Chapter One: Peril
It was patently obvious that I was in trouble. Serious trouble.
Regaining consciousness, I rolled over, blinking against the stark brightness in the room. I found myself lying on an old mattress, the dark cover stained and soiled. The room smelled musty, like worn socks that had lain in the bottom of the laundry basket for too long before washing. The last thing I could recall was being dragged away from Striker and Marianne’s wedding celebrations by a group of men. What had happened between then and now, how much time had passed – I didn’t know.
I pushed myself upright on the mattress and looked around. There wasn’t much to see, the mattress lay on a concrete floor; the walls too, were made of solid cement. A tiny window, filmed by a thick coating of grime was situated in the top of one wall. It gave the impression this room must be positioned at least partially underground, to need the window so high. In the wall opposite the window, there was a door, made of metal and deadlocked. There was no handle. I raised my hands to my head, pressing my palms against my temples and squeezing my eyes shut as fear overwhelmed me. I had a funny taste in my mouth and felt groggy, slightly disorientated, which made me believe I’d been drugged. Shaking my head firmly, I tried to remove the last vestiges of fuzziness – I needed to be alert, knew I had to think logically about this situation if I was going to get out of here alive. My eyes were tired and dry, and I rubbed my fists against them.
With a quick glance, I confirmed I was still wearing the beautiful pewter dress and I sighed with relief. It gave the illusion nobody had touched me while I was unconscious and I clung to it, not wanting to consider the alternatives. Anything could have happened while I was out to it. My mouth throbbed and I touched it lightly, wincing when my fingers brushed across my lip. There was a deep split in the skin and it was swollen. Running my tongue across my lip, I discovered one of my teeth was a little loose. There didn’t seem to be any other physical damage. It was satisfying to discover that the edge of the ankle cast was damaged, where I’d kicked the goon who’d touched me so intimately. He’d deserved it.
The biggest question to answer was what did these people want from me? My heart began to race as I pondered the question and I made a conscious effort not to hyperventilate. Panic was the last thing I could afford to do, not when I was in so much trouble. Breathing slowly and deeply, I tried to examine the situation logically, working my way through the moments before I was snatched away from the wedding.
I recalled Lucas and the others reacting in an identical fashion, mirroring one another’s movements. They’d all raised their heads and sniffed the air, aware of something, or someone, approaching. Their sense of smell was acute, heightened beyond normal human ability and I suspected what they’d smelled was something supernatural, rather than human. It was the only logical explanation for their reaction, when they’d already been surrounded by dozens of human scents at the reception.
There was no doubt in my mind that the wedding planner had been vampire. When I’d met him and he shook my hand, his skin had been cool to touch, but I’d been fooled when he carried the bags of ice through the house to the marquee. No doubt, he’d done it deliberately to confuse me. I focused on his name, repeating it in my head, trying to think if I’d met him before, or heard his name mentioned in the past. I drew a blank. He meant nothing to me, yet he’d told the black-haired man I was the one they wanted. Why? What was it about me that they wanted so badly?
I got onto my knees and pushed up to a standing position, leaning against the concrete wall until the dizziness subsided. When I’d recovered my equilibrium, I began to pace backwards and forwards across the concrete floor, thinking through the situation incessantly. It was freezing in the small room and my dress wasn’t suitable for low temperatures, so I wrapped my arms around my chest, rubbing my arms briskly to try to warm myself. The only viable motive for kidnapping me was my psychic ability. Without it, I was a normal human woman. But if they wanted my ability, what possible use could they have for it?
I was positive I’d met Gerard DuBonet for the first time this morning, but even that piece of information was open to conjecture – how long had I been held? How long was I drugged? Was it even the same day? The room was lit by a single fluorescent tube and it was impossible to know how long I’d been here, what time it was, what day it might be. The window was filthy, impossible to see through. I couldn’t tell if it was day or night through the grime-caked glass. Stretching up against the wall, I tried to reach the window in the hope I could clear some of the grime, but it was too high. There wasn’t a stick of furniture to help gain some height, only the mattress and its measly couple of inches wouldn’t help. With a humph of frustration, I gave up the attempt and resumed pacing.
