Where am I?
A rush of icy air swept across Rylee's bare skin.
Goose bumps rose.
Shivering, she blinked, trying to pierce the shifting darkness, a cold dark void with muted spots of red light shrouded in a rising mist. She was freezing, half lying on a couch of some kind and . . .
Oh, God, was she naked?
Was that right?
Yet she felt the soft pile of velvet against the back of her legs, her buttocks, and her shoulders where they met the rising arm of this chaise.
A sharp needle of fear pricked her brain.
She tried to move, but her arms and legs wouldn't budge, nor could she turn her head. She rolled her eyes upward, trying to see to the top of this freaky, dark chamber with its weird red light.
She heard a quiet cough.
She wasn't alone?
She tried to whip her head toward the sound.
But she couldn't. It lolled heavily against the back of the chaise.
Move, Rylee, get up and friggin' move! Another sound. The scrape of a shoe against concrete – or something hard – reached her ears. Get out, get out now. This is too damned weird.
Her ears strained. She thought she heard the softest of whispers coming from the shadows. What the hell was this?
Her insides shriveled with a new fear. Why couldn't she move? What in the world was happening? She tried to speak but couldn't utter a word, as if her vocal chords were frozen. Frantically, she looked around, her eyes able to shift in their sockets, but her head unable to swivel.
Her heart pounded and, despite the chill in the air, she began to sweat.
This was a dream, right? A freakin' nightmare, where she, immobile, was positioned on a velvet longue and naked as the day she was born. The chaise was slightly raised, it seemed, as if she were on a weird stage or dais of some kind, and surrounding her was an unseen audience, people hiding in the shadows.
Her throat closed in terror.
Panic swept through her.
It's only a dream, remember that. You can't speak, you can't move, all classic signs of a nightmare. Calm down, shut this out of your mind, you'll wake up in the morning . . .
But she didn't heed the suggestion running through her mind, because something was off, here. This whole scene was very, very wrong. Never before when she'd been terrorized by a nightmare had she had the insight to think she might be dreaming. And there was a realness to this, a substance that made her second-guess her rationale.
What did she remember . . . oh, God, had it been last night . . . or just a few hours earlier? She'd been out drinking with her new friends from college, some kind of clique that was into the whole Goth-vampire thing . . . no, no . . . they insisted it was a vampyre thing. That old fashioned spelling was supposed to make it more real or something. There had been whispers and dares and blood-red martinis that the others had insisted were stained with real human blood. It had been some kind of "rite of initiation."
Rylee hadn't believed them, but had wanted to be a part of their group, had taken them up on their dares, had indulged . . . and now . . . and now she was tripping. They'd laced the drink, not with blood, but with some weird psychedelic drug that was causing her to hallucinate, that was it! Hadn't she witnessed the hint of hesitation in them when she'd been handed the blood-red martini and twirled the stem in her fingers? Hadn't she sensed their fascination, even fear, as she'd not just sipped the drink but tossed it back with a flourish?
Oh, God . . .
This initiation – which she'd thought had been a bit of a joke – had taken a dangerous, unseen turn. She remembered vaguely agreeing to being part of the "show." She'd drunk the fake "blood" in the martini glass and yeah, she'd thought all the vampire stuff her newfound friends were into was kind of cool, but she hadn't taken any of their talk seriously. She'd just thought they'd been screwing with her head, seeing how far she would go . . .
But within minutes of downing the drink, she'd felt weird. More than drunk, and really out of it. Belatedly, she'd realized the martini been doctored with a potent drug and she'd started to black out.
How much time had elapsed?
She had no idea.
A bad trip?
She hoped to God so. Because if this were real, then she really was situated on a couch, on a stage, wearing nothing, her long hair twisted upon her head, her limbs unmoving. It was as if she were playing a part in some eerie, twisted drama, one that, she was certain, didn't have a happy ending.
She heard another whisper of anticipation.
The red light began to pulse softly, in counterpoint to her own terrified heartbeat. She imagined she could see the whites of dozens of eyes staring at her from the darkness.
God help me.
Gritting her teeth, she willed her limbs to move, but there was no response. None.
