A bird was squawking, and after several minutes of attempting to ignore its repetitive, shrill, bleating, I came to grips with the fact that it didn’t seem inclined to stop on its own. I snapped open my eyes, prepared to reach out the window and stop it myself, with my bare hands if necessary—I’d never heard such an obnoxious bird in my life, not in the city, not on the west coast, not even on my one excursion to visit Walker upstate—and froze. There was no window. And if the vents Bex used to filter fresh air into her underground coven were any indication, there was no bird. Despite the similarity of the vents to Bex’s coven, however, I didn’t recognize the room as the inviting, well-decorated step-back in time that Bex had created, either: no extra furniture for lounging, no scented candles, no Gerbera daisies, and no kerosene lamps pulsing in a hypnotic, romantic beat.
This room contained only sparse necessities: vents for underground air filtration, a bare bulb for light, a door for privacy, and of course, a bed. I was in a strange room in a stranger’s bed, its dimensions and décor familiar only by its unfamiliarity, and suddenly, the last moments of my memory smashed into my brain like a semi.
Jillian tearing out my throat. Dominic healing me. The blood and burning. The transformation.
Someone was speaking in the room outside this bedroom’s door, and despite the distance, the scarred door, the cement wall, and my disorientation, I could hear every word being said, and I recognized the voice speaking: Ronnie Carmichael.
“Lysander said he would. There’s no reason to think he won’t, so I don’t think—”
And following Ronnie’s voice was the squawking of that damn bird.
“Exactly. You don’t think,” Jeremy snapped.
“Lysander said that he would try,” Keagan said patiently, his voice nearly drowned out by the bleat of that insufferable bird. “His priority is Cassidy and our safety. He won’t take unnecessary risks, like remaining above ground, away from Cassidy longer than absolutely necessary.”
“Yes, he said he would try,” Ronnie insisted, but her voice was faint now. “Lysander doesn’t say anything lightly.”
The bird squawked even louder, in time with Jeremy’s audible groan, triggering a memory of Ronnie’s little girl voice and something she had confided in me: I never even knew he thought of my voice as grating. I never knew someone’s annoyance had a sound let alone that it sounded like a squawking bird.
I was right about the bird not being underground, but unlike anything I’d ever heard, the sound wasn’t a bird at all. The squawking was the sound of Keagan’s annoyance at the grate of Ronnie’s whining voice. Unlike Jeremy, Keagan was too well-mannered to audibly express his frustration with Ronnie, but among other vampires, he could no longer hide his true feelings. His unspoken annoyance had a sound—as loud, obnoxious and obvious as Jeremy’s audible hostility—and Ronnie could no doubt hear it, too, despite the calm, reasonable tone of his words.
I could hear it.
I could hear the sound of Keagan’s annoyance.
The weight of the sheets covering my body was suddenly suffocating. I raised my hand to tear them from my body, but someone else’s hand whipped into the air. I gasped at the skeleton-skinny joints of each finger, the knobby protrusion of its wrist and the elongated talons sprouting from each fingertip instead of nails. I ducked under the hand, trying to avoid its attack and swallow the scream that tore up my throat, but the hand moved with me, moving with my intensions, attached to my body. I froze again, for the second time in as many seconds, and raised the hand in front of my face. It looked lethal. With one wrong move, it could eviscerate me. As I ticked each finger, the long talons swept the air as I counted—one, two, three, four, five—and each moved on my command. Like the inevitability of a pending dawn with the rising sun, I realized that the hand was mine. Fear of that hand turned to horror and then to a kind of giddy resignation. Hysteria, more likely.
I had ducked against the attack of my own hand.
A swift peal of laughter burst from my mouth.
I stopped laughing just as abruptly. Even my voice was different: guttural and sharp, like shards of glass scraping against asphalt.
The voices outside my door and the squawking bird had abruptly stopped, too, and in the sudden silence following my outburst, an uncomfortable, aching vise circled my chest. The pain wasn’t physical, but its presence triggered a dull burn in the back of my throat. I had the immediate urge to destroy everything, to pound the cement walls into crumbs with my fists and tear the sheets into ribbons with my nails—my talons—and fight my way free from this prison. I held myself motionless, resisting the urge, and I realized with a belated sort of curiosity that the aching vise was panic. Without a beating heart to pound and without a circulatory system to hyperventilate, I hadn’t recognized the emotion without its physical symptoms, but even so, it felt the same in one way. It felt horrible.
I took a deep breath to dispel the panic, purely from habit, but the action wasn’t calming. My heart that wasn’t pounding didn’t slow, and I couldn’t catch a breath that I hadn’t lost. The vise around my chest tightened. I squeezed my hands into fists, trembling from the force of my will to remain still and silent. Something sharp pierced my hands, and I gasped, the raging panic stuttering until I looked down at my bleeding fists. My talons were imbedded in my own palms.
