Demon's Kiss (Page 2)

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Seth Connor was cornered and low on energy, crouching on the top of a crumbling crypt in the middle of a cemetery. Toxic sludge had seeped in, covering the ground on all sides, so getting down and running for it was not an option. He wouldn't last long if he stepped into that muck. Besides, he was surrounded by zombies-half-witted, yeah, but still dangerous. The sludge didn't seem to bother them, or maybe they were just too zoned out to notice. Still, between them and the bubbling green chemical cocktail down there, he wouldn't stand a chance. He was going to have to try to jump the gaping distance between where he was, and where he needed to be-the roof of the caretaker's cottage. And it was a long jump. He wasn't sure he had enough juice left in him to make it.

But standing still wasn't an option, either. He shouldered the shotgun, emptied it into the mob of zombies, who were already trying to climb onto the roof themselves, just to clear himself a path, then pushed off hard. His body somersaulted through the air, once, twice, three times, poisonous muck flashing beneath him with every flip, and then it seemed to be getting closer. Hell! He stretched, straightened, reached-and just barely caught the edge of the cottage roof with his fingertips.

His legs dangled. Zombies were reaching for him, grabbing on, trying to tug him down. He kicked at them, then managed to draw his handgun. Hanging by the fingers of one hand, he peppered the bastards with lead.

They fell away. He dropped the handgun-a hell of a loss, but he might be able to find another at the next level. Tugging himself up onto the roof of the caretaker's cottage, he took a look around and saw the path to safety: a power line suspended from the roof's far side. He headed for it, hopped on and tightrope-walked his way to Level Nine.

Blowing a relieved sigh, Seth dropped the game controller onto the coffee table, stood up and stretched the kinks out of his back. It had taken a while to get through that last level, but the feeling of triumph, though bright, was only fleeting. It was a game. A fun distraction from the constant waiting that had become his life. He didn't even know what he was waiting for. But the sense of nervous anticipation, that electrical charge just before a lightning strike, that feeling that something big was about to happen, had come on stronger today than it ever had before.

He was destined for something important. He'd always known it. But he was getting awfully bored waiting to find out what it was.

His phone rang. He jumped, that was how tightly wound he was. Then he grabbed it with the half-formed notion that this might be the call that would start him on his way toward whatever it was he was supposed to be doing. A glance at the caller ID box wiped that notion away. It was only J.J. calling from The Hole, the local sports bar where Seth had been promoted to manager.

Sighing, he picked up the phone. “Yeah, pal, what is it?” It was always something.

“Seth, I don't know what to do, man. Tommy's supposed to be on grill, but he went home sick. We're out of grenadine and the dishwasher's acting up again. And we're packed tonight and short on staff.”

“Dude, you call me every time I have a night off.”

“It's a crisis, Seth.”

“No. It's normal. A crisis is when things are unusually bad. This is stuff that happens all the time. Normal, J.J. You gotta learn how to handle it.”

“I'm trying, but there's only one of me.”

Seth lowered his head, then sighed and figured what the hell. It wasn't as if he had anything else to do. Maybe go to bed early. Maybe dream about her again. The beautiful little redhead with the eyes that looked right through to his soul. The one who had something to do with his destiny. The one he'd never met, but had dreamed of for as long as he could remember.

He sighed. She would be there waiting in his subconscious, no matter what time he went to sleep. “I'll be right over, okay? Meanwhile, call Bobbie to come in and handle the grill. She's closest, and she always loves picking up extra hours. Call Tanya in to wait tables. She goes right by the liquor store on her way in, so have her pick up a couple of bottles of grenadine on the way, and that'll tide us over until the truck arrives tomorrow. I'll be there in five minutes.”

J.J. sighed audibly. “Thanks, Seth. You're a freaking hero, you know that?”

Yeah. Some hero. Master of broken-down dishwashers and missing waitstaff, he could leap stumbling drunks in a single bound. He closed his eyes and shook his head, before grabbing his hoodie off the hook by the apartment door and yanking it over his head on the way out.

Four hours later, the bar was closed, stools upside down on the mahogany counter, chairs upside down on the tables, floor freshly mopped and filling the place with the scent of pine cleaner. Seth was heading out for what was left of the night, which wasn't a hell of a lot.