Another idea brought me to a standstill. Gerard DuBonet shook my hand when we met. Did he have some sort of ability, could he read me through touch? Was that possible? I almost disregarded the idea, but I was dealing with vampires – anything was possible. In the past few months, I’d met Rowena, who could sense my emotions through contact, and Acenith and Striker, who could keep me calm with the touch of their hand on my shoulder. I knew some of the vampires could converse telepathically and Ripley could read other people’s thoughts. It seemed plausible to think Gerard DuBonet might learn something about me through touch. I certainly couldn’t disregard the notion. But I couldn’t figure out how he could have met me in the morning and planned to kidnap me by evening. I couldn’t force that part of the puzzle to make any sense.
There were still other questions to answer; for instance, why didn’t Marianne foresee the strangers arriving at the wedding reception? The answer came almost immediately – her ability wasn’t known for being faultless and with the excitement of her wedding day, maybe it had been misfiring more than usual. Although she seemed to be linked to me in some way with her ability – seeing many things involving me – perhaps this time it just hadn’t worked.
Which led back to my first question. Even if Gerard DuBonet did recognize my ability, how did he find out about it in the first place?
I resumed pacing, thinking back uneasily through the day and beyond. My contacts were limited; my only friends outside of Lucas and the others were Lonnie, Hank, and Maude. Only Lucas and the vampires knew of my ability. I didn’t think they’d even told Nick Lingard and his group of shape shifters. So where did the information come from?
Maybe I was on the wrong track altogether, although I couldn’t think of anything that would single me out for kidnapping, other than my ability to speak with the dead. The black-haired man told Lucas I had something they wanted. The only logical option was the psychic gift. I had no idea why they thought it would be useful, nor what they could want to do with it. They didn’t strike me as yearning to make contact with long-dead ancestors. Did they realize I only ever had contact with spirits who were important to me in some way? I doubted I could make contact with spirits, merely because someone tried to force me into doing it.
It was incredibly tempting to open the box in my mind and talk to Mom and the others. I was angry with myself for keeping them shut away so much, it had been a mistake. I’d been so smug about having the ability under control, only allowing contact when I wanted it. By doing so, I’d had no warning of the danger I faced. I clenched my fists in frustration and rolled my eyes at my own stupidity. I’d been so happy about gaining some control over the spirits, I hadn’t thought about the possible repercussions of keeping them silent. If I’d kept the lines of communication open, they’d have given me warning about the impending danger I faced. Why hadn’t Mom warned me though, at the wedding? Maybe she could only warn me if she was given enough contact to see danger approaching. By only releasing her for a few minutes, I hadn’t given her a chance to recognize the imminent threat. It was the only logical explanation.
Now I wanted to talk to them desperately, but I was certain it would be reckless. If these people – whoever they were – wanted to use my ability, allowing the spirits out could be a mistake. I didn’t know how or even if, they knew about my gift or what means they could employ to discover it. What if they had some way to recognize the spirits in my head? Could someone touch me and know about them if they were speaking with me? No. Releasing the spirits seemed like a bad proposition right now.
I circled the room with increasing frustration, knowing there was nothing to indicate where I was being held, but searching anyway. When they’d dragged me away, they’d taken off at a run through the woods. I’d been carried by the man who’d touched me so intimately and I shuddered at the memory. He’d smelled strongly of aftershave and when he’d thrown me over his shoulder, he'd taken great delight in holding his hand on my backside as he ran. I couldn’t estimate how far we’d travelled through the darkened woods, before I was bundled unceremoniously into a car. A cloth held across my nose and mouth had been soaked in a sweet-smelling liquid, which knocked me unconscious. From there, I had no idea of where I’d been taken, how far we’d travelled, or where I was now.
