Prince of Twilight (Page 2)

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Present day

“Melina Roscova,” the slender blond woman said, extending a hand. “You must be Maxine Stuart?”

“It's Maxine Malone, and no, I'm not her.” Stormy took the woman's hand. It was cool and her grip very strong. “Stormy Jones,” she said. “Max and Lou are busy with another case, and we didn't think it would take all three of us to conduct the initial interview.”

“I see.” Melina released her grip and dug in her pocket for a business card. “I guess this must be out of date.”

Stormy took the card, looked it over. The SIS logo superimposed itself over the words Supernatural Investigations Services. In smaller letters were their names, Maxine Stuart, Lou Malone, Tempest Jones and beneath that, in a fancy script, Experienced, professional, discreet and a toll-free number.

She handed the card back. “Yeah, that's pretty old. Maxie and Lou got hitched sixteen years ago now. Of course, we didn't get new cards made up until we'd used all the old ones. You have to be practical, you know.”

“Naturally.”

“So why all the mystery?” Stormy asked. “And why did you want to meet here?”

As she spoke, they moved through the entrance and into the vaulted corridors of the Canadian National Museum. Their steps echoed as they walked. Melina paid the entry fee in cash, and led the way deeper into the building.

“No mystery. I want you to handle a sensitive case for me. Discretion-” she tapped the old business card against her knuckle “-is imperative.”

“You can trust us on that,” Stormy said. “We wouldn't still be in business after all this time if we didn't know how to keep our mouths shut.” She looked at a threadbare tapestry on display inside a glass case. Its colors had faded to gray, and it looked as if a stiff breeze would reduce it to a pile of lint. “So why this place ?”

“This is where it is,” Melina said, eyeing several tarnished silver pieces in another case. Bowls, urns, pendants.

“Where what is?”

“What you need to see. But it won't be here for long. It's part of a traveling exhibit. Artifacts uncovered on a recent archaeological dig in the northern part of Turkey.”

Stormy eyed her, waiting for her to say more, but Melina fell silent and moved farther along the hall, among line drawings and diagrams of dig sites, framed like pieces of art. Then she turned to go through two open doors into a large room. There were items lining the walls, all of them safely behind glass barriers. Brass trinkets, steel blades with elaborately carved handles of bone and ivory. Stormy glanced at the items on display, then rubbed her arms, suddenly cold to the bone. “You'd think they'd turn on the heat in here. It's freezing,” she muttered. Then, to distract herself from the rush of discomfort, she snatched up a flyer from a stack in a nearby rack and read from it. According to it, the items found didn't match the culture of the area in which they'd been located, and many were thought to be the spoils of war, brought home by soldiers who looted them from faraway lands and conquered enemies. The dig site was believed to have been a monastery of sorts-a place where men went to study magic and the occult.

“Here it is,” Melina said.

Stormy dragged her gaze from the flyer to where the other woman stood a few yards away, in front of a small glass cube that sat atop a pedestal. Inside the cube, resting on a clear acrylic base, was a ring. It was big, its wide band more elaborately engraved than the gaudiest high school class ring she'd ever seen. Its gleaming red stone was as big as one of those, too, only she was pretty sure this stone was real.

“It's a ruby,” Melina said, confirming Stormy's unspoken suspicion. “It's priceless. Isn't it incredible?”

Stormy didn't reply. She couldn't take her eyes off the ring. For a moment it was as if she were seeing it through a long, dark tunnel. Everything around her went black, her vision riveted to the ring, her eyes unable to see anything else. And then she heard a voice.

“Inelul else al meu!”

The voice-it came from her own throat. Her lips were moving, but she wasn't moving them. The sensation was as if she had become a puppet, or a dummy in some ventriloquist act. Her body was moving all on its own, her hands reaching for the glass case, palms pressing to either side of it, lifting it from its base.

A hand closed hard on her arm and jerked her away. “Ms. Jones, what the hell are you doing?”

Stormy blinked rapidly as her body snapped back on line. She saw Melina holding her upper arm while looking around the room as if waiting for the Canadian version of a SWAT team to swarm in.

