“Say it, then,” I instructed tartly, swallowing the rest of my wine. It tasted like cinnamon and made me cringe.
“No time like the present.” My eyes narrowed, and I spun the stem of the wineglass back and forth between my finger and thumb.
Lucas’s lips pursed. “You know something?” He pushed his untouched plate away from him. “I knew you were royalty the moment we met. I knew we were destined to be together the first time I saw your face. I love you, Secret, I do. I love every fiber of your fucked-up DNA. I love your insecurity and your stubbornness.” He was gripping the corners of the table, and there was an edge to his voice that both frightened and aroused me. He continued, “But until this moment, I never thought you’d be so willing to act like the spoiled little princess you could have been.”
It had been a perfectly suitable declaration up until the end.
I put my empty glass down, then folded my napkin and placed it next to my plate.
“All right. Well, Lucas Rain, how’s this? I could love you.” I pushed my chair back an inch, and his cheeks flushed. “But right now, acting like a pompous douchebag who thinks being king gives him the right to treat me like something he owns? It doesn’t make me like you very much.”
Before he could counter, I grabbed my purse and left the table, leaving a tongue-tied wolf king in my wake.
It was ten forty by the time I was back out on Madison. I doubted Lucas was planning to follow me, hobbled by ego as he was, so I stopped outside the entrance and traded my heels for a pair of flats.
The rest of my night would not be as dramatic as dinner had been, but I was willing to bet it would be a bit more active.
Now four inches shorter, I headed south towards Gramercy, home of the vampire bar Havana. Leave it to the vampires of Manhattan to place their den of inequity a stone’s throw from some of the wealthiest, most famous people in New York.
I briefly wondered if anyone with fangs had a key to Gramercy Park but knew how silly and obvious the answer was. Of course they would. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover someone with fangs had keys to the Oval Office.
The night was bright and warm, without any of the hazy burden of too-hot air. The city lit up the sky overhead, creating a constant state of artificial twilight. In summer the darkness never seemed able to reach its full potential.
I crossed the street in front of the Flatiron Building, weaving in between a gaggle of camera-wielding tourists who were snapping pictures of the landmark skyscraper.
I pushed my dinner disaster out of my mind. The last time I’d told someone I loved him it had been my former live-in boyfriend, Gabriel Holbrook. Three weeks after I’d said it, Gabriel had moved out. Now I’d almost said it again, then proceeded to call my boyfriend a pompous douchebag.
Maybe I really was meant to be single.
All I knew right then was that compartmentalization was a wonderful thing for the professional assassin.
Havana was a stone’s throw away from Gramercy Park. It was down a long alley between two tall brick apartment buildings. I doubted the denizens of those door-manned manors knew what was happening betwixt and between their towers of solitude.
Vampires loved doing their nasty business where they were most likely to be caught, but in such a manner they knew they wouldn’t be. Sort of like a constant state of having sex in public, only they rarely had their pants down while doing it.
I stood across the street from the alley, with my back to the gated park, thinking about my plan and waiting for the next essential piece of it to appear.
While I waited I focused on my hunger. Not eating dinner at Two Moon Grill was proving to be one of the smartest things I’d done all night. By fixating on my empty stomach, I was able to coax the vampire part of me to come out of dormancy and roar to the surface.
I was getting better at distinguishing between the two monsters inside me and manipulating the one I needed most at any given time. But manipulation wasn’t the same thing as control, and I had to be sure I didn’t let either of my monsters become the master instead of the puppet.
Letting my vampire and werewolf halves come out to play meant I was constantly risking whatever remained of my humanity. I was always on the precipice, one inch away from the abyss.
But tonight I couldn’t be worried about risks. Tonight what I needed to be was a vampire. I needed to smell like one, look like one and pass for one.
And there was one more thing I needed, which I caught a whiff of on the faint breeze. I followed it down the block, still within sight of the alley. I crept up slow and soundless until I was within inches of my prey.
I leaned in from behind so my lips were almost flush with his ear, and then I let myself be known.
“Hello,” I purred.
Nolan, the good-natured, unpracticed vampire hunter from Bramley, had just let a vampire sneak up on him. He yelped and turned to face me, stumbling off the bench he’d been sitting on.
“S-S-Secret?” he stammered.