She tried to scream, to yell, to tell someone to stop this madness! Her voice made only the tiniest of mewling noises.
Fear sizzled through her.
Couldn't someone stop this? Someone in the audience? Couldn't they see her terror? Realize the joke had gone too far? Silently she beseeched them with her eyes. Slowly, the stage became illuminated by a few well placed bulbs that created a soft, fuzzy glow punctuated by the flickering red lamp.
Wisps of mist slid across the stage floor.
A rustle of expectancy seemed to sweep through the unseen audience. What was going to happen to her? Did they know? Was it a rite they'd witnessed before, perhaps passed themselves? Or was it something worse, something too horrible to contemplate?
She was doomed.
No! Fight, Rylee, fight! Don't give up. Do not!
Again she strained to move, and again her muscles wouldn't obey. Vainly she attempted to lift one arm, her head, a leg, any damned thing to no avail.
Then she heard him.
The hairs on her nape raised in fear as cold as the northern sea. She knew in an instant she was no longer alone on the stage. From the corner of one terrified eye she saw movement. It was a dark figure, a tall, broad-shouldered man, walking through the oozing, creeping mist.
Her throat turned to sand.
Panic squeezed her heart.
She stared at him, compelled to watch him slowly approach. Mesmerized by terror. This was the one. The man the vampyre-lovers had whispered about.
She almost expected him to be wearing a black cape with a scarlet lining, his face pale as death, eyes glowing, glistening fangs revealed as he drew back his lips.
But that wasn't the case. This man was dressed partially in black, yes. But there was no cape, no flash of red satin, no glowing eyes. He was lean, but appeared athletic. And was sexy as hell. Wrap-around, mirrored sunglasses covered his eyes. His hair was dark, or wet, and was long enough to brush the collar of his black leather jacket. His jeans were torn and low-slung. A faded T-shirt had once been dark, his snake-skin boots were scuffed, the heels worn.
Eager anticipation thrummed from the darkness surrounding the stage.
Once again she thought this was a far-out dream, a weird nightmare or hallucination that was now as sexy as it was frightening.
Oh, please . . . don't let it be real . . .
He reached the couch and stopped, the scrape of his boots no longer echoing through her brain, only the hiss of expectation audible over her own erratic heartbeat.
With the back of the longue separating their bodies, he slid one big, calloused hand onto her bare neck, creating a thrill that warmed her blood and melted a bit of the fear that gripped her. His fingertips pressed oh-so gently against her collarbones and her pulse jumped.
A part of her, a very small part of her, found him thrilling.
A hush swept through the unseen crowd.
"This," he said, his voice commanding but low, as if addressing the shrouded viewers, "is your sister."
The audience released an "ahhh" of anticipation.
That was her name, yes, but . . what was he talking about? She wanted to deny him, to shake her head, to tell him that what was happening was wrong, that her nipples were only stiff from the cold, not from any sense of desire, that the throb inside the deepest part of her was not physical lust.
But he knew better.
He could sense her desire. Smell her fear. And, she knew, he loved her for her raging emotions.
Don't do this, she silently pleaded, but she knew he read the warring signals in the dilation of her pupils, the shortness of her breath, the moan that was more wanting than fear.
His strong fingers pushed a little more forcefully, harder, hot pads against her skin.
"Sister Rylee joins us tonight willingly," he said with conviction. She is ready to make the final, ultimate sacrifice."
What sacrifice? That didn't sound good. Once again Rylee tried to protest, to draw away but she was paralyzed. The only part of her body not completely disengaged was her brain, and even that seemed bent on betraying her.
Trust him, a part of it whispered. You know he loves you . . . you can sense it . . And how long have you waited to be loved?
No! That was crazy. The drug talking.
But the feel of his fingers, slipping a little, edging lower, a hot trail along her breasts, ever-closer to her aching nipples.
Deep inside, she tingled. Ached.
But this was wrong. Wasn't it. . . .?
He leaned closer, his nose against her hair, his lips touching the shell of her ear as he whispered so quietly only she could hear. "I love you." She melted inside. Wanted him. A warm throb rose through her. His fingers rubbed the skin beneath her collarbones a little harder, pressing into her flesh. For an instant she forgot that she was on stage. She was alone with him and he was touching her . . . loving her . . . he wanted her as no man had ever really wanted her . . . And . . .
