Alec Darwin was dying, or as close to it as one could be without having that last little spark of life flitter away into nothingness.
He closed his eyes and lay back, shifting slightly when a rock dug into the small of his back. Should he go to the trouble of trying to remove it, he wondered absently, so he could lie for eternity in comfort? Or was such a trivial thing worth the effort? Did he even have the strength to do it? It had been all he could do to stagger to the area he had the previous day cleared of small, pointed rocks, his final resting place.
His shoulder shifted in mild irritation. The rock ground into his kidney, the pain of it distracting him from his plan. Dammit, he hadn’t seen a rock when he fell to the ground, his strength draining from him as his body squeezed the last morsel of energy from the remaining teaspoon or two of blood that was slowly absorbed into his dying flesh.
He was supposed to be cherishing his martyrdom as he lay dying in the Akasha, not thinking about a damned rock the size of a watermelon digging into his back. He was supposed to be thinking of the pathetic tragedy of a life that he had been forced to live, unenlivened with any sort of joy or happiness, or even hope. He shouldn’t be wondering whether if he rolled over onto his side, the damned rock would let him die in peace.
If only his Beloved hadn’t died. If only he’d come to her a few minutes earlier, he could have been there when that idiot reaper lost control. If only he’d bedded her and Joined the minute he knew she was his Beloved, rather than allowing her to give in to her mortal sensibilities, demanding he court her.
A last breath passed his lips as he tried to hold on to the image of her face, his one true love, the woman who had been put on the earth to save him, and who had died the victim of a senseless accident that was directly responsible for his death at that moment.
Awareness slid away from him, the rock ceasing to be an annoyance, the last few sparks between his brain cells providing not the image of his Beloved, as he so desperately wanted, but that of a woman who had lain in a faint at his feet a few months previously.
The dream started the way it always started.
“What do you see, Corazon?”
The voice that spoke so calmly belonged to Barbara, the hypnotherapist whom Patsy had hired for our “Girls’ Night In” semiannual party.
“Mud. I see mud. Well, mud and grass and stuff like that. But mostly just mud.”
“Are you sure she’s under?” Patsy asked, her voice filled with suspicion. Pats was always a doubter. “She doesn’t look hypnotized to me. CORA! Can you hear me?”
“I’d have to be five miles away not to hear you. I’m hypnotized, you idiot, not deaf.” I glared at her. She glared at me glaring at her.
“Wait just one second. . . .” Patsy stopped glaring and pointed dramatically at where I lay prone on the couch. “You’re not supposed to hear me!”
“Is she supposed to know she’s hypnotized?”
That was Terri, the third member of our little trio of terror, as my ex-husband used to call us.
“Her knowing doesn’t negate the regression, does it?” Terri asked Barbara.
“Hypnotism isn’t a magical state of unknowing,” Barbara said calmly. “She is simply relaxed, in touch with her true inner spirit, and has opened up her mind to the many memories of lifetimes past. I assure you that she is properly hypnotized.”
“Let me get a pin and poke her with it,” Patsy said, bustling over to a bookcase crammed full of books and various other items. “If she reacts, we’ll know she’s faking it.”
“No one is poking me with anything!” I sat up, prepared to sprint to safety if she so much as came near me with anything sharp and pointy.
“Please, ladies.” I didn’t see Barbara show any signs of rushing, but I knew she wanted to hurry us along so she could leave. “We have limited time. Corazon is in a light trance, also referred to as an alpha state. Through that, she has tapped into her higher self, her true Infinite Being, a state in which she is free to bypass the boundaries of time.”
“Yeah. Bypassing all that stuff,” I said, lying back down on the couch. Even though it was a dream, and I knew it was a dream, my stomach started to tighten at what was to come. “So sit back and watch the show. What do I do now, Barbara?”
“Look around you. Examine your surroundings. Tell us what you see, what you feel.”
“I see mud. I feel mud. I am the mud.”
“There has to be more to her past life than mud, surely,” Terri said, munching on popcorn.
My stomach turned over. It was coming. He was coming. I felt it, felt the horror just on the edges of my consciousness.
“Are there any buildings or other structures around to give you an idea of what year you are reliving?” Barbara asked.
