Authors: Heather Graham
To New Orleans.
To Sean and everyone at the Monteleone.
For Alice Duffy, with lots of love, respect and
Especially for Kate Duffyâ“Duffee” will always mean
pure excellenceâwith deepest gratitude, always.
For Christine Feehan (and clan), Cherry Adair, Molly
and Kate, Brian and Kristi Ahlers, Deborah and Harvey,
Lance and Rich, Debbie Richmond, Pat and Patricia,
Bonnie, Kathleen, Aleka, Toni, Sally and all those who
were so willing to hop on and give New Orleans and
me their very best.
And for Connie and T, who get me through
here had never been a more beautiful bride, never a more picture-perfect wedding. The weather had bowed down in honor of the occasion, and there was a slight cooling breeze. The night was neither too warm nor too cold, and the time had been carefully chosen; the sun was just setting in the western sky. The bride had longed for a castle, and they had found an ancient cathedral perched atop a hill within an old fortress town.
The groom was gallantly trying to be everything the bride's fairytale prince should be. He had spent his adult life trying to live life by his own code, which demanded decency to his fellow human beings. He didn't bend easily to anyone's whim, but he had learned the importance of compromise, and of being compassionate. He knew himself capable of error and had learned to admit it. He could honestly say he was ready to battle for the downtrodden or the underdog, and he had lived through enough battles to see many of the errors made around him. More than anything, as he prepared to wed his stunningly bride, he could say that he loved her dearly, more than life itself.
Whatever she longed for, a castle deep in a land foreign to him, an elegant horse-drawn carriage, or anything that could possibly complete the fantasy wedding of her heart, she could have. It helped that events had recently turned in his favor; where for many years he had worked to support what he prayed was a talent, he had suddenly discovered himself a rich man, almost overnight. And though the bride hailed from this part of the world, they had met in the United States. She had heard him playing; he had looked up and met her eyes. Life hadn't been the same from that moment on. But since many of their closest friends were still struggling financially, he and his bride hadâvery tactfully, they hopedâmanaged to treat their friends who couldn't afford the trip, providing an enjoyable respite from the rigors of life, as well as the pleasure of the wedding itself.
A lavish runner extended the length of the cathedral aisle. The groom, elegant in a black tux, stood next to his identically attired groomsmen. As the music played and the priest cleared his throat, they all looked to the rear for the entry of the bride and her party.
The flower girl was adorable, tossing petals with a somber appreciation for the great duty entrusted to her. The bridesmaids followed, lovely in glimmering silver offset with black trim.
And then the brideâ¦
Her hair, long and lustrous, as red-gold as the sunset, fell to her shoulders, haloing her face in beauty. She wore a modern gown, but one designed in a Renaissance style, and his heart caught in his throat at the sight of her. Beneath the sheer flow of her veil, he could see her eyes shimmering, touched by a mist of tears. He smiled in return, and his heart thundered.
She moved gracefully down the aisle.
The spill of blood appeared on her dress, beginning as a tiny dot at her heart. Then it widenedâ¦widened to cover her breast, the entire bodiceâ¦.
She stopped walking.
She stared at him.
There was horror on her face. Her eyes pleaded.
He started to run to her, but he couldn't reach her. A sound was rising in his ears. A storm, a siege, a rushâ¦
The blood came then, like a tidal wave. A rush of it, as if a crimson river had exploded, broken a dam, surged down a hillâ¦
He saw her face her eyesâ¦pleading for help.
Then the blood washed everywhere, along the aisle, up the ancient lichened walls of the cathedral. It rose higher and higher.
He was drowning in it.
Choking on it.
Far away from the distant mountains, a man awoke from a nightmare. He let out a hoarse cry and jackknifed to a sitting position. The scene in his mind had played out so realistically that he was momentarily convinced he was covered in blood. He was coughing, as if he had been fighting for breath in his sleep.
He cast off the sweat-soaked sheet that had covered him, rose, and strode to the doors to the balcony, quickly casting them open. Reality rushed in with a breath of magnolia-scented air.
Would it never stop? Would the nightmare never cease to haunt him?
It was the end of spring, the beginning of summer. Heat rose by day, and yet, by night, there was a breeze that touched his skin like a gentle hand.
He looked up at the sky. Eerie clouds veiled the moon, giving it an unearthly tinge of color.
He gritted his teeth, his features hard and determined.
It looked just as it had thenâ¦.
At the blood wedding.
ark Davidson watched the couple at the bar, who seemed to be like any couple at any bar.
The man leaned toward the woman. She was pretty, in a tube top that displayed sculpted abs and a short skirt that afforded a long look at longer legs. She batted her lashes now and then, lowering her head, offering a shy, even rueful, smile to the man at her side. He was tall, and dark. Despite his apparent ease with her flirtation, there seemed to be a tenseness in him, a leashed energy that, to Mark, at least, suggested something wasn't quite right.
The couple laughed together, teased each other. Body language. She'd been looking for something that evening; he'd definitely been set on action.
