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The entire Blood Thief series in one complete package!Long nights hide terrible secrets. For Faith Luvena, those secrets are revealed in the form of a tall, handsome stranger. His allure leads her to follow him into his dark world of blood and shadows where she will be changed forever.
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Copyright © 2017 by Mac Flynn
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Gathering of Thieves
Fleece of Gold
Continue the adventure
Other Series By Mac Flynn
The paranormal has a way of creeping up on you. For me it strolled through the doors of the flower shop I workedat.
The old shop was a few blocks off the downtown business district of the busy metropolis. It was one of those window-front shops with faded lettering over the single, mostly-glass door. The sidewalk outside was cracked and the potholes were large, but the old company kept a brisk business. And we delivered, too. That was a perk I would regret existed.
It was just after sunset on an early winter evening when the door opened. I stood behind the counter at the rear of the small shop area. The vases brimming with flowers on a round table in the center of the room prevented me from having a perfect view of the entrance. On either side of the door were wall-to-wall coverings of roses, carnations, lilies, and dozens of other plants that would make an allergenic miserable.
All I saw of the new customer was a black top hat. I leaned to one side to catch sight of the figure and glimpsed a black cloak move to the other side of the table. I frowned and leaned to the other side. I had my first full view of the man, and I didn’t quite know what to think.
His age was about thirty with jet-black hair and pale skin. He was tall, a little over six feet, and carried himself with a confident step. He was dressed like he just walked out of a black and white movie. There was the black dress pants, a dress shirt with coat, and a long, flowing cloak that buttoned at the front. The guy wore a top hat and held a cane with a silver top in his lefthand.
His eyes flickered to me without he head turning. He faced me and removed his hat. I blinked at him as he bowed to me. “Good evening. I’ve come for some of these wonderful flowers.”
The vibe I got off the guy was weird. He was a little strange in that old-fashioned getup, but he gave off an unnatural creepiness that made me wary. Usually I got the owner to handle the customers, but I wanted this guy outfast.
I slipped around to the front of the desk, but didn’t approach him any further. “Were you looking for something in particular, sir?” I askedhim.
He stepped up to the display against the wall and examined the flowers on either side of him. “I was looking for a very special flower.” His wandering eyes fell on me and a sly smile slipped onto his pale lips. “One that blooms once every century.”
I frowned and shook my head. “I don’t think we have that kind of flower here. Maybe you could come back tomorrow and ask the owner for some numbers.”
The man walked over to me, and I retreated until my back hit the front of the desk. He stopped a half foot from me and his clear blue eyes swept over my face. His lips curled back in a crooked grin that showed off a fine pair of chompers. He leaned towards me. His breath brushed against my cheek. He lowered his voice to a soft, sensual whisper.
“Or perhaps you willdo.”
“No way.” I ducked underneath his bent self and scooted around to the other side of the desk. “You go find yourself another shop, mister, because I don’t play thatway.”
The man blinked at me for a moment with wide eyes, but his grin soon returned. There was interest in his eyes now, and I regret to say it was all onme.
He chuckled and straightened. “Perhaps you really can help me,” he mused.
My eyebrows crashed down. “I told you we don’thave-”
“What’s going on here?” a voice spokeup.
I inwardly groaned as my short, pudgy employer, Mr. Vorax, waddled through the rear door. He took in the scene and naturally misunderstood it because he turned his angry eyes on me. “Miss Luvena, I have spoken to you before about treating our customers with proper respect.”
“On the contrary, she was treating me with all the respect I deserved,” the stranger spoke up. I looked askance at him, but his attention was on my employer. “I was too forward with her, but I will make it up to both of you.” He turned towards the rose section and nodded at the five sets of a dozen red ones that were left. “I’ll take those.”
My employer perked up and gave the man his widest grin. “Which bouquet, sir?”
My employer’s eyes widened. “All of them, sir?”
The stranger nodded. “Yes, and I wish to send them to-” I felt a strange tingle in my head, “-Marvin Apartments, apartment sixteen, Gardens Street.”
I started and my eyes widened. That was my address. My employer, not knowing nor caring where I lived, smiled and nodded.
“Very well, sir. My delivery boy has gone home for the evening, but they might be delivered tomorrow evening,” he offered.
“That will do,” the stranger agreed. “I would also like two dozen yellow roses. One dozen to be sent to this address-” he pulled a card from inside his overcoat and handed it to my employer, “-and the other to Park Place Penthouse, suite 30, Park Place Avenue.”
My employer’s mouth dropped open. I couldn’t blame him. The Park Place Penthouse was the swankiest place in thecity.
“My goodness, sir! You honor us with such a delivery.”
“You would do me a greater honor if this young woman-” he nodded at me, “-performed the delivery. Let’s say around this sametime?”
Vorax raised an eyebrow. “Her, sir? But she’s only an assistant, and I have a very dependable-”
“I would like this woman to make the delivery, or I would like all the deliveries canceled,” the man insisted.
The color drained from my employer’s face. “B-but sir, this is very irregular-”
“I am a very irregular gentleman, sir. If you’ll oblige me this once I’ll pay you very well,” the stranger promised. He pulled out a thick wallet and opened thetop.
My employer’s eyes widened as he glimpsed the long line of hundred dollar bills. The denomination bounced through his eyes and broadened his smile.