“Um . . . nothing on the left side other than forest. I seem to be standing on a dirt path of some sort. Let me walk to the top of this little hill—oh! Wow! There’s a town down below. And it looks like there’s a castle way up on a tall cliff in the distance. Lots of tiny little people are running around in some fields outside of the town. Cool! It’s like a medieval village or something. Think I’ll go down to say hi.”
“Excellent,” Barbara said. “Now tell me, how do you feel?”
Sick. Scared. Terrified.
“Well,” my voice said, not reflecting any of the dream emotions, “kind of hungry. No, really hungry. Kind of an intense hunger, throbbing inside me. Oh great, I’m a peasant, aren’t I? I’m a poor starving peasant who stands around in mud. Lovely.”
“We are not here to make judgments on our past selves,” Barbara said primly.
“Geesh, Cora,” Patsy said, sitting on my feet. “Terri turned out to be Cleopatra’s personal maid, and I was one of Caesar’s concubines. You’re letting down the team, babe. The least you could do is be a medieval princess in a big pointy hat or something.”
I couldn’t . . . because of him.
Loathing rippled through me as my voice continued. “I have shoes on. Peasants didn’t wear shoes, did they?”
“Some did, I’m sure,” Terri said, stuffing a handful of popcorn into her mouth.
“Can you walk to the town?” Barbara asked. “Perhaps we can find out who you are if we know where you are.”
“Yeah. I’m going down the hill now.”
A low rumble from behind me had me clutching the cushions of the couch. “Hey, watch where you’re—oh my god . Oh my god! OMIGOD!”
“What? What’s happened?” Barbara asked, sounding suddenly worried.
“A woman with an oxcart just ran me over.”
“What?” Patsy shrieked.
“She ran me over. Her oxen were running amok or something. They just came barreling down the hill behind me and ran right over the top of me. Holy Swiss on rye! Now the oxen are trampling me, and the lady in the cart is screaming and—Jehoshaphat ! My head just came off! It just came right off! Ack!”
I knew in my dream state that Terri sat staring at me, her eyes huge, a handful of popcorn frozen just beyond her mouth as she gawked at the words that came unbidden from my mouth.
If only she knew.
“Oh, my. I don’t—I’ve never had anyone die during a regression,” Barbara said, sounding stressed. “I’m not quite sure how to proceed.”
“You’re . . . decapitated?” Patsy asked. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure, Pats. My head’s separated from my body, which is covered in ox hoofprints. A wheel went over my neck, I think. It . . . urgh. That’s just really gross. Why the hell do I get the reincarnations where I’m killed by two bulls and a cart? Why can’t I be Cleopatra’s concubine?”
“Personal maid, not concubine,” Terri corrected, stuffing the popcorn into her mouth and chewing frantically. “Are you absolutely certain you’re dead? Maybe it looks worse than it is.”
Oh, it’s going to get much, much worse, the dream part of my mind said.
Goose bumps rose on my arms.
“My head is three feet away from my body. I think that’s a pretty good indicator of death—good god! Now what’s she doing?”
“The ox?” Patsy asked.
“No, the driver. She’s not doing what I think she’s doing, is she?”
“I don’t know,” Terri said, setting down the popcorn so she could scoot over closer to me.
“This is very unusual,” Barbara muttered to herself.
“What’s the lady doing?” Patsy said, prodding my knee.
“She’s trying to stick my head back onto my body. Lady, that’s not going to do any good. No, you can’t tie it on, either. Ha. Told you so. Oh, don’t drop me in the mud! Sheesh! Like I wasn’t muddy enough? What a butterfingers. Now she’s chasing the oxen, who just bolted for a field. Oh, no, she’s coming back. Her arms are waving around like she’s yelling, only I can’t hear anything. It must be the shock of having my head severed by a cart wheel.”
“This is just too surreal,” Terri said. “Do you think she purposely ran you down?”
“I don’t think so. She seems kind of goofy. She just tripped over my leg and fell onto my head. Oh man! I think she broke my nose! God almighty, this is like some horrible Marx Brothers meets Leatherface sort of movie. Holy runaway oxen, Batman!”
“What?” Terri and Patsy asked at the same time.
“She’s doing something. Something weird.”
“Oh my god—is she making love to your lifeless corpse?” Terri asked. “I saw a show on HBO about that!”