Stormy cleared her throat. “Did I set off any alarms?”

“I don't think so,” Melina said. “There are sensors on the pedestal. They kick in only if the ring is removed.”

Frowning as her head cleared, Stormy stared at her. “Why do you know that?”

“It's my job to know. Are you all right?”

Nodding, Stormy avoided the other woman's eyes. “Yeah. Fine. I… zoned out for a minute, that's all.”

But it wasn't all. And she wasn't fine. Far from it. She hadn't had an episode like that in sixteen years, but she knew the sensations that had swamped her just now. Knew them well. She would never forget. Never. She hadn't felt that way in sixteen years, not since the last time she'd been with him. With Dracula. The one and only. And though her memory of the specifics of that time with him was a dark void, her memories of… being possessed remained. And memories of Dracula or not, she'd heard his voice just a moment ago, whispering close to her.

Without the ring and the scroll, I'm afraid there is no hope.

What did it mean? Was he here? Nearby? And why, when she remembered so little about their time together, had that phrase come floating in to her memory now?

No. He wouldn't come back to her when he knew what it did to her mind and body. He'd let her go in order to spare her going through that madness anymore. Or so she liked to believe. She'd awakened in Rhiannon's private jet, on her way back home. And, like all of Vlad's victims before her, her memory of her time with him had been erased.

But not her feelings for him. Inexplicable or not, she had felt a deep sense of loss, and she'd been dying inside a little more with every single day that had passed since.

He wasn't here. He wouldn't put her through that again. Unless…

She looked again at the ring. God, could this be the ring he'd been talking about? And what had he meant by that cryptic phrase? It was hell not remembering. Sheer hell. She should hate him for playing with her mind the way he had. Over and over she'd struggled and fought to recall the time she'd spent with him, after he'd abducted her in the dead of night so long ago. She'd even tried hypnosis, but it hadn't worked. Nothing had. He'd robbed her of memories she sensed might be some of the best of her life. Damn him for that. “Ms. Jones? Stormy?”

Turning slowly, she met Melina's far too curious brown eyes. “The ring is the reason you want to hire us?”

“Yes. What's your connection to it?”

Stormy frowned. “I don't know what you mean. I have no connection to it.”

“You certainly had a strong reaction to it.”

She shook her head. “I had a head injury a long time ago. Occasional blackouts are a side effect.”

“Speaking in tongues is a side effect, as well?”

“It's gibberish. It doesn't mean anything. Look, the condition of my skull is really not the issue here. Are you going to tell me what this job entails or not?”

Melina looked at her, pursed her lips and lowered her voice. “I want you to steal it,” she whispered.

Stormy wasn't sure what she had said as she had made a hasty exit from the museum. She thought she had told Melina Roscova to do something anatomically impossible, and then she'd left. She hadn't stopped until she'd pulled up in front of the Royal Arms Hotel, where she handed her car keys and a ten-spot to a valet.

“Be careful with her,” she told him. “She's special.”

He promised he would be, and she watched him as he drove her shiny black Nissan, with the customized plates that read Bella-Donna into the parking garage across the street. As he moved into the darkness, she heard tires squeal and winced. “One scratch, pal. You bring Belladonna back with one scratch… “

“Madam?”

She turned to see a doorman with a question in his eyes. “You're going inside?” he asked.

“You tell that moron when he gets back that if he scratched my car, I'll take it out of his hide. And it's mademoiselle. Not every thirtysomething female is married, you know.”

“Of course, mademoiselle.” He opened the door, his face betraying no hint of emotion. It would have been much more satisfying if he'd been defensive or hostile or even apologetic. But… nothing.

She headed straight for her room and started a bath running, intending to phone Max and fill her in from the tub. She was upset. She was shaken. She was damned scared of what the sight of that ring had done to her.

She'd spoken in Romanian. And she knew exactly what she'd said, even though she didn't speak a word of the language and never had.

The ring belongs to me.

Elisabeta. It had to have been her voice.