J.J. was beside him, carrying the money pouch, which they would dump in the bank's night-deposit box on their way to the parking lot on the corner. His out-of-control brown frizz was being held hostage underneath a worn-out, stained-up Yankees cap. He shuffled his feet when he walked, and he slouched too much. Seth thought the kid needed a lot more than just on-the-job training if he ever wanted to get ahead in life.

Then again, Seth thought, who was he to talk? Okay, maybe he didn't have J.J.'s lack of self-esteem. But he was still in a job that was going nowhere, in a life that was nothing but filler, waiting for the big fat hairy deal he'd always believed was his destiny. He was meant for something big. He knew it. And tonight it felt closer than ever.

One block to the bank. J.J. was whistling the theme song from the newest Rocky film. Traffic was nonexistent, and the pavement gleamed.

“Can you believe it rained and stopped again while we were in the bar, and we never even knew it?” J.J. asked.

“Yep. The Hole is like its own self-contained world.”

“World?” J.J. echoed. “Nah. Small town, maybe. Better yet, it's a self-contained soap opera. It's got all the characters down. There's the dirty old man, Henry, who can't think about anything but his dick and gets away with sexually harassing every female in the place because he's a hundred and two.”

“Henry isn't thinking about his dick, J.J. He's trying to remind himself he's still a man. Patting a waitress on the ass when she passes close enough for him to reach is about the only way he can still manage to do that. Although, I think he'd feel more like a man if one of them would smack him, instead of smiling and patting him on the head as if he's cute and no real threat. They could at least pretend to be insulted.”

J.J. lifted his brows. “I never thought of it that way. What about Mrs. Brown?”

“Shauna?”

“Yeah. Everyone knows she's married, but she comes in every night, drinks until she's messed up, then hits on every stranger who walks into the place.”

“They never hit on her back, though.”

“So?”

“Think about it. She's a good-looking woman, J.J. If she really wanted to get laid by some stranger, she wouldn't have any trouble. She's not really trying. If anyone shows any interest, she backs off like mad, until they take the hint and leave. Then she keeps drinking until she starts crying, and then she has me call her a taxi.” Seth shrugged. “She's miserable and just wants to be loved. If her husband doesn't wake up, I imagine she'll eventually work up the strength to walk. Until then, she'll just keep being miserable, I guess.”

“You really see things about people,” J.J. told him. “What do you see in me, Seth?”

Seth shrugged and didn't look J.J. in the eye, because it was such a sappy and un-guy-like conversation to be having. “A kid with a lot of potential. You can do anything you want to, J.J. You just have to grow a pair, you know? Like tonight, you could have made some decisions, solved some of those problems on your own, and taken the consequences, good or bad, yourself. But instead, you called me, to save yourself from having to take any chances.”

“Why take chances if you don't have to?” J.J. asked.

“You know how I got promoted to manager, J.J.?” Seth didn't wait for an answer, just went on. “There was a major crisis at the bar one night. Manager had a heart attack and got rushed to the E.R. Bartender was his wife and went with him. Head waitress had to drive her there. And there I was. But I jumped in and handled it. Made some calls, got some people to fill in for the bartender and waitress, managed the place myself all night, and kept things going like clockwork. Next thing I know, I'm getting a promotion and a raise. That's why you take chances when you don't have to. No risk, no gain, pal.”

J.J. nodded. “I think I get it.”

The streetlight was flickering. Later Seth would think that flickering streetlight had almost seemed like a warning. But right then, he paid it no more attention than he did the little shiver that tiptoed up his spine for no obvious reason.

Then, in the next second, someone crashed into his back, slamming him to the sidewalk so hard his chin split. Then fists pounded on his head. Pain exploded behind his eyes. Shock and surprise made his heart hammer, but he reacted anyway, rolling and flinging the bastard off him, then scrambling to his feet to take a quick look around.

J.J. was lying on the ground, face-up, with some big SOB kicking him in the ribs. Seth hurled himself at J.J.'s attacker with everything he had, and the two of them sailed bodily into the alley.

He landed on top of the guy. The other one jumped on him before he could even draw a breath. But he managed to shout, “Run, J.J.! Get the hell out of here! Run!”

