The vampire Saloman had not killed in two weeks. As Luiz Salgado-Rodriguez wandered toward him like a wraith among the shadows, hunger surged and Saloman anticipated the exquisite rush that came from a powerful kill.
And yet, observing the elderly professor shuffle across the vine-strewn courtyard of his Salamanca home, Saloman craved a harder kill, an enemy worthy enough physically to make him work. In short, he wanted a fight.
Instead, he stepped off the roof, his black leather coat streaming upward to slow his descent, and landed with impeccable elegance in front of the professor. “Good evening,” he said politely, in Spanish.
Although the old man was startled—who wouldn’t be?—he neither screamed nor bolted, and in his pale, cloudy eyes, Saloman could make out no sign of fear. In fact, Luiz Salgado-Rodriguez smiled, as if he recognized death and welcomed it.
“Are you—Saloman?” he asked, his voice as frail and uncertain as his body.
Saloman smiled. “You’ve been expecting me,” he mocked. As if he were the host rather than the visitor, he waved one inviting hand at the stone bench beside them, and the professor sat, a little too quickly for grace. “The vampire hunters explained your family history, perhaps? Told you that your ancestress Tsigana once killed me?”
The old man shrugged. “There was no need. I am aware of my own heritage. Although it was interesting to learn that you had been awakened. I didn’t expect a dying old man to interest you – not until the others came.”
Saloman stirred, closing the distance between them and sinking down on the bench with his body turned toward the old man. “The others? Other vampires have been here?”
It was the old man’s turn to smile, a weak but surprisingly charming gesture. “Not here. I’ve always known how to protect myself from your kind, so although I see them in the town from time to time, they are not aware of me or my descent.” He gazed into the distance, and then, as if rediscovering his thread, back to Saloman. “No, I meant Dante, the American. He wanted the sword.”
Saloman sat very still, searching the professor’s wise, old face. “Did you give him it?”
“I couldn’t. I didn’t have it. To my knowledge, it has never been in the Spanish branch of the family.” The professor stretched his leg out as if to ease it “And you, sir. Did you come for the sword, or for my life?”
Saloman liked him. He liked the eccentricity of sitting in the man’s courtyard, discussing his death in civilized, conversational tones. In fact, he wished he’d known him earlier.
“Both,” he replied. His ears caught a faint sound, like a soft breeze blowing across the roof; his senses prickled and he scanned around the four sides of the little yard. “Although it seems I will have to settle for your life. Who is this Dante who asked you for my sword?”
“An American—charming man. A senator, I believe.”
Shadows danced on the roof, dark with menace, too many to be opportunistic. “Thank you,” Saloman said politely. “Your masking charm works well—I’m impressed by such knowledge in a human—but I’m afraid I didn’t follow the same security. I have a different agenda.”
For the first time, the professor began to look bewildered. “What do you mean?”
“I mean sit still and pretend to be dead already.” Saloman leapt to his feet, as the black shadows all dived from the rooftop in perfect time. Reaching up he grabbed the nearest, plucking him out of the air to snap his neck and hurl him at one of his companions with enough force to fell her too. It gave him the time necessary to deal with the others.
The wooden stake driving for his heart glanced harmlessly off his leather coat. The idiots had come in force but without any clear idea how to kill an Ancient. Saloman glimpsed the shock and terror in the vampire’s face before he swung him up in one arm, and snatched the stake from his powerless fingers, tearing at his throat even as he staked the next vampire in line.
They burst into dust at the same time, and Saloman whirled, kicking another across the yard before he staked the female vampire running at him once more. However, he was surrounded now, and the rest was a harder fight. There were some strong vampires among them. Even now, they had the theoretical strength to destroy him. With something akin to relief, Saloman let go, embraced the rush of energy and blood-lust, parrying and hitting, taking the blows in his stride, staking and breaking with a speed that must have looked like frenzy to the ignored old man who sat still as a stone in the midst of carnage.
At last only the first attacker was left, lying prone on the ground in helpless agony, waiting for his broken neck to heal. Terror glared out of his face as Saloman crouched down beside him.
“What was the point?” Saloman asked him.
“Independence,” the vampire whispered. “We do as we please. No rule, not by Juana and not by you.”