He pushed hard.
A strong finger dug into her flesh, jabbing against her rib. A jolt of pain shot through her.
Her eyes widened.
Fear and adrenalin spurted through her bloodstream. Her pulse jumped madly, crazily.
What had she been thinking? That he could seduce her?
Love? Oh, for the love of Jesus, he didn't love her! Rylee, don't be fooled. Don't fall into his stupid trap.
The damned hallucinogen had convinced her that he cared for her but he, whoever the hell he was, intended only to use her for his sick show.
She glared at him and he recognized her anger.
The bastard smiled, teeth flashing white.
She knew then that he reveled in her impotent fury. He felt her heart pumping, the blood flowing hot and frantic through her veins.
"Hers is the untainted blood of a virgin," he said to the unseen crowd.
You've got the wrong girl! I'm not a–
She threw all her concentration into speaking, but her tongue refused to work, no air pushing through her vocal chords. She tried fighting, but her limbs were powerless.
"Don't be afraid," he whispered.
In horror she watched as he bent downward, ever closer, his breath hot, his lips pulling back to show his bared teeth.
Two bright fangs gleamed, just like she'd fantasized!
Please God. Please help me wake up. Please, please . . .!
In the next heartbeat she felt a cold sting, like the piercing of a needle, as his fangs punctured her skin and slid easily into her veins.
Her blood began to flow . . .
So far, so good, Kristi Bentz thought as she tossed her favorite pillow into the back seat of her ten-year-old Honda, a car that was new to her but had nearly over eighty thousand miles on the odometer. With a thump, the pillow landed atop her backpack, books, lamp, I-Pod and other essentials she was taking with her to Baton Rouge. Her father was watching her move out of the house they all shared, a small cabin that really belonged to her step-mother. All the while he was glaring at her, Rick Bentz's face a mask of frustration.
So what else was new?
At least, thank God, her father was still among the living.
She hazarded a quick glimpse in his direction.
His color was good, even robust, his cheeks red from the wind soughing through the cypress and pine trees, a few drops of rain slickening his dark hair. Sure, there were a few strands of gray, and he'd probably put on five or ten pounds in the last year, but at least he appeared healthy and hale, his shoulders straight, his eyes clear.
Because sometimes, it just wasn't so. At least not to Kristi. Ever since waking up from a coma over a year and a half earlier, she'd experienced visions of him, horrifying images that, when she looked at him, showed he was a ghost of himself, his color gray, his eyes two dark, impenetrable holes, his touch cold and clammy. And she'd had many nightmares of a dark night, the sizzle of lightning ripping through a black sky, an echoing split of a tree as it was struck, then her father lying dead in a pool of his own blood.
During daylight hours, she would see the color leach from his skin, witness his body turning pale and gray. She knew he was going to die. And die soon. She'd seen his death often enough in her recurring nightmare. Had spent the last year and a half certain he would meet the bloody and horrifying end she'd witnessed in her dreams.
These past eighteen months she'd been worried sick for him as she'd recovered from her own injuries, but today, on this day after Christmas, Rick Bentz was the picture of health. And he was pissed.
Reluctantly he'd helped lug her suitcases out to the car while the wind chased through this part of the bayou, rattling branches, kicking up leaves and carrying the scent of rain and swamp water. She'd parked her hatchback in the puddle-strewn driveway of the little cottage home Rick shared with his second wife.
Olivia Benchet Bentz was good for Rick. No doubt about it. But she and Kristi didn't really get along. And while Kristi loaded the car amidst her father's disapproval, Olivia stood in the doorway, twenty feet away, her smooth brow wrinkled in concern, her big eyes dark with worry, though she said nothing.
One thing about her, Olivia knew better than to get between father and daughter. She was smart enough not to add her unwanted two-cents into any conversation. Yet, this time, she didn't step back into the house.
