshakable certainty that it had. In a sudden intuitive leap I saw the threads of my life entwined with his, as they always had been, for as far back down that dark tunnel as I could see. And somewhere in there was the reason why. Like two halves of anything, we were complete only when brought together. As opposites, we had found a way to bridge the dark between us. I didn't know how such a thing was possible, but I wasn't going to deny it had happened.
Like a brain freeze that comes from eating ice cream too quickly, the revelation made me gasp. “The bond between usâit happened before you were made a vampire, didn't it?”
Gripping his hand, I held on for all I was worth, but he didn't need to answer me. I could read the answer in his eyes. This was what he'd been waiting for. This was the start of what he needed me to remember, the first step in the journey that would bring me all the way back to him.
Gabriel's voice in my head had been right when it had told me I'd always known he was a vampire. I
always known because I was there when it had happened. The depth of feeling that bound us to each other had been declared
he was changed.
And there was more. Something important that I'd locked away in a forgotten corner of my mind. I just needed to find the key that would release the memory.
What was I keeping safe?
What had Gabriel surrendered?
“I think perhaps you will remember now,” he said in a husky voice.
And then he was gone.
week passed with no further nocturnal visits from Gabriel, although that wasn't technically true. Better to say there were no visits where I was an active participant. Gabriel visited me every night while I slept. I knew this because each morning the bed covers bore the impression of his body where he'd lain beside me, and the pillow was filled with his scent. Also the pot of freshly brewed coffee and vase of flowers on the kitchen table were a dead giveaway.
No matter how long I tried to stay awake, I never caught him slipping into my bedroom. After the second night, I tried setting my alarm clock so it would go off around three in the morning, but it mysteriously got reset to my usual wake-up time. Gabriel evidently was not ready to have another conversation with me but was content to watch me sleep. I just hoped I didn't catch a cold, because a stuffed-up nose would result in some major snoring. Still, I couldn't deny the coffee and flowers were a nice touch.
The first bouquet I assumed was an apology for nipping my lip with his fang, but when subsequent ones appeared, I started to think he was on some weird guilt trip. I mean just watching me visit the land of REM was a little strange. But the more I thought about it, the less likely it seemed. Gabriel wasn't the kind of guy who would regard his voyeurism as needing an apology. I was pretty sure the motive behind his visits, coffee, and flowers was much simpler. He just wanted to remind me he was in my life and not about to go anywhere. And I was okay with that. I just wished he'd wake me up so I could tell him. Another week of his generosity and my house was going to look like a florist shop. Or a cemetery.
Unfortunately, I couldn't deny the feeling that we were stuck in a kind of no-man's-land, unable to move forward until I remembered whatever it was I'd forgotten. Despite Gabriel's unwavering belief that we belonged together, I would be lying if I didn't say I still had some doubts. No matter how intense the feeling of being connected to him was, it did not eradicate the everyday difficulties that existed between usâdifficulties that I thought glaringly obvious, but that my vampire lover seemed content to ignore.
I had no difficulty admitting that I loved Gabriel (if he'd wake me up, I'd tell him to his face), and a part of me said that was more than most people ever got to experience. So why wasn't it enough? Somewhere deep inside me I knew I'd been
with Gabriel since the very first time I saw him. So what if I couldn't remember when that was exactly? It didn't make it any less true.
Lying down, I smoothed my hand across the empty half of my bed, imagining what it would be like to always have another body next to me. The idea of having someone to share my life was something I had always assumed would happen one day. All I had to do was find the right guy. It never crossed my mind that he might not be, well . . .
And in the cold light of morning, I couldn't pretend this difference between us didn't matter.
What type of a future could I have with Gabriel? The problem, as I saw it, wasn't so much with Gabriel being a vampire . . . it was with me being a non-vampire. The physical part of our relationship, the absolutely mind-blowing sex, was not going to last forever, and even though it might seem shallow of me to fixate on such a thing, I couldn't pretend it wasn't important. I was going to get old. My future came with sagging boobs, cellulite dimples, and gray hair. It was inevitable, and if I was with any other guy, it wouldn't be an issue. A normal guy's body would break down along with mine. Gabriel, however, was anything but normal.
