Serafina was having a blast.
Not only had she strung smelly garlic bulbs all over Ferdinand Bell’s large, beautiful house on the outskirts of Edinburgh and defaced every single room with rough wooden crosses, she now got to swagger through his evening party guests like Buffy the Vampire Slayer on patrol and drink old Ferdy Bell’s vintage champagne while she was at it.
And she got paid.
Work didn’t get much better than this.
On the whole, Bell’s guests were taking the bizarre ornamentation in their stride. They were here to celebrate the promotion of his son Jason to a partnership in a major financial investment company and so were drawn from a wide age group. However, they were all, clearly, stinking rich, and whether they wore traditional evening dress, kilts, trews, formal gowns, or stylish designer outfits, they shrieked money from every pore. Well, money and manners, Serafina supposed, since no one had actually laughed in old Ferdy Bell’s face yet. Or in hers, unless you counted Jilly, whose eyes gleamed in answering delight whenever they encountered hers across the room.
The guests gave odd surreptitious glances at the garlic strung across the doorways and windows, and at the somewhat ugly wooden cross nailed to the wall above the fireplace and upstaging a hideous, abstract oil painting. Serafina guessed that most present were already aware of old Ferdy’s unique theory that a vampire was stalking his family. They might have considered him senile, though what they imagined her excuse was, she’d no idea. It wasn’t as if she’d tried to blend in: she wore jeans and a short, leather jacket with its pockets blatantly full of sharp sticks.
Realizing that one of the catering staff was passing her with a bottle in either hand, she stuck out her glass with alacrity and received a grudging refill. She toasted the back of the waiter’s head before knocking half the contents down her throat.
Jack, one of her three regular, underpaid employees, materialized in front of her. Although an actual guest at the party through his own and his family’s connections, he looked much as he always did: all wild curly brown hair and a harassed expression.
“That’s no way to treat champers of that quality,” he murmured in his English public school accent, twitching the glass from her hand.
“Oy!” she protested, snatching it back.
“Are you pissed?” Jack asked under his breath.
“I hope to be very soon.”
“Can we do the job first, Sera?”
“Spoilsport,” she grumbled, although she did start to walk toward the french doors, where Jilly, displaying a sexy expanse of thigh, was halfway up a ladder, rehanging a fallen string of garlic while guests squeezed past her to make the most of the surprisingly warm late summer evening in Ferdy Bell’s beautiful garden.
“Is this stuff meant to be on the outside or the inside?” Jilly demanded.
“Both,” Sera said vaguely. It was definitely dusk, and in another few minutes, there would probably be enough darkness to carry out her plan.
Jilly lifted one eyebrow. “Then you’d better give me a hand, hadn’t you?”
“Fair play,” Sera allowed. She turned to Jack, murmuring, “Make sure Tam’s all set. I’ll be along soon to give you the nod. And Jack,” she added, picking another string of garlic bulbs from the basket under Jilly’s ladder. “Try to look as if you’re having fun?”
Whatever retort he’d been about to make vanished into a smile as someone he knew paused to speak to him amid much back slapping.
“He’s in his element,” Jilly muttered, clambering back down the ladder. Sera shifted it through the doorway with her foot, politely excusing herself to Jack and his friend, who stood in the way.
“Good thing too,” Sera replied, arranging the ladder outside with one hand while the other held valiantly on to her glass of champagne. “Plan wouldn’t work, otherwise, would it?”
Jilly grunted, a sound spectacularly at odds with her angelically beautiful appearance. She was Sera’s best friend as well as her first employee, and fierce intelligence lurked behind her baby-blue eyes, stylish, golden-blonde bob, and perfect makeup. Brought up in one of Edinburgh’s roughest housing schemes, which she’d worked damned hard to escape, Jilly refused to forgive Jack his privileged background, even when having him here as a guest made their own job easier.
“What is all this?” Jack’s friend asked, riveting his gaze to Jilly’s long, slender leg halfway up the ladder as she stretched above the french door. “Seems an odd theme for a party.”
Jilly and Sera made brief, sparkling eye contact.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Jack said, turning his friend toward the garden before he could catch sight of the women’s inappropriate mirth. “It wouldn’t be the first time the term ‘bloodsucker’ has been applied to bankers.”
“Still the socialist, Jack?” his friend mocked.