“My good sir, we can certainly oblige your-well, your request,” my employer assuredhim.
“Then I will settle my bill tonight and look forward to the deliveries tomorrow,” the stranger agreed.
The money was exchanged, and the cash tendered, reluctantly on the part of my employer, to me. The stranger watched me put the cash in the register with that peculiar smile on hisface.
“Could I have the name of such a lovely young woman?” he askedme.
“I’m just another employee in a small shop,” I replied.
My employer glared at me and turned to the stranger. “She’s modest, sir. Her name is Faith Luvena.”
The stranger smiled and bowed to me. “Good evening to you, Miss Luvena. I hope to see you tomorrow.”
“Maybe,” I replied.
I was never so relieved as when that man left. Vorax shut the door behind him, but paused and glanced after theman.
“A limo!” I heard him gasp. He locked the door and turned to me with a shake of his head. “I wish I would’ve marked up those flowers.”
I ignored his greedy ramblings and grabbed my coat off the hanger behind the desk. Vorax’s eyes fell on me and he frowned.
He marched over to me and shook his chubby fist under my nose. “What the hell were you doing? Trying to run me out of business?” he growled.
I leaned away from him and frowned. “He was hitting onme.”
Vorax’s face grew red. “I don’t care if he proposed to you on the spot! You treat the customers like they’re kings!”
“What if it’s a woman?” I teased.
He jabbed a finger in my face and shook with rage. “One more stupid remark like that and you’re out ofhere!”
I pursed my lips, but lowered my eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“All right. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He marched past me and through the back doorway.
I maturely stuck my tongue out at him and went out through the front. The early-winter evening was dark with a hint of chill in the air. The bare trees along the wide sidewalk swayed in a slight breeze. I wrapped my coat around me and marched down the sidewalk and onward tohome.
My apartment building was a good twenty minutes away from work, but it was the closest place I could find without paying more in rent than I made. The last half of my long walk took me into the tough neighborhoods. The blocks of towering old brick buildings almost swayed in the wind as their ancient, drafty windows glared down at me. A third of the streetlights were out and graffiti covered the alley walls between the six-floor buildings.
I reached the stoop of my apartment building and paused on the bottom step. The light over the front door was out, but I could just make out a familiar figure seated in the doorway with their back against the front of the building. Hobo Harold. Nobody had any idea if Harold was his real name, but he answered to it. The guy was a sort of smelly mascot for the apartment building, and had been for ten years. Most of the time he could be found seated at the top of the stoop in the recessed doorway. His worldly belongings consisted of two thick blankets, one of which he always sat on, his clothes, and a large leather duffel bag, the contents of which he never revealed to anyone.
Harold was about fifty, or maybe seventy, with a scruffy gray beard, thinning hair, and a toothy smile. His summer garb consisted of a worn pair of jeans. For his winter garb he added a thick wool shirt and long coat that looked like it’d seen better days during the Revolution. The American one, not the one in the 1970s.
“Hey, Harold,” I called to him as I trudged up the short flight of steps.
“‘Morning, Miss Luvena,” he replied
I pulled out my apartment keys and smiled. “It’s evening, Harold.”
He looked up at the sky and squinted. “I guess it is. Where’d the timego?”
I would’ve suspected he was into drugs or alcohol, but he did neither. He looked haggard, nothigh.
“Sucked away by employment,” I quipped.
He furrowed his brow and shook his head. “No, I don’t think it’s that. I don’t have none of that. Haven’t for a longtime.”
I put my key into the locket and turned it. “I don’t know if I should envy or pity you, Harold.”
Harold shuffled deeper into his array of overcoats and worn, soiled blankets. “Neither, Miss Luvena. I get along.” He had a way at pulling at heart strings even after they’d been stretched tight by a long day in the service sector. I pulled out a dollar and handed it to him. He grinned and tipped his head at me. “Thank you, Miss Luvena. It means a lot tome.”
I smiled and stepped a foot inside. “No problem, but don’t spend it all in one place.”
He tucked the dollar into his myriad of pockets and nodded. “I’ll try not to, Miss Luvena.”
I waved at him and entered the lobby of the dingy old apartment building. The small space was just large enough for the desk at the rear, and on the right side of that were the narrow stairs that led up to the rooms. The owner of the apartment building, an older gentleman with tired eyes by the name of Mr. Marvin Copo, sat on a stool behind the desk. One elbow was propped up by the desk and in his other hand was the paper.
I walked up to the desk and nodded at the archaic form of news distribution. “You still readthat?”
He looked up and smiled at me. “Evening, Miss Luvena.” He picked up the paper and folded it shut. “I thought I’d catch up on the world for a bit, so I bought a paper. Don’t know where I’d get my news except from the old gossips in this place.”
“There’s always the internet,” I suggested.
He shrugged and returned to his paper. “Can’t wrap my head around that thing and all them pages. I’ll stick with the devil Iknow.”
I swept my eyes over the front page. “So what’s the devil telling you today?”
“That the rich are getting richer except the ones that are having their things stolen,” he commented.
I raised an eyebrow. “That thief again?”