"I just don't think this is the best idea," her father said . . . for what? The two-thousandth time since Kristi had dropped the bomb that she'd registered for winter classes at All Saints College in Baton Rouge? It wasn't like this was a major surprise. She'd told him about her decision in September. "You could stay with us and–"
"I heard you the first time and the second, and the seventeenth and the three hundred and forty second and–"
"Enough!" He held up a hand, palm out.
She snapped her mouth closed. Why was it they were always at each other? Even with everything they'd been through? Even though they'd almost lost each other several times?
"What part of 'I'm moving out and going back to school away from New Orleans' don't you get, Dad? You're wrong, I can't stay here. I just . . . can't. I'm way too old to be living with my dad. I need my own life." How could she explain that looking at him day to day, seeing him healthy one minute, then gray and dying the next, was impossible to take? She'd been convinced he was going to die and had stayed with him as she'd recovered from her own injuries, but watching the color drain from his face killed her and half-convinced her that she was crazy. For the love of God, staying here would only make things worse. The good news: she hadn't seen the image for a while, over a month now, so maybe she'd read the signals wrong. Regardless, it was time to get on with her own life.
She reached into her bag for her keys. No reason to argue any further.
"Okay, okay, you're going. I get it." He scowled as clouds scudded low across the sky, blotting out any chance of sunlight.
"You get it? Really? After I told you, what? Like a million times?" Kristi mocked, but flashed him a smile. "See, you are a razor-sharp investigator. Just like all the papers say: Local hero: Detective Rick Bentz."
"The papers don't know crap."
"Another shrewd observation by the New Orleans Police Department's ace detective."
"Cut it out," he muttered, but one side of his hard-carved mouth twitched into what might be construed as the barest of smiles. Shoving one hand through his hair, he glanced back at the house to Olivia, the woman who had become his rock. "Jesus, Kristi," he said. "You're a piece of work."
"It's genetic." She found the keys.
His eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened.
They both knew what he was thinking, but neither mentioned the fact that he wasn't her biological father. "You don't have to run away."
"I'm not running 'away'. Not from anything. But I am running to something. It's called the rest of my life."
"Look, Dad, I don't want to hear it," Kristi interrupted as she tossed her purse onto the passenger seat next to three bags of books, DVDs and CDs. "You've known I was going back to school for months, so there's no reason for a big scene now. It's over. I'm an adult and I'm going to Baton Rouge, to my old alma mater, All Saints College. It's not the ends of the earth. We're less that a couple of hours away."
"It's not the distance."
"I need to do this." She glanced toward Olivia whose wild blond hair was backlit by the colored lights from the Christmas tree, the small cottage seeming warm and cozy in the coming storm. But it wasn't Kristi's home. It never had been. Olivia was her stepmother and though they got along, there still wasn't a tight family bond between them. Maybe there never would be. This was her father's life now and it really didn't have much to do with her.
"There's been trouble up there. Some coeds missing."
"You've already been checking?" she demanded, incensed.
"I just read about some missing girls."
"You mean runaways?"
"I mean missing."
"Don't worry!" she snapped. She, too, had heard that a few girls had disappeared unexpectedly from the campus, though no foul play had been established. "Girls leave college and their parents all the time."
"Do they?" he asked.
A blast of cold wind cut across the bayou, pushing around a few wet leaves and cutting through Kristi's hooded sweatshirt. The rain had stopped for the moment, but the sky was gray and overcast, puddles scattered across the cracked concrete.
"It's not that I don't think you should go back to school," Bentz said, leaning one hip against the wheel well of her Honda and, today, looking the picture of health: his skin ruddy, his hair dark with only a few glints of gray. "But this whole idea of being a crime writer?"
She held up a hand, then adjusted some of the items in the back of the car, mashing them down so that she would be able to see out of her rearview mirror. "I know where you stand. You don't want me to write about any of the cases you worked on. Don't worry. I won't tread on any hallowed ground."
"That's not it and you know it," he said. A bit of anger flashed in his deep-set eyes.
Fine. Let him be mad. She was irritated as well. In the last few weeks they'd really gotten on each other's nerves.
"I'm worried about your safety."
"Well, don't be, okay?"
"Cut the attitude. It's not like you haven't already been a target." He met her eyes, and she knew he was reliving every terrifying second of her kidnaping and attack.