“Nothing to do with politics,” Jack argued, moving farther away as Jilly came back down the ladder. Reluctantly, Sera placed her glass on the table just inside the french door.
“What’s this?” Jilly demanded. “Guilt?”
“No. Jack’s right.”
“Nah,” Jilly said with conviction.
“Unfortunately, yes. I’ve got to be capable of taking on the real stalker if he shows up.”
“You really expect him to, with all these people around?”
“Well, Ferdy clearly does.”
“He expects a vampire,” Jilly said dryly, “which is why we’re here.”
Sera sighed. “Ferdy, bless his old banker’s heart, is not telling us the whole truth.”
“That why we’re trashing his party?”
“Yup,” said Sera, hefting the ladder over one shoulder. “That and the fact it’s bloody funny.” She carried the ladder round the side of the house to the shed where they’d found it some hours before. Then, having stashed it, she dusted herself off and walked across the lawn at the back of the house, where little clumps of people stood and chatted, or walked, glasses in hand, around the well-kept grounds. Their features were growing fuzzy in the darkening evening, despite the atmospheric lighting shining down from the walls of the house.
Underneath the garlic hanging from the french doors, Jilly appeared to have been cornered by their attention-seeking host. All to the good. Sera raised her hand in what might have been misinterpreted as a wave. Jilly’s nod told her the true meaning was clear. Five minutes until she’d bring Ferdy.
Sera went in search of Jack and Tam, who should be ready now to play their parts. The Bells had a good, large garden surrounded by a high wall. There was a small, ornamental maze in the middle and a grove of apple and pear trees some yards to the side of it, running along the high boundary wall. Tam’s instructions were to skulk among the trees until it was time to come to the edge of the wood and “attack” Jack, after which, when Jilly brought Ferdy Bell, Sera would leap out of the trees and, with the aid of a neat bit of smoke kit acquired by Tam himself, turn Tam to apparent dust. Tam would then run off unseen back into the trees until they could either smuggle him out or inform him it was safe to leave, while Sera and Jilly would fuss over Jack, who would, unless he wimped out, have genuine if self-inflicted puncture wounds in his neck. He’d made a tiny set of clippers specially—they’d inflict shallow but bleeding wounds of the right shape. With luck, Sera would get another fee out of it.
Jack was propping up the hedge on the outside edge of the maze nearest to the trees, but as he saw Sera approach, he straightened and strolled toward her, his gaze darting to check for guests within earshot. A jerk of his head warned her there were unseen people inside the maze. There was no need; she could hear their voices from yards away.
“Where’s Tam?” Sera asked low as they met.
“Not here yet, or at least I can’t find him.”
“Oh, for the love of—” She broke off, adding impatiently, “He is here. Jilly spoke to him on the phone. Where did you look?”
“In there, of course.” Jack nodded at the arranged meeting place in the nearby grove, which was now satisfyingly dark.
“If you want something done properly… Wait here. Jilly’s bringing Ferdy in just a couple of minutes,” Sera muttered and strode off in the direction of the trees.
It was hardly a deep, dark forest, but the lights outside the house didn’t stretch this far, and Sera quickly felt enveloped in blackness. She delved in her jacket pocket for the pencil-thin flashlight and shone it in front of her feet as she walked, occasionally darting it around to search for Tam. It was ridiculous, losing him in a bunch of trees, but she didn’t want to phone him in case the ringing was heard elsewhere in the garden and ruined her carefully prepared spooky atmosphere. On the other hand, she couldn’t afford to take too long or Ferdy would be herding his guests inside from the late evening cool, and her moment would have passed.
She felt her way around two intertwining apple trees and found Tam.
She stopped dead with shock. His large frame was unmistakable in the flashlight beam, but she’d never before seen it slumped in the brutal hold of an attacker who seemed to be strangling him or squeezing him to death. Which would be quite an achievement considering the size of Tam’s muscular body. And the fact that his opponent, although about equal in height, was far lighter and leaner in weight. And wearing a kilt, as if he was, or was pretending to be, one of the Bells’ guests. Tam’s arms flailed as if trying feebly to fly free. That was terrifying in itself: Tam the Tank physically helpless.
Sera’s hand wavered, and the beam from her flashlight shifted over a shock of dark chestnut hair. There was a tiny instant when she imagined she’d steeped herself too deeply in this vampire nonsense, because it almost looked as if the stranger had his face buried in Tam’s throat. It sent a weird, almost sensual shiver down her spine before she yanked her brain back into line.