He nodded. “Yep. The cops don’t know who’s doing it, but it’s got all them swells on Park Place Avenue up in a bind.” I frowned. That was the second mention of that street in less than two hours. Copo flipped over the paper and shook his head. “Maybe they’ll catch him, or maybe they won’t, but at least he’s giving me some entertainment.”
“Mind if I borrow that paper?” I askedhim.
He looked up and raised an eyebrow. “I thought you said it wasn’t nogood.”
I smiled and shrugged. “You live and learn.”
He shook his head, but pulled out one section and passed the rest of the paper over to me. “All right, but don’t go messing with the ad section. I’m not doing look atit.”
“I promise I’ll be careful,” I assured him as I turned to the stairs.
My apartment was located on the third floor. I unlocked the door and stepped inside. The lights were already on, and a woman was in the small kitchen. She was hunched over a frying pan with her back to me. A few swear words floated over tome.
“Damn it! Why the fuck won’t you obey me!” she growled.
I smiled and walked over to the chair, couch, and coffee table that made up our living room. “Trouble with the sunny-side eggs?” I guessed
She yelped and spun around. In her hand was a egg-splattered spatula. She glared and shook the spatula at me. Bits of egg flew onto the kitchen table that stood betweenus.
“Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” she scoldedme.
I plopped myself on the couch and leaned back with a sigh. The paper hung from my hand over the arm of the couch. “If you’d pay more attention to your surrounding you would’ve heardme.”
“How can I hear a ghost?” she retorted.
I tossed the paper onto my lap and stretched my arms over my head. “Maybe have a Ouija board set up over the door? It might start spinning if a ghost comes around.”
She snorted and returned to her cooking. “You’renuts.”
I glanced down at the paper in my lap. The bottom-fold headline was in large, bold letters: Jewel Thief Strikes Again. Not a catchy headline, but I read further.
Police are baffled as another jewel heist hit the residential neighborhood of Park Place Avenue. This time a diamond bracelet was taken from the secret safe. There appears to be no forced entry, and the owner, the real estate heiress Miss Eileen Eres, was found unconscious beside the open safe. When interviewed by police, she told them she remembered nothing from that night but a pair of redeyes.
Felicia came up and set two cups of cocoa on the coffee table in front of me. She nodded at the paper. “It must’ve been a tough day if you’re reading fromthat.”
I tossed the paper onto the table and took one of the cups. A sip of the delicious chocolate and I felt better. My eyes flickered up to my friend who seated herself in the chair opposite me. “You happen to know of another dead-end job that’s open?” I askedher.
She raised an eyebrow. “The boss bothering you again about the wilting flowers he forgot to water?”
I set down the cup and shook my head. “No, worse. He’s got me running errands.”
Felicia frowned. “Isn’t that what Johnny’sfor?”
I shrugged. “Supposedly, but this rich guy came into the store just before closing time and demanded I take some of his order to an apartment on Park Place. He was going to cancel the order if I didn’t.”
My friend snorted. “Must have been a big order.”
I tucked a leg underneath myself. “Yeah. He spent my entire month’s salary in a few minutes.”
Felicia blinked at me. “Seriously?”
I nodded. “Seriously.”
She leaned forward and studied me. “This guy doesn’t happen to be really cute, doeshe?”
I rolled my eyes. “A little, but he puts off this creepy vibe. And he tried to hit onme.”
Felicia snorted. “I bet that got him far. Did you shoot him down or did he make a crash-landing?”
I shrugged. “I tried to shoot him down, but Vorax came from the back and shot medown.”
“Damn. So where are all of these flowers going?” she wondered.
I picked up the cocoa mug and furrowed my brow as I looked at the contents. “That’s one of the funny parts. Some of them are cominghere.”
Felicia frowned. “You didn’t like the guy hitting on you, but you gave him your address?”
I shook my head and looked my friend in the eyes. “That’s what’s so weird. I didn’t give him my address.”
“Maybe Vorax mentioned it?” Felixia guessed.
I snorted and took a sip. “He doesn’t even know where Ilive.”
Felicia shrugged. “Maybe he overheard you mutter something to yourself? You do that alot.”
I glared at her. “I never mentioned my exact home address while he was there.” I slunk in my chair and took another sip as I replayed the confrontation in my mind. “There was definitely something weird about thatguy.”
My friend laughed. “Maybe that creepy vibe was just you trying to run away from a guy who was seriously into you. You don’t exactly notice when they look atyou.”
I rolled my eyes. “If I want a guy to notice me it’s not going to be some rich jerk buying flowers for some othergirl.”
Felicia furrowed her brow and rubbed her chin. “I see your point.” A loud hissing sound alerted her to danger. She stood and walked over to the kitchen to where her frying pan awaited. “And so you’ve got to deliver flowers to his place tomorrow?”
I sat up and felt the color drain from my face. I hadn’t even thought that the delivery would be to his own apartment.
My friend scratched her eggs onto two plates and grabbed a pair of forks. “Or maybe he wants you to meet his mom already and that’s where you’re going,” she teased as she walked back to the living room. She set a plate in front of me and paused when she noticed my face. “Youokay?”
I shook myself and straightened. “What? Oh, yeah, I’m fine. I just never thought he’d have flowers delivered to himself.”
She plopped into her chair and shrugged. “I could be completely wrong about where you’re going. Maybe it’s his girlfriend and the ass just wants to show you what you’re missing.” She took a bite of the blackened remains of the eggs. Her face wrinkled and she put the plate down. “How about I take your mind off things with some nice Chinese?”
