It was patently obvious that I was in trouble. Serious trouble.
Regaining consciousness, I rolled over, blinking against the stark brightness of the room. I found myself lying on an old mattress, the dark cover stained and soiled. The room smelled musty, like worn socks which had lain in the bottom of the laundry basket for too long before washing. The last thing I could recall was being dragged away from Striker and Marianne’s wedding celebrations by a group of men. What had happened between then and now, how much time had passed – I didn’t know.
I pushed myself upright on the mattress and looked around. There wasn’t much to see, the mattress lay on a concrete floor; the walls too, were made of rock-solid concrete. A tiny window, filmed by a thick coating of grime was situated in the top of one wall. It gave the impression this room must be positioned at least partially underground, to need the window so high. In the wall opposite the window there was a door, metal and deadlocked. There was no handle. I raised my hands to my head, pressing my palms against my temples and squeezing my eyes shut as fear overwhelmed me. I had a funny taste in my mouth and felt groggy, slightly disorientated, which made me think I’d been drugged. Shaking my head firmly, I tried to remove the last vestiges of fuzziness – I needed to be alert, knew I had to think logically about this situation if I was going to get out of here alive. My eyes felt tired and dry and I rubbed my fists against them.
With a quick glance, I confirmed I still wore the beautiful pewter dress and I was relieved. It gave the illusion nobody had touched me while I was unconscious and I clung to it, not wanting to consider the alternatives. Anything could have happened while I was out to it. My mouth throbbed and I touched it lightly, wincing when my fingers brushed across my lip. There was a deep split in the skin and it was swollen. Running my tongue across my lip, I discovered one of my teeth was a little loose. There didn’t seem to be any other physical damage. It was satisfying to discover that the edge of the ankle cast was damaged, where I’d kicked the goon who touched me so intimately. He’d deserved it.
The biggest question to answer, was what did these people want from me? My heart began to race as I pondered the question and I made a conscious effort not to hyperventilate. Panic was the last thing I could afford to do, not when I was in so much trouble. Breathing deeply and slowly, I tried to look at the situation logically, working my way through the moments before I was taken from the wedding.
I remembered Lucas and the others reacting in an identical fashion, mirroring one another’s movements. They’d all raised their heads and sniffed the air, aware of something, or someone approaching. Their sense of smell was acute, heightened beyond normal human ability and I suspected what they’d smelled was something supernatural, rather than human. It was the only logical explanation for them reacting the way they did, when they’d already been surrounded by dozens of human scents at the reception.
There was no doubt in my mind that the wedding planner had been vampire. When I’d met him and he shook my hand, his skin had been cool to touch, but I’d been fooled when he carried the bags of ice through the house to the marquee. No doubt he’d done it deliberately to confuse me. I focused on his name, repeating it over and over in my head, trying to think if I’d met him before, or heard his name mentioned in the past. I drew a blank. He meant nothing to me, yet he’d told the black-haired man I was the one they wanted. Why? What was it about me that they wanted so badly?
I got onto my knees and pushed up to a standing position, leaning against the concrete wall until the dizziness subsided. When I’d recovered my equilibrium, I began to pace backwards and forwards across the concrete floor, thinking through the situation repeatedly. It was freezing in the small room and my dress wasn’t suitable for cold temperatures, so I wrapped my arms around my chest, rubbing my arms briskly to try and warm myself. The only viable motive for them kidnapping me was my psychic ability. Without it, I was a normal human woman. But if it was the ability they wanted, what could they possibly use it for?
I was positive I’d met Gerard DuBonet for the first time this morning, but even that piece of information was open to conjecture – how long had I been held? How long was I drugged for? Was it even the same day? The room was lit by a single fluorescent tube and it was impossible to know how long I’d been here, what time it was, what day it might be. The window was filthy, impossible to see through. I couldn’t tell if it was day or night through the grime-caked glass. Stretching up against the wall, I tried to reach the window in the hope I could clear some of the grime, but it was too high. There wasn’t a stick of furniture to help gain some height, only the mattress and its measly couple of inches wouldn’t help. With a humph of frustration I gave up the attempt and resumed pacing.