“Another drink, sir?” Momentarily, he was distracted by the waitress, an attractive but older woman with large eyes and a nice figure. Her voice was polite but also weary, he thought. Maybe it hadn't been easy for her over the last few years.
“Umâ¦” He wasn't sure why she was asking. He'd barely touched the beer he'd ordered earlier. Then again, they needed to make money here, so maybe it was just a hint.
“Sorry, I guess you don't,” she said with a little sigh. He had a feeling she was a native. Her accent was richly Southern. Not that New Orleans was a city where only natives could be found. It was the kind of place people simply fell in love with, as if it had a personality all its own. Of course, some people loathed the city's free and easy spirit, and, he had to admit, the vomit in the streets after a particularly wild night during Mardi Gras wasn't exactly a selling point. None of that mattered to him. He loved the place, the narrow streets, the old buildings and the mixture of cultures. He loved everything about the place.
Oh, yeah. He loved everything about the place, except forâ¦
The waitress was blocking his view, he realized. He had chosen a back table, in the shadows. He was away from the jazz band playing to the far left of the bar, near the entrance. The group was great; Mark would have happily come here just to listen to them. That was one of the things he loved most about New Orleans; some of the best music in the world could be heard here, often just by walking along the streets. Young talent,
talent, often began their careers playing in Jackson Square or right on any street corner, performing in the hope that the passersby would be tossed their dollars in a guitar case or a hat.
There was so much to love about New Orleans.
Like the many times he had come here with Katieâ¦
He took a long swallow of the beer in front of him, lukewarm now, and gritted his teeth. He wasn't here to walk down memory lane.
“Sure, yeah, another beer. Cold, please,” he said, trying to look around the waitress. But when she moved, he saw that the couple at the bar had gone.
He leapt to his feet and dug into his pocket for a bill. He handed it to her.
“Never mind,” he said, heading for the door.
“Sir, your change,” she protested, staring at the fifty he'd handed her.
“Keep it,” he murmured, his eyes already riveted on the door to the street.
Out there the world was bright, alive with neon, laughter and the dueling beats of jazz and rock, as the music from the bars and clubs lining the sidewalks spilled into the humid air. Flashing lights advertised all manner of drinks and entertainment; old buildings seemed to peer at the rush of people with a haunting, even if decayed, elegance, despite their cloaks of commercialism.
Men and women, groups, duos, even singles, meandered down the street, some slowly, slightly inebriated, bumping into one another as they walked. Others moved with purpose.
He didn't see the couple from the bar, and he swore bitterly to himself.
Where the hell would the man have taken the girl? It wasn't as if he had to commit murder in a darkened cemetery; he could have rented a room anywhere. Hell, he might even have a place of his own here. Where? Alone, he might have moved as quickly as the wind. But he had the woman with him, slowing him down.
He turned. The waitress had followed him.
“I said to keep the change,” he said gently.
She smiled. “The bartender said the couple you were watching went left. The guy talked her into a late night cemetery visit.” She shrugged, a soft and thankful glow in her eyes. “Lots of assholes trying to pick up women convince them to slip into the cemeteries at night. Risky business. Drug dealers hang out thereâand worse. You take care.”
“Thanks,” he told her. “Thank you.”
Now that he had a direction, he started running down the street. So much for thinking the guy might just opt for a hotel room or the courtyard of some nice bed and breakfast.
As he ranm, he patted a hand against the pocket of his Chinos. He could feel the vial. He was armed, as wellâconventionally armedâbut he knew that wouldn't mean a damned thing, given what he was up against.
He reached the cemetery. Entry at night was illegal, but he scaled the fence easily, landing with a soft thud on the other side.
As he did, he heard the laughter. They were deeper into the grounds, behind the chipping stone and plaster of an above ground tomb, with its sad angels and praying cherubs.
“Ooh, this is decadent. Creepy, and kind of exciting,” a female voice said.
“Yes. I know.”
“You want toâ¦here? Right here?” she whispered. Her voice sounded a little uncertain. Now that she had come to the cemetery, perhaps she was feeling a little bit bothered by such disrespect for the dead. Or maybe it was fear of getting caught by the police.
“You tell me,” the man answered. “Do you want to feel my lips touch your flesh?”
The girl made a sound Mark couldn't identify, and he clenched his jaw tightly, seeking to control the pain and fury that swept through him. He didn't blame the girl. She might as well have been hypnotized.
“I wantâ¦yesâ¦.” she murmured.
Mark crept closer. There they were.
The man had stripped off his shirt. The girl was stretched out on top of one of the tombs, her bare torso glistening beneath the moonlight. The man was bent over her, his hand stroking the length of her legs, his lips teasing the bare flesh of her midriff.
“Wait, please!” There was fear in the girl's voice now.
“You're very prettyâ¦. We could have had so much more fun first. Excitement like you've never imagined. Too bad that tonightâ¦well, I'm really am hungry. It's been a while for me, I'm afraid.”
She was gasping out another protest again. She had just realized she was about to die, Mark knew, and she was trying hard to scream. But terror, as sweet as sugar in the blood, was beginning to fill her, and she couldn't choke out the agony trapped in her throat.