He was not going to age as I did. When my boobs were trying to hide in my armpits every time I lay down, or my butt wanted to kiss the back of my knees, and age spots were spreading faster than kudzu, Gabriel would still look like a really hot thirtysomething able to bounce quarters off his abs. It didn't matter that a voice in my head said how I looked made no difference to him. It made a difference to me.
I rolled over and punched the pillow, my mood becoming a mix of anger and despair at the thought that any life I had with Gabriel would be over before it had a chance to begin. How depressing was that? I told myself I was fully prepared to take whatever time I had with him and live it to the fullest, and I did a damn good job of almost convincing myself I could pull it off. Except, somewhere deep inside me, I knew it wasn't going to be enough.
So . . . what was I supposed to do? Breaking things off between us was not an option, even if it were still possible, which it wasn't. The bond that joined us was a powerful one. I might not feel its pull as strongly as Gabriel did, but I did feel it.
Throwing back the covers, I headed for the bathroom and a shower. I still had to go to work. Christmas was only a few days away, and it was already a nightmare for anyone working retail. But I always try to look for the silver lining. Dealing with holiday shoppers might be just the thing to numb a few brain cells, but as the scent of pomegranate body wash filled my nose, I realized I was done with thinking. What I needed was a sign. I didn't care if it was a flashing neon strip or a simple Forrest Gump feather. I wasn't asking to be planted on the yellow brick road, but I really did want to avoid getting stranded on the fuck-up highway. All I wanted was a hint from an unbiased third party that spending the rest of my life with a vampire was exactly what the cosmic wheel of fate had planned for me all along.
“Dear God, give me
” I implored beneath the shower spray.
As it turned out, what I got was a pretty hefty kick in the ass from a totally unexpected source. And it came with a side order of you-gotta-be-kidding. But before that, I had to cope with everything in my screwed-up corner of the world going just a little farther sideways.
I had not seen Laycee since the day we went shopping in the mall together, and although I missed seeing her, I was also kind of thankful. With each passing day, the possibility of my blurting out something about the existence of vampires lessened. Our avoidance of each other was not deliberate. Because she was a hairdresser, this time of year was always crazy hectic for Laycee. Being on her feet all day, and trying to diplomatically remind her clients she was a beautician, not a magician, was exhausting. I couldn't blame her for wanting to spend her down time with Jake. He could deal with her stress in ways that I could not, no matter how much I loved her.
“Are you and Eye Candy going to the blonde's tonight?” Laycee asked during my morning-drive-to-work phone call. Not seeing each other didn't mean we weren't communicating. “You know, the one we met in the coffee shop?” she added, in case I wasn't sure who she was talking about. Laycee never forgot a name, and not using Anasztaizia's was deliberate on her part. It meant she hadn't made up her mind whether she liked the striking Magyar.
“I'm not sure,” I told her. In truth, I'd forgotten about the invite, which, considering all that had happened since then, wasn't so surprising. “Gabriel hasn't said one way or the other, but it's probably safe to assume we'll be going. He's very fond of Anasztaizia.”
Laycee gave a rude snort. “What about Christmas? Will you spend it with Gabriel?”
Traditionally, I spent the day with Laycee's family.
“Don't worry,” she said with a laugh, “my mom's gonna have her hands full with Jake and his kids.”
“They're not going to be with their mom?” I asked, surprised by this unexpected turn of events.
“Nope. I think they're going to be spending a lot of time with us from now on. Suellen has a new boyfriend.”
We exchanged a few comments that other people might have called catty but I preferred to think of as wise and insightful before saying good-bye. Laycee had a cut and color waiting for her, and I'd just reached work. Unfortunately, the rest of the day pretty much went downhill from there. It was, hands down, the absolute worst workday ever. Every customer I came in contact with was rude and nasty, with a big dose of bad attitude. Whatever idiot said people were a lot nicer during the Christmas season had never worked retail, and if it were up to me, there'd be an awful lot of stockings getting stuffed with coal come December twenty-fifth. I don't think I'd ever been so relieved to be able to flip the
, engage the dead bolt, and turn off the main lights.