Sixteen years ago, she'd begun having these symptoms. Blacking out, speaking in a strange language, becoming violent, attacking even her best friends and, usually, remembering nothing. It was as if she were possessed by an alien soul, as if her body were a marionette with some stranger pulling the strings.

Max said her eyes changed color, turned from their normal baby blue to a dark, fathomless ebony, during those episodes.

Through hypnosis, she'd learned the intruder's name. Elisabeta. And she knew, in her gut, that the woman had some connection to Vlad. An intimate one.

Vlad had been under attack, had taken her hostage to aid in his escape. Even then, she'd been drawn to him. His muscled, powerful body. His long, raven's wing hair. His eyes-the intensity in them when he looked at her. She remembered kissing him as if there were no tomorrow. Or maybe that had never happened; maybe that was fantasy. A delicious erotic fantasy that left her with a deep ache in her loins and her soul. She remembered hoping he could help her solve the mystery of who Elisabeta was and why she was haunting Stormy. Trying to take over. And maybe he had. But though, upon her return, Max had told her that she had been Vlad's captive for than a week, Stormy remembered nothing.

She only knew that since her return, she'd felt almost no sign of that intruding soul's presence. And she'd determined that it was Vlad's nearness that stirred the other to life. As it would stir any woman.

She was still there, though. Stormy had never doubted it. Hoped she was wrong, but never truly doubted. Elisabeta, whoever she was, still lurked inside her, waiting… for something.

Stormy stopped pacing and held her head in her hands as she stared into the mirror that was mounted on one of the lush hotel room's antique replica dressers. “Dammit to hell, I hoped you were gone,” she whispered. “I honest to goodness was beginning to let myself believe you were never coming back. Not a peep out of you in sixteen years. And now you're back? Why? Will I ever be rid of you, Elisabeta?”

A tapping on her door startled her and brought her head around, and she swore under her breath. She had things to work through, and there was a nice hot bath-and maybe a few tiny bottles from the mini-bar-in her immediate future.

“Please, Ms. Jones,” Melina Roscova called from the hallway. “Just give me ten minutes to explain. Ten minutes. It's all I need.”

Stormy sighed, rolled her eyes and stomped into the bathroom to turn off the faucets. She pulled the plug on the steamy water with a sigh of regret, then went to yank the door open. She didn't wait for Melina to come inside, just turned and paced to the small table at the room's far end, yanked out a chair and nodded toward it.

“We are investigators,” she told her unwelcome guest, her tone clipped as she bent to the mini-bar and yanked out a can of ginger ale and a tiny bottle of Black Velvet. She popped the tops on both and poured them into a tall glass that sat beside an empty ice bucket. “Not thieves for hire. We don't break the law, Ms. Roscova. Not for any price.”

“Call me Melina,” the woman said as she sat down. “And all I want you to do is listen to what I have to say. That ring… it has powers.”

“Powers.” Stormy said it deadpan, dryly, without a hint of inflection. Then she took a big slug of the BV-and-ginger.

“Yes. Powers that could, in the wrong hands, upset the supernatural order-perhaps irrevocably.”

“The supernatural order?”

“Yes. Look, this is very simple. Just… just let me make my pitch, promise me it will remain confidential, and then, if you still refuse, I won't bother you again.”

Stormy downed half the drink and sat down. “And my word that this will remain confidential is going to be enough for you?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Melina blinked, and it seemed to Stormy she chose to answer honestly and directly. “Because my organization has been observing yours for years. We know you never break your word. And we know you've kept far bigger secrets than ours.”

Another big sip. The glass was getting low, and she was going to need a refill. Seven Canadian bucks a pop for the BV. And worth it, right about now. “Your… organization?”

“The Sisterhood of Athena has existed for centuries,” Melina said. She spoke slowly, carefully, and seemed to be giving each sentence a great deal of thought before uttering it. “We are a group of women devoted to observing and preserving the supernatural order.” She licked her lips. “Actually, it's the natural order, but our focus is the part of it that most people refer to as supernatural. Things are supposed to be the way they are supposed to be. Humans tend to want to interfere. We don't, unless it's to prevent that interference.”

Stormy lifted her brows. “Humans, huh?” She eyed the woman. “You say that as if there are non-humans running around, as well.”