I looked down at my plate. The blackened eggs stared sadly back at me. I set the plate down and stood. “Agreed.”
The next day arrived, and with it came the eventuality of the evening. I dreaded the five o’clock hour, and made more than my fair share of mistakes thatday.
At four-thirty Vorax threw his arms in the air. “That’s enough! You’ve drowned enough flowers today! I don’t care if the order is early! Out withyou!”
The requested bouquets were duly stuffed into my car and I made the trip to the spacious uptown neighborhood of Park Place Avenue. The city I lived in was divided by a river that ran from the northern mountains to the port in the south. The majority of people lived on the southwestern side while the commercial district took up the eastern shores. The Avenue, however, was different.
Park Place and its equally fashionable cousin Boardwalk Avenue were situated in the center of the commercial district. It was an old area filled with brownstone homes and luxurious high-rise apartments. Around the shore homes and tall apartments was the business heart and-if it had one-soul of the city. Skyscrapers mixed with skyline and brownstone with business to create a cacophony of confusion.
I stopped in a long line of traffic a few blocks from my destination. A glimmer of the last bit of sunlight shone off the largest building in the city, Indigo Towers. I leaned forward and frowned at the strange, capital ‘I’ shaped structure that ruled the skyline. Its glistening windows slyly grinned down at the rest of us. Even someone in a position to live at Park Place couldn’t compete with the wealth behind that monstrosity of wealth.
The light ahead of me turned green and traffic moved onward. I fell back against my seat and followed the lines of cars. One-by-one the drivers in front of me veered off onto side streets until only me and a few posh imported cars drove forward.
I spotted the Park Place Penthouse. It was an imposing tan-colored stone building some forty floors tall. The edifice was ornate, with flowing curls above the windowsills and wide ledges that marked each floor. Hunched gargoyles sat on its corners and glared down at the people who passed by. The front doors were accessed via wide, long steps.
I parked my car on the sidewalk and stepped out. The doorman in front of the building hurried down the steps. His eyes swept over my car and his lips curled back in disdain.
“I’m sorry, miss, but this parking is for guests of the Penthouse,” he toldme.
I walked around my car and dug out a folded business card for the flower shop. “I’m here to make a delivery,” I told him as I hand him thecard.
He read the contents and his eyes widened. “Oh yes, you’re expected,” he told me as he handed back the card. He dug out a card and handed it to me before he pointed to his right. “If you would, the parking garage is around the corner. You’re in berth thirteen.”
I glanced down at the card. It was a parking pass. “I don’t really need this. It’ll only take a few minutes,” I assuredhim.
“I’m afraid it’s the rules, miss. Deliveries must park in the garage,” he insisted.
I frowned and crumpled the parking pass in my fist. “Fine, have it yourway.”
I slipped back into my car and drove around the corner. The road narrowed, and on the right was an open garage door. A booth sat between the entrance and exit. I pulled up to the window and held out the card. A man pulled aside the glass and leanedout.
“Delivery for room 30,” I told theman.
He took the pass, punched it, and smiled at me as he returned the paper. “That’s a good pass. You can stay here for as long as you like with thatone.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What do youmean?”
He leaned on the sill of his window and nodded at the paper in my hand. “That pass is good indefinitely. You can come and go whenever you please, and stay as long as youlike.”
I glanced down at the pass. There really was no time limit anywhere in the description. “Thanks. I’ll remember that,” I replied.
He smiled and nodded. “No problem, and don’t forget to put it on the dashboard.”
I drove forward into the garage. Parking spot number thirteen was on the first floor and around the first corner. It was a straight shot to the berth, and both fourteen and fifteen were empty. I parked and stepped out. A stairway and elevator just behind me and across the way allowed access to the residential part of the apartment building.
Whoever lived here, they had money.
I pulled out the bouquet of flowers and walked into the elevator. Number 30 was the last floor on the list. I pressed the button and stepped back as the doors shut. The elevator shot up, and so did my heart rate. I pressed the flowers close to me and prayed that a woman would answer thedoor.
I reached my destination. The doors swung open and revealed a small lobby. The walls were white and the floor was real wood. On the opposite side of the lobby from the elevator was a pair of white doors. I stepped out and the elevator doors shut behindme.
The flowers were just about ruined by the time I stood in front of the pair of doors. A buzzer lay on the right side of the doors. I stretched out a finger to press the button.
The door in front of me creaked open. I stiffened as the portal opened into a dark realm. The light from the lobby barely penetrated the darkness that lay beyond the doors. I stepped forward and peeked inside. Dark shapes of furniture lay in the center of the penthouse. The windows on the left and right were blocked by thick, blood-red cloth curtains.
“Hello?” I called. My voice echoed through the largeroom.
I screamed and stumbled to my left. My back gouged into the closed door and the flowers fell to the floor. I spun around and swung my fist in the direction of the voice. My hand was captured in a palm and eclipsed by a strength greater than mine. The open door slammed shut and lights were flickedon.
I found myself in the grasp of the strange man from yesterday. On his pale lips was a sly smile. He wore an elegant evening suit of black pants and a white shirt that lacked the usual blackcoat.