Who the hell was this? Ferdy’s stalker? Sera didn’t wait to find out. As he began to turn his head, granting her a glimpse of his shadowed face and gleaming eyes, she hurled herself at him feetfirst. Both her boots connected jarringly with hard flesh; her whole being jolted as if she’d been shot.
It took an instant to realize that she lay on the ground on her back, winded, while Tam’s attacker, and Tam himself, remained upright. Jesus, she couldn’t have lost her touch to that degree! She’d slammed into him. She should at least have knocked him off balance! But then, she should have landed on her feet, not her back, and been ready to jump him before he recovered.
As she struggled to rise, her blurred vision cleared enough to show her, by the crazily waving beam of the torch, that the kilted thug had released Tam, who leaned one massive shoulder against the tree, shaking his head as if to clear it. Thank God, at least the bastard hadn’t killed him. And now they were two against one, however strong this maniac was.
“Tam! Now!” she commanded in an urgent stage whisper and ran at the curiously still figure of the enemy.
Tam muttered something that might have been, “Don’t, Sera.”
Her quarry sidestepped her with a blur that surely spoke more for the intensity of her previous winding than for his genuine speed. Whatever the cause, it was enough to unbalance Sera. Fortunately, Tam leapt and caught her in his muscled arm—all that prevented her from falling over again.
She whirled around, poised to face a counterattack, snatching the only weaponry she carried in her pocket—one of the ridiculous pointy sticks—and for the first time looked into the shadowed face of her enemy. Remembering belatedly about her flashlight still clutched in her bruised left land, she shone it directly into his face. The eerie crisscrossing of shadows on his skin disappeared in the golden glow, but he made no effort to hide from the light. Two large, dark brown eyes stared at her from a lean, still face. There was no doubt he was good-looking enough to turn heads, with a high forehead, long, thin nose, and full, expressive lips, all framed by a shock of thick, dark hair streaked with auburn. The combination of high, broad cheekbones and leanness gave him a slightly cadaverous look that somehow didn’t detract in the slightest from his male beauty.
All these jumbled impressions Sera absorbed in an instant. But chiefly what caught and held her attention was the trickle of red blood running from the corner of his mouth and down the side of his chin.
“Oh for f…!” Sera hurled the pointy stick to the ground. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she raged. “This is our show.”
The trespassing bastard—no dangerous stalker after all, but another charlatan muscling in on Ferdy’s apparently much-publicized delusions—took a step nearer her, reminding her of a hunting cat. “Show? What are you showing?”
Sera frowned, caught off guard because his lips didn’t move as he spoke the words. Well, it made him one up on Tam, who couldn’t do ventriloquism, so far as Sera was aware. She glanced at Tam, frowning direly. She couldn’t believe she’d actually worried about the big, stupid lump. “Were you in on this? Because we’ve wasted enough time. Come on.”
She swung on the interloper. “And you, bugger off.”
The man’s brows rose as if in surprise, while his eyes continued to devour her face, dipping downward over her neck and breasts in a way that, in spite of everything, made her flush.
He said, “Oh no. You are much more beautiful.”
“Than Tam?” she retorted. “Excuse me, but that’s not exactly a compliment to die for.”
His gaze returned to her face. Deep, dark eyes alight with amusement and an excitement that was almost…hunger. For no reason that mattered, Sera’s stomach seemed to dive. His full, sensual lips quirked up at the corners. “I won’t let you die.”
Sera glared, mostly because of his seductive voice—low and soft and with only a hint of Scottish. It added butterflies to the plunging of her stomach and pleasant little tingles to her spine. “Will you stop doing that?”
His lips stretched farther. “Doing what?”
“Talking without moving your lips! It might be clever, but it’s bloody disconcerting.”
“Sera?” Tam interrupted, drawing her attention. “Are you all right?”
“Oh, dandy!” she responded with heavy sarcasm, spotting the stream of blood down the side of his throat and, worse, the two puncture wounds. “Shite, Tam, have you got Jack’s clipper things?” This was going to make life really difficult. Jack needed them to create believable-looking puncture wounds on his own neck… But hell, never mind; he’d probably get the chance after Tam “bit” him.
“No,” Tam said in apparent surprise, feeling his neck at the point of her frustrated gaze.
