The coach pulled onto the main drive through Central Park. The only sound to be heard was the steady clomp of the mare’s hooves on the pavement. An eerie silence settled over the park, no crickets or cars humming by, just dead quiet.
Everything had gone just the way he planned. Dinner was magnificent. The chef at Aureole never let him down. He went above and beyond tonight, hiding Giovanna’s engagement ring in their dessert. The happiness on her face would be etched in his memory forever.
Her bright blue eyes gazed up into his face and beamed. Giovanna held her left hand between them. Moonlight glinted off the diamond ring.
She kissed his cheek.
“Jared, I still can’t believe you did this. You have no idea what this means to me, to us…” Her words trailed off.
The coach slowed and came to a halt. A sensation of déjà vu slithered up Jared’s spine. Cold dread planted itself in his gut. Jared wrapped his arm tighter around Giovanna’s shoulders needing to feel her warmth against his body.
Jared was about to ask what the problem was when the driver jumped to the ground. He was quickly joined by three more tall, dark and gruesome men.
Giovanna gripped his arm. “Jared, what’s going on? Who are these people?”
Jared slipped his gun from the holster under his arm and pressed it into Giovanna’s shaking hands. “Whatever you do, shoot first and ask questions later. You hear me?”
“You’re scaring me.” She tried to give the gun back to him.
“Just do what I’m telling you, G. Trust me.” At her nod, he removed two daggers from their sheaths at the small of his back and opened the carriage door.
The second his feet hit the pavement, they began to circle. Jared’s eyes shifted quickly, keeping them in his sights. This was not what he intended when he set out to make Giovanna’s graduation night one she’d remember.
“Do you honestly think you can take on all of us?” the driver scoffed.
“I can damn well try. Did you think I’d sit there and let you get away with murder? Do what you want with me but let her go. She knows nothing about this.”
“Poor delusional human. The three life forces here are exceptionally strong and will sustain all of us for weeks. We’re not about to let any of you go.”
Jared’s blood ran cold. Three? That could only mean…
He met Giovanna’s terrified gaze. Her hand on her stomach told him all he needed to know.
Two of the vampires lunged at him. The other two headed for the carriage.
One of them climbed into the carriage and easily removed the gun from her grasp. Giovanna’s blood-curdling scream tore through the night air. She struggled to get away, clambering over the back of the carriage.
Jared sliced through the arm of the one holding him and stabbed the other. The shocked vamp vanished in a burst of light.
He headed for the carriage only to be tackled from behind. Hitting the ground, Jared's attacker sunk his fangs into his shoulder. Jared snapped his head backward, hissing from the pain. He struggled and strained to break free.
When Giovanna’s attackers were done with her, they came for him. Sweat and blood soaked his clothes. Gasping for breath he stared at her limp body draped over the side of the coach.
The driver loomed over him and grabbed his chin with a gloved hand, forcing Jared to meet yellow glowing eyes. “Touching, to call for her with your dying breath. I can assure you though, she's not impressed.”
Jared sat up gasping for air. A fine mist of perspiration covered his skin, and the sheets were entwined around his legs. His eyes darted around the room. He couldn’t catch his breath. With a shaking hand, he reached for the prescription vial beside the bed. Just one pill, to take the edge off. As soon as he lifted it, Jared realized there would be no chemical relief for him today. The bottle was empty. The medication never helped in the first place.
He had been downing Xanax like M&M's since he returned home last week. It was only common sense he’d finally run out of his prescription long before the next refill was due. He threw the bottle across the room, shattering it on the far wall. The sound of plastic raining down on the floor was little consolation for his present state. His shaking hands covered his face and he breathed deeply to calm down. Yeah, like just breathing worked. The only thing that helped was getting as far away from here as possible. Even then it may not be far enough.
Fifteen years. He couldn’t believe fifteen years went by in the blink of an eye. It felt like it was only yesterday when the Conservatorship forced him to leave. Yet here he was back in New York for some untold reason. The Elders insisted he return, but kept mum on why.
“I must be insane.”
Jared untangled the sheet from around him and swung his legs out of the bed. He focused on the door to the adjoining bathroom, but the panic attack clouded his vision. Ever since the renegade vampires had killed G, he’d suffered them randomly. Since he’d come home, they were out of control. When they began, all he needed to do was focus in on an object and regulate his breathing. Not any more though. None of those techniques worked.
He pushed to his feet, and his legs buckled. The only thing keeping him off the floor was his hand on the headboard. Jared took a deep breath before he shoved off and propelled his wobbly legs toward the bathroom.
It only took a few minutes but felt like he spent hours on the trek through the door to lean on the bathroom sink.
Turning on the water, he splashed his face a few times before glancing at his reflection. Man, he looked like hell. Blue eyes sunk in his face, shabby chic blonde hair standing on end, as if he took a seat in an electric chair. Maybe he had and didn’t know it.