“No existence,” Saloman pointed out with one casual wave around the empty courtyard. A couple of large plant pots had been broken and a tree bent almost to its roots, but the dust glistening in the starlight was the only other sign of the vampire attack. He sighed. “And no understanding.” He raised the stake in his hand and plunged downward, and the last of his Spanish enemies turned to dust.
The vampires of the Iberian peninsula now all answered to him—through the delectable if stern Juana. What a pity there would be no time for another night with her.
Is it? She’s a superb fuck but she’s hardly…. He shut down the bitter thought. He would not think of Elizabeth. Not here.
Rising to his feet, Saloman walked across the courtyard to the professor, whose eyes were wide in his skull-like head.
“Madre de Dios,” he whispered. “You really are a demon.”
“Did you doubt it?”
“I’m old; I’m dying. I’ve thought of death for so long and with so much longing that I imagined it would be easy, even at your hands. And now I wonder what my selfishness will cost the world. If you gain strength from my death—”
“I will,” Saloman interrupted.
“Has there ever been a more powerful force in the world?” the old man despaired. “No one can fight you.”
“Not entirely true,” Saloman observed judiciously. “But trust me, death is better from me than from them.” He gestured across the yard in the vague direction of the place he’d killed the last of his attackers, and reached for the professor. His desire to fight assuaged, he was pleased to give the professor a good death, even as the old man strained feebly away from him.
“I don’t want my blood to destroy the world!” he cried out, as Saloman drew him inexorably against his chest.
Saloman bit into his throat and the old man gasped, his scrabbling fingers stretching, and then curling into fists on Saloman’s shoulders.
Perhaps you will help save the world instead, Saloman said to him telepathically. Blood spilled over his teeth and down his throat and the old man relaxed in his arms. Bliss had drowned his pain. With fierce pleasure, Saloman sucked the strong, heady blood of Tsigana into himself, and welcomed the rush of power like an old friend.
The old man’s lips moved, weakly, speaking almost with his last breath. “At least you don’t have the sword.”
It was her hair that caught his attention. Glimpsed in the tiny space between the moving shoulders of his entourage, it seemed to sparkle like pale red gold in a blink of sunlight. Josh Alexander veered right to see beyond his press secretary, and discovered that the lovely hair belonged to an equally beautiful woman. Caught in the halo of sun from the window above, she looked like a glorious if slightly untidy angel.
She stood at the reception desk, arguing with the immaculately groomed receptionist whom she nevertheless managed to outshine without trying. Her long, strawberry blond-hair was tied behind her head in a loose pony tail, from where much of it had fought its way free around a delicate yet oddly determined face. Her beauty lay in her fine bone-structure, her appeal to Josh in the fact that she’d done nothing obvious to enhance it.
Pushing past his surprised secretary, Josh propped himself against a nearby pillar to watch her. His schedule was clear and he was ready to play.
“I’ve already told you, there’s no one of that name staying here,” the receptionist was reciting in a bored voice.
“How can you tell without looking?” came the dry response, and Josh felt a frisson pass down his spine. Her voice was Scottish—educated Scottish, he guessed from the fact that he could understand her so easily—low-pitched and clear. The sort of voice he longed to act opposite, or even just be opposite, in any number of romantic scenes on and off-screen.
“I assure you—” the receptionist began again.
“You can’t assure me of anything if you don’t use the tools available to you. Please let me speak to your supervisor.”
“I am the supervisor.”
“Then your manager will do perfectly.”
The receptionist seemed taken aback by the other woman’s quiet determination. Fooled by her casual appearance and something appealingly gentle in her expression, she’d obviously failed to notice the steel behind it. Josh had seen it right away, but then Josh studied faces obsessively. That was what made him so good at his job.
“Josh, what are you doing?” Mark, his press-secretary said urgently, standing right in front of him to block his view. “Hotel security has just warned us to go straight to the elevator. That girl at reception is probably gutter-press—she’s asking for you and she’s about to cause trouble.”
“Is she really?” Josh grinned. He’d only just emerged from the press conference a happy man because the local journalists were eating out of his hand, and because the location filming had gone well, much faster than expected, leaving him time to relax for a few days and see a bit more of Scotland before he had to return to the States. And now here was this unusual and beautiful woman with a voice that sent shivers down his spine, actually looking for him. It was a gift.