“Calm down.” I climbed over the back of the bench, plopping my purse in the center, and sat on the backrest instead of the seat he’d formerly occupied. It gave me a good vantage point to look down at him where he sat on the sidewalk. “I won’t bite,” I added, then leered wolfishly. I clasped my hands together and rested them on my knees. “I won’t bite,” I repeated. “But you’re a block away from a giant clusterfuck of vampires who wouldn’t think twice about it. And if I can sneak up on you, so can they.”
He brushed some gravel off his palms and sucked up his cheeks in a familiar, defensive posture. “I just wasn’t—”
“You weren’t paying attention. And that will get you killed with a rogue.” I looked him over. His jeans were faded and so worn they appeared about as thin as a cotton shirt. His T-shirt was a size too small, which worked well for his well-muscled chest and arms, but I didn’t think that was the reason for the size. Nolan smelled of something unmistakable and sad. Desperation. He was trying too hard to prove himself my equal, and I wondered why it was so important for him to be accepted as a vampire slayer.
“Nolan,” I said. “Have you ever actually confronted a vampire? Face-to-face, I mean?”
He stood, rubbing his scuffed hands on his jeans, and tried to make himself look bigger than he was by puffing up his chest and straightening to his full six-foot frame. I found it more endearing than menacing. There was a reason vampires didn’t tell scary stories about Nolan to their newborns. There were no cautionary tales for baby vamps about the Jamesons and Norikos and Nolans of the world.
Me, on the other hand, they all knew my name.
“I’ll take that as a no,” I concluded when he didn’t say anything.
I hopped off the bench to stand next to him, where I was dwarfed by his height but still somehow the tougher of the two of us. I placed a hand on each of my hips and stared up at him. He glanced at my face but wouldn’t meet my eyes. After a moment he couldn’t even look at my forehead and turned his head away, slumping as he did.
“What kind of weapon do you have?” I held out one of my hands.
He acted indignant, but after I sighed and crooked my fingers he stopped fighting me and mumbled, “Uh.” He pulled something out of his back pocket and handed it to me.
I laughed out loud. “No. Seriously.”
He flinched and put his empty hands back into his pockets, blushing. I gawked at the sharpened wooden stake he’d given me and tasted bile rising in my throat. What was he going to do with a stake? Start a teeny fire and burn the vampire to death? That would only work if the rogue in question was too busy laughing his ass off to think about killing the boy.
My fist tightened around the stake, and then with a whoosh I chucked it over the fence and into the park beyond.
“Hey!” Nolan protested.
“Trust me, Nolan, you’re better off with nothing than with that. When we’re done here, if you still want to do this, I want you to go see Leary Fallon on 8th. Tell him I sent you. He’ll get you something useful. Don’t ever bring a stake to the hunt again.”
I brushed my hands on my dress, offended by what I’d just touched.
“What do you mean when we’re done here?” he asked nervously, trying to hide the tremor in his voice. His Brooklyn accent seemed to thicken in relation to how frightened he was.
“You really want to be a vampire hunter, Nolan?”
“Yes.” This time he spoke with total confidence. If Nolan made it through the night, I wanted to hear his story, his whole story.
“All right then.” I grabbed him by the arm and dragged him towards the alley. “Time for lesson one.”
“W-w-which is?” He was so surprised I’d been able to move him, he wasn’t even fighting me. He would be putty if someone got the thrall on him.
“We meet a real vampire.”
We passed under a streetlight, and he got his first good look at my face.
“Secret? What’s wrong with your eyes? They’re…” His voice was cold with fear.
My eyes were solid black, of course. I had the vampire hunger to thank for that. Pretty soon I wouldn’t be able to stop from flashing fang, but I was hoping to save that for a more opportune moment.
“You’ll see,” I promised, as we came to a stop in front of the entrance to Havana. “You’ll see.”
Havana was like no other club I’d ever been to. This was my first foray into the interior of the establishment, and I was amazed by how different it was from what I’d expected. It was dimly lit, but not the moody darkness of a human bar. Even if the lights had been lowered it would have been more for ambience than anything else, because dark or light, the vampires there could see perfectly.
The music was kept at midlevel volume rather than blaring obnoxiously. It helped create an illusion of privacy.
Nolan and I entered into a small antechamber where a spiral staircase set into the floor promised to lead us onward. The walls were a deep, rich green color and the floor was polished black hardwood. Heavy brocade curtains were draped over doorframes and windows to protect the secrets that lay beyond.