“We both know there are.”

They both fell silent, staring at each other as Stormy tried to size Melina up. Could she truly know about the existence of the Undead?

Finally, Stormy cleared her throat. “This is sounding awfully familiar, Melina. And not in a good way. You ever hear of a little government agency known as DPI ?”

“We're nothing like the Division of Paranormal Investigations, Stormy. I promise you that. And we're privately funded, not a government agency.” She licked her lips. “We protect the supernatural world. We don't seek to destroy it or experiment on it the way the DPI did. We are guardians of the unknown.”

Stormy nodded. “And why do you want the ring?”

“Strictly to keep it from falling into the wrong hands and being used for evil.”

“And I'm supposed to take your word for this? And then, based on nothing more than that, break into a museum and steal a priceless piece of jewelry?”

“Yes.” Melina lowered her head. “I'm sorry I can't tell you more, but the more people who know of this ring's powers, the more dangerous it becomes.”

Stormy sighed. “I'm sorry. Look, I just can't do this. And even if I wanted to, Max and Lou would never go along with it.”

Melina nodded sadly. “All right. I guess… we'll just have to find another way.”

“You do that. Good night, then, Melina. And… good luck. I guess.”

“Good night, Stormy.” She got up and saw herself out of the hotel room. Stormy followed just long enough to lock the door. Then she restarted the bath and refilled her glass.

Vlad reread the piece in the Easton Press four times before he could believe it wasn't only a figment of his imagination. It was a tiny piece, a two-inch column tossed in to fill space, about a new exhibit of artifacts found in Turkey, currently on display at a museum in Canada. The most exceptional of the artifacts is a large ruby ring with rearing stallions engraved on either side of the flawless, 20 karat gemstone.

That was the line that had caught his attention. The one he kept reading, over and over again, until his eyes watered.

“It can't be…” he whispered.

But it could. Surely it could. There was no reason to doubt that this might be the ring he'd placed on his bride's finger centuries ago. And yet, he didn't want to believe it. Belief led to hope, and hope led to grief and loss. He wasn't certain he could stand any more of those.

He didn't suppose he'd done a very good job of avoiding them, all these years, though. He'd tried, but dammit, he couldn't let her go. It wasn't in him. She had a hold on him as powerful as any thrall he'd ever cast over a mortal.

Vampires didn't dream; their sleep was like death.

But Dracula dreamed. Of her. Tempest… or Elisa-beta or… hell, the two were so entwined and confused in his mind, he didn't know how to distinguish his feelings for one from his feelings for the other. He didn't know how to distinguish them.

He'd purchased a tiny peninsula on the coast of Maine, used his powers to disguise the place. A passer-by would see only mist and fog and forest. Not a towering mansion built to his specifications. It was twenty miles from Easton, where Tempest, who insisted on calling herself “Stormy,” lived with her friends, Maxine and Lou, in a mansion of their own.

He'd kept track of her, all these years. He'd watched her, but from a distance. Never getting too close. Never touching her or letting his presence be known. But he knew. He knew everything she did. He knew about the vampires who shared the mansion with the mortals and helped them in their investigations-Morgan de Silva and Dante, who'd been sired by Sarafina, who'd been sired by Bartrone. The vampiress Morgan was the mortal Maxine's twin sister, and though the two hadn't been raised together, they were close now.

He knew about Tempest's family-her parents, retired now and living in a condominium in Florida. She visited twice a year, no matter what. He knew about her relationships with men-though it killed him to know. She saw men sometimes. Dated. And every time it filled him with a rage that he found nearly impossible to contain.

He was dangerous at those times. And when the anger got beyond his endurance, he would force himself to go away for a time. It was the only way to prevent himself from murdering every bastard who laid his hands on her, and possibly her with them.

Nothing ever came of any of her liaisons. He never sensed her falling in love, feeling the kinds of things he liked to think she had felt with him.