“I’m sorry I frightened you,” he apologized.
I pulled my fist from his grasp and rubbed my sore back. “I doubt it. You meant to do that,” I accusedhim.
He chuckled. “I must admit I did, though I didn’t mean for you to injure yourself, nor drop these wonderful flowers.” He stooped and scooped up the bouquets. The yellow color of the flowers accentuated his pallor. He swept one arm towards the living room that lay in the center of the room. “Won’t you sitdown?”
I pulled out the acceptance slip and a pen, and held them out to him. “I’d rather you just sign this so I cango.”
“We’ll be leaving in a minute,” the man promised as he turnedaway .
“What does that mean?” I questionedhim.
The strange man walked over to a large, empty vase on the thick cherry coffee table. He set the bouquets inside the vase and turned to me. “I have quite an evening set out for us.” His eyes swept over my body. “Though your attire does leave something to be desired.”
I stalked up to him and jabbed the pen and paper into his chest. “I just need you to sign this and I’ll be leaving. Without your company.”
He took the pen and paper, and tucked them into his pants pocket. “I will gladly sign the receipt, but after we’ve had ourfun.”
“We’re not having anything except a quick goodbye, now please sign the receipt or-” He grasped my hands in his cold grip and pressed me againsthim.
I tilted my head back and looked up into his dazzling blue eyes. He leaned down and spoke in a soft, seductive whisper. “Don’t you wish tostay?”
He was handsome and enticing when he wasn’t being a creep, and right then he was being a creep. I pulled away from him, but couldn’t free my hands. “No, now let me go or I’ll call thecops.”
He straightened. The sly smile remained on his lips. “Very well.” He opened his hands and I slipped mine out fromhis.
Except now there was something in one of my palms. I frowned and opened my hand. My eyes widened as I beheld a beautiful gold chain. Attached to the bottom of the chain was a small red ruby shaped into a perfect circle. I looked up at him with my mouth agape.
He leaned forward and clasped the necklace around my neck. I pressed my hand against the beautiful gift. It fit perfectly above my breasts. “A little gift, for your trouble.”
I glanced from his face to the necklace and back. “For. . .forme?”
He nodded. “Yes. For the trouble I’ve caused. It could be a parting gift, if you wish, or one of many. That is, if you choose to join me this evening.”
I leaned back and raised an eyebrow. “What exactly did you have inmind?”
His smile widened and he swept his arm to a closed door. “Inside you will find an evening gown. It’s been fitted to your size. I’d like for you to join me this evening at a small gathering of my-well, my acquaintances.”
I half-turned away from him and studied his face. “Whyme?”
“Why not?” he returned.
I shrugged. “I’m not exactly in your league when it comes to credit card limits.”
“Does that matter?” he wondered.
My eyebrow arched higher. “Shouldn’tit?”
He chuckled eyes and shook his head. “It matters not to me.” He glanced at his watch. “Unfortunately, you have only a few minutes to choose. The dinner begins at six, and I make a habit of being punctual.” His eyes fell on me, and he held out his hand to me. “Won’t you come? I promise the evening won’t bedull.”
I hesitated for a moment. My eyes flickered between his dazzling face and his pale hand. The pros and cons flitted through my mind. His strange vibe both attracted and repulsed me, but I found myself strangely drawn to him. The heavy weight of the necklace was a definite pro, but one problem stuck in my thoughts.
“I don’t even know your name,” I pointedout.
He swept his arm across his chest and bowed to me. “It’s very rude of me, isn’t it? I must apologize for that by telling you my name. It is Simon Cruor.”
“Never heard of it,” I commented.
He raised his head and smiled at me. “I prefer to keep a low profile.” He straightened and offered me his hand again. “But will you come, or would you rather return to that flower shop tomorrow with nothing but fleeting memories of what might havebeen?”
I pursed my lips, but shrugged. “Whynot?”
His eyes sparkled with a strange autumn hue and his smile widened. “Then it will be an honor to show you what the night offers.”
I took his hand and let him lead me to a newfate.
That fate started through that closed door, and I found it was a bedroom. A large king-sized bed sat against the back wall and draped over the foot of its elegant white comforter was a bright-red dress. The straps were as thin as pencils and the neckline left little to the imagination.
He stopped us at the foot and slipped behind me. “What do you think?”
I glanced down at the dress and my eyebrow received more exercise. “It looks like it could fall of at any moment.”
He leaned close to my neck and chuckled. “That would be a shame, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, nothing so wonderful will happen as the straps are quite tight. Would you like some assistance putting iton?”
I spun around and crossed my arms over my chest. “I said I’d go on a date with you, not get into bed.” I jabbed a finger at the door. “Nowout.”
He took a step back and bowed his head to me. “I am your humble servant, Miss Luvena.”
I tilted my head to one side and studied him. “How do you know so much about me, anyway? Are you stalking me or something?”
He straightened and shook his head. “No. Let’s just say I investigate my business associates very thoroughly.”
I frowned. “Business associates? You mean the flowershop?”
He nodded. “Yes. I gathered that your employer wouldn’t ask questions of my order if I offered him cash, and-”
“And he didn’t fail to disappoint,” I commented.
Cruor chuckled. “Exactly. Now if you wish I can assist you in changing.”
I nodded at the door. “I think I’m old enough to dress myself.”