Another idea brought me to a standstill. Gerard DuBonet shook my hand when we met. Did he have some sort of ability, could he read me through touch? Was that even possible? I almost disregarded the idea, but I was dealing with vampires – anything was possible. In the past few months I’d met Rowena, who could sense my emotions through contact, Acenith and Striker who could help me keep calm with the touch of their hand on my shoulder. I knew some of the vampires could converse telepathically and Ripley could read other people’s thoughts. It seemed plausible to think Gerard DuBonet could learn about me through touching. I certainly couldn’t disregard the thought. But I couldn’t figure out how he could have met me in the morning and planned to kidnap me by evening. I couldn’t force that part to make any sense.
There were still other questions to answer; for instance, why didn’t Marianne foresee the strangers’ arrival at the wedding reception? The answer came almost immediately – her ability was not known for being perfect and with the excitement of her wedding day, maybe it had been misfiring more than usual. Although she seemed to be linked to me in some way with her ability – seeing a lot of things involving me – perhaps this time it just hadn’t worked.
Which led back to my first question. Even if Gerard DuBonet did recognize my ability, how did he find out about it in the first place?
I resumed pacing uneasily, thinking back through the day and beyond. My contacts were limited; my only friends outside of Lucas and the others were Lonnie, Hank and Maude. Only Lucas and the vampires knew of my ability. I didn’t think they’d even told Nick Lingard and his group of shape shifters. So where did the information come from?
Maybe I was on the wrong track all together, although I couldn’t think of anything which would single me out for kidnapping, other than my ability to speak with the dead. The black-haired man told Lucas I had something they wanted. The only logical choice was the psychic ability. I had no idea why they thought it would be useful, nor what they could want to do with it. They didn’t strike me as yearning to make contact with long-dead ancestors. Did they realize I only ever had contact with spirits who were important to me in some way? I doubted I could make contact with spirits because someone forced me to do it.
It was incredibly tempting to open the box in my mind and talk to Mom and the others. I was angry with myself for keeping them closed away for so much of the time, it had been a mistake. I’d been so smug about having the ability under control, only allowing contact when I wanted it. By doing that, I’d had no warning of the danger I faced. My fists clenched in frustration and I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity. I’d been so happy about having the spirits controlled, I hadn’t thought about the possible repercussions of keeping them silent. If I’d kept the lines of communication open, they’d have given me warning about the impending danger I faced. Why hadn’t Mom warned me at the wedding? Maybe she could only warn me if she was given enough contact to see it approaching. By only releasing her for a few minutes, I hadn’t given her a chance to recognize the danger that was so imminent. It was the only logical explanation I could think of.
Now I wanted desperately to talk to them, but I was certain it would be unwise to try. If these people – whoever they were – wanted to use my ability, allowing the spirits out could be a mistake. I didn’t know how, or even if, they knew about my gift or what means they could employ to find out. What if they had some power to recognize the spirits? Could someone touch me and know about them if they were speaking with me? No, releasing the spirits seemed like a really bad proposition right now.
I circled the room with increasing frustration, knowing there was nothing in here to indicate where I was being held, but searching anyway. When they’d dragged me away, they’d taken off at a run through the woods. I’d been carried by the man who’d touched me so intimately and I shuddered at the memory. He’d smelled of strong aftershave and when he’d thrown me over his should he’d taken great delight in holding his hand on my backside as he ran. I couldn’t estimate how far we’d travelled through the darkened woods, before I was bundled unceremoniously into a car. A cloth held across my nose and mouth had been soaked in a sweet-smelling liquid which knocked me out. From there, I had no idea of where I’d been taken, how far we’d travelled or where I was now.
