It was late Friday night. Steeped in black despair at the thought of what he had become, Edward Ramsey walked slowly down Hollywood Boulevard, unmindful of the moviegoers, the drunks, the panhandlers, the tourists, the endless parade of transvestites and whores.
Occasionally, he glanced at the faces of the strangers he passed by: young people talking about the scary movie they had just seen, homeless men and women clad in ragged clothes looking for a place to spend the night, well-dressed couples emerging from the Pantages Theater discussing the play they had just seen. Hah! They had no idea what scary really was, but he could show them. What would they think? he wondered. What would they do if they knew what he was? Would they recoil in horror and disgust, or stare at him in stunned disbelief?
Last night, the fourth since his life had turned upside down, he had considered awaiting the dawn and stepping out into the bright California sunshine to put an end to his cursed existence. As a new vampire, he would have little resistance to the pure light of day. The touch of the sun on newly made preternatural flesh, a quick burst of flame, and his life would be over, extinguished like the flame of a candle in the wind.
Vampire. How could he be a vampire? He had spent most of his life stalking the undead, destroying them. The Ramsey family had hunted the undead for centuries. Vampires were evil, abhorrent creatures, forever doomed. Forever damned.
But he didn’t feel evil, didn’t feel damned. Only unnatural, as if he were living inside someone else’s skin. His senses were heightened: touch, smell, sight, hearing—all were more sensitive, more acute, than ever before. It was amazing how differently he perceived the world through his newborn vampire senses.
His vision was nothing short of miraculous. He could see great distances, detect minute details that ordinary mortals never saw. Each stitch in the fabric of his coat was visible to his eye. Colors were sharper, richer, almost as if they had texture and depth. Bright light hurt his eyes.
The noise of the city now seemed endless and sometimes deafening! And sometimes so overwhelming, he thought he might go insane. How had Grigori Chiavari stood it for so many years? There had to be a way to shut out the constant barrage of speech and music and traffic sounds that bombarded him from every side, but if there was, Ramsey hadn’t discovered it yet.
He felt physically stronger than ever before. Indeed, that sense of physical power was so intoxicating that he might have wished he had been a vampire years ago save for the awful craving for blood. The smell of it was all around him on the boulevard, a pulsing flowing river of crimson. It called to him, excited him until he thought he would go crazy. He needed to feed but didn’t know how. The hunger, the pain, had been with him every minute of the past five days, clawing at his vitals in bitter, relentless agony. He had made one clumsy attempt on a streetwalker but had fled the scene before his goal was accomplished.
He passed a man and a woman, heard the woman gasp, her eyes widening when she saw his face. He knew in that moment that he must look like death itself. He had seen that expression of horror before, when he had looked into the depths of Grigori Chiavari’s hell-black eyes and seen his own death lurking there.
Chiavari. Of course! He would go to Chiavari. The vampire had cursed him with the Dark Gift. The vampire could damn well tell him what to do with it.
There were lights burning in the big house that Grigori Chiavari had bought shortly before marrying Marisa. Hard to believe only a few days had passed since he had seen Alexi Kristov destroyed in this very house. It seemed centuries had passed.
Marisa opened the door at his knock, a warm smile of welcome curving her pale pink lips. “Edward!” she said, extending her hand. “Come in.”
“Where is he?” Ramsey demanded.
Ignoring Marisa’s outstretched hand, he swept past her into the hallway, his angry stride carrying him into the living room.
“Where is he?” he demanded again. “Is he here?”
“What do you want, Ramsey?”
Ramsey pivoted at the sound of the vampire’s voice.
Grigori Chiavari glided soundlessly into the room. He exuded an air of self-confidence and invulnerability that Ramsey envied in spite of himself, and never more so than now.
