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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2019 Amber Morgan



ISBN: 978-1-77339-873-0


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: Melissa Hosack



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED



WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.





DEDICATION


To my family back in the UK—I’ll see you all soon! And to my

editor, Melissa, who always makes the job so easy and fun.





A DARK GIFT


The Ravenstone Vampires, 1


Amber Morgan


Copyright © 2019



Chapter One


The thing I liked best about my job as a bartender at the Maybury Hotel was how quiet it was. Ravenstone was a large town, sure, but it was also a university town, and the students that made up so much of its population couldn't afford to drink at the old, baroque hotel. Working the bar there was almost as peaceful as being in the Ravenstone University library, with just a small crowd of guests to take care of most nights. Business men and visiting academics, mostly, who just wanted a glass of wine while they pored over their papers and laptops.

That gave me plenty of time to relax, enjoy the gentle piano music that always drifted unobtrusively through the elegant bar, and do my own studying between serving drinks. I was deep into my third year of Politics and Sociology at Ravenstone Uni, and every second I could steal to cram my brain with facts on Anarchism and World Ordering was crucial.

Four nights every week, I'd be hunched over a textbook at the bar, keeping one eye on my customers so my fellow bar staff could do their own studying. That's how it had been for the year and a half I'd been working at the Maybury. It was perfectly routine and I was perfectly happy.

The night that routine changed, my entire life changed with it.

Violently.

Irrevocably.

****

"What the hell is going on here tonight?" I asked Nora as I entered the bar. It was six o'clock and the place was unnaturally packed. The lobby had been busy too, a sign outside the hotel's single conference room indicating it was in use, but giving no clues as to why. The crowd in the lobby had been a startling sight, a collection of men and women in a variety of outfits from conservative suits to flamboyant dresses. There was no common thread to hint at what had brought them together.

Nora, a freshman at Ravenstone Uni, shrugged. She was wiping down the bar, scraping together shards of broken glass, and didn't look up at me. She was red-cheeked and harried, looking like she'd been working much longer than the hour I knew she'd been here.

"It's been like this since I started," she said, tossing her blue-dyed hair and frowning at the noisy bar. "It's like the circus came to town."

I scanned the throng, inclined to agree. I saw the same array of weird and wonderful outfits as in the lobby and wondered if it was some kind of fashion designer or artist convention. I saw big hair, gaudy jewelry, wicked heels, and sharp suits. Tattoos, feathers, piercings, and top hats. As weird as it was to see the Maybury so busy, it was cool to see such an eclectic gathering.

Well. There'd be no studying tonight. Even as I thought it, a couple drifted to the bar. The woman looked Middle Eastern, with a crown of glorious black hair falling in glossy waves around her shoulders. Her slinky black dress was plain, but accented with beautiful copper jewelry, studded with red gems. Her male companion was lightly tanned, with dark brown hair, long enough to curl on top, but buzzed short at the sides. He had a neat, villainous goatee and a neat, villainous smirk to match. Dressed in a black suit with a heavy leather duster over the top and a silver-tipped cane in hand, he looked charming, intriguing, and coolly dangerous.

He eyed me unabashedly as they approached, dark eyes glittering. My throat went dry, my nerves skittering. Something about him set me on edge, and I had no idea if it was in a good or bad way.

"What can I get you?" I asked brightly, trying to ignore the sudden butterflies in my stomach. I placed my hands down on the bar to steady myself, and immediately felt a stabbing pain in my palm. "Shit ... excuse me."

I'd found a piece of glass Nora had missed. Turning my hand over, I was surprised at how much blood there was already. "Shit," I said again. "Nora!"

"Oh dear," the man said, his gaze suddenly fixed on my hand. "How careless."

I took an involuntary step away from the bar. Something in his voice made me think he was laughing at me.

Nora hurried over, carrying the first aid kit we kept under the bar. "Sorry, Evie," she said, flipping the little green tub open. "I've been so bloody busy all evening, I'm missing things."