Was Lucas searching for me? My heart lurched – would he ever be able to find me? The vampires might be able to track our path through the woods, but what happened when they reached where the car had been parked? Was there any hope of them tracking me from there? I assumed my scent would have disappeared into thin air from that point. I wasn’t sure how their tracking ability worked, but I was certain they must need some scent, some trace of me to follow. When that was gone, there was probably no way of them following the direction in which we’d travelled. My already shaken confidence took a further nose-dive at the thought of them never being able to find me. What if I was held here forever?
Shaking that thought from my mind, I mulled over my chances of rescue. The only thing I’d been able to do was attempt to get a message to Ripley about the wedding planner. The very same wedding planner who wasn’t a wedding planner. I cursed at myself – why hadn’t I told Lucas about him? I should have mentioned how cold his hands were, even if I’d been stupid enough to believe his ruse with the ice. With everything going on in the lead-up to the wedding, the thought had completely slipped my mind. I’d been under the impression they knew him, and he’d seemed so confident and in control, I’d had no reason to think differently.
Breathing deeply, I tried to compose myself and keep the dread which was bubbling away below the surface under control. I had to keep it under control. Fear wasn’t going to keep me alive.
Heavy footsteps approached and I stopped pacing, anxiously watching the door. The footfalls stopped outside and a key was slipped into the lock and turned.
Whatever they wanted, I was about to find out.
To my utter disgust, the black-haired man stood in the doorway, his gaze lingering suggestively over my chest. “It’s about time you woke up.”
He strode across the room and captured my arm, dragging me out into a narrow hallway. He turned to the left, pulling me along beside him and tears welled in my eyes from the painful grip. There was no doubt it was going to leave a bruise.
He hauled me up a flight of roughly-hewn wooden stairs and I stumbled along beside him as he strode down another hallway. This one was lavishly decorated with flocked wallpaper, a claret leaf pattern on cream. The floor beneath my feet was polished and stained oak, the surface gleaming beneath the overhead lights. We stopped in front of a set of double doors, guarded by two heavyset men in dark suits. Neither of them glanced at us, their eyes focused on the wall opposite. The black-haired man rapped sharply on the door.
One of the guards pushed the doors open and I was dragged unceremoniously into the room. It was a study, oval in shape with rows of leather-bound books. The wooden shelves tapered flawlessly to the curved walls. A man sat behind an enormous wooden desk in the centre of the room. A large window was open behind him, sunlight streaming into the room and the lace curtains wafted softly in the breeze. Manicured gardens were visible outside, planted with a selection of majestic palms and bright tropical flowers. Vast swathes of lawn were richly green and meticulously mowed. We were nowhere near Montana, that much was obvious. The man who’d dragged me upstairs shoved me down onto a straight backed chair before letting go of my arm.
“Leave us, Sebastian.”
I glared at Sebastian as he strode past and left the room, shutting the doors noiselessly behind him.
I turned my attention to the man in the chair opposite me. He was tall and slim, with blonde shoulder length hair which fell around his face in gentle waves. He was bearded, the hair clipped neatly around his jaw. The fine lines around his chocolate brown eyes suggested he was in his mid-forties and he was dressed casually in a white silk shirt, the neckline open to reveal a small V of tanned skin.
“How do you know my name?”
He smiled. “Oh, I know quite a bit about you, Miss Duncan.” He drew himself to his feet and strode around the desk, his movements curiously graceful given he was so lanky. Perching on the edge of the desk he regarded me with a tight smile. “My name is Laurence Armstrong.” He held out his hand and I shook it warily, not taking my eyes off him. His skin was warm, his hand smooth with long fingers and neatly manicured nails. With his eyes focused on me, I felt a whisper of power travel through his hand and into mine, an increase in warmth and a vibration which made the hair on my arms stand on end. I pulled my hand away from his, rubbing it on my thigh. I didn’t know what it was, how he’d done it, but there was something strange about him, some sort of power I couldn’t recognize.
“You’re not a vampire?” I questioned warily.
He laughed dryly. “No, of course not. Tell me, what do you think I am?”
I shook my head cautiously. “I don’t know.”