A door slammed somewhere outside this room, further away than the voices directly behind the door, but I didn’t hear it slam with my ears. I felt it slam from its flat slap against my skin. Never mind that the door wasn’t near enough for me to see, nor in this room, nor the impossibility that I could feel its sound waves, my entire body felt its sting as if I’d been smacked from all sides.
“Why are you just staring?” Despite the impatience and aggravation in those words, hearing his voice made the aching around my chest both loosen and worsen.
The clip of his tread across the cement floor stung like the warning barbs of a wasp. I knew the physical pain on my skin was only the tactile manifestation of sounds— first, the door slam, and now, his walking—but that didn’t change the fact that the sounds really did hurt my skin. I tried to rub away the lingering sting and realized my hands were still fisted, my talons still imbedded in my palms, so I just sat on the bed, motionless and bleeding, like someone trapped without an EpiPen, waiting for the inevitable swelling, choking and death: trapped within a body that had betrayed me.
“Did you have time to—” Ronnie began, but her voice was too small and too fragile not to crumble under the weight of his will.
“You heard her waken,” he accused. “Don’t you smell the blood?”
I could actually taste the pungent, freshly sliced, onion musk of their silence.
The door swung open, and suddenly, inevitably, Dominic entered the room. He didn’t need permission to cross my threshold, not anymore, and he didn’t bother with the perfunctory acts of knocking or requesting my consent to enter. He simply strode inside and slammed the door behind him with a final, fatal bee sting.
He’d recently fed. I could tell, as I’d always been able to tell, by the bloom of health on his cheeks, his strong, sculpted figure, and the careful calm of his countenance, but my heightened senses could now also smell the lingering spice of blood on his breath and hear the crackle of it nourishing his muscles. From the top of his carefully tousled black hair to the soles of his wing-tipped, dress shoes, Dominic was insatiably sexy, but his physique was an illusion of his last meal. I knew his true form. Upon waking, before feeding, he appeared more monster than man. Although not many people look their best in the morning, Dominic by far looked his worst.
The way I looked now.
That thought made my fists tighten, embedding my talons deeper into my own flesh.
Despite his grievance with Ronnie, Keagan, and Jeremy for their inaction, he too just stared, immobile after entering the room, but his gaze absorbed everything. I felt the slash of his eyes slice across my face, down my body, and eventually, settle with dark finality on my fisted palms.
He didn’t move, and that I could tell by the stillness of his throat, he didn’t make a sound, but despite his still, silent stare, I heard the unmistakable rush of wind. There were no windows underground, and in the stagnant stillness of the room—the tension between our bodies like an electric current stretching to complete its circuit—no relief from the heat of his presence. The sound wasn’t wind, it only sounded like wind, but whatever it was the sound of, it was emanating from the only other person in the room.
I blinked and Dominic was suddenly, but no longer impossibly, beside the bed. His movements were just as inhumanly fast as ever, but with my enhanced vision, I could track his movement, see his grace and fluidity. I heard the slide of air molecules parting for him, felt the electric snap of his muscles flexing, and smelled an emotion he wouldn’t allow me to interpret on his carefully neutral expression. Whatever he was feeling was spiced, sweet, strong, and dangerous with overuse, like ginger.
He reached out and carefully wrapped his palms around mine to cup my fists. His voice was steady when he spoke, but I knew better. The rush of wind emanating from him heightened, the smell of ginger became chokingly poignant, and his heart that didn’t need to beat to keep him alive, contracted just once. I could both hear the swoosh of his blood being pumped through each chamber and taste the silky spice of that sound.
My hands were injured yet his trembled.
“Relax,” Dominic murmured. “I’m here. I should have been here when you first awakened, but I’m here now.”
I blinked at him. With him here, everything was somehow simultaneous better and horribly worse.
“Mirror,” I growled. I tried to form a complete sentence, to demand, Get me a mirror, so I can see the horror of a face that matches these hands! but my throat was too dry. Even that one word rattled from my vocal cords like flint scraping across steel, and the resulting sparks flamed the back of my throat. I sounded dangerous and angry and monstrous. If I had stumbled upon me in an alley, I would have run.
Then again, I’d stumbled upon Dominic in an alley, and look how that had played out.
Whether Dominic saw my anger or thought me a dangerous monster now wasn’t revealed by his carefully masked countenance. He stroked the back of my hand with the soft pad of his human-feeling thumb. “You need to calm down.”
Calm down? I thought. I jerked my hands free from his gentle hold and shook my fists between us, in front of his face. All things considered, this is calm!
Dominic sighed. “I can’t see your claws from inside your palms, but did you happen to notice their color before stabbing yourself with them?”
I frowned. I had claws, for Christ sake. Claws. No, I didn’t take note of their color.