"Not your fault," I said, falsely cheerful. I really didn't blame her, but the cut was surprisingly deep and painful, and it would make pulling pints awkward for the rest of the night. "Do you mind serving our guests here while I sort myself out?" I nodded at the pair, who were watching us intently.

Nora nodded, spinning to greet them. The man's gaze dropped to her cleavage—which was worth looking at, I had to admit—then landed back on me as I clumsily slapped a bandage on my palm.

"What'll it be, sir?" Nora asked him. "The house wine is—"

"Oh, I never drink ... wine," he said, and winked at me as if we were sharing some joke.

I got the reference, but not the humor. "We have craft ales on tap, too."

"He'll have sparkling water," the woman said, her voice smooth and faintly accented. "And I will have wine. Something red and strong, please."

Her gaze flittered over me too, not as bold or unnerving as his, but it added to my discomfort. After Nora had served them, they walked off. He whispered in the woman's ear, and she glanced back at us—at me—once, then shook her head. Within seconds, they were lost in the crowd.

I felt like some pressure had broken, and a tightness in my chest I'd barely noticed eased.

"They were weird," Nora said, moving onto the next customer.

I agreed, but there was no time to dwell on it. The bar stayed busy all night. I tried to eavesdrop on our customers and get an idea of what the big occasion was, but caught only useless snippets of chatter. One woman in ripped jeans and a corset remarked that Ravenstone was a boring venue for "it," whatever "it" was. A bald man with crooked teeth retorted that he liked the traditional feel of the town. An older couple discussed in hushed tones whether he was really here, but nothing I heard could be pieced together to make a clear picture.

After a couple of hours, I lost interest. My feet ached from running up and down the bar all night. My hand ached where I'd cut it, and my head ached from the constant din in the bar, so different from the usual relaxed vibe. By midnight when the bar closed, the only thing on my mind was getting home and in the bathtub as quickly as possible.

Along with Nora and another bartender, Liam, I quickly ran through the closing routine. The three of us worked together most nights we were here, and were a well-oiled machine. Once the bar had emptied, it took us an hour to clean up, wipe down, and lock up. Nora and Liam left together. They were friends-with-benefits, and usually wound up back at his place to smoke a joint and order a pizza.

Me, I lived two streets away, claiming one tiny room in a shared house. My three housemates and I had all met in the first year and stuck together ever since. It was a Friday night, and normally I'd have gone to find them at our favorite pub, the Danforth Arms. But it was also early November, and outside the warmth of the Maybury it was foggy and drizzling, and I had no desire to go any farther than home.

Waving goodbye to Liam and Nora, I headed off as fast as my tired feet could carry me. The streets were quiet, the fog muffling any sound there might have been. I told myself later that was why I didn't realize I was being followed, but the truth was it didn't make a damn bit of difference either way. He could have crept up on me in broad daylight. That was just how it was when you were human and vulnerable and the man stalking you was neither of those things.

I was at the end of Beckford Road when he all but materialized next to me. It was the man from the bar, his face almost hidden by the black scarf wrapped around it. One second, I was alone, the next he was there, and I jumped out of my skin with a pathetic little shriek.

"Easy there, sweetheart," he said, grabbing my elbow to steady me. "No need for any trouble."

Heart hammering, I tried to yank away, horrified to find his grip was vise-like. "What do you want?"

He glanced up and down the dark, empty street, then pulled his scarf down to reveal an evil smile under the glare of the streetlight. The world moved in slow motion as he raised my bandaged hand, pressed his nose to my palm, and inhaled deeply.

"Oh, sweetheart," he said, baring inhuman teeth at me. "There's only one thing men like me ever want."

I fought. I really did. I stamped on his feet and kicked at his knees, I tried to poke him in the eyes with my free hand. I tried to knee him in the balls. And the whole time, he laughed at me, holding me easily with one hand, and swinging away from every feeble attack I made. It was like some grotesque dance, and I was hopelessly, horribly aware that he was in control. He was too strong for me to escape, too agile for me to strike. And nobody was coming to help me.

Finally, he grew bored of my struggle, and grabbed my other wrist. I screamed as he pulled me in hard against him, but he muffled it with a quick, hard kiss. Then he bit my lip, much, much harder, and I tasted salty blood in my mouth.

