But it wasn’t this man she’d loved. This was a coldhearted monster. A liar. He might bear the same imposing height. The same long black wavy hair and sharp, aristocratic features, but it wasn’t Velkan Danesti who held her now.
It was the devil incarnate.
“Let me go!” she snarled, wrenching herself away from him.
“Esperetta, listen to me!”
“No!” she shouted, moving away as he tried to touch her again. “You killed me. You killed my father!”
He scowled at her and if she hadn’t seen his darker side for herself, she might even believe the sincerity he feigned. “It’s not what you think.”
“I. Saw. You. Kill. Him.”
“Because he killed you.”
She shook her head. “You lie! You’re the one who gave me the poison. You! Not my father. He loved me. He would never have hurt me.”
“Your father stabbed you through the heart when he saw you dead to make sure you weren’t feigning.”
Still, she didn’t believe him. He was lying and she knew it. Her father would never have done such a thing. When Velkan had given her the sleeping balm he’d told her that it would make her sleep so soundly that no one would know she was alive. He’d promised that no one would bury her, since that had always been her fear. Side by side, they were supposed to awaken from their sleep so that they would be free to stay together forever.
But she hadn’t awakened in her bed. She’d awakened in her grave.
Now, she knew what he’d planned all along. To kill her and her father so that he could avenge his own father and take their lands for his family. Velkan didn’t love her. He’d used her and like a fool, she’d played into his hands and cost her father his life.
She ran for the woods again only to have Velkan overtake her.
She tried to pull away, but he held her arm in a fierce grip.
“Listen to me, Esperetta. You and I are both dead.”
She frowned at him. “Are you insane? I’m not dead. I only slept as you said I would. What madness are you trying to convince me of?”
“No madness,” he said, his eyes burning into her. “When we wed, I bound our souls together with my mother’s sorcery. I told you that night that I didn’t want to exist without you and I meant it. When your father killed you, I swore vengeance against him, and after he killed me, a goddess came and offered me a bargain. I sold my soul to her so that I could avenge you by killing him. For you. I didn’t understand when I made the bargain with Artemis that it would involve you, too. Because I live, you live. We are joined together. Forever.” Then he did the most unbelievable thing of all. He opened his mouth to show her a set of long, sharp fangs.
He was an upyri!
Her heart pounded in terror. It couldn’t be! This wasn’t her beloved husband, he was an unholy demon. “You’re in league with Lucifer. My father was right. All of the Danestis are an evil who must be purged from this earth.”
“Not evil, Esperetta. My love for you is pure and good. I swear it.”
She curled her lip at him as she pried his grip from her arm. “And my love for you is as dead as my father,” she spat before she ran through the fog once more.
Velkan forced himself to stand still and not follow her again. His bride was young and she’d been through a shock tonight.
She would return to him. He was certain of it. In all the violence and horror of his life, she’d been the only thing he’d ever had that was good and gentle. She alone had touched his long dead heart and caused it to live again. Surely, she wouldn’t stay angry at him. Not when all he’d done was protect her.
She would see the truth and she would return to him.
“Come back to me soon, my Esperetta.” And then he uttered the one word that had never left his lips before. “Please.”
“Just out of curiosity, can an immortal choke to death on a baby?”
Retta Danesti cut a vicious glare to her best friend as she tried to swallow the bite that was lodged painfully in her throat. As a shape-shifter who’d befriended her over five hundred years ago, Francesca was well aware of the fact that Retta’s husband had sold their souls to the goddess Artemis and by default made Retta immortal.
And Francesca’s latest news had stunned her so badly, she’d sucked a piece of bagel down her windpipe, where it burned like fire.
Francesca pounded her gently between the shoulder blades. “C’mon, babe, I knew it would piss you off, but I didn’t mean for it to kill you.”
Retta reached for her bottled water and finally cleared her throat even though her eyes were tearing up unmercifully. “Now what did you just tell me?”
Francesca put her hands in her lap and gave her a level stare. “Your husband is opening the Dracula Theme Park in Transylvania next summer and the key attraction is the mummified remains of Vlad Tepes – Dracula himself. Apparently Velkan’s going to release the body to scientists so that they can verify the remains through tests and prove that it really is The Impaler of medieval legend.”
Every part of Retta seethed. “That rank bastard!” She cringed as she realized several heads in the deli turned toward her.
Francesca lowered her voice and spoke behind her hand. “He doesn’t really have your father’s remains, does he?”
Retta recapped her water as she wished a thousand vile things on Velkan’s head. Including pestilence and plagues that would cause a certain part of his anatomy to shrivel up and rot off. “It’s possible. After all, Velkan killed him and was probably the one who buried him. Although I doubt he has the head since he gave that to my father’s enemies.”
She clenched her bottle even tighter. “Damn him! First he gives Stoker that ridiculous book, then he starts the tours, then the Dracula restaurant and hotel, and now this. I swear, God as my witness, I’m going to get an axe and kill him once and for all.”
Francesca’s light blue eyes were warm with concern. Even though she was a wolf in animal form, those eyes were very catlike when she was human. The only thing the human Francesca shared with her wolf counterpart was her thick, dark chestnut hair. And speedy reflexes. “Calm down, Retta. You know he’s only doing this to get under your skin.”
“And it’s working.”
“C’mon, he wouldn’t really do this.”