And that was it. One of the bad asses picked him up, spun him around, then knocked him flat again with a fist to his jaw. As he lay on his back in the alley, he caught just a glimpse of J.J. running for dear life, already a block away. Then the thugs-there were four of them now, and he was damned if he knew where the other two had come from-were all around him, blocking his vision. He couldn't see anything except legs in faded, torn jeans that hung loosely, and the front ends of unlaced Columbia suede work boots, with the tongues sticking out.

“Gimme the money bag, asshole,” one of the thugs said.

Seth smiled slowly, but it hurt, so he stopped. He figured his lip was split, and maybe his jaw was busted, too. He wasn't going to tell these bastards that J.J. was the one carrying the bag. Not just yet. Give the kid time to get clear. He figured his own ass was grass, either way. “Why don't you take it from me?” he asked.

“My pleasure.”

The beating really began then. And there wasn't a hell of a lot Seth could do about it. He tried to get a few blows in, tried to block the punches and kicks with his arms, but eventually he was hurting too bad and bleeding too much to do more than curl up like a boiled shrimp and wait for them to get tired.

He wondered, after a while, if this was it, the big shining moment he'd always known he was meant for. Maybe his entire purpose in life had been to be here tonight, to take the heat off J.J. So maybe it was J.J. who was truly meant for something big. Maybe he would end up being president or something. And Seth was just a pawn, a sacrifice for the greater good.

Damn. He had always thought it would be something more. And his biggest regret was her-the girl he'd been dreaming about for so long. Could he really die without ever once meeting her face-to-face? It didn't seem possible, but it looked pretty damned likely.

After thoroughly tapping the vampiric grapevine, Reaper's only lead to Gregor was a spoiled rich vampiress who called herself Topaz. She lived in a mansion on Emerald Isle, in North Carolina, and rumor had it that she'd recently lost a substantial portion of her wealth to a vampire con man who'd broken her heart. No one had heard the man's name, but his description matched that of Gregor's sidekick. The M.O. was right, the location was right, and Reaper was pretty sure his gut instincts were right, too. The con artist must have been the vampire known as Jack of Hearts. And if he could find Jack, he could find Gregor and the rest of the rogue band.

So he was on his way to Emerald Isle when the sensation hit him. First it was a sense of nervous energy, a clenching of his stomach, a twitching of various muscles, a surge of epinephrine. Fight or flight. But it came for no reason. He wasn't in danger.

No, but someone is.

He felt pain, then. Excruciating pain. Not his own.

And then he sensed the essence behind it, the aura that came whenever one of his kind came into proximity with one of theirs, or whenever one of his kind was in dire need. The feelings were coming from one of the Chosen.

And not just any one of the Chosen. But his. Seth Connor. The young man was in trouble. And the bottom fell out of Reaper's stomach in spite of himself. The kid was always in trouble of one kind or another, but the pain he was feeling now…This was no minor scrape.

“God, now of all times?” Reaper rolled his eyes and told himself that Seth was proving to be exactly the kind of nuisance Reaper had told Rhiannon he was. He told himself that, even as he stopped everything he was doing to race to Seth's aid. He reminded himself that there was no choice. He hadn't been lying when he'd told Rhiannon that he was compelled, as were all vampires, to protect and watch over Seth's kind. If he could have ignored the call, he thought deliberately, determinedly, he might very well have kept on driving.

Yeah. Right. And just who do you think you're kidding, Reaper?

So he obeyed his instinctive need to go to the younger man, and go fast. He took an exit, following his senses, his intuition, and as he got nearer, he realized it was a damn good thing he had.

Reaper felt the cold breath of his grim namesake nearby and knew that Seth, his own charge, was near death. He skidded the car to a halt, leapt out, turned and ran, moving so quickly that he was invisible to human eyes. Moments later, he was at the mouth of an alley, where four upright men were kicking and beating one who lay on the ground, curled loosely in on himself.

Reaper didn't speak, he just moved. His first blow sent one man smashing into a wall, where his head took a chunk out of the cinder block it hit. He grabbed the second one by his nape and hurled him through the air, not bothering to watch where he came down, though he heard glass breaking. He grabbed the third by his hair and slammed his face into the ground. And then he delivered a kick to the solar plexus of the fourth that probably split his intestine apart. And all of it in the space of two seconds, possibly less.