"This way, I think," he said, twirling me off the main street and down a dark side street.

Sheer terror moved me to beg. "Please... Please don't..."

"Don't?" He grinned at me, exposing those fangs again. "You don't even know what I want."

Oh God, but my imagination was filling in the blanks rapidly. Gruesome, bloody images crashed around my head, and my entire body screamed in blind denial. This wasn't happening. This couldn't be happening. I wasn't going to die here on some dark, grotty street corner, minutes from home, minutes from safety. This man, this monster, could not do that to me. He couldn't. He couldn't.

He did.

And the pain was exquisite.

His bite was the most perfect, awful experience of my life. So sharp, so intoxicating. Even as his fangs pierced my neck, my resolve to fight fled, replaced by a delirious desire to just ... give in. The world swirled around me, the darkness suddenly welcoming and welcomed. His body was an anchor in the delirium, something solid for me to cling to as he drank deeply, greedily.

He's killing me, I thought dimly, somewhere down in the rational depths of my mind. He was killing me, and I was going to let him, because it felt so fucking good.

Dimly, I was aware of footsteps nearby. The sound penetrated the fog in my brain, but it was distant and unimportant. If I'd been capable of talking then, I would have said I didn't want rescuing anymore, that I didn't want to be interrupted. That realization shook me to my core, but it still wasn't enough to make me fight. I was limp and helpless in his arms, and the world was fading around me.

Even if I'd wanted saving, I was quickly slipping past the point of return. Every drop of blood he took dragged me closer to an abyss I wouldn't return from, and I was powerless to stop it.

But suddenly, as if by violent magic, I was torn from my attacker's arms. I screamed as white-hot pain ran through my neck, his fangs tearing the flesh. I felt cold arms around me, felt the world tilt as this new figure lifted me up.

"How dare you?" my attacker raged. I couldn't see him, but he sounded close, sounded furious. "You have no right to—fuck."

The change in his tone would have made me laugh if I'd been capable of it. He still sounded furious, but his anger was tempered with deep dismay.

"I ... I didn't know you were here," he said.

Whoever held me now growled. I felt the rumbling in their chest and it quickened my sluggish pulse. When he spoke, his voice was like a magic spell, so deep and soft and wonderful, I wanted to weep.

"Go, Adrian."

"But I'm not finished." There was a petulant edge to my attacker's voice.

"You have killed her," my rescuer said. "That is enough. Go, or I will make you leave."

There was a soft hiss. I couldn't tell which of them it came from. But I heard Adrian walk away, and I felt the world shift again as my rescuer lowered to his knees, cradling me in his lap. I didn't dare open my eyes. I could feel blood rushing down my neck, and there was a sickening numbness spreading through my body that made me think I couldn't handle reality. I heard whimpering and realized it was me.

"Hush," my rescuer said. I felt his hand on my forehead, cool and firm. "Ah, my beauty. You are at the very edge. What am I to do with you?"

I tried to speak. A croak came out. "Help me."

I don't know if I thought he could. I'm not sure I really knew anything in that moment. Adrian's attack hadn't just damaged me physically, but knocked my mind too, and hard. I was in a fever-dream, with no grip on what was real and what was really happening to me. All I knew was that I was dying, because my savior had said so, and I didn't want to die.

So I begged him to save me.

I don't know how long he knelt there in the foggy night while I cried and bled and begged in his arms. But eventually he pressed a finger to my lips, gently silencing me.

"I will save you," he said, his voice grave. "But you will not like it, I fear."

****

Let me be clear on one thing. I never believed that Rahab meant to hurt me. Adrian, though? Adrian Mercer was a very bad vampire, and he definitely meant to hurt me. And all that considered, it's a shame I fell in love with them both.


Chapter Two


I dreamed of a creature with corpse-pale skin and diamond-bright eyes, and a voice that sunk into my bones, resonating within me like a primal drumbeat, a wild heartbeat. I dreamed of darkness and violence, of a shattering loss and a pain so immense it reshaped me.