He retreated to the door and bowed his head. “As you wish, my lady.” He closed the door behindhim.
I turned and studied the dress. A sigh escaped my lips and I shook my head. “What have you gotten yourself into this time, Faith?”
A quick change and I felt like a half a million dollars. The other half of the money was with the other half of the dress. The neckline was low enough to reveal ample cleavage and a slit in one side traveled up to my hip. Walking would be difficult. Somehow, though, the outfit complimented my ample curves.
I stepped out of the room with my old clothes draped over one arm. This Cruor fellow was still a near-stranger, so I’d be keeping my clothes with me. He stood off to the left and against the wall where a long, wide kitchen was located. His back was to me, but as I entered he downed an entire champagne glass of red liquid and turned to me. His sly smile and attentive eyes were enough to show me he approved.
He set the glass down and walked over to me where he bowed. “A picture of beauty no Renaissance painter could capture,” he complimented.
I blushed. “It’s a little flimsy,” I commented as I tugged on theslit.
Cruor straightened and smiled. “And yet you wear it with such elegance that it appears to be a part of you.” He stepped up to my side and offered me his arm. “If you would, it’s time to leave.”
I looped my arm through his and hugged my clothes against my other side. “All right, but I’m keeping my clothes withme.”
He bowed his head. “As you wish, mylady.”
Cruor escorted me to the door where we paused to pick up his coat, hat, and cane. We proceeded to the elevator and rode it down to the parking garage. The doors opened and revealed a limo that waited with its engine running. The suited driver stepped out, a pale young man of twenty with unruly dirty-blond hair, and opened the rear door for us. He bowed his head as Cruor escorted me to the vehicle.
“Ladies first,” he offered.
I hesitated in front of the door. The interior was pitch-black. “How about we break with tradition just this once?” I suggested.
Cruor bowed his head. “As youwish.”
He ducked into the car. My eyes flickered to the driver who stood behind the door. His eyes were pale gray and his skin was the same pallor as that of Cruor.
I jerked my thumb at the entrance to the car. “Are you two related?” The driver shook his head, but didn’t speak. I shrugged. “Just thought I’dask.”
I ducked into the interior. The opposing seats were leather and each was broken into two chairs by a separating armrest in their center. I took the seat opposite Cruor who sat in the back. The door shut behind me, but an overhead light allowed me to see my host, though most of his face fell into shadow. Behind me was the closed window that connected the rear to the front.
The car started, and we turned the corners of the parking garage and bumped onto the streets. I glanced out the window. The world sped by in brightly-colored hues of dazzling lights.
“You are ill at ease,” Cruor commented.
I tried to avoid pulling my neckline for fear he would glimpse more than some of my previous boyfriends got to see. “I’m alone with a wealthy stranger, in a strange dress, going to a strange party.”
He chuckled. “Yes, I must admit I wasn’t sure you would agree to such an adventure, but you didn’t fail to disappoint.”
I frowned. “You sound like you know me reallywell.”
He leaned back. His face was completely covered in shadows. “You could say our meeting yesterday piqued my interest, and I made a few inquiries.”
My eyebrows crashed down and I pointed an accusing finger at him. “Then you did stalkme!”
He held up his hand. “Perhaps I did inspect more thoroughly than is proper, but I will offer you a trade.” He stretched out his arms and I saw a glint of teeth as he smiled. “You may ask me anything you like, and I will answer with the truth.”
I snorted. “And I’m supposed to believeit?”
His smile slipped away and his voice grew firm. “I give you my word, and I never break myword.”
I furrowed my brow and studied him for a few moments before I cleared my throat. “How old areyou?”
“Five hundred and sixty yearsold.”
I choked on my spittle. “You said you’d tell the truth!”
He chuckled. “I did, and I have, but why don’t you ask another less compromising question?”
I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “How rich areyou?”
“I haven’t tallied my assets in quite a while, but billionaires would envy me were they to know the truth,” he replied.
“So how come I haven’t heard about you?” I countered.
He clasped his hands on his crossed legs. “As I said before, I prefer to keep a low profile. That includes revealing my riches. Even my close friends are unaware of the full extent of my wealth.” He leaned forward and his shimmering bright eyes fell on me. “You are perhaps the only one outside my small circle who knows.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Should I feel honored?”
He fell back and shrugged. “That’s entirely up to you, but wouldn’t you rather ask me more questions?”
I jerked my thumb at the window to my right. “Where are we going?”
Cruor chuckled. “I am a terrible date, aren’t I? We are attending a private dinner given by Mr. Edric Eres in honor of his daughter having graduated college.”
I furrowed my brow. “Isn’t she the one who had the bracelet stolen last night?”
“The very same,” he confirmed.
“How do you know them?” I askedhim.
“I made their acquaintance in Europe when Miss Eres was choosing her college,” he explained.
I fidgeted and pressed my street clothes close against me. “And there’ll be a lot of these rich folks at the party?”
His voice was soothing in that strange way of his. “About a dozen, but you needn’t worry. Their false beauty cannot compare to your natural-well, shall we say you have a very exuberant life energy surroundingyou.”
I stopped my fidgeting and raised an eyebrow. “Thanks. I think.”