Although it was dark enough for vampires to be about their business, and I really didn't want to speculate on what that might actually entail, I felt safe enough walking to the POS. There were plenty of exterior lights in the parking lot, and other nearby stores were still brightly lit, with people moving about inside. Katja was smart. She wouldn't risk attacking me with the possibility of an audience. But it didn't stop me from having a mild attack of the heebie-jeebies when a Hummer with heavily tinted windows slid in behind me as I was driving through town. Stopping at a traffic light, I gave a sigh of relief when the car's interior was suddenly illuminated. Even though she was pretty, the girl driving wasn't stunning enough to be a vampire.
I didn't relax until I'd turned back on the county highway heading for home. I like the drive because the scenery is nice, even at night. The woods flanking either side of the road are for the most part still undeveloped, so any traffic I had to contend with usually had fur and four legs. I'd seen deer, foxes, and coyotes, but never anything like the creature I caught sight of now.
I try to be aware of my speed because I know the damage a deer can do when it collides with a moving vehicle. This, however, was no deer. I was unconsciously tracking the animal's movement and already braking when it emerged from the trees. I told myself it was a dog, someone's pet that had jumped the fence, determined to reconnect with its inner wolf. And then I thought it might be a coyote, except the coat was much too dark, and the way it moved said there was nothing canine about this animal.
Feline through and through, this was a creature that was very much at home hunting down its next meal. I hit the brake with a little more urgency, wincing as the tires screeched in protest. The cat must have realized it wasn't going to able to clear the front of the car at the same time I knew I wasn't going to be able to stop in time. It leaped in the air, twisting its body in a graceful arc, and landed on the hood of the POS.
I put both feet on the wide brake pedal, pushing it all the way to the floor. My elbows locked, and my not-so-efficient seat belt snapped open. Forward momentum did the rest, making certain I smacked my forehead against the top of the steering wheel. Shit! That was gonna leave a bruise. Cautiously, I opened my eyes and peered through the windshield. A pair of orange eyes looked back at me.
It felt like forever until I was able to move again, although in reality I doubt it was more than a few seconds. Not wanting to make any sudden, startling moves, I pushed myself slowly upright. The animal watched me intently but didn't move. I had a few problems convincing my fingers to relax their death-grip at the ten and two positions on the steering wheel, but eventually they did comply, allowing me to grasp the column shift and slide it into park. It took a little longer before my brain was able to reassure my foot that removing itself from the brake pedal would be a good thing.
I let out a breath.
Watching my movements was the most magnificent predator I had ever seen. I had absolutely no idea where it had come from or what it was doing on this particular stretch of rural highway, but I felt confident it wasn't indigenous to this hemisphere. My brain began to run through all the possibilities it could come up with to explain why such an animal would be running loose in the woods. Maybe there was a private zoo nearby, or one of those exotic animal rescue places, and it had escaped. OrâGod forbidâit was the status symbol of some idiot with too much money and too few brains.
I don't know much about cats, except that I like them. If I was ever tempted to get a pet, then I would definitely go for a cat over a dog. Not that dogs don't have their good points, but dogs are pack animals and, as such, are needy. It's not their fault. It's the whole wolfy thing in their DNA. Dogs crave company And it doesn't matter to them if the company comes with two legs or four, just as long as someone's there. Cats, on the other hand, are perfectly fine being alone. Their aloof nature is one of the things I like the most about them. Of course, what I was looking at now wasn't going to curl up in my lap and let me scratch it behind the ear.
As if wanting to emphasize the point, the animal snarled at me through the windshield. It was a loud, ferocious noise that probably warned everything in a five-mile radius that it was here and not to be messed with. I shuddered and white-knuckled the steering wheel again as bright orange eyes glared at me. A shockingly pink tongue unfurled from between rows of very sharp-looking teeth. It had incisors as big as . . . well, they were bigger than Gabriel's. Midnight black from muzzle to tail, the animal looked strangely like it was pondering a problem.