Consciousness returned to me in bits and pieces. The smell of fresh cotton and lavender. The murmur of a gentle female voice. An ache in my heart for something I’d lost, something I couldn't name. Didn't dare name, not yet.

I lay in a bed too big and soft to be my own. A dull pain pulsed through me, like I was recovering from a bad virus, and I had a feeling I'd regret it if I opened my eyes. So I kept still, a pillow over my head, my eyes closed, and tried to think what could possibly have happened to me. Because something clearly had. I felt it in every cell of my body. But there was a gap in my mind where the knowledge should be, and it sent clammy anxiety rolling through me.

Was I hungover? It wouldn't be the first time I'd woken up with a black hole in my memory after a night out, although admittedly it would be the first time in a while. But no, that wasn't right. Dimly I recalled deciding against finding my friends after work. The decision seemed a long time ago, a decision made in another lifetime, another reality. But the memory felt true.

Had I been in an accident? That would explain the pain, the unfamiliar bed. I could be in hospital, full of tubes and painkillers. My heart raced at the thought of a car crash, the thought of being broken and scarred and, horror of horrors, falling behind on my coursework. I whimpered, feeling tears on the pillow.

But you're alive, I whispered to myself. Whatever happened, I had survived it. The worst was surely over, and that, surely, should give me the courage to open my eyes.

I lifted the pillow, wincing as my arm shook at the effort, and braced myself for the cold, clinical hospital ward I had to be in.

But I wasn't in a hospital ward. Far from it. The walls were dove gray, with subtle gold accents in the wallpaper. To my right was a huge, ornate free-standing wardrobe in fawn-colored wood, again with gold accents. The bed had a curved, fan-like footboard in wood that matched the wardrobe. The lamps were dainty little things, all glass and lace, and the carpet was so pale and clean, I couldn't help anxiously imagining red wine spilled across it.

This was indisputably a room in the Maybury. I eased myself upright, a difficult feat given the number of pillows swamping me, and examined the flowing monograph on one of them. It confirmed I was in the hotel, and I honestly didn't know if that made me feel better or worse.

I examined myself next. Given how sore and tired I felt, I expected to be banged up. Bruised or bandaged, or something. I discovered three things, and all of them disturbed me. First, I was in the same clothes I'd been wearing for work – black jeans, a black tank top, and a Maybury Hotel sweater. Second, there was no longer a cut on my palm from the broken glass. My skin was smooth and fresh, completely unblemished. And third, there was no other mark on me that could explain my aches—except for one.

I pressed my trembling fingers to my throat, feeling rough, raised scar tissue there, running from my pulse around to the front of my neck. A chill ran through me as the first missing memory flashed through my head. A man in the darkness, a wicked smile as he pulled me in for a deadly kiss.

My stomach lurched, and I scrambled out of the bed, rushing for the en suite bathroom. I collapsed to my knees in front of the toilet and was violently sick. I could feel the truth taking shape in my head and sending my body into spasms, but I fought it. I had to fight it, because it was fucking ridiculous, fucking impossible, fucking insane.

He hadn't been a vampire. He couldn't possibly have been. I was concussed and my brain was fucking with me. That was the only sensible answer.

I hauled myself upright, knees knocking, and turned to the sink. I cupped icy water in my hand and rinsed my mouth out, spitting away the orange-juice taste of vomit with a grimace. Then, with a firm grasp on the edge of the cool porcelain sink, I straightened up to examine myself in the mirror.

It took every ounce of resolve I had to actually look at myself. Despite the rational part of my brain insisting I was fine, that I had to be fine, of course I was fine, there was a far more shrill and insistent voice screaming that I'd woken up in a strange bed with no memory of how I'd got there. So something was not fine.

My reflection stared back at me, haggard and haunted. My blue eyes were bloodshot, my dark hair a bird's nest. I was pale, but I was always pale. That was normal. Apart from looking like I'd pulled an all-nighter, I looked normal.

I lifted my hair up to look at my throat, and my heart stuttered. The scar looked old, but nasty, and it absolutely had not been there before.