He knew everything about her. Everything she did, everything she loved. And he knew her time was short. The deadline was approaching rapidly, the one those magicians had included in their spells. It had been driving him to desperation as it drew ever nearer. The so called Red Star of Destiny was due to eclipse Venus in a mere five days. And when it did, Elisabeta would cross to the other side, along with Tempest. He would lose them both. God, he couldn't bear the thought!

Although, in every practical way, he'd lost them both already. Unless…

Tempest wasn't in residence at the mansion now. She and her partners had taken off on one of their cases, and since he didn't sense any danger to them, he'd remained behind. And now he was glad he had.

He stood, brooding, at the arched windows of his parlor. The fireplace at his back was cold and dark. He didn't need it, didn't need warmth, sought no comfort, because there was nothing, really, that could grant it to him. Outside, a storm raged, the ocean dancing at its commanding touch, shuddering with the furious breaths of the angry wind. Lightning flashed, and the wind howled. He loved nights like this.

Vlad looked again at the newspaper, noting the location of the exhibit. The Canadian National Museum in Edmunston. Less than 200 miles away.

He could be there in four hours by car. Less, if he drove quickly.

But he was Dracula, and had far more efficient ways to travel. He pulled on his coat. It was long and leather, with a caped back, and in keeping with his mood, it was black.

He reached to the windows' center clasp, turned it and pushed the panes outward. Then he whirled, faster and faster. Like a cyclone he spun, as he focused his mind and altered the shape of his body.

When he soared into the night, into the storm, it was in the form of a giant black raven. He would find out soon enough whether the ring on display in Canada was his ring.

Her ring.

Stormy didn't know what the hell to do. She did know one thing. She was going to have to get her hands on that ring-because if it was the ring, she couldn't risk anyone else possessing it. Including Melina and her precious organization. She didn't know anything about this Sisterhood of Athena, and she didn't even consider trusting them. And not Vlad. God, not him.

That ring had some kind of power over her. That ring had brought Elisabeta to the surface, allowed her to take over again. And that ring, she was more certain than ever, must have been the one he had referred to in the tiny bit of memory that had resurfaced in her mind.

If he learned the ring was here, he would come for it. Nothing would stop him, if that was his goal. And God only knew what he would do with it once he had it. Use it, perhaps, to bring his precious Elisabeta back to screaming, bitching life inside her? She couldn't go back to that. Not again. She needed to be rid of the intruder, once and for all.

She needed to destroy the ring. Maybe that would do it. If the damn ring didn't exist, then its power, whatever that power was, couldn't exist, either. So that was the answer. She had to destroy it, melt it down and smash its gemstone to dust.

But first she needed a plan. She decided not to call Max and Lou on this matter. Not just yet. First, because they were involved with another case, one that had taken them out of the country, and second, because Max was far too protective of her. And this wasn't her problem. Stormy needed to deal with this on her own, without feeling the need to justify or explain or defend her decisions to her best friend.

So she filled her glass for the third time, and she soaked in the tub, and she thought and thought about how she might go about getting the ring from the museum, not for Melina, but for herself, and how she could do it without getting caught.

She fell asleep in the tub, her empty glass on the floor beside it, her mind reeling with scenes from the classic old movie It Takes a Thief and trying to ignore the other images that plagued her. Images of Vlad.

And then-in her dreams-it came. A memory.

Vlad had sent her to bed in the tiny cabin of the sailboat he'd used to make his escape after abducting her. He'd told her that they would reach his place on the Barrier Islands soon.

They must be there by now, she thought as she woke, and she wondered if she might be in his home already, because she didn't feel the gentle rocking and swaying of the sea beneath her. But it was pitch dark in this bedroom-too dark to tell where she was.

She rolled to one side, began to reach out in search of a lamp or something, but her hand hit a solid wall. Odd. They must not be in the boat anymore, because that wall was farther away from the bed than this. She ran her palm along the smooth wall and frowned. It was lined in fabric. Something as smooth as satin.

Blinking and puzzled, she moved her hand downward, then upward, only to find another smooth, satin-lined wall behind her head.

Something clutched in her belly, and she rolled quickly to the other side, thrusting both hands out, only to hit another wall. She was closed in tight on three sides, and a terrifying suspicion was taking root in her mind. Her breath coming faster now, her heart pounding, she pressed her palms upward. They moved only inches before hitting a satin lined ceiling.