“No matter. It’s not important.” He stared at me for a long moment, his eyes piercing and unemotional. “What is important, is what you can do for me.”
Playing dumb seemed like my best option. In fact, my only option, as I didn’t have a clue why I was here. There was no valid reason to suspect this stranger knew about my ability, but it was still the only logical explanation I had for being kidnapped. Laurence Armstrong was trying to be charming and I didn’t want him to know what I suspected. Better to hold the knowledge to my chest and see what I could learn from him. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
His gaze was piercing, as if he knew I was lying. “Oh, come now, Miss Duncan. We both know what I’m talking about.” He leaned forward, so his face was inches from mine and spoke quietly. “You have a power. A very unique power. I want it.”
I shrugged, trying to keep my expression neutral. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m an artist. I paint.”
A long silence followed this statement. His brown eyes were calculating as he stared into my own, as if he could read the truth in my irises. I stared back, too frightened to blink, keeping my face as smooth and relaxed as I could. When he spoke, his voice was hard, the polite composure gone. “You will tell me what I want to know. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“What, like getting your cronies to feel me up?” I retorted angrily. “Are you going to let them rape me next?” The revulsion incited me to anger rapidly and I remembered Sebastian’s fingers probing me, shuddered at the strong memory.
Armstrong looked taken aback and caught more than slightly off-balance at my words. “What are you talking about?”
I glared at him defiantly, drawing myself up to sit straighter in the chair. “That Sebastian. He touched me.”
It was apparent I was going to have to spell it out. “He put his fingers… inside me.” I fought against the rush of heat that rose across my cheeks, and failed miserably.
His eyes grew colder and he bellowed, making me jump. “SEBASTIAN!”
The door opened at once, giving the impression Sebastian had been loitering outside. He strode in, closing the doors and standing beside the chair were I sat. I could smell the stench of his potent aftershave and wrinkled my nose in distaste.
Armstrong stood up abruptly and he was a good couple of inches taller than Sebastian. He was irate, tendons visible in his neck as he glowered at the shorter man. “What were your orders regarding Miss Duncan?” he snapped angrily.
“You told me to collect Miss Duncan from Montana and bring her here, Sir.”
My assumption was correct, I was no longer in Montana.
“What were your express orders regarding contact with Miss Duncan?” Armstrong’s face had reddened with anger, a vein pumping visibly in his temple.
Sebastian looked confused. “Sir?”
“I told you there was to be no sexual contact. Under any circumstances.”
“But, Sir, the blood sucker told me he was her mate. I had no option but to check…”
I wasn’t sure it was my imagination or my own fear, but Sebastian looked scared. His dark eyes had rounded owlishly and he was clenching and unclenching his fists nervously.
Armstrong crowded the smaller man, fury clearly visible in his expression. “You were to leave her untouched! I made my orders exceedingly explicit in that regard!”
What happened next took only a split second, but I was subjected to every horrifying detail, as if time had deliberately slowed down so I wouldn’t miss it. I heard a quiet click, similar to the latch of a door being turned, then Armstrong raised his left arm and lashed his hand across Sebastian’s neck.
Sebastian dropped to his knees, his hands clutching spasmodically at his ruined neck. I could see tendons, veins, muscle – even the glossy white bone of his spine through the shredded skin. Blood poured from the wound in a torrent, rapidly soaking his white shirt before he slumped face-forward onto the carpet.
I shrieked and screamed as Sebastian lay dying before me. Gurgling sounds emitted from his throat as blood pumped endlessly from his neck, a pool of scarlet forming on the carpet around him. I held my hands over my eyes, trying to block out the macabre spectacle. It stopped me from seeing his death throes, but didn’t protect me from the mental image of seeing his throat reduced to so much meat and blood.
Now I was certain of what I was dealing with. Werewolves.
A hand gripped my arm, gentler than Sebastian’s had been, but still firm. Armstrong hauled me to my feet as I continued to shriek. I struggled ineffectively against his grip as he pulled me from the room.