“That was me,” said the interloper helpfully. Without warning, he reached up to Tam’s neck, touching the wound with his fingertip before his hand fell back to his side.
Tam snapped at him, “I’m not gay, you know.”
Sera cast her eyes to heaven. “Did he tell you he was?” Couldn’t one actor spot another?
“He doesn’t say anything, in case you haven’t noticed,” Tam retorted.
Sera glanced at her henchman without affection as she picked up the dropped stick. “You know what, Tam? Your loyalty is becoming seriously suspect.”
Even in the darkness, Tam managed to look affronted. His acting had improved by leaps and bounds.
The other man said conversationally, “He can’t hear me.”
“Why, what did you stick in his ears?”
“Nothing. I’m not speaking.”
“Ah. I’m hearing voices in my head,” Sera said with blatant mockery.
“Aye,” Tam replied at the same time as the other man said, “My voice, at least.”
“And that would be because…?”
“You hit your head when you fell,” Tam answered.
“Because I’m a vampire,” said the stranger in the kilt.
Didn’t this idiot know when to quit? Sera took it upon herself to inform him. She stepped nearer and glared right into his handsome face. “So bite me, arsehole.”
This close, his dark eyes seemed to smolder. Every one of her nerve endings fizzed in confused warning. She wasn’t afraid of him, though; it was a long time since she’d been afraid of anyone. But neither was she stupid, and she gripped the sharp stick, ready to use in a flash, if necessary. She was prepared for anything he had to throw at her.
Except what he did.
He whispered, “I’d love to.” His lips curved into a predatory, devastating smile; his voice curled around her stomach, spreading heat where it had no business to be in this situation.
“Give it a rest, and go away,” she said crossly.
“Not a chance. I want to know what you’re up to.”
“I’ll call for help. Have you arrested or thrown out.”
The smile widened. “No, you won’t.” He didn’t trouble to elaborate. They both knew it was the truth.
Sera actually stamped her foot. “Christ, you’re annoying!”
“What do you expect? My supper’s been interrupted.” His gaze flickered to Tam, who was frowning uncertainly in their direction, and then returned to devour Sera in a way that would have been flattering had she not known he was playing a part. As it was, her treacherous body responded with a surge of blatant lust—which at least gave her one last, desperate idea.
She smiled at the stranger and leaned into him, stretching up on tiptoe so that her lips could reach his ear. He smelled of some elusive spice and sweet earth, and suddenly it wasn’t so difficult to act.
“I can tell you’re a man who likes excitement,” she murmured, letting her breath stir his ear, the soft, tiny hairs on his skin. His breath didn’t hitch, but at least he bent nearer her, betraying that he wasn’t unmoved. She smiled again, knowing she was so close he’d feel her lips almost touching his ear. “Wait here for me. I’ll be back in five minutes and we can…talk.”
On the last word, she let her breast brush against his chest. Whatever it did to him, her own body screamed awareness. Her nipples hardened, egging her on, while some intense, wicked excitement threatened to overwhelm her. Because she could win now, make him wait while she and her henchmen did what they’d come here for. And later, she could find out what the hell was going on, and if Ferdy had employed this guy too.
She leaned back, returning her feet flat to the ground. The stranger’s odd, dark eyes flamed with what she hoped was arousal. He said, “Why don’t we ‘talk’ first?” And bent over her.
She stepped smartly backward. “Tam,” she whispered. “I have to get rid of Tam.”
“I don’t mind Tam.” His gaze lifted from the rapid rise and fall of her breasts to her throat. His lips, full and sensual, parted as they smiled, revealing a glimpse of pointed canine teeth.
“Oh Jesus H. Ch—” she began in frustration, and broke off in mid-word as he lifted his hand to her neck, brushing her skin with one soft, blatantly sexual caress.
“It’s you I want,” he whispered. She felt no breath on her skin, no warmth from him to excite her, and yet his words thrilled from her mind to every nerve in her body. And then cold sliced through her like a shard of ice.
It blasted her. Yet there was no vision, only a profound, red-tinged blackness she couldn’t bear to look into. She caught a little fun and pleasure and humor from the mix, bleeding from the darkness, but the overwhelming sensation was of death and pulsating, unreachable memory, cold and black and terrifyingly profound. Although Sera was used to picking up emotions, even visions, from touch, it took her several disoriented moments to realize that this dreadful flood had grown out of the sensual caress of his fingertips, of the smell and feel that was uniquely him. Him, God help her.