“To get back at me? Yes, he would.” She ground her teeth in frustration as she continued to call down the wrath of hell on his head. For centuries, Velkan had done nothing but strike at her and her family. “I hate that man with every fiber of my being.”
“Why did you marry him then?”
That was something she didn’t want to think about. Even five hundred years later, she could still see the night they’d met clearly in her mind. She’d been on her way home from the convent, for a visit with her father when her party had been attacked by Turks. They’d killed everyone but her and were well on their way to raping her when all of a sudden her assailants had been beheaded.
Too scared to scream, she’d lain on the ground, covered in their blood, waiting for her own death as she looked up at the men in armor who were routing the few attackers who’d managed to run.
Dressed in his dull black armor that held a gold serpent emblem, the knight who’d killed her would-be ra**sts had quickly wrapped her in his fur-lined cloak and picked her up from the ground. Without a word to her, Velkan had carried her on the back of his destrier to his home, where he’d made sure she was well tended and fed.
She could still remember the sight of his fierceness, the raw power that had bled from every part of him. He’d worn a black basinet helm that’d been fashioned to look like a bird of prey so that it inspired fear in his enemies. And it had definitely scared her to the core of her soul.
She’d had no idea of his features until later that night when he’d come to check on her. But it wasn’t his handsomeness or his strength that had captivated her, it’d been his uncertainty around her. The fact that this man who’d been so intrepid and strong before the Turks had actually trembled when he reached out to touch her.
It’d been love at first sight.
Or so she thought.
Her heart aching from the memory, Retta curled her lip as she banished that memory and reminded herself that in the end Velkan had betrayed her and murdered her father. “I was young and stupid, and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I thought he was a noble prince. I had no idea he was barely one step up from a monkey.” She grabbed the printed-out page that Francesca had brought to lunch from Yahoo! News. “I take that back and I deeply apologize to all the primates of the earth for insulting them. He’s not worthy of monkeydom. He’s a slimy slug trail.”
Francesca dipped her french fry into ketchup. “I don’t know, I think it’s kind of sweet that he keeps doing these stunts to get you to come see him.”
Yeah, right. “That’s not why he’s doing this. He’s trying to torture me and get back at my father. This isn’t about tender feelings. It’s about a man who’s ruthless. A man who, even after five hundred years, can’t let my family rest in peace. He’s an animal.” Sighing, Retta tossed the paper back to the table and reached into her purse for her Treo phone.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m booking a flight to Transylvania so that I can kill him in person. Then I’m going to stop these antics once and for all.”
Francesca snorted. “No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
“Then make it two.”
Retta would have questioned that, since shape-shifting Were-Hunters could teleport from one location to another, but for some reason Francesca had always liked to travel with her. Of course, if Retta were smart, she’d make Francesca teleport her, too, but she hated to travel that way, even though it was virtually instantaneous. She might be immortal, but Retta liked to pretend she was as normal as possible. Besides, if Were-Hunters didn’t know the area and shifted to it, they could hit a tree or manifest right in front of someone. Both experiences had nasty repercussions.
She paused in her dialing to watch Francesca pour more ketchup. “Why are you coming?”
“After all these years of listening to you rant about Prince Dickhead, I want to meet him for myself.”
“Fine, but remember to avert your gaze from his. He’ll suck the goodness right out of the marrow of your bones and leave you as morally bankrupt as he is.”
Francesca let out a low whistle. “Dang, remind me not to make you mad. I mean, really, how bad can he be?”
“Trust me. They don’t come any worse than him. And you’re about to see just how right I am.”
Retta had forgotten the beauty of her homeland. But as they made their way up the narrow mountain pass toward the hotel where she and Francesca would stay, old memories slammed into her. Even with her eyes wide open, Retta could still see this land as it had been when there were no power lines or modern buildings to mar it. No roads except for dirt paths worn by horses as they traversed the Wallachian landscape on their way to villages and Bucharest.
God, how she missed the mountains of her childhood. As a young woman, she’d spent countless hours staring out at them from the windows of her convent. No matter the season, they’d always been breathtaking – like a piece of heaven that had fallen to earth. It had never failed to capture her imagination and make her wonder what it would be like to fly over the mountains and explore distant countries.
Of course in her human lifetime that had been an impossible dream. Since her death, she’d traversed the entire globe trying to escape Velkan’s cruelty.
As they rode in the taxi, they passed many thatched cottages that seemed lost in time. Some she could have sworn were here five hundred years ago when she’d fled this land to escape her husband.
She’d vowed that night to never return.
Yet here she was. And she was every bit as uncertain now as she’d been then. Her future every bit as unclear. The only thing that had kept her going back then had been Francesca’s friendship. Francesca had joined her in Germany as Retta had been making her way from Wallachia to Paris. They’d met in a small inn where Retta had stopped for food.
There had been an awful rainstorm that had come up suddenly while she dined. It was so bad that her driver had refused to go onward until it stopped. Because of that, there weren’t any rooms left for rent. Francesca had been kind enough to share her room with Retta.
Since that fateful night, they’d been virtually inseparable. There was nothing she’d treasured more over the centuries than Francesca’s loyalty and wit.
“You okay?” Francesca asked.
Francesca nodded as she looked out the window. “Is it the way you remembered it?”
She didn’t comment as she realized the driver was looking at them in the rearview mirror.