Was Lucas searching for me? My heart lurched – would he be able to find me? The vampires might be able to track our path through the woods, but what happened when they reached where the car had been parked? Was there any hope of them tracking me from there? I assumed my scent would have disappeared into thin air from that point. I wasn’t sure how their tracking ability worked, but I was certain they must need some scent, some trace of me to follow. When that was gone, there was probably no way of them following the direction in which we’d travelled. My already-shaken confidence took a further nose-dive at the thought of them being unable to find me. What if I was held here forever?
Shaking that thought from my mind, I mulled over my chances of rescue. The only thing I’d been able to do was attempt to get a message to Ripley about the wedding planner. The very same wedding planner, who wasn’t a wedding planner. I cursed at myself – why hadn’t I told Lucas about Gerard DuBonet? I should have mentioned how cold his hands were, even if I’d been stupid enough to believe his ruse with the ice. With everything going on in the lead-up to the wedding, the thought had completely slipped my mind. I’d been under the impression they knew him, and he’d seemed so confident and in control, I’d had no reason to think otherwise.
Breathing deeply, I tried to compose myself and keep the dread, which was bubbling away beneath the surface, under control. I had to keep it under control. Fear wasn’t going to keep me alive.
Heavy footsteps approached and I stopped pacing, anxiously watching the door. The footfalls stopped outside and a key was slipped into the lock and turned.
Whatever they wanted, I was about to find out.
Chapter Two: Deep Trouble
To my utter disgust, the black-haired man stood in the doorway, his gaze lingering suggestively at my chest. “It’s about time you woke up.”
He strode across the room and captured my arm, dragging me out into a narrow hallway. He turned to the left, pulling me along beside him and tears welled in my eyes from his painful grip. There was no doubt; it was going to leave a bruise.
He hauled me up a flight of roughly hewn wooden stairs and I stumbled along beside him as he strode down another hallway. This one was lavishly decorated with flocked wallpaper, a claret leaf pattern on cream. The floor beneath my feet was polished and stained oak, the surface gleaming beneath the overhead lights. He stopped in front of a set of double doors, guarded by two heavyset men in dark suits. Neither of them glanced at us, their eyes focused on the opposite wall. The black-haired man rapped sharply on the door.
One of the guards pushed the doors open and I was dragged unceremoniously into the room. It was a study, oval shaped with rows of leather-bound books adorning wooden shelves, flawlessly fitted into the curved walls. A man sat behind an enormous wooden desk in the centre of the room. A large window was open behind him, sunlight streaming into the room and the lace curtains wafted softly in the breeze. Carefully tended gardens were visible outside, planted with a selection of majestic palms and bright, tropical flowers. Vast swathes of lawn were richly green and meticulously mowed. We were nowhere near Montana – that much was obvious. The man who’d dragged me upstairs shoved me down onto a straight-backed chair before letting go of my arm.
“Leave us, Sebastian.”
I glared at Sebastian as he strode past and left the room, shutting the doors soundlessly behind him.
I turned my attention to the man in the chair. He was tall and slim, with blonde shoulder length hair, which fell around his face in gentle waves. He was bearded, the hair clipped neatly around his jaw. The fine lines around his chocolate brown eyes suggested he was in his mid-forties and he was dressed casually in a white silk shirt, the neckline open to reveal a small ‘V’ of tanned skin.
“How do you know my name?”
He smiled. “Oh, I know quite a bit about you, Miss Duncan.” He drew himself to his feet and strode around the desk, his movements curiously graceful given he was so lanky. Perching on the edge of the desk, he regarded me with a tight smile. “My name is Laurence Armstrong.” He held out his hand and I shook it warily, not taking my eyes off him. His skin was warm, his hand smooth with long fingers and neatly manicured nails. With his eyes focused on me, I felt a whisper of power travel through his hand and into mine, an increase in warmth and a vibration, which made the hair on my arms stand on end. I pulled my hand away from his, rubbing it on my thigh. I didn't know what it was, or how he'd done it, but there was something strange about him, some sort of power I couldn't recognize.
“You’re not a vampire?” I questioned warily.