That was not normal.

"Staring at it won't help, I'm afraid."

I jumped at the voice behind me, my poor heart going into overdrive. I spun to see the Middle Eastern woman from last night—if it was last night—standing in the bathroom doorway. She had a compassionate smile on her face that somehow just made me feel worse.

I backed up, but had nowhere to go unless I wanted to sit in the sink. "What's going on?" I asked, managing to keep my voice steady. "What happened to me?"

She'd been with him, I remembered with a jolt of shock. My attacker, the... I couldn't quite think vampire. The man. I remembered them both from the bar.

She leaned against the doorframe, tugging at a curl of black hair. She was wrapped in a plum-colored silk gown, her face free of make-up, and she looked unnaturally beautiful. Maybe she was.

"There's no point sugar-coating it," she said, more to herself than me. "You were attacked last night, and you very nearly did not survive. That you did is entirely thanks to a creature who should have left you to die. But here we are." She waved her hand gracefully around the hotel room. "It's a sad twist of fate, but there aren't many other kinds."

My knees went weak, the truth I'd been refusing slamming into me like a wave in a stormy sea. "I need to sit down," I said, my voice trembling now.

She offered me her hand, and I took it without thinking. She guided me back to the bed and sat down beside me. I rested my head in my hands, fighting the urge to be sick again. She rubbed my back in slow, soothing circles. I shouldn't have felt better for her touch, I knew that, but I did anyway. I didn't have the mental energy to question it, I just seized on it.

"It is a shock," she said unnecessarily. "But you are fortunate in many ways. There are many of us here right now to help you through the change. That isn't the case for many fledglings."

My head pounded as an ice pick headache struck me. "Fledgling," I said dumbly.

"You are a baby bird now, child," she said, sounding amused. "A very unique one. What is your name?"

I raised my head to study her face. That compassion was still there, and I felt in my gut it was genuine. I wanted it to be. I wanted to trust her, because she was suddenly a safe harbor in a wild storm, and I badly needed a harbor.

"Evanna Bourne. Evie." I extended my hand for her to shake, then thought better of it and pulled it back.

She laughed. "I'm not going to bite you, Evanna. That isn't something you need to worry about anymore. My name is Nousha."

I touched my scar again, compelled by it. "You were with him. Why...Why?" I finished helplessly, trying to pack a dozen questions into the word.

Something like shame passed over Nousha's face. "I blame myself," she said. "It was clear Adrian had his eye on you, and I let him slip away." She shook her head. "I owe you a debt I cannot repay, Evanna."

Even in my dazed, stupefied state, I couldn't help shaking my head at that. "Bullshit," I snapped. "Bullshit. He did this, not you. He chose..." I broke off, sobs clogging my throat. Talking about it made it fiercely real, more so than the scar could. "Oh God. Oh shit. Am I...Will I..." I ran my tongue over my teeth and felt nothing unusual.

"The change takes a few days," Nousha said. "You will probably feel fine at first, but once it hits you..." She shook her head.

Her somber expression sent knives through me. The hotel room was suddenly a prison, too small, too hot, too full of terrible truths. I stood. "I can't stay here. I have to get out of here."

"Evanna." Nousha stood too, reaching for me. "You must stay with us. We can help you through this. It's too dangerous—"

"Us? As in you and him? No. No way." I drew away from her, the panic I'd been fighting back since I came to in full swing now. "I have to go home. I have lectures, I have essays to write. My friends will be looking for me. Shit, what time is it? Where's my phone? I have to go!"

"Evanna!" Nousha's tone was snappy and commanding, and I stilled against my will. "You are going nowhere. You will endanger yourself and others. Would you have a loved one wake up as you have woken up?"

Her words were a splash of cold water on my flailing mind. I swallowed hard, thinking of my housemates. Min, Hanna, and Riley. My little sisterhood. We'd seen each other through failed exams, bad break-ups, money troubles, and everything else a student could run into. I wanted them with a desperate yearning now, wanted the comfort and love only family could provide. My parents were both out of reach—my mum living in France with her new wife, my dad traveling the world as a diving instructor. My housemates had been everything to me for so long now. The idea of not being able to go them was heartbreaking.