For a moment, the two men looked at each other. They had never been friends. At best, they had been uneasy enemies allied against a common evil. But Alexi Kristov was dead now, his body burned to ashes. But for Grigori’s timely but uninvited interference, Ramsey would have been dead, too. Hard to believe he had actually thanked the man for turning him into a monster. He remembered Marisa asking him, shortly after his transformation, if he would rather be dead. He had replied instantly:
Of course I would
. But afterward, he had found himself drowning in a wave of indecision. Confused, dazed by all that had happened that night, he had stumbled out of the house, needing to be alone.
The horror of that night was still fresh in his mind. He and Chiavari had spent months hunting Alexi Kristov, months that had culminated in this very house. He recalled it all so clearly, being caught in the vicious web of Kristov’s power, helpless to resist the ancient vampire. Captive to Kristov’s will, Ramsey had drugged Chiavari, drained him of enough blood to weaken him, and bound him with heavy silver chains. And then he had waited. Waited for Marisa. She had been surprised to see him. . . .
“Edward!” she had exclaimed as he stepped in front of her. “You scared me out of a year’s growth. What are you doing here? Edward?”
He had stepped behind her and closed the door. “Go sit down, Marisa.”
“Nothing, and everything.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“You’ll understand everything soon enough.” He had given her a little push and she had stumbled forward.
She had seen Grigori then. Chiavari lay still as death on the bed, bound by a heavy silver chain. The same chain that had once bound Alexi.
“What have you done to him?” she asked.
Edward had pulled a syringe out of his coat pocket. “I put him to sleep, and then I bled him.” He had nodded at the basin on the table beside her chair. It was a large bowl, filled with blood. Grigori’s blood. Enough to weaken him.
“He’s not . . . not dead?” Marisa had asked.
“Edward, please . . .”
He had pushed her toward the chair in the corner. “Sit down, Marisa. Alexi will be here soon.”
“Alexi!” She had looked at him in alarm. “He’s coming here?”
Edward nodded sadly. “I’m sorry, Marisa.”
She sat down heavily. “Why are you doing this?”
“I have no choice.”
“What do you mean? Of course you do. . . .” The words had died in her throat. “He’s done something to you, hasn’t he? Oh, Lord, you’re like Antoinette.”
“No. She had no mind of her own. Alexi has left me my mind, Marisa, but he has robbed me of my will. This is worse. I know what I’m doing, and even though I don’t want to, I can’t refuse.”
“Fight him, Edward! You’ve got to fight him.”
“I can’t.” He remembered pacing the floor. “He’s too strong. He took my blood, made me take his. I can hear his thoughts in my mind. I can’t shut them out! I can’t shut him out!”
“He’s going to kill us, isn’t he?”
“He’s going to kill Grigori. I’m afraid he has worse things in mind for you.” He had dropped to his knees in front of her and pulled a short piece of rope from his pocket. “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
Marisa had jerked her knee up in a hard, swift motion. It had caught him under the jaw. His head had snapped backward and she had kicked him in the chest with all her might. Jumping to her feet, she ran for the door, but he had caught her by the ankle.
“Let me go!” she shrieked. “Let me go!”
She had struggled against him, but he was too strong for her. Twisting her arm behind her back, he quickly tied her wrists together, then guided her back to the chair and pushed her into it.
“Marisa, I’m sorry.”
She was shaking now, frightened beyond words.
There had been a ripple in the air, a stirring, as Grigori began to emerge from his drugged sleep. Edward had pulled a stake from inside his coat.
“I won’t,” he said. “Alexi wants that pleasure for himself.”
“Edward, please, please don’t do this. Please. I’d rather be dead than become Alexi’s creature.”
“Marisa.” He had struggled against Alexi’s hold on his mind, but to no avail.
“Please, Edward. He’ll make me like Antoinette.” A soulless zombie, a creature without a mind of her own.
“I can’t fight him,” he had said, panting heavily. “He’s too strong. I can’t help you.” He had doubled over then, racked by pain. “Stop,” he begged. “Please stop.” He had writhed in pain, all else forgotten, as Alexi’s power washed over him.
And then Alexi was there. Darkness seemed to trail in his wake.