Finally he knelt beside the young man, his cast-iron stomach churning as he bent closer. Seth's face had been badly beaten. His eyes were swollen and purple, his nose broken, lips split, jaw unhinged or broken. His own mother wouldn't have known him. Reaper knew him, though. He knew his scent, his essence. His restless, frustrated energy.

As much as he disliked physical contact, there was nothing else for it right then. Reaper slid an arm beneath Seth's shoulders and lifted his head up from the concrete floor of the alley where he lay. His body was as broken as his face, but it didn't show as much to the naked eye.

“Did J.J. get away?” Seth asked. His voice was coarse and soft.

Reaper narrowed his eyes, then probed the younger man's mind and saw the scene unfolding through Seth's memory. The attack. The other, even younger, man, J.J., being beaten. He saw what Seth had done, taking the attackers on himself to give J.J. the chance to escape. He could easily have gotten away himself, but he hadn't. Reaper sensed that J.J. had. “Yes, he's safe,” he said.

Seth sighed and closed his eyes. “I'm glad.”

Seth was dying. Or else he wasn't. The decision was his.

“Open your eyes, Seth,” Reaper said. “I need to talk to you.”

Seth wasn't sure if he was alive or dead. The pain was fading, and so was everything else. He felt as if he were falling farther and farther away from everything real. And then an insistent voice, a man's voice, one that was oddly familiar to him, made its way through a long and winding pathway from his ear to his brain.

“Open your eyes, Seth. I need to talk to you.”

He tried to obey-something about that voice made him want to-but he couldn't. And really, he didn't want to, not all that much. He was dreaming about her again. She was so real, so freaking real, this time. He could feel her when he touched her. Soft skin, masses of coppery hair he couldn't stop stroking. Her petite frame, her soft voice, the uncertainty that always seemed to linger behind her eyes.

“I really don't have time for this, you know. If you don't wake up and give me an answer, I'm just going to have to do it without your consent.”

Consent? Do what without his consent?

“Seth, honestly, I'm nearly out of patience.” The man sighed, and when he spoke again, his voice was different. It held some kind of power that hadn't been there before. “Hear my voice and obey, Seth Connor. My will is yours. Do as I say. Open. Your. Eyes.”

Seth realized he was alive after all. He had to be, to hurt this bad. He supposed he had to wake up and pay attention if he wanted to keep it that way. He hated leaving his dream girl behind, but maybe this way he would get that chance to meet her for real after all. Yeah. It could still happen.

That hope was what drove him to gather his strength, what little remained of it, and open his eyes. Barely. They were swollen and sore, and his vision wasn't any too clear. But the form that took shape, very slowly, before him, was that of a man, probably no more than a few years older than he was himself, and yet way, way older in some unnamable way.

“I…know you,” he managed to mutter. “I've…seen you before.”

“Yes, you have. I pulled you out of the river when you fell in, back when you were ten or eleven. And I dragged you out of the car wreck that killed your parents when you were sixteen, just before it went up in flames. There were countless other times when I helped you out of one scrape or another. None quite this serious, though.”

Seth's mind was spinning, because all of a sudden he did remember. “How come I didn't remember-I mean, until now?”

“Because I didn't want you to.”

The guy hadn't aged, Seth realized. Of course, he'd been beaten senseless, and his vision was blurry and it was dark, but somehow he didn't think it was a mistake. The guy looked exactly the same as he had those other times. Dark hair, brooding features, deep-set eyes that almost looked haunted. “Who are you?” he managed to ask.

“Your protector, for lack of a better term.”

“Why?”

“Not by choice, I'll tell you that much. The rest will have to wait, Seth. You don't have a lot of time.”

Seth nodded, and it hurt when he moved. “I'm dying, huh?”

“Yes, I'm afraid so. Your mortal life is ending. There are internal injuries. A ruptured spleen, I think, though I can't be sure. You're bleeding inside. It won't be long.”

“I didn't think it would be over this fast.” Seth tried to look around, but there were only out-of-focus shapes in the darkness now. His vision was narrowing, shrinking inward, so he squinted at the man again. “What is it you want me to do, before I…go?”

“I'm a vampire, Seth. I wish I had time to tell you all that entails. But I can only give you the barest of basics. I'm one of the undead. I live by night, and blood, not food, is my sustenance, though I do not need to kill in order to live. That's a myth. I never age. I'm powerful, strong, fast. My senses are heightened beyond anything you can imagine, and there are extra ones, as well. All of this can be yours, too, if you choose to become what I am. You need only tell me.”