“No, she’s not molesting me. She’s standing above me waving her hands around and chanting or something. What the—she’s like—hoo!”
He was coming. He was just out of my sight, just beyond the curve of the hill.
He was death.
“Don’t get upset,” Barbara said. “You are in no personal danger. Just describe what you’re seeing calmly, and in detail.”
“I don’t know about you, but I consider a decapitation and barbecue as some sort of personal danger.”
“Barbecue?” Patsy asked. “Someone’s roasting a pig or something?”
“No. The ox lady waved her hands around, and all of a sudden this silver light was there, all over my body, singeing it around the edges. Oh, great. Here comes someone.” No! my mind screamed. Not again! Please god, not again! “Hey, you, mister, would you stop the lady from doing the light thing? She’s burnt off half of my hair.”
“This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard,” Terri told Patsy. “You have the best parties!”
“It’s all in the planning,” Patsy said, prodding my knee again. “What’s going on now, Cora?”
“The guy just saw me. He did a little stagger to the side. I think it’s because the lady tried to hide my head behind her, and my ear flew off and landed at his feet. Now he’s picking it up. He’s yelling at her. She’s pointing to the oxen in the field, but he looks really pissed. Yeah, you tell her, mister. She has no right driving if she can’t handle her cows.”
My heart wept at what was coming.
“This would make a great film,” Patsy said thoughtfully. “I wonder if we could write a screenplay. We could make millions.”
“Well, now the guy has my head, and he’s shaking it at the lady, still yelling at her. Whoops. Chunk of hair came loose. My head is bouncing down the hill. Guy and lady are chasing it. Hee hee hee. OK, that’s really funny in a horrible sort of way. Ah. Good for you, sir. He caught me again, and now he’s taking me back to my body, hauling the ox lady with him. Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa!”
I struggled to get out of the dream, just as I struggled every time. It never did any good. The scene was determined to play out as it first had.
“Did he drop your head again?” Terri asked, her eyes wide.
Panic flooded me. “No, he just . . . holy shit! I want out of here! Take me out of this dream or whatever it is! Wake me up!”
“Remain calm,” Barbara said in a soothing voice. “The images you see are in the past, and cannot harm you now.”
“What’s going on? What did the guy do?” Terri asked.
“I want to wake up! Right now!” I said, clawing the couch to sit up.
“Very well. I’m going to count backwards to one, and when I reach that number, you will awaken feeling refreshed and quite serene. Five, four, three, two, one. Welcome back, Corazon.”
“You OK?” Patsy asked as I sat up, gasping, my blood all but curdling at the memory of what I’d witnessed.
“Yeah. I think so.”
“What happened at the end?” Terri asked. “You looked scared to death.”
“You’d be scared, too, if you saw a vampire kill someone!”
I sat up in bed, torn from the dream at last, gasping and blinking as the dream memory faded and I realized I was safe, in my own little apartment, alone, without the green-eyed, dark-haired monster who had killed a woman before my eyes.
I slumped back against the pillow, wondering why I kept dreaming about Patsy’s party and experiencing the awful past-life scene again and again. Why were the dreams increasing in frequency? Why was I doomed to relive the experience over and over again, the sense of dread and horror so great I could taste it on my tongue?
Sleep, I knew from sad experience, would be useless. I got to my feet, headed for the bathroom. I’d brush my teeth to get rid of the taste of my own fear, and go sit with a book until I was too numb with exhaustion to stay awake any longer.
And I’d pray that the green-eyed vampire stayed out of my dreams.
* * *
“And then Dee said, ‘Darlin’, if you’re going to rise to the top, you have to work for it. That goes for sex as well as anything else.’ Well, you know how he is, Cora—he’s such a joker, and of course, I was on top at that moment, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear about that.”
“Why on earth would you think I didn’t want to hear about you and my ex-husband having sex?” I gritted my teeth at both the conversation and the ruts that riddled the long dirt drive up to the Astley house.
The car bounced on a particularly bad one, causing me to cling to the dashboard, as Diamond, with one hand waving airily, didn’t seem to notice the appalling state of the drive. “It’s not like it’s something you haven’t done before, unless Dee never asked you to play Cowgirl and the One-legged Itinerant Rodeo Clown, and given how much he loves that, I’m positive he did. But that’s neither here nor there, really, is it?”