The bad news didn’t stop there -oh no. He had a few days’ worth of beard growth, but it had grown in patchy. Yeah, this would get his ass thrown in Belleview. It was where he felt he belonged. The dreams were killing him.
Jared let go of the sides of the pedestal sink and held up his hands. At least they stopped shaking and he could stand without fear of falling over now. There had to be more to the panic attacks, it couldn’t just be from coming home.
Grabbing a towel, Jared dried off his face and headed back to the room. Darkness engulfed him except for the single beam of sunlight falling across the disheveled bed through a gap in the blackout curtains. When he returned a few days ago, it had been a light and airy space. In a matter of hours, he morphed it into a cave. This was where he spent most of his time. Staying in this room saved him from the memories the town held.
He pulled a black karate uniform out of his suitcase. Funny, he still hadn’t taken the time to unpack. Living out of duffel bags and suitcases had become a way of life for him. He didn’t want to stay here, didn’t want to put his name to a deed. The Conservatorship, a council of humans who served the vampire King Xavier Dragoni, made it impossible for him to turn his back on his responsibilities. They put this home in his name, effectively ending the exile they originally imposed on him when Giovanna died.
Sitting on the bed, his gaze wandered over the mahogany furnishings. More darkness, all he had in his life, darkness. Honestly, he preferred it that way. It kept people out of his face most days. On others, he was at least civil.
He pulled on the uniform, tying it with a black belt, and rose frowning.
“This shit just can’t go on.”
Crossing the room, he grabbed the blackout drapes and pulled them off the window. He squinted, blinking a few times as his vision adjusted. The sun warmed his skin. Surveying the landscape, he already knew his destination, the gym built off the back of the house. The meditation and control would do him good. He felt the overwhelming need to beat the crap out of someone or something, and there was a large punching bag with his name on it waiting for an ass kicking.
Jared headed downstairs and took the detour through the kitchen. His housekeeper, Sam was dicing carrots for the evening meal. She tossed him an apple from the basket in front of her. She had an odd sixth-sense of knowing what he needed.
Sam had been a second mother to him since his arrival in New Orleans. When he got to the address his father had given him, she was there and waiting. Living with her was strange, like he had finally come home. She made him feel he actually belonged somewhere.
During the time he lived in New Orleans, Sam never even blinked an eye at the strange hours he kept. She guided him back to life after the loss of Giovanna and gave him the mother’s touch he needed. Not that his mother had been lacking in any way. He loved her beyond anything else, but Sam was different. She was the only one who he felt completely comfortable with, the only one he could open up to and be himself. She knew all of his fears and dreams and never discouraged him. Fortunately, she was protective of him like a mother bear to her cub. Her loyalty to him was unquestionable. He didn’t know how he would have survived without her, which was why he’d brought her here with him.
“Enjoy your workout, Jared. I’ll send Casey out when dinner is ready. I’m not letting you leave tonight before eating. Your tux has been pressed and is hanging in your walk-in. The car will arrive around eight for the benefit. I won’t have you being the last one there. Now go.” She shooed him out the door. Her black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Her steel grey eyes dared him to spar with her. Jared knew he could never win any argument with her.
He chuckled and rubbed the apple on the front of his Do Bok. “Yes Ma’am!” Jared gave her a mock salute before opening the slider onto the patio and jogging across the yard.
“Hell no.” Alex stared at the sheet of paper in her hand. This couldn’t be happening to her, not again. It was the third time in a month her boss, Gene, had pulled this crap on her.
“He can’t be serious.” She scoffed at the absurdity of the new assignment in her hand.
She glared over the wall of her cubicle at the pimple-faced, red-headed mail boy. He gulped and shuffled around a few envelopes, escaping to the next cubicle. It wasn’t the kid’s fault, but he was the messenger and they always got the bad end of the stick throughout history. God, she needed to strangle someone. Alex ran a hand through her hair, pulling the long chestnut mass out of her eyes.
Alex pushed out her chair and crushed the paper in her hand, intending to throw it in the circular file. She paused and sighed. No, it would be better to give the SOB a piece of her mind for a change. Standing, she stalked to the glass-enclosed office at the end of the hall.
“You have got to be kidding me. You’re not serious about this, are you?” She threw the paper on the desk next to his laptop.
Gene O’Hanlon didn’t lift his attention from the keyboard. “Get the door, would you?” He kept typing. When she didn’t move, he glanced at her over his glasses. “Alex, I’m not going to get into this with an audience. Close the door.”
Alex kicked the door shut. The glass walls vibrated, and a few sheets of paper slipped free from the overstuffed bookshelf behind him. She folded her arms across her chest and glared.
Gene leaned back in his worn black leather office chair. He removed his glasses and placed them on the scuffed oak desktop, rubbing his eyes with his other hand. The man appeared to be tired and completely drained. She felt a twinge of guilt for storming into his office until he leveled those harsh green eyes on her.