Brushing past the outraged Mark, who still hissed after him in protest, he walked toward reception. The receptionist’s eyes flickered to him in both alarm and gratification. Presumably it wasn’t every day she spoke to a Hollywood movie star. On the other hand, it was bad luck to have this rare opportunity while failing to appease an ill-tempered customer. She almost preened, though, as if glad he’d see her carrying out her instructions so well, even in such a difficult situation
“Look,” Josh’s target said, barely sparing him a glance, much to his amusement, as he leaned one elbow on the desk beside her. “I’m well aware he’s staying here. Please just give him this note from his cousin.”
The receptionist smiled and twitched the plain white envelope from the girl’s fingers. At least she didn’t put it straight in the bin. “Madam, Edinburgh is suddenly full of Josh Alexander’s relations. Good evening.”
Frustrated and clearly well aware that the note was unlikely ever to get near its intended recipient, the strawberry blond sighed. “Your manager, please,” she repeated. “As quickly as possible.”
“I doubt that will be necessary,” Josh said smoothly. “May I read the note now? And are you my cousin?”
The receptionist goggled under her layers of carefully applied make-up. The other girl swung round in surprise and gave him a long, considering look. Unexpectedly, a breath of laughter sounded and was choked off.
“Ah. Sorry, I didn’t recognize you. I was too busy being angry. I’m Elizabeth Silk.”
Without affectation, she held out one small but long-fingered hand, free of any rings. Another good omen. Josh took it, smiling and she let go again after the briefest of shakes.
“Cousin Elizabeth,” he said, letting his eyes do the laughing. “How wonderful to meet you at last. Thank you,” he added to the receptionist, taking the envelope from her nerveless fingers, before ushering “Cousin Elizabeth” away from the desk—and into the waiting huddle of his bodyguard and press secretary.
Josh took care of their objections before they were uttered with one peremptory wave of the hand, and an extra glare for Mark, who felt orders he didn’t like shouldn’t apply to him. With reluctance as well as a look of wounded outrage, Mark fell back too.
“What can I do for you, Cousin?” Josh inquired, smiling, when they had a couple of feet of space.
For the first time, she looked slightly flummoxed. A hint of color tinged her pale cheeks. “We are actually cousins,” she said apologetically. “Very distant, but still related. I’ve been trying to talk to you for months—so have my friends—but your people never let us near you, even by phone.”
“Sorry,” Josh said easily. “I’m afraid I get a lot of crank calls and letters. Sometimes genuine ones get blocked with them.”
Of course he still had no way of judging which category she belonged in, and her quick, sardonic smile acknowledged it.
“I understand,” she said. “Do you know your family tree? Our nearest common ancestor is Harry Alexander whose son Daniel emigrated to America in the late nineteenth century. Harry’s daughter married Robert Silk and stayed in Scotland.”
“Good old Harry,” Josh said, but he felt the smile fading from his lips. Cousin Elizabeth Silk had surprised him again. Either she’d done a lot of homework—which made her rather more dangerous than an opportunistic fan—or she really was a distant cousin. “That’s a long way back.”
“Oh it goes a lot farther, which is what I want to talk to you about. Do you have a few minutes?”
Hell, she was beautiful, and in the sort of way he didn’t see every day. She’d worked hard to get to him. She deserved a treat, and after all the difficulties of filming on location under the Scottish weather, so did he. For her beautiful hair and her seductive voice, to say nothing of whatever delights lurked beneath her nondescript jeans and jacket, he was prepared to risk it.
“Sure,” he said, indicating the elevator, outside which his entourage still lurked, watching them with suspicion. “My schedule is clear. Come on up.”
Color flooded her face. She knew exactly what he meant and the quick flash of indignation in her dark hazel eyes told him he’d made a rare misjudgment. Nevertheless, her gaze remained steady.
“That’s not necessary,” she said icily. “If we could just sit there…” She indicated a nearby sofa in the reception area, with a low table and newspapers. “…I’ll only take ten minutes of your time.”
Josh made a fast recovery. Employing the boyish, slightly rueful grin that had worked for him since childhood, he spread his hands. “I can’t be here at all for more than two minutes, or the place gets invaded by press. They’re probably already on their way. I understand your concern, but acquit me of dishonorable designs! I was only looking for a bit of privacy.”
Her gaze fell away, as if ashamed, and he knew she’d bought it. Which was a relief, because having started this, whatever it was, he rather wanted to see where it led.
“Of course,” she muttered. “I forgot. The life of a film star can’t be easy.”