“No, it isn’t,” I said, my lips twitching despite myself.
She was silent for a minute before sliding me a questioning look. “You’re not angry with me about something, are you, Corazon? Is it Dee? Is it because we didn’t ask you to the wedding? Dee thought it was best we didn’t have a big ceremony, since your divorce had just become final that very day, so we went to Vegas.”
“No,” I said on a sigh. “It’s not the wedding, and it’s not anything you’ve done, including marrying my ex. Not really. Our marriage was over before you came along. It’s just . . .” I stopped, not wanting to bare my soul to her. I wanted so much to hate Diamond, to despise her husband-stealing self, her perfect blond hair, her svelte figure, her miraculous rise through the real estate ranks from receptionist to top agent while I still slaved away as a lowly assistant-cum-secretary . . . but unfortunately, I couldn’t hate her, couldn’t despise her, couldn’t even work up so much as a mild dislike. She kept the notoriously roving eye of Dermott, my ex-husband of three years, fixed firmly on herself, charmed everyone she came in contact with, and had a sunny disposition that simply would not be quelled, no matter how much I tried snubbing her.
“Lonely?” she asked with a perception that made me uncomfortable.
“I just miss my sister,” I said, but we both knew it was a lame excuse. “Even though Jas lived in Washington, we used to talk almost every day.”
“Didn’t she marry a Scotsman?”
“Yes.” I grimaced as we hit a particularly bad rut, my head smacking on the roof of the car. Diamond didn’t need to know just what type of a Scot Jacintha’s new husband really was. Or the truth about Jas herself, for that matter.
“That must be very hard on you, having her so far away. You don’t have any men friends?”
For some bizarre reason, my mind turned to the dark-haired, green-eyed murderer. I would have to be dead not to have noticed that a bloodsucking fiend he might be, but he was also extremely easy on the eyes. “No. No boyfriend.”
I gave up all pretense of dignity. “It really does. I can’t tell you how hard it is to find a man these days. They’re all so . . . I don’t know, shallow. They’re just into themselves, or their jobs, and none of them seem to have any real depth. Is it so much to ask that a man be comfortable with himself? That he be able to look beyond his own needs and desires once in a while? All I ever find are guys with agendas.”
“Have you tried one of those online dating places?” Diamond asked as we crept down the long drive, past a wildly unkempt lawn, dotted with downed branches from nearby scraggly alder trees. “I have a friend who had great luck with one.”
“Tried them. Dated the guys. Dumped them shortly thereafter,” I said grimly, staring out the window with an Eeyore sense of satisfaction at my misery.
“I’ll have to put my mind to it,” Diamond said after another minute of silence. “You’re a nice girl, Corazon. You deserve to be happy.”
I sighed morosely, not bothering to voice my agreement. I sounded pathetic enough without that.
“I think you should take Dee’s advice,” she added.
“What advice would that be?” I asked, faintly startled at the idea of taking my ex’s advice about anything, let alone my love life.
“That rising-to-the-top business. This job, now,” she said, nodding toward the looming house that cut with mottled black fingers into the sunny California sky, “this is a perfect example of how one can rise to the top. If you handled it right, it could do big things for you.”
“I’m not the agent; you are.”
“You can be my coagent,” she said, with a decisive little nod. “I think it would be a good thing for you to get out from behind the desk and start meeting people. I see lots of men in my job, successful men, just the sort you need.”
I glanced at the house, unable to keep from smiling to myself. “I appreciate the offer, Diamond, I really do, but I just don’t think that some sexy, urbane man is going to want either this house or me.”
“You don’t know until you try. I’ll tell Dee that you’re going to handle the sale of this house. It’ll do you good, and he won’t make a fuss when I tell him how much you need a man.”
I groaned to myself. That’s all I needed—Dermott knowing how desperate I was for a man in my life. Still, it was a nice offer, and I didn’t want to hurt Diamond’s feelings by turning it down. “I’ll think about it.”
“You’ll do more than think about it—you’ll make this your debut into the fabulous world of real estate. And, of course, man hunting.”