“Clean up the mess,” he ordered the stunned guards. He drew me further down the hallway, pushing me before him into another room. He lowered me gently onto a leather armchair, crouching before me. “My apologies, Miss Duncan. I’m sorry you had to see that.”
Inhaling deeply, I began to gain a little control again, but I couldn’t look him in the eye. He terrified me, more than any person I’d ever met.
“Would you like something to eat? Or perhaps a drink? Some coffee, perhaps?”
As if I could think about eating or drinking when I’d just witnessed a man getting his throat ripped out. Stupid, Charlotte. Stupid. You need your strength. Accept the offer. I nodded mutely.
Armstrong rang a bell near the doorway and I glanced away from him, concentrating on bringing my ragged breathing back under control. This room was large and luxurious, with couches and armchairs in sleek black leather. The walls were decorated with velvet flocked wallpaper in a pale gold and the floor was covered in plush white carpet. Antique lamps sat on elegantly carved wooden coffee tables. I stole a glance at the window, hoping for some clue to our whereabouts. Bright sunshine was casting shadows on the green lawn and the plants definitely looked tropical. Where the hell was I?
A middle-aged woman appeared in the doorway, wearing a pale blue uniform with a white apron tied around her waist, sensible white shoes on her feet. She didn’t look at me and seemed unperturbed by my presence. “You called, Mr. Armstrong?”
“Bring a plate of sandwiches and some coffee for our guest.”
The woman curtseyed and closed the door quietly when she left the room. Armstrong walked back across to where I sat, lowering himself into an armchair opposite mine and resumed his unabashed study of my face.
“You really are a beautiful young woman.”
I stared at him, waiting uneasily for whatever was coming next.
“Hmmm. The silent treatment. While I can understand your revulsion, I must warn you, I find the silent treatment very tiresome.” He leaned forward, a frown creasing his tanned forehead. “Your blood sucking friends weren’t nearly as quiet when they were executed.”
Startled by this admission, I blinked at him uncertainly. “He… Sebastian… he promised they wouldn’t be killed.”
“As you have just discovered, Sebastian isn’t good at following orders. After you were removed from the Tine house, my men finished the job I’d ordered. The blood suckers, all their human friends. All dead. We couldn’t take the risk of any of them trying to locate you.”
For a few long seconds, I was numb – utterly and completely devoid of conscious thought or feeling. Then pain rippled into my chest, as though my heart had been stabbed with a cold, sharp knife and it was all I could do to remain upright in the armchair, not fall to my knees with the pain.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” Armstrong’s voice was gentler now, less harsh and more persuasive. “All I want is information. When you have given it to me, you’ll be free to leave.”
I kept my gaze lowered, focusing on my hands and the gold ring on my finger. Could Lucas really be dead? Rowena and Marianne – everyone? Was this a trick, or was he telling the truth? I doubted his honesty and certainly didn’t believe he would let me go if I told him what he wanted to know. More likely, he would kill me as soon as I gave up the knowledge.
I inhaled a deep breath and forced myself to look up into his cold eyes, speaking quietly and firmly. “I don’t know what you want from me. I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. I have nothing I could tell you.”
Armstrong was furious as he launched himself from the armchair. I squeezed my eyes shut, convinced he was going to hit me, but instead he wrenched me up from the chair, his grip unyielding around my wrist.
He dragged me unceremoniously from the room, along the hallway and back down the stairs. He flung open the metal door and pushed me into the concrete cell. I stumbled and fell, hitting my shoulder and hip hard against the unforgiving floor.
“You will tell me everything you know. You can be absolutely sure of it,” he shouted angrily.
The door slammed and I heard the key turn in the lock, the noise echoing throughout the empty room. I dragged myself to the mattress, sobbing uncontrollably with terror as I dropped down onto it. I curled up into a ball, my body trembling so violently I wrapped my arms around my legs to try and control the shakes. Tears flowed freely as I considered whether the only people I truly considered family in this world could possibly be dead.