“It has compensations. Tell you what, we could go out for dinner and talk. You pick the restaurant. Preferably somewhere small and discreet where we won’t attract attention.”
A faint smile returned to her eyes. “All right.”
She was delightful. There was no mad dash to change for dinner, to repair her make-up—she didn’t appear to be wearing any, so far as Josh could tell—or even to comb her hair. She simply walked with him, Mark and Fenstein the bodyguard, out of the hotel by the discreet side exit and into a cab, which she directed.
Edinburgh was a small city, but even so, it wasn’t far to her chosen restaurant. Downhill from the fashionable, central part of the city into slightly dingier territory. The driver knew the place she named and dropped them off at the door.
Elizabeth didn’t even blink when Mark entered the restaurant with them, spoke quietly with the manager and handed over the bribe that would facilitate a fast exit round the back if the press got wind of Josh’s presence here.
“This is nice,” Josh said genuinely, looking around him when they were seated. “Homely.”
“The food is wonderful,” Elizabeth said, just a little too enthusiastically. As if she understood he was used to more fashionable and expensive haunts and didn’t want to be ashamed of the best place she knew.
“You’ve been here before?” he asked easily.
“A couple of times with a work colleague.”
“What do you do?”
“I teach at St. Andrews University. On a temporary contract. I’ve just finished my PhD, waiting for the verdict.”
Ah, she was an academic. He should have guessed sooner, for her appearance gave it away—a little unworldly and scatty, uncaring of her appearance since her mind, no doubt, lingered in higher planes of learning. He wondered what the hell she made of Psychics, despite its commercial success.
But damn, she was a lot prettier than any of the academics he’d ever encountered before. And a lot cooler than most of the women who blatantly sought him out with feeble excuses and downright lies. Her smile was friendly when she met his curious gaze, but no more than that. If she hadn’t been kicking up a fuss at the hotel for him he’d never have believed that she was remotely interested in him. A bit lowering for the ego, perhaps, but for some reason it made her all the more intriguing.
He couldn’t make up his mind about her age. She might have been as young as twenty-three or four, or ten years older.
He waited until he’d ordered wine before asking, “What’s your thesis on?”
“Historical superstitions,” Elizabeth said. There was the smallest pause before she added, “Which is part of what I need to talk to you about.”
“Yes? My father would have been more help to you there. He had more superstitions than the rest of us put together.”
“Really? What kind of superstitions?”
“All kinds,” Josh said largely. He gave the quick, affectionate grin that the poignant memory of his father always inspired. “My dad was a great guy. A bit eccentric perhaps, but where’s the harm in giving free rein to your imagination?”
“None. Isn’t that how you earn your living?”
Surprised, Josh laughed. “I suppose so.” The waiter appeared at his side, and while he went through the required ritual of tasting the wine, which was pretty good, considering, he took another quick, appraising look around the restaurant. It was quiet, being mid-week, and they had been obligingly placed at the back, near the kitchen entrance, with an empty table between them and the nearest patrons, none of whom were paying him any attention. They wouldn’t easily be overheard either. She’d picked just the right place, and Josh warmed to her all over again. A buzz of excitement began to flow through his body at the prospect not just of dinner with this intriguing woman, but the far greater intimacies that would inevitably follow.
Josh kept up a flow of light, amusing conversation until their starters arrived, telling her amusing anecdotes about traveling, and filming. Many of his jokes were against himself and it was quite fun to watch Elizabeth thaw and warm to his self-deprecation. It wasn’t entirely assumed either. In truth Josh still found the whole stardom thing funny. Emily, his wife, had helped keep his feet on the ground when he was younger, and now that she was dead, he couldn’t seem to take anything else very seriously, even the catapulting to mega-stardom status that had come with the success of Psychics. But he still got a kick out of surprising the enigmatic Elizabeth.
“So,” he said over their starters, “what in particular did you want to talk about? Family or superstition?”
“Fantastic. Have I inherited a haunted castle in Scotland?”
Elizabeth smiled. “Not to my knowledge.” She took a forkful of her lemon risotto and appeared to savor it before she added, “In fact, what you have inherited, you won’t want. We have another common ancestor, far older than Harry Alexander. A seventeenth century Hungarian lady called Tsigana.”
“Interesting,” Josh allowed. He let the creamy sauce melt on his tongue and swallowed. “Wow, this pasta is good!”