“I’ll take that as a no,” he said, still gentle, still careful, and so fucking infuriating.
A comforting flood of hot anger blast-dried my shock and sorrow. I spread my fingers, tearing said claws from my palms and ripping wide my self inflicted wounds, but I didn’t take the time to note their color. I swiped at Dominic.
My movements were lightning. Dominic’s movements were just as fast; he leapt back, dodging my claws. I lunged off the bed after him. A familiar sound rattled from deep inside my chest, a sound I’d heard emanate from Ronnie, Jillian, Kaden, and Dominic, a sound that coming from them had raised the fine hairs on the back of my neck. Now, that sound came from my throat. I was growling.
Dominic summersaulted out of reach. I watched his movements, fascinated by the strength of his muscles as he leapt into the air, his coordination as his legs tucked and his arms caught his knees, and his athleticism as he stuck the landing and raised his hands to block my advance. He was the epitome of power and grace under pressure, and with the enhanced ability of my heightened senses, I could actually see it. He wasn’t just a blur of movement but a perfectly choreographed symphony of muscle, control, and honed skill. I watched, and unlike the jaw-dropping awe of impossibility that Dominic’s physical feats would normally inspire in me, I was just inspired.
I attempted to mimic Dominic’s movements with a matching forward summersault of my own, but instead of landing on my feet, like I’d intended, like Dominic had stuck so effortlessly, I landed in an awkward, bone-jarring, heap, flat on my back.
Dominic leaned over me, his mouth opened with concern, surely about to ask me if I was all right. My pride was more injured than my body, and the hot embarrassment fueled my anger, as every strong emotion could fuel my easily provoked temper. Taking advantage of his concern and close proximity, I raked my claws down the front of his shirt.
Buttons severed from their threads, but before the pops of their little plastic heads hit the floor, Dominic was airborne again, back flipping away from me before my claws could do any real damage. I lunged after his leaps and twists and rolls, milliseconds behind his acrobatics, but even without the advantage of his fancy gymnastics, my body’s newfound abilities were astonishing. Each muscle contraction burned beneath my skin, but not like human muscles burning with fatigue. Mine sparked to life, twitching with power and reveling in unleashed speed and strength.
I’d never been particularly athletic; my entire life, even before being shot in the hip, my skills were better served in an intellectual capacity—interviewing witnesses and writing articles. After being shot, my physical abilities had shriveled to the point where I could barely walk. Now, I could not only walk, I had the potential to fly. I was a force in both body and mind, and the limitlessness of those abilities after being physically limited for so long was intoxicating.
Time suspended. Our battle raged in the timespan of a blink, but within that blink, we fought and danced and completely trashed the little utilitarian room in what felt like years—a lifetime of limitations revealed and obliterated with every movement and newly discovered capability. Our movements were lighting, the evidence of our devastation scattered across the room—Dominic’s torn clothing, upended and smashed furniture, pillows gutted and their insides fluffed over the rumpled comforter and upended mattress—the cause unseen.
I made a move of my own instead of following Dominic, cutting him mid-leap and smashing him face-down into the box spring. He was vulnerable for the split of a millisecond, me at his back, my razor claws splayed across his shoulder blades, his neck bared as he craned to look over his shoulder at me, and I had him. If I chose to, with a swipe of my hand, I could sever his head from his body. My claws were sharp, his skin was soft, and unlike any other physical battle I’d waged in my life, I had the advantage.
My body’s speed and strength were new to me, but the feelings of rage and intoxicating addiction were not. I knew those emotions intimately; they had been the very core of my personality and shaped a person who, despite my former physical limitations, had unbeatable mental strength, evidenced by my winning battle against Percocet addition and an ability to entrance vampires as a night blood. Memories of addiction and the bone-deep reasons I’d fought to overcome it, kept me grounded when I would have taken advantage of Dominic’s weakness. I nearly let the strength and power overwhelm reason, but I knew when to stop. I knew when the need and heat felt too good to be good. The rage reminded me that despite the claws sprouting from each fingertip, despite the fact that I might look like the devil and have the strength of God, I was the same flawed person I’d always been.
I was still me, and despite his flaws, I loved Dominic.
I jerked my hand from his back, ripping fabric with my movement but not skin, and fell to my knees.
Dominic summersaulted over me. He landed at my back, but I didn’t turn to face him. He knew I’d resisted the opportunity to kill him. Our battle was over, but mine had just begun.
He fell to his knees behind me, wrapped his arms around me, holding my hands, cradling my body, and it was only then, with the steady press of his cheek against mine, that I realized by the solid stillness of his arms holding me that I was shaking.
I burst out weeping. The sobs wracked my body and bathed my cheeks.