Mark inhaled, tensing. She wouldd be dead any second now if he didn't act. He reached into his pocket. He sprang.
He was in terrific shape, having served with the Marines before putting in several years as a bouncer while getting his own work sold. Even so, as fast as he was, the man sensed his approach. He heard the snarl of rage before he saw the man at the tomb swirl around, ready to meet him, a horrible, twisted mask of fury on his face. He saw the mouth open, the glint of the fanglike teeth in the darkness. Oddly enough, they had a fascinating opalescent glow.
He swore softly to himself. This wasn't the same man he had been trailing with such dogged determination. It was another, no doubt equally as bad.
His heart sank. And, yetâ¦
This creature was about to kill. He had to remember justiceâhad to put it above revenge. He couldn't let his guard down; he couldn't falter for an instant.
Before he could reach the creature, however, the man gave a harsh laugh of amusement. “Going to shoot me?” he demanded.
“Hell no,” Mark assured him. His vial was full, and it was open. He aimed directly into the face and eyes of his opponent.
let out a bloodcurdling cry of rage and astonishment as the holy water bathed its features. There was a flutter of shadow and darkness, a weak flapping of wings. It took off and crashed hard into a tomb.
Mark followed it. He drew the small but sharply honed stake he always carried from his pocket, then skewered the mix of shadow and substance and bat wings by the tomb.
There was a burst of misty color in the night. Dust exploding in the air, crimson with the blood of many lifetimes.
The flapping stopped. For a moment there was something of the lumpen and darkened essence of a man by the graveâ¦then there was nothing. Dirt and ash. Dust to dust.
He stood there, just staring, suddenly shaking as he broke out in a cold sweat.
Suddenly the girl started to scream. The sound jerked Mark back to reality, the here, the now. He turned. She was staring at him with wild, tear stained eyes, obviously in a state of total shock..
“Shut up,” he said, sharply but not unkindly.
“He was aâ¦a vampire!” she said. She blinked in disbelief at her own words.
“You killed him!” she gasped. “Butâ¦he was real.” She shook her head. “That'sâ¦impossible.”
“I'm afraid not.
She swayed, still reeling, shaking as if she were suffering from a severe chill.
“Heâhe really was a vampire?”
Mark could hear sirens approaching. Someone must have heard her scream. “Yes, he was.”
But not the one I was looking for
, he added silently.
“I don'tâ¦I can'tâ¦believe this,” she said.
“We need to get out of here. The police are coming.”
“Shouldn't we stay and reportâ¦umâ¦this?”
He arched a brow at her. “You're going to report what happened here?” he asked.
She stared at him, still shaking. “Yes, butâ¦no, it isn't real, can't be real, butâ¦”
real.” He was trying very hard to be patient, but time was running out. He sighed. “They won't believe you, though. We have to get out of here.”
Her jaw worked hard as she tried to form words. At last, still shivering, she said, “Get me over the wall, please?”
“Of course. Head that way.”
He could move like the wind himselfâcollege footballâbut she was still so stunned that he felt as if he was dragging dead weight. He had to urge her to help herself as he pushed her up the wall, then jumped to safety behind her and brought her back down on the sidewalk.
Back on solid pavement, she stared at him, shaking her head. “He was really a vampire?”
“No,” she argued, then, “Yes,” she said.
She was going to need some major therapy, he thought.
“Youâ¦you saved my life. IâIâoh, God, I owe youâ¦youâ¦”
“You and I both have to get out of here. They'll think we're junkies or thieves or something,” he said flatly.
“Yes, butâ¦I need toâ¦to thank you somehow.” Her eyes were wide, frightened; she wasn't being sexual, just grateful and unsure what to do about it.
She straightened her spine, still unable to believe what had happened, but trying for proper dignity.
You saved my life. I owe you something.”
The patrol cars were nearly at the gates.
“You want to do something for me?” he demanded “Be careful. Don't go off into cemeteries with assholes you meet in a bar, okay?” He grabbed her hand. “Let's go.”
He ran, pulling her along after him, and stayed with her down Canal Street and all the way to Harrah's.
“I don't even know your name,” she told him.
“And you shouldn't,” he said gently. “Go in there. Call a friend. Go home.”
He turned and left her, suddenly exhausted, and more disappointed than he cared to admit.
He'd thought he'd been chasingâ¦someone. But he hadn't been. It was that simple.
He swore softly.
Damn, but there were a hell of a lot of foul beasts preying upon the world.
It occurred to him as he walked wearily back to his hotel that man himself could be considered one of themâeven before the taint of pure evil touched upon him.
He stopped and looked at the roiling sky. He'd killed a murdering bloodsucker tonight. And it was all just beginning.
“I'm coming to get you. You're going to be mine, in a world of blood and death and darkness,” Deanna Marin whispered darkly.
“Oh, for the love of God, cut it out,” Lauren Crow pleaded.
“Seriously. Perhaps we'll open a door to another world, and demons will spring out and bring darkness and evil into this world,” Heidi Weiss said, laughing, unable to maintain a low, threatening tone with the same success Deanna had managed.