But Elizabeth wasn’t distracted. “Have you heard of her? Tsigana?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“She was very…colorful, let’s say. In fact, she murdered someone.”
“They can’t touch us for it, can they?” Josh asked in mock alarm.
“It depends on who you mean by ‘they’.”
Warning prickles in his neck caused Josh to lay down his fork and pick up his wine glass. He gazed at her over the rim. “Go on.”
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Someone does still want revenge for that killing. And he’s taking it out on Tsigana’s descendants.”
Oh damnation. Mad as a coot. Josh sipped his wine and laid down his glass. “Are the police dealing with this lunatic?” Are they dealing with you?
“Not the police exactly. But other authorities are trying to stop him, yes. In fact, I sort of represent this authority.”
Josh didn’t frown. On the contrary, he kept his face smooth, offering no clues as to his true thoughts. “Some sort of intelligence service?” he hazarded.
“Sort of,” Elizabeth said doubtfully, making the corner of his mouth twitch. He hadn’t expected doubt so much as self-important boasting. “The point is, this organization has been trying to reach you for several months to warn you and to offer protection. When I saw your press conference announced, I thought this was my last chance to see you in person and pass that warning on before you went home.”
“Well, thanks,” Josh said, allowing a twinkle back into his eyes. He was sure his original assessment was right—she wasn’t dangerous. “But I’m afraid I don’t get exactly what you’re warning me about. Some madman who dislikes me because I’m descended from your Hungarian lady?”
“Um, yes.” She sounded apologetic.
“Doesn’t he dislike you too, then?”
Elizabeth smiled into her wine. “We’ve had our run-ins,” she said, and drank a little.
Now, what the hell did that mean? “Okay.” Curiously, Josh watched her lower the glass. “I’ll keep my eyes open for the lunatic. Thanks for the warning.”
“Thanks for pretending you mean it,” Elizabeth countered and Josh let out a surprised laugh. Crazy or not, she was still rather delightful. “There’s more,” she added before he could get his hopes up too far. “And this is the difficult bit, because I have to make you realize the threat is real and lethal. You said your father was superstitious—do you share any of his beliefs? For example, do you believe in the existence of vampires?”
Josh sighed. “Nope. Nor werewolves, goblins, zombies, demons or even bad luck.” He shifted in his seat and now only good manners prevented him from looking at his watch. He’d plead tiredness and skip dessert. Damn it, he really wanted to get laid, and she was so deliciously layable…
“Taxi for Mr. Alexander,” she said with a quick, wry smile, surprising him all over again. Clearly, there was nothing wrong with her observational skills. “It’s all right,” she soothed. “I’m not insane. A year ago, I didn’t believe in any of these things either, but some of them at least, are real. There is a vampire out there—a very strong and ruthless one—picking off all Tsigana’s living descendants. And those of the other conspirators in his murder. Not only for revenge, but because they, you and I, carry the blood of his killers, and that blood gives him a kind of mystical power.”
“If Tsigana killed him,” Josh interjected, seeking an easy victory through reason, “how come he’s still running around?”
“He was…awakened. By accident.” Her eyes flickered away and back, as if she’d briefly lost courage and then recovered it. “His name is Saloman.”
Saloman? Where had he heard that name before? Unimportant. “Okay.” He sat back to let the waiter take his plate. “I’ll bear it in mind.”
Elizabeth regarded him ruefully. “No you won’t. You don’t believe a word of it, and the worst of it is, I can’t blame you for that. Just be watchful. I should tell you that two fellow descendants of ours have died in the last six months, probably at his hands. But at least you have bodyguards and people to look out for you.” Again came those warning prickles, but he didn’t have time to work out whether they came from her or from her warning, for she was speaking again. “Josh?”
“Promise me you won’t throw away that letter I tried to leave at the hotel. It’s got the phone numbers of people who can help you if you’re ever in need of it. One of them is mine. The other is for an international organization which deals with threats like this. The one I mentioned earlier. You should contact them, let them protect you.”
Josh rubbed one finger across his lips. He wanted to be honest and tell her he’d throw the letter out as soon as he got back to the hotel. Tell her to fuck off because she wasn’t the easy if eccentric lay he’d believed her to be when they first spoke. But he could never quite shake off the courtesy that formed the foundation of his nature. Nor could he lie, he acknowledged with regret, even to a stranger.
Josh sighed and touched his breast pocket where he’d stashed the letter. It still rustled. “I promise.”