She threw herself backward out of his awful reach, stifling the cry of agony that tried to burst from her lips. Christ, who are you? What have you done…?
Their eyes locked. Sera heard only her own panting breath. The smile still curving the stranger’s lips began to die. He took another step nearer her, and she raised one useless hand to ward him off.
And someone screamed, loud and insistent.
Instinct spun Sera around, dragging her gaze and her body away from the stranger. At least, as she bolted through the trees in the direction of the scream, she called it instinct. In truth, as her feet pounded across the rough ground and branches caught at her clothes and hair, it felt a lot like relief.
Someone was following. She hoped to God it was Tam and not—
Her phone broke into song. She didn’t slow down as she seized it and clamped it to her ear. But she’d reached the edge of the trees now, and she could see the panic of people milling around the garden. Most of them seemed to be squashing into the ornamental maze.
“Sera,” Jilly’s voice said from her phone. She sounded shaky, breathy, her pitch higher than usual. “You’d better get over here. The maze. It’s Jason, Ferdy’s son. I think he’s dead.”
Sera stopped in her tracks. “What?” Her ears were singing; her heart felt as if it had stopped beating. It had to be a sick wind-up, and yet Jilly’s silence on the phone said very loudly that she believed it. “Oh shite…” As Tam’s footsteps faltered behind her, she said, “It’s all gone tits up. You’d better get out of here fast.”
She didn’t look at him or wait to see if he obeyed. She began to run again toward the maze with an ominous feeling of the sky falling on her head. She was vaguely surprised when people made way for her to get into the maze. A woman in a strappy, black silk dress with a tear at the side, her face understandably white under her perfect makeup, even pointed out which way to go.
The body that was presumably Jason lay on the ground, with his distraught parents on one side. Mrs. Bell was tugging at her once beautifully sculpted hair and weeping. Jack seemed to be administering CPR, while Jilly stared down at his efforts, for once without a word of criticism.
Sera swallowed. “Ambulance?” she said to no one in particular.
“On its way,” said Jilly.
“We just found him lying there,” Jilly said helplessly. “Me and Mr. Bell.”
Briefly, Sera met Ferdy’s gaze. There was genuine worry in his eyes, she’d swear. Yet behind it was the same gleam that had always bothered her. She’d no idea what it signified, beyond a lack of honesty, but it looked avid, obsessive.
Jack stopped pumping at the young man’s chest. “I’m sorry,” he said hoarsely. “I think he’s dead.”
With a wail, Mrs. Bell fell against her husband.
Please, no, please, no. Please don’t let him be dead… Sera shifted position to follow Ferdy’s attention and saw the two, bloody puncture wounds in Jason Bell’s throat.
She stared, almost numb with shock, before she realized her fingers were clutching in panic at her own neck. At the very same spot the kilted stranger had touched.
She whirled around with a muttered “Excuse me,” and pushed her way back out of the maze.
The rest of the garden was almost deserted. The shadow of the woman in the strappy dress disappeared round the side of the house. But the figure she actually sought was striding, almost gliding, across the lawn: a tall man in a kilt who moved with the grace of a panther. And all the danger, she suspected, of a murderer. She ran after him, reluctant to shout in case he took to his heels. But he walked damned fast, and she had to sprint flat out before, breathless, she finally caught at his sleeve and yanked him round to face her.
He turned with ease, as if he’d always known she was there and wasn’t remotely surprised by her violent tugging. In the glow of the garden lights, he gazed at her in silence. Her words dried up in her throat. All she could think of was the icy blackness of his touch, the blackness of a man capable of anything; and the weird attraction of his profound, unreadable eyes.
“Was it you?” she choked out at last. “Did you kill him?”
He didn’t answer. His lips quirked as if they might smile but didn’t. Then he simply turned and strode away. After three paces, he broke into a run and disappeared round the side of the house.
Was that his answer?
Sera pounded recklessly after him, anxious to see where he went at the very least.
Although the side garden was full of shadows, none of them were human. And at the front, there was no sign of anyone at all except a middle-aged couple who were waiting to direct the paramedics. Sera ran out to the street and scanned both directions. It was empty. Not even a car moved. Only a fine trail of mist or car exhaust hovered in the night air. She could almost imagine it formed the faded features of her quarry.