"I'm fine." She softened a bit. Though he was a pain in the ass often enough, he was a good guy. She knew it. He was just worried about her. As always. But she didn't need it.
With an effort she tamped down her impatience, as Harry S.,
her stepmother's scrap of a mutt, streaked out the front door and chased a squirrel into a pine tree. In a flash of red and gray, the squirrel scrambled up the pine's rough bole to perch high upon a branch that shook as the squirrel peered down, taunting and scolding the frustrated terrier mix. Harry S. dug at the trunk with his paws as he whined and circled the tree.
"Shh.... you'll get him next time," Kristi said, scooping up the mutt. Wet paws scrabbled across her sweatshirt and she received a wet swipe of Harry's tongue over her cheek. "I'll miss you," she told the dog, who was wriggling to get back to the ground and his rodent chasing. She placed him on the ground, wincing a little from some lingering pain in her neck.
"Harry! Come here!" Olivia ordered from the porch, but the intent dog ignored her.
Bentz said, "You're not completely healed."
Kristi sighed loudly. "Look, Dad, all my varied and specialized docs said I was fine. Better than ever, right? Funny what a little time in a hospital, some physical therapy, a few sessions with a shrink and then nearly a year of intense personal training can do."
He snorted. As if to add credence to his worry a crow flapped its way toward them to land upon the bare branches of a magnolia tree. It let out a lonely, mocking caw.
"You were pretty freaked when you woke up in the hospital," he reminded her.
"That's ancient history, for God's sake." And it was true. Since her stay in ICU, the whole world had changed. Hurricane Katrina had ripped apart New Orleans then torn through the entire Gulf Coast. The devastation, despair and destruction lingered. Though Katrina had raged across the gulf over a year earlier, the aftermath of Katrina's fury was evidenced everywhere and would be for years, probably decades. There was talk that New Orleans might never be the same. Kristi didn't want to think about that.
Her father, of course, was overworked. Okay, she got that. The entire police force had been stretched to the breaking point, as had the city itself and the beleaguered and scattered citizens, some of whom had been sent to far points across the country and just weren't returning. Who could blame them, with the hospitals, city services and transportation a mess? Sure there was revitalization, but it was uneven and slow to come. Luckily the French Quarter, which had survived virtually unscathed, was still so uniquely Old New Orleans that tourists were again venturing into parts of the city the least hardest hit.
Kristi had spent the past six months volunteering at one of the local hospitals, helping her father at the station, spending weekends in city cleanup, but now, she figured – and her shrink insisted – that she needed to get on with her life. Slowly, but surely, New Orleans was returning. And it was time for her to start thinking about the rest of her own life and what she wanted to do.
Detective Bentz, as usual, disagreed. After the hurricane Rick Bentz had fallen back into his overly-protective, parental role in a big way. Kristi was way over it. It wasn't as if she was a child, or even a teenager any longer. She was an adult, for crying out loud!
She slammed the back of her hatchback shut. It didn't catch, so she readjusted her favorite pillow, reading lamp and the hand-pieced quilt her great aunt had left her, then tried again. This time the latch clicked into place. "I gotta go." She checked her watch. "I told the landlady that I'd take possession today. I'll call when I get there and give you a complete report. Love ya."
He seemed about to argue, then said gruffly, "Me, too, kiddo."
She hugged him, felt the crush of his embrace, and was surprised to find she was fighting sudden tears as she pulled away from him. How ridiculous! She blew Olivia a kiss, then climbed behind the wheel. With a snap of her wrist the little car's engine sparked to life and Kristi, her throat thick, backed out of the long, narrow driveway through the trees.
At the country road, she reversed onto the wet pavement. She caught another glimpse of her father, arm raised as he waved good-bye. Letting out a long breath, she felt suddenly free. She was finally leaving. At long last, on her own again. But as she rammed her car into drive, the sky darkened and in the side-view mirror she captured a glimpse Rick Bentz's image.
Once more all the color had drained from him and he appeared a ghost, in tones of black, white and gray. Her breath caught. She could run as far away as possible, but she'd never escape the specter of her father's death.
In her heart she knew.
It was certain.
And, it would be soon.