The car slowed and turned onto a smooth road. I glanced out the window and saw the landscape was much changed. Gone were the skyscrapers and noisy, honking streets. Streetlights were replaced by elegant lampposts and the glass buildings changed to tall, imposing mansions. Blocks gave way to vast estates, and the smell of water drifted to mynose.
Cruor gestured to the window. “There is nothing quite like nature to remind one of our more primitive roots. Perhaps that’s why so many congregate on the fringes of the uncontrollable waters and forests, not least of which the wealthy of society.” His eyes fell on me and there was that bright glimmer again. It was almost as though his eyes glowed in the dark. “It makes one think of ages past, and of futures yet tocome.”
I shrugged. “I guess, but history’s never been my strongsuit.”
He chuckled. “We must do something about that, but after the dinner.”
We drove a few more miles through the expensive landscape before we reached the final road that followed the southeastern shoreline of the port. On the other side of the river lay the port itself, but the large mansions dominated the land on this side. Their small parks were fenced by tall stone walls and iron gates. We pulled up to a pair of those gates and stopped for a moment before they opened and allowed us entrance.
The park of the wealthy Eres family held a variety of ancient oak and maple trees. They cast their long shadows across the paved driveway and all the way to the three-floor Colonial building they called home. The two imposing columns on either side of the tall pair of white doors felt like bars on a cage that kept the world out. The tall, wide windows glared down at us with their curtained glass turned up in high fashion.
Behind the mansion stretched a large, green lawn enveloped by shadows. The port waters lapped against the far stretches of the lawn, and a long dock disappeared into the darkness. A light fog floated onto land and enveloped the trees and lawn in a soft gray blanket.
The driver parked the car in front of the tall portico and opened the car door on my left. I blinked against the bright lights from the windows that fell over the darkness inside thecar.
Cruor exited first and offered me his hand and a smile. “It’s time for your first foray into a new world.”
I reluctantly set my clothes on the seat and took his hand. Cruor pulled me from the car and led me up to the shut entrance. He pressed the doorbell and the entrance was answered in half a moment by an elderly man. Behind him were the white walls of the entrance hall. A curved stairway hugged the left-hand wall and disappeared into the second floor.
The man stepped aside and bowed tous.
“Good evening, Mr. Cruor,” he greeted my companion. At least he hadn’t lied about his name like hisage.
Cruor stepped inside with me by his side and bowed his head. “Good evening, Promus. I hope we’re not toolate.”
“You are punctual as always, Mr. Cruor,” Promus replied.
Cruor removed his coat, hat and cane, and handed them to the butler. “And the others?”
Promus nodded to a doorway off to our left. “In the parlor, sir. Refreshments have been ordered before dinner.”
“Excellent. If you will excuse us.” Cruor offered me his arm, and I took it as a lame man would take acane.
He led me to the doorway where we paused. The parlor was a grand room filled with horsehair furniture and a black oak coffee table. A billiard table stood to our far right at the rear of the room. On the opposite side of the room from where we stood was a large fireplace that burned brightly with thick logs. A half dozen men in coats and as many woman in dresses congregated together. They varied in ages from thirty to sixty, but they all held the sort of air of one possessed of great confidence and great money.
A portly man of forty turned to us and his eyes widened. “Simon! How wonderful to see you!” He set his wine glass on a tray held by a servant and hurried over to us with his arms spread wide and a smile on his chubby face. The man clasped Cruor’s offered hand and shook it with a great deal of energy. “I must tell you what a pleasant surprise it was for Eileen when your yellow roses arrived!”
“Papa!” a melodious voice interrupted.
The portly man stepped to the side and we all turned to the stairs. A young woman in a white, flowing gown hurried down the steps in heels that made me wince. She had the same bright smile on her face as the man, and it was entirely for Cruor’s benefit.
She offered him her hand and batted her eyelashes. “It’s always a pleasure to see you, Simon, and as Papa so selfishly told you, I was very pleased with the roses.”
Cruor took her hand and pressed a kiss on the top. I couldn’t help but frown. My displeasure was noticed by the young woman. Her eyes fell on me and one of her eyebrows raised.
“Who is this, Simon? A friend?” she askedhim.
Cruor swept one hand towards me and pulled me forward with his other one. “My escort for the evening. Miss Faith Luvena, this is Miss EileenEres.”
Miss Eres raised an eyebrow, but offered me her hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Luvena.”
I took her hand and gave it a firm shake. “Um, likewise.”
She removed her hand from me and her eyes swept over me. “I don’t believe I know that family name. Is your father in the port trade?”
“She is rather a new transplant in our world,” Cruor spoke up. He turned to me and flashed me one of his strange toothy smiles. “You might say I picked her as one does a beautiful flower, and set her in our smallvase.”
Eileen laughed. “You are so amusing, Simon! And the things you say! You almost make me forget about the horrible ordeal two nightspast!”
Cruor glanced between our host and his daughter. “Is there are word on who might have done such a thing?”
Mr. Eres pursed his lips and shook his head. “Not a clue. It may as well have been a ghost from what little the police can deduce.”
Eileen grasped Cruor’s arm and leaned against him. “And it’s such a pity that you didn’t buy the bracelet first. I remember that you so admired it when Papa showed you the bracelet when we first met in Paris.”
Cruor nodded. “Yes. Fate is cruel that it should only be in your possession for such a short time, but perhaps the culprit will be found.”