But the idea of hurting them was horrifying. I sat down again, slowly. "What am I supposed to do?" I asked Nousha, staring at my feet.

"You will stay with us," Nousha said. "We will see you through the change, teach you to control yourself. After that, what you do is your choice. Although," she added reflectively, "your circumstances are unique. That may affect things."

I wasn't sure I liked the way she kept saying unique. It made me wonder what other horrible surprises I had to come. "You keep saying we," I said. "You don't mean ... him, do you? Adrian?"

She pursed her lips and shook her head. "You two need to be kept apart. But there are many of us here right now, and..."

She kept talking, but I didn't hear. Another memory surfaced, one that was a mix of dream and reality. That deep, beautiful voice. Those pale, piercing eyes. Someone else had been there when Adrian attacked, and he'd saved me. "The other one," I said, interrupting Nousha. "Whoever saved me from Adrian—is he here?"

She gave me an odd look, speculative and secretive. "We can talk about that later.”

"No," I said. "I need to know if he's here. You said I'd be dead if it wasn't for him."

She stood, tightening the belt of her robe. "Yes, but don't misunderstand, Evanna. That does not make him your friend. For now, you are best isolated from both of them, trust me."

I raked my hands through my hair. "Trust you? Do I have a choice?"

Her lips quirked, but before she could answer, the door to the room swung open. I tensed, wanting to bolt for the bathroom, but Nousha seemed pleased when she saw the new arrival, so I forced myself to relax. I didn't have much choice but to trust her, after all, so I may as well start now.

He was a sharply-dressed Asian man—I thought Japanese, but wouldn't swear to it—tall and lean with a shock of black hair. His suit was navy blue, set off with a snowy shirt and silver tie. Silver gleamed at his cuffs, and I saw spiky tattoos crawling down his wrists to the back of his hands. He was hawkishly handsome, and under other circumstances, I would have appreciated that a hell of a lot more. He looked me over with cold eyes, and I sensed that whatever he saw, he didn't like it.

"Excellent," Nousha said, smiling warmly at him. "Kaito, meet Evanna. Evanna, this is Kaito Ishii, your new bodyguard."



Chapter Three


“Bodyguard?”

I stared at Nousha, certain now I was still asleep and this was a coma-dream. She nodded, and I swung back to Kaito, taking in his stony expression with a sense of foreboding.

“Why do I need a bodyguard? Can’t I just…”

I trailed off, having no idea what I could just. As much as I liked the coma-dream theory, I couldn’t let myself fall into denial. This had happened, I was here, and I had to deal with it. Somehow. Oh hell. I buried my head in my hands, fighting the urge to sob.

“Two reasons,” Nousha said. I looked up to see her open the wardrobe. It looked full of elaborate, silky gowns, all in rich jewel tones, and I had an irrational pang of envy. “Firstly, you are not changed yet. Once you are, you will have certain strengths, but until then you are still effectively mortal and fragile. We do not leave fledglings unprotected in that time, ever. Usually your maker would see you through the change, but…Well.” She shrugged elegantly.

But, well, I was an accident, wasn’t I? Adrian had been trying to kill me, not turn me, and my mysterious rescuer obviously hadn’t stuck around to see me through this earth-shattering experience. I nodded, swallowing the ball of fury and grief that rose in my throat. “I get that, I suppose. And the second reason?”

Nousha pulled a vibrant turquoise dress from the wardrobe and held it up against herself. “The second reason is … complicated.”

“More complicated than waking up to discover I’ve just been turned into a blood-drinking monster?” I asked sharply, curling my hands into fists.

Kaito let out a bark of laughter, making me jump, but his face was still utterly stoic when I stole a glance at him.

“Monster is a very ugly word,” Nousha said, frowning at me. “And hardly fitting.”

We could argue that point pretty violently, but I held my tongue. Nousha was helping me, for whatever reason, and this wasn’t the hill I wanted to die on.