Seth stared at him and wondered if he was hallucinating.

“The alternative is death, and whatever waits beyond that,” the man went on. “The choice is yours. But you need to make it soon, Seth. You won't be able to remain conscious much longer.”

And in that moment, everything became crystal-clear to Seth. Everything in his life fell into place, all the pieces interlocking, to form the outline of a jigsaw puzzle. There were still pieces missing, almost the entire inside of the thing. He couldn't see the design, the picture, only that outline, that form. For the first time he could see its shape, see that it was real. This was the destiny he'd been sensing all his life. This was the first step on the path of the life he was meant to live-the path that was going to lead him to her, at some point along the way. He was sure of it. This was the beginning of something big. And as it turned out, it was something far bigger than even he had ever imagined.

“I want to live,” he said. “I'm supposed to. There's something I have to do.”

“Is there? And what would that be, Seth?”

The man sounded almost amused. Didn't matter. Seth knew it was real. “I don't know all of it yet. There's a girl-a woman-God, she's something special.”

“Really?” Amusement was shaded by something far darker now. “She have a name?”

“I don't know it…yet. But I know I have to find her. And I know there's more-something major I have to do. So I'd better take you up on this…this vampire thing. 'Cause the alternative is to die, and I'll never get it done that way.”

“You'll never get anything done that way. So be it, then,” the vampire replied. And then he leaned over, and even as Seth told himself there would probably be some far less dramatic way to accomplish the thing than the one so common in pop fiction, the man bent closer, tipped Seth's head back and sank his fangs into Seth's throat.

He felt them pierce the skin, pop into the vein. There was pain, sharp and somehow good, and then there was the most incredible sense of release-not orgasmic, but more like a pressure cooker suddenly letting off steam. It rushed out of him, this pressure and tension and frailty, and pain, too. It rushed out of him with the blood that was rushing out of him, into the vampire's hungry mouth.

He tipped his head back farther, willing the stranger to take it all, and he felt his life ebbing away, flowing out of him with every swallow the vampire took. And then the creature lifted his head away, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and lowered Seth to the ground.

Seth's vision cleared, and he lay there on his back, in that alley full of trash, staring up at the glittering stars far, far away.

“You're dying now. Just as you begin to do so, Seth, I'll bring you back. Don't be afraid. Just relax and let it happen.”

Seth tried to nod, but he sensed that nothing moved. Then, just before it all went black, he glimpsed her. Just for an instant. Her long, thick, copper-red hair hung over one shoulder, and her huge brown eyes pleaded with his in a way they never had before. He saw her more clearly, felt her more clearly, than he ever had. Her eyes were darkly lined, exotic and slanted. Her body was small, lithe but incredibly powerful. She was wild, he sensed, and then he sensed something else. She was caged.

She was begging for someone to help her. For him to help her.

It wasn't a dream. Not this time. It was real. He was really seeing her, somehow, in his mind. It wasn't a dream. Everything inside him reached for her, yearned for her, and then everything in him simply stopped. There was darkness, silence, no sense, no feeling, and then…

Bam!

Sensation slammed into him like an electric jolt. He went as rigid as a flat-lining patient when the paddles were applied.

But there were no paddles. There was only a wrist, which he was holding to his mouth with both hands, and from which he was drinking just as greedily as if he were dying of thirst.

He felt beyond feeling.

He sensed beyond belief.

He tasted and saw and heard and smelled a million, million things all at once, and knew them all. Jerking the wrist away from his mouth, pulling his head back, he sat there, blinking, reeling.

“It'll be all right,” the vampire said. “It takes some time, but you're going to get used to it.”

Somehow, Seth doubted that. “God, she's real. I mean, I always knew it, but I doubted-I wondered. But she's real. She's so real, and she needs me.”

The man frowned at him. “Who needs you?”

“The girl,” Seth told him. “We have to find her. We have to go to her. But I don't know how. I don't know where she is, or-“

“Okay, okay, you take it easy now. We'll get to the bottom of this, all right? Don't worry. Right now, you just need to…rest. Just rest and let your body adjust to the change. Okay?”

Seth nodded, lowered his head, closed his eyes and muttered, “Okay.”