Dominic’s arms tightened. He stroked my hands and murmured promises into my ear that I knew better than to believe, promises that no one could keep, but having him hold me, his lips moving against my ear and the familiar tone of his voice resonating like a blanket cocooned around my body, was comforting anyway. I sobbed harder at first, relieved that he was here, that I wasn’t alone, that he’d experienced this, too, and had survived and eventually thrived. Buoyed by the knowledge that I, too, could survive and eventually thrive, I calmed. My weeping slowed, the sobs wracking my body lessoned, and my tears eventually dried.
I relaxed into Dominic’s embrace—my back flush against his chest, his arms cradling my arms, our fingers entwined. His breath fluttering my hair wasn’t winded, and I noted with a detached sort of astonishment, that neither was mine. I was suddenly struck by a wary sort of certainty that my new, debatably improved physical form would continue to astonish for a very long time. I stared at our entwined fingers—his perfectly formed human hands still larger than my emaciated fingers but not nearly longer than my elongated claws—and I pulled into myself, embarrassed that he was touching them.
“Don’t,” he murmured, tightening his hold. “Some aspects of the transformation might take some getting used to. You’re already becoming accustomed to your heightened senses and increased strength, which is impressive. In a few days, you’ll land that summersault, I assure you. And eventually, you’ll look into a mirror and recognize yourself, but for tonight, let me be your mirror.” He raised his hand and urged my face to the side to meet his gaze. “Let me show you how beautiful you are.”
My physical appearance wasn’t the only aspect of the transformation that shook me, but when he cupped my cheek in his palm and ducked his head, pressing his lips to mine, I kissed him back. My lips felt foreign against the long protrusions of my fangs, but his lips were soft and the texture of his scar familiar. His Christmas pine scent enveloped us, and with my enhanced senses, I felt its chilled effervescence simultaneous heat and create goose bumps over my body. I turned in his arms, angling for more access, and a rush of blood filled my mouth.
I jerked back, startled by the blood coating my tongue, a taste which wasn’t entirely unpleasant, was in fact, not unpleasant at all. The blood was absolutely delicious, which was also startling, not to mention disturbing. Dominic had a gash across his lower lip, and I realized that I’d cut him.
I swallowed the blood in my haste to apologize and choked.
Dominic covered my lips with a finger and shook his head. His thumb swiped back and forth over my cheekbone as we stared at each other, and before my very acute eyes, I watched the intricacy of Dominic’s body heal. The split sides of his lip filled with blood, and that blood pooled in the crevice of his cut, coagulated, scabbed, and flaked to reveal new, shiny, pink skin. That skin darkened to a faint thread, and if he’d still been human, the healing might have stopped there, but his body healed the scar, too, until his lips bore not one sliver of evidence of my clumsy lust. What had once seemed to occur instantaneously and magically was now a simple bodily function, but I suppose, that in itself was a kind of magic.
I touched his lips, grazing my fingertips carefully over the perfection of his newly healed skin to the divots and pucker of the permanent scar gouging through the other side of his lower lip and chin, a reminder of his human lifetime, and for me, a reminder of the few things we had in common. Although looking at the skeletal, talon-tipped hand touching him—the hand that I controlled but didn’t resemble anything I recognized as mine—we had much more in common now than I’d ever anticipated having.
He touched my lips with his fingertips, mimicking my movements with the human-looking version of his hand, and I couldn’t help it. Despite the impossibility of this situation and the state of my hands and what I could only imagine was the state of my face, I smiled.
“Sorry,” I murmured. Dominic’s blood had moistened the scratch in my throat, so it didn’t feel like my vocal chords were raking my esophagus with razor blades anymore. “I’m not myself this morning.”
Dominic grinned—full and genuine and lopsided from the pull of his scar—and the warmth and affection in his expression widened my own smile. I let that warmth soak into me, filling my unfamiliar body with hope, reminding me that I could survive. That I wanted to survive.
“No one looks or acts their best upon waking, not even you when you were human.” Dominic reminded me. “Not even me.”
I sighed. “I will miss working on my tan though,” I said, only half-jokingly. The feel of the sun’s warmth on my skin had become a safe haven after discovering the existence of vampires. Having become one, I supposed the necessity was moot, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t miss it.
Dominic grunted. “Many things about you will never change despite the transformation, including your ability to enjoy the sun and your stubbornness it seems.”
I raised my eyebrows. “My stubbornness won’t cure a fatal sun allergy.”
“Look at the color of your claws,” Dominic said dryly.
Despite my said stubbornness and the urge to resist looking at my claws just to defy him, I looked. The skeletal appendages coming from my body were long and knobby and honestly grotesque, a monster’s hands with four-inch, lethal talons sprouting from their tips.
And those talons were silver.
Dominic was right, as per usual, and unfortunately, so was our dear friend, High Lord Henry. I was a vampire, but I wasn’t allergic to the sun.
I was a Day Reaper.