“Try to explain to me then,” I said instead. “I’ve just had my life completely shattered. I already know it’s complicated, but I’m not stupid. If you don’t tell me anything, I’m going to stay fragile, and I don’t want that.”

I’d been a victim once. Whatever direction fate took me in now, I would not be a victim again.

Nousha looked unsure. It was Kaito who came to my rescue, to my surprise. “Knowledge is power,” he said to her. “She’ll find out eventually. Better here and now, from you.”

She nodded and sighed, laying the dress out on the bed. “Every vampire has an aura to them. We call it the semnătura sângelui – blood signature. When a vampire makes a fledgling, that fledgling carries their maker’s signature. It lets us know who belongs to who, something that can be very important when it comes to vampiric politics.”

Despite myself, despite all the pain I was in and the reality-whiplash I was suffering, I couldn’t help be intrigued by that. “Vampiric politics?”

“You’ll know soon enough,” she said darkly. “Your maker is a very ancient vampire. He doesn’t make many fledglings—”

“He doesn’t make any fledglings,” Kaito corrected.

“And once people realize you carry his semnătura sângelui, they will inevitably be interested.” Nousha continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “And that may not be good for you.”

The panic I was fighting so hard to control reared its ugly head again. I fisted my hands into the bedsheets, my nails bending back painfully. “Oh.” It was all I could think to say.

“Thus, a bodyguard.” Nousha gathered up the dress again. “A temporary measure, surely.”

I caught Kaito giving me a speculative look. It reminded me too much of the way Adrian had looked at me last night, and I stared down at my feet. They seemed the only safe place to look. “Oh,” I said again.

“Now,” Nousha said, screwing her perfect face into a grimace. “I must attend the next meeting. You will be safe with Kaito, Evanna, but I urge you to take no risks.”

“How long will you be gone?” I wanted to cling to her. The thought of being alone with Kaito, with a vampire, after she’d just warned me that being with vampires was a bad idea, was blood-curdling. How on earth could I possibly be safe? How was I ever going to feel safe again?

“I don’t know. These things can take hours. The council is full of old men who love the sound of their own voices.” She sniffed haughtily and swept to the door. Kaito held it open for her. Just before she made her exit, she wagged a finger at me. “No risks.”

She sounded like my mother, and I had to bite back a shrill laugh as she closed the door. Suddenly I was alone with Kaito, and it felt like the riskiest thing in the world.

I forced myself to inhale deeply. I will not be a victim, I reminded myself. I had to take control of something, and there really wasn’t much on offer.

I remembered a podcast I’d listened to recently that talked about logical insanity—the idea that, in an insane situation, unthinkable ideas become acceptable. The host undoubtedly hadn’t been thinking about vampires, but it resonated with me now. If I accepted that I had been attacked by a vampire, saved by another, and would soon become a vampire myself…Well, that was all insane. But since I had no evidence it wasn’t real, I had to behave as logically as possible within that scenario, didn’t I? And the logical part of myself was skipping past supernatural changes and vampire politics, and settling on coursework and housemates, toiletries and clothes. Or maybe it was the terrified part of me. Either way, suddenly all I could focus on was that I’d been wearing the same outfit for who-knew how long and I needed to brush my teeth.

“Do we have to stay here?” I asked Kaito.

He rolled his eyes at me. “Didn’t you hear anything Nousha just said?”

“I heard all of it, thank you. I’m not suggesting we go hit a nightclub, but if I am going to be quarantined away in here waiting to sprout fangs, I need to take care of some stuff first.”

His lips twitched. Was that a smile? “What stuff?”

“I need clean clothes. I need to let my housemates know I’m alive or they’ll call the police.” That was our rule. We’d never had to enforce it, but the agreement was that if one of us was out of contact for more than a day, we’d alert the police. I had no idea how long had passed since Adrian attacked me, and the thought of the police combing Ravenstone for me made me feel sick. It was a problem I did not need right now. “I need to email my tutors, or—where’s my bag? My phone?”

I glanced around the room, but there was no sign of the black messenger bag I carried my life around in.


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