I laughed and pulled my hair back into a ponytail, checking my digital camera to make sure I had enough charge on the battery to take a good four or five dozen pictures. “It’s just a derelict house that’s been tied up in some huge probate battle for decades. It’s hardly going to work miracles either for my career or love life.”
“You’d be surprised what it could do,” she said with a little smile of her perfectly plumped lips.
She glanced at me as we bounced our way to a halt at the side of the monstrous old Victorian house. Once, perhaps, it had been the home of a lumber baron or railroad magnate. . . . Now it was falling down, its wood weathered and mottled with peeling paint, the windows boarded over, bits of shingles from the roof scattered around the unkempt and overgrown grounds.
“Don’t believe me?” Diamond asked.
Her blue eyes narrowed on me. “You’re not one of those skeptics, are you? The people who don’t believe in anything supernatural?”
I clamped my lips together to keep from laughing hysterically. Part of me, what my mother used to call my little devil, wanted to tell her that anyone who had a shape-shifting sister married to a vampire could hardly be a skeptic. I squelched my devil and just smiled. “Not particularly, no.”
“Oh, good. I know I should be more tolerant, but really, how people can close their minds to the wonders of the world is beyond me. My great-grandmother once told me that a closed mind would be the death of me, and do you know, she was right? The only time I closed my mind to the possibilities, I died.”
I stared at her as she got out of the car, wondering if I heard her correctly. “You . . . died?” I asked, getting out, as well.
“Yes. I got in trouble with—” She shot me a quick, unreadable look. “Well, let’s just say I got in trouble, and I paid the price for it. Although the near-death experience was very interesting, I learned my lesson, and ever since then, I’ve kept my mind open to everything and everyone, humans and other beings.” She hoisted her bag and pulled out her camera, giving the house an assessing look as she jangled a set of keys. “My, this is a big one, isn’t it? There should be four floors. How about you shoot the basement and first floor, and I’ll do the second and attic?”
“That’s fine. Er . . .” I followed after her as she tripped lightly up the front steps to the big double doors. I picked my way carefully, not trusting the half-rotted boards of the steps and porch to hold up under my more substantial weight. “When you say other beings, you wouldn’t happen to include vampires in that, would you? Or, what do they call them . . . er . . . ?”
“Dark Ones?” She unlocked the door, pausing on the threshold to close her eyes and breathe deeply. “I always try to attune myself to the house before entering. It gives me a better idea of what sort of family would be perfect within its walls. How very odd. This house feels like someone of a dark nature has been here a long time ago. . . . Hmm.” She entered, tossing me an amused look over her shoulder. “Of course I believe in Dark Ones. I haven’t met one, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Are you interested in them?”
I thought of the large, blond, extremely deadly man my sister had married just a month before. I thought of his bigger, more deadly brother. I thought of the dark-haired murderer of my dreams. “Kind of. Not really, no. In a way.”
She laughed and waved me forward into the house. “I don’t blame you. They’re fascinating, aren’t they? Much more so than movies and books lead you to believe. Dark Ones are . . . ooh, so many things. Sexy. Mysterious. Sensuous. You know about Beloveds, don’t you? How there’s only one woman to redeem each Dark One, and they have to go through seven steps to save him, and that once they do, they’re bound together forever and ever?”
“Yes,” I said, my devil once again prodding me to do more than smile. “I know about Beloveds.”
“Isn’t it just the most romantic thing ever? I wonder what it would be like to have one as your lover? Wouldn’t you think they would be intense? Kind of overwhelming, but in a good way?”
I remembered how Avery seemed wholly absorbed in Jas. “I think ‘intense’ is a good description.”
“And then there’s the bad-boy image. Who doesn’t love a bad boy? Who doesn’t want to redeem them, make them whole again, show them the power of love?” She sighed, then giggled and poked me on the arm. “Listen to us! Mooning over vampires just like a couple of teenagers with a sparkle fetish! Mysterious and romantic they may be, but they’re not for the likes of us. Shall we get started?”
My nose wrinkled as I looked around the entry hall. Directly across from the door was a staircase leading up to murky gloom, the pale fingers of light that managed to fight their way in through the boards on the windows not doing much to light the interior. To my right was a large room that seemed to stretch the length of the house, the dark, stained wallpaper making odd patterns that seemed almost to move when seen peripherally. To the left was a narrow hall with several doors, no doubt leading to smaller rooms. Thankfully, the house was empty of all furniture, nothing but a few torn shreds of ancient newspaper and bits of twine lying in desolation on age-stained wood floors to mark its removal.