“Alex, everyone here has to pay their dues. How would it look if I played favorites with stories, huh?”
“Problem is, Gene, I paid and then some. You know it.”
“The assignment stays.” He linked his hands behind his head, leaning back in his chair.
The gray hair at his temples stuck out in a way reminiscent of the Nutty Professor. He jerked his chin toward the chairs in front of his desk. Alex gave him one more hostile glare before she complied and sat across from him, crossing her long, slender legs and leaning back.
“This is a puff piece for your gossip column, Gene. You know it, and I know it. Why are you saddling me with this?”
“This is hardly a puff piece, Alex.”
“I don’t do publicity. I do serious investigative reporting. There’s nothing serious about a millionaire hot shot in Orange County. From what I can see, he never worked a hard day in his life. Mommy and Daddy probably left him a real nice trust fund.” Yeah, while I’m forced to scrape nickels together to make a Chelsea rent payment. Gotta love New York.
Gene pushed a folder toward her and flipped open the cover. “Like I said, this is not a puff piece, Alex. Look at him. You can’t tell me that you don’t recognize Jared Bonatelli.”
“No, Gene. I’ve never seen him before. Why should I recognize him?” Her gaze roamed over the photo. The way Bonatelli gazed into the camera mesmerized her.
Gene continued. “It’s been a while, years in fact, since he was major news. But this kid,” He tapped his eraser on the photo. “This millionaire is hardly a spoiled brat. He’s been through, shall we say, the supernatural ranks.”
Alex frowned, eyeing Gene. “Supernatural?” She laughed. “What the hell do you mean? Is he a Warlock? Does he go ghost hunting? Or better yet, is he one of those people who claim they were abducted by aliens? Come on, it reeks of publicity stunt.”
Picking up the file, Alex flipped through the pages. Bonatelli’s life seemed pretty straight forward: a little rich boy who grew up in a prominent Italian family and attended college abroad with straight A’s, likely bought for the right price.
She came to the last page in the file. It was an old article from a small New Jersey newspaper. Time had yellowed the paper, but the print quality wasn’t what drew her in.
“Are you serious? Vampires? The reporter actually claims vampires killed Bonatelli’s fiancé.”
She was ready to toss the folder back on the desk when she read the byline. Alex stared at the paper, shocked. The man in front of her raised a brow in silence.
“You? You reported this? How? What? I don’t get it.”
Gene stood and walked over to the windows of his office overlooking Central Park. He folded his arms across his chest and stared at the barren treetops. “I’d just landed a job in a small town paper reporting on the daily trash. Who was I to expect a job at Newsday or the Wall Street Journal fresh out of college? You have to work your way up to the big leagues.”
He pointed at the park. “It all happened right down there. I saw it all. They had no idea I was there, but I was. The girl’s life was sucked out of her. I saw the kid try to save her. He wasn’t surprised when they appeared, not like I was. He fought them off like a pro; he’d definitely done it before. When it appeared they were going to kill him, another one appeared out of nowhere. Poof.” Gene swung back toward her. “I never saw the new guy touch them. They all just vanished in a big flash of light the moment he spotted them. It wasn’t enough to save the girl, though. After the attack, Bonatelli vanished off the face of the earth. I’m telling you, Alex. Everything in the article is real. I saw it. I lived it.”
Alex stared at him in silence. The whole thing was unbelievable. What Gene told her was a plot for a novel or insane tabloid articles, not something a respectable news source reported.
She tapped a fingernail on the manila folder in her lap, trying to find the right way to tell him the story was insane. Unfortunately, he seemed to believe everything he said.
“Gene, are you sure you saw it happen? I mean, it could be you saw an everyday mugging gone bad? You obviously weren’t close enough to see them clearly; they would have known you were there. And if it happened, why in the world are you assigning me a dead story?”
He walked over and sat on the edge of his desk in front of her. Gene lifted the folder from her lap and flipped it open to the picture. He removed the photo, holding it up for her to see. “Because, Alex, he’s back. Returned from God knows where. I want you to find out why they brought him here.”
Gene handed her back the folder. “Bonatelli is supposed to attend a fundraiser hosted by an old and powerful family. They are royalty in their country. Your invitation and their background info are in the yellow envelope. Any credentials you may need to get in are there, as well.”
“Yeah right,” she laughed. “Me hanging out with royalty, you’ve gone off the deep end.”
He raised his hand to silence her. “Also, a dress has been ordered for you and will be delivered to your cubicle by the end of the day.”
Alex blinked. She couldn’t even begin to think of how to react to everything he’d laid out in front of her. When she regained her composure, Alex took a deep breath and let out an undignified snort. “They,” she paused. “I think you need to lay off the liquid lunches, Gene. Ok boss man, I’ll bite. Who in the world are ‘they’?”
Gene’s face held no trace of humor whatsoever. “They, my dear, happen to be the things nightmares are made of.”
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