I'm in a coffin! she screamed inwardly. I'm trapped in a tiny box and God only knows what else! I'll suffocate!

Panic twisted through her body like a python on crack, and she clenched her hands into fists and pounded on the ceiling, bent her legs as far as the space would allow and kicked at the bottom and sides. She shouted at the top of her lungs. “Let me out. Open this Goddamn box right now and get me the hell out!”

To her surprise, her pounding resulted in the ceiling above her rising with every strike, and she realized belatedly that, while she might be in a box, she wasn't locked in.

The lid gave when she pushed it, and she'd barely had time to process that fact when it opened all the way, as if on its own.

She could see at last, and what she saw was the man himself standing there, staring down at her. He looked harried, tired. His white shirt's top three buttons were undone, and his hair was loose and long.

Then he was reaching for her.

She slapped his hands away and, gripping the sides of the box, pulled herself up into a sitting position, swung her legs over the side, narrowly missing him on the way, and jumped to the floor. She gave a full body shudder, then snapped her arms around her own body, tucked her chin and closed her eyes.

He touched her shoulders. Her body reacted with heat and hunger, but she fought to ignore those things. “I'm sorry, Tempest. I fully intended to have you out of there by the time you woke, but I-“

She punched him. Hard. Straight to the solar plexus. It gave her a rush of satisfaction to hear his grunt, and when she opened her eyes and saw him stagger backward a few paces, it felt even better.

“Bastard.”

“Tempest, if you'd let me explain-“

“How dare you? How dare you stick me in some fucking box like that? And why, for God's sake? What the hell were you thinking?” She drew back a fist and advanced on him, fully intending to deck him again, right between the eyes this time.

He had her by the forearms before she could swing, so she kicked him in the shin. He yelped but didn't release her.

“You know, that's what I like best about you freakin' vamps. You feel pain so much more than humans do.”

“Enough!”

He shouted it, using the full power of his voice-or she guessed it was full power, but maybe not, maybe he had a lot more he wasn't tapping into just yet. But either way, the sound was deep and as potent as if her head were inside a giant bell. It rang in her ears, split her head and temporarily deafened her.

She pressed her hands to her ears and closed her eyes until the reverberations stopped bouncing around her brain. Then, slowly, she lowered her hands, opened her eyes, lifted her head. He was still standing there in front of her, staring hard, anger glinting in his jet black eyes.

“I've told you, I'm sorry about the coffin. It was the only way.”

She narrowed her eyes on him, about to cut lose with another stream of insults, accusations and possibly profanity, but then she caught a glimpse of the space beyond him, and she was shocked into silence.

Stone walls climbed to towering vaulted ceilings. Inverted domes housed crystal chandeliers. Sconces in the walls looked as if they could hold actual torches. The windows were huge, arched at the top, with thick glass panes so old the night beyond them appeared distorted. Sheet-draped shapes were the only furniture in the place. And a wide curving staircase wound upward and out of sight.

“This is… your place?” She-swallowed hard as she took in the dust and cobwebs; then, turning slowly, she started a little at the sight of the two coffins lying side by side, both of them open. “Doesn't look as if anyone's used it in a while.”

“It's been a long time since anyone has lived here, yes.”

Blinking, she went to the nearest window, passing a double fireplace that took up most of one wall on the way. Wiping the dust from the glass with her palm, she stared outside.

The impression was of sheer height and rugged, barren rock. The moon hung low in the sky, nearly full and milky white. It spilled its light over cliffs, harsh outcroppings of rock and boulders jutting upward from far, far below. Beyond the cliffs, she could see grassy hills and valleys. But around this place, there was none of that. It was dark. It was bereft. Even the few pathetic trees that clung for their lives to the steep cliff-sides were scrawny and dead looking.

Stormy swallowed the dryness in her throat-she could barely do it. She was dehydrated, thirsty, starving and a little bit scared. This didn't look like any island off North Carolina.

“Where the hell are we, Vlad?”