“Mice,” I said, rubbing my nose against the smell of stale rodent droppings.
“Probably, but it doesn’t smell too fresh. Dee says the house was fumigated last month, so there shouldn’t be anything alive in here but us. At least . . .” She paused at the foot of the stairs, her face tight for a moment before she shook her head. “No, there’s nothing here but us. I must be imagining things.”
“Oh, that’s not going to give me the creeps,” I said, rubbing my arms as I looked around the gloomy room.
Diamond just laughed and ran up the stairs, turning on her camera as she did so. “Don’t forget to get several different angles of each room. I’d like to piece together each room’s photos into a panorama if possible. Buyers love panoramas.”
“Anyone would have to be insane to want to buy this monstrosity,” I muttered to myself as I twitched my shoulder aside just in time to avoid hitting a massive cobweb that drifted down from an ornate, but filthy, brass light fixture. “I can only imagine what a barrel of laughs the basement is going to be.”
“Just imagine it all fixed up, filled with people and laughter,” Diamond called as she started up the second flight.
“If one single mouse so much as sticks his nose out of the wall at me, I’m leaving!” I bellowed up the stairs.
A faint sound of her tinkling laughter was my only answer. Dammit, she even laughed nicer than me. Hers was all lightness while mine came out throaty, as if I were a five-pack-a-day smoker.
“My life sucks,” I said to no one as I stomped loudly toward the back of the hallway, checking each room before heading toward the door Diamond had indicated led to the basement. “Everyone has hooked up but me. And what do I have, house? Huh? What do I have? I’ll tell you what I have,” I said in a loud voice as I grabbed the doorknob. “I have a job that’s going nowhere, a deranged vampire murderer trying to drive me insane, and abso-friggin’-lutely no man on the horizons. I swear, what I wouldn’t give to meet someone—urf!”
The force of a brick wall bursting through the basement doorway and slamming straight into me not only drove all the air from my body but sent me flying backward, the brick wall falling with me in a tangle of arms and legs, and heads clunking together painfully. My camera fell to the floor, and the tinkle of coins and the smashing of glass warned that the contents of my purse had spilled out under the force of the impact.
It took me a few seconds to shake the stars from my aching head, but that gave my lungs time to reinflate after the brick wall—which I was amazed to see turned out to be a man—rolled off me.
He spoke in some lyrical language, stopping himself to grab my hand and yank me to my feet. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were there. Get out.”
“Huh?” I said, rubbing my forehead where it had smacked against his. “Who are you? What are you doing here? We were told the house was empty.”
The man cast a glance over his shoulder to where a narrow stairway descended into the yawning blackness of the basement. “Get out now! He knows I found the exit that led to this place!”
“Who knows you’re here? Oh, man, if my camera is broken—” I ignored the man when he ran toward the front door, instead squatting to scoop up the small collection of coins, my now broken compact mirror, a tube of lipstick, and some sort of gray-striped flat round stone edged in gold, with a gold dragon embossed on one side. “What on earth is this? Hey, mister, this must be—holy Mary and all the apostles!”
Another man emerged from the blackness of the basement, but instinctively I knew this was no normal man, not with the way power and fury were rolling off him in almost visible waves. I clutched my things to my chest, stumbling backward to get out of his way, ignoring the pain of the coins and broken compact as they cut into the flesh of my palm, my eyes huge as his attention was momentarily directed my way. I froze, unable to breathe, but was instantly dismissed as he turned toward the front door, raising one hand as he bellowed out a word.
Automatically, I translated the word from Latin to English—halt—and for a second, it seemed as if the world stopped rotating. Everything seemed to hold its breath. Time just stopped dead as I stared in horrified wonder at the man. A sudden dizziness overtook me as the air in the house was suddenly contracted, then exploded outward with the velocity and volume of a nuclear explosion.
I fell to the ground, my arms around my head, as the walls of the house itself groaned. I was going to die right then and there, without even finding someone to love.
“Damn,” I whispered to my knees, and consigned my soul to heaven.