“So,” Alexi said. “We are all together at last. Edward, it’s time I made the woman mine. You will leave the room. Wait for me in the hallway.”
The vampire had sniffed the air, his nose wrinkling as the smell of cold blood reached his nostrils. He jerked his chin toward the bowl. “Get rid of that.” Cold blood. It was an abomination.
“Yes, master,” Edward had replied. Moving like a robot, he had picked up the bowl and moved toward the door.
“Edward,” Marisa cried. “Don’t leave me! Please, help me!”
But he had been helpless. He had tried to turn to face her, his whole being longing to help her, to strike Alexi down, but the vampire’s power was too strong to resist. He had told himself to stop, to turn, but his body refused to obey. One step after another, he had moved toward the door.
He had heard the fear and anguish in her voice, but there was nothing he could do. Nothing. And then he had heard Chiavari’s voice inside his head. “Ramsey, I’ve taken your blood, made you a part of me. Listen to my voice. Draw on my strength. You can fight him. Think! Combine your will with mine. Together we can defeat him.”
“I can’t.” He had stared into the bowl, at the blood that was so dark it was almost black.
“You can!” Grigori’s voice echoed in his mind. “Marisa needs help, help I can’t give her. Damn you! Fight!”
Cradling the bowl in one hand, he had opened the door and stepped into the hallway. He heard Marisa’s shriek of terror as he closed the door behind him. Standing outside the room, he heard Alexi laugh as Marisa struggled against him. He had looked at the blood again and then lifted the bowl to his lips.
Grigori’s blood had filled him with power, lessened Alexi’s hold on his mind. Bursting into the room, he had hurled himself at Alexi, the stake in his hand driving toward the vampire’s heart. But the vampire was strong and fast, and the stake had missed his heart. Alexi had flung him against the wall and buried his fangs in his throat, not to drink, but to kill....
And he would have died, had it not been for Chiavari. Grigori had slain Alexi and then, at Marisa’s urging, forced the Dark Gift upon Edward. He had a vague memory of Grigori holding his bleeding wrist to his lips, urging him to drink. The vampire’s voice had been soft yet compelling, soothing as a mother’s lullaby. “Drink, Edward,” he had urged. “Drink your fill.”
And he had suckled the vampire’s wrist like a babe at its mother’s breast....
He looked into Chiavari’s eyes and knew the other man was also remembering.
“What brings you here, Ramsey?” Chiavari asked brusquely.
Ramsey clenched his hands into tight fists. It galled him to ask Chiavari for help, not only because he thoroughly disliked the man, but because Chiavari had won Marisa’s heart.
Grigori lifted one dark brow. “Ramsey?”
“I’m hungry, damn you.”
“Ah,” Grigori murmured, and there was a wealth of understanding in that single word.
Ramsey glanced at Marisa, beautiful Marisa with her dark-brown hair and deep green eyes and warm, sweet smile. Marisa. He had asked her to marry him, but she had refused him in favor of Chiavari. Marisa. His gaze was drawn to her throat, to the pulse beating there. Her blood beckoned him. Hot and sweet, it called to him. She had willingly given her blood to Chiavari when he needed it. Ramsey licked his lips. Would she share it now, with him?
Ramsey took a step forward, oblivious to the other vampire, oblivious to everything but the woman’s warmth, the rich red blood thrumming through her veins. Just a sip, he thought; just one sip to ease the horrible agony burning through him. And if she would not give it, then he would take it....
Marisa stared at Edward. He was as tall as Grigori, with the same trim build. She had never thought of Edward as a handsome man, but now, enhanced with the glamour of the Dark Gift, he looked far younger than his forty-two years. There was a dark sensuality about him that had been lacking before. His pale blond hair had turned a deeper, richer color that gleamed like burnished gold, his ice blue eyes were darker, more intense, aglow now with a fierce need. The faint scar on his cheek only added to his mysterious allure.
His lips parted, and she saw his fangs. She moved quickly to Grigori’s side, her heart pounding. She knew vampire blood lust when she saw it.