Mr. Eres stepped up to the pair and swept his arm towards the parlor. “But enough of this sad business! Come! Let us join the others!” He guided our little group into the parlor where we joined the other six guests. He clapped his hands together and quieted the small party. “Tonight is a great night! Tonight we celebrate my little angel’s graduation with a degree in finearts!”
“And what do you hope to do with such a degree, Miss Eileen?” one of the older women askedher.
Eileen shrugged. “Perhaps work in a museum, or perhaps an art house. I haven’t really thought that far ahead. Perhaps I’ll even return for another degree.”
One of the gentlemen of thirty laughed. “You could gather enough diplomas to make a dress!”
Mr. Eres wrinkled his nose. “Heaven forbid! There aren’t enough colleges that are worth the money, and those that are would drain mybank!”
I stood off to one side and far from the group. Cruor’s back faced me as he spoke with an older couple. He glanced over his shoulder and his eyes fell on me. He half-turned to me and offered me hishand.
“Faith, I’d like to introduce you to these lovely people,” he called tome.
I reluctantly walked over to him and took his hand so he pulled me close to his side. He gestured first to the man and then the woman. “Mr. and Mrs. Gemmarius, this is Faith Luvena, a new acquaintance ofmine.”
Mr. Gemmarius bowed his head, but his wife smiled and shook my hand. “A pleasure to meet you, my dear. How did you come to know this rascal?”
“I plucked her from a flower shop,” Cruor spokeup.
The woman laughed and tapped Cruor’s shoulder with her closed fan. “What a tease you are!” She turned to her morose husband. “Isn’t he a tease, darling?”
The man rallied himself from his thoughts and managed a smile. “A very ingenious man with his tales, certainly.”
Cruor turned his attention to the husband. “You seem distracted tonight, Mr. Gemmarius. Is something the matter?”
Mrs. Gemmarius sighed. “It’s all these jewelry thefts. You know, my husband’s jewelry store also is the vault for many of our friends. He’s afraid it will be robbed at any moment.”
Cruor raised an eyebrow. “Really? I had no idea, but I’m sure it will be very safe. I might perhaps place some of my valuables in yoursafe.”
Mr. Gemmarius perked up and his smile brightened. “You don’t say? Well, I feel I must tell you that I don’t keep them for free. Insurance and security costs, yousee.”
Cruor smiled and bowed his head. “Of course. If you’d like, we could discuss the terms rightnow.”
Mrs. Gemmarius grabbed her husband’s arm and scowled at him. “Business at a social? Really, darling, that’s toomuch.”
He plucked her hand off him and laid it against her side. “It will only be a moment, my dear. We’ll be back before dinner is called.”
The two men strode from the room, and I was left with the flustered Mrs. Gemmarius. She pulled out her fan and waved it in front of her. “Men! What nuisances they can be with their business! I would think Simon would have better manners than to encourage Midus in his rude behavior.”
An idea flashed through my mind and my eyes flickered to her. “Have you known Mr. Cruorlong?”
She shrugged. “Oh, not for too long, perhaps five years. My husband and I met him on our yearly travels through the diamond markets of the world. We were at Surat at the time haggling for a beautiful ruby of exquisite quality when Simon comes out of nowhere and buys it out from under our noses. Well, when he heard how disappointed we were do you know what he did?” I shook my head. She pressed her fan against her cleavage and smiled. “The darling just up and gives us the jewel. He even offers to pay the cost of the cut, but we were happy with its raw form.” She leaned close to me and lowered her voice. “And since you’re such a darling friend of Simon’s I will tell you it wasn’t easy to remove the ruby from the country. Such a rare steal as that has some very tight embargo, if you understand my meaning.”
I raised an eyebrow. “How much did itcost?”
She shook her head. “I haven’t any idea, but we were asking a good million for it, and he outbidus.”
“So you got to keep the ruby?” I guessed.
She sighed and gave a nod. “Yes, but only for two years. It was stolen from our country home in upper New York, and the police never discovered who tookit.”
I frowned. “You had a jewel stolen, too?”
Mrs. Gemmarius’s gaze wandered down to my neck and her eyes widened. “Why, what a beautiful necklace! And that gem!” She leaned down and squinted. “My goodness, but the cut is perfect!” She raised her head and winked at me. “You and Mr. Cruor must be very close.”
I glanced over my shoulder in the direction of the doorway. “Yes, very close. If you’ll excuseme.”
I slipped away from her and out of the parlor. The entrance hall was empty. Two doors stood across the hall. The front one was open and revealed a large dining room with a long table. The places were set with half a dozen utensils and the napkins were folded intohats.
The second door to the left was partially hidden in a narrow hallway and behind a large suit of armor. My ears detected the faint sound of voices. I walked across the hall and placed my ear against the door. The knob hadn’t latched and the door gave way a few inches, allowing me a view into theroom.
It was a study with large bookcases and a giant globe. An oak desk stood opposite the door, and in front of the desk stood Mr. Gemmarius. His arms were crossed over his chest and he had a frown on hislips.
“Really, Simon, I thought you would be more reasonable, but I can’t offer you sufficient protection at such a small price,” he commented.
Cruor stood to the right just out of my line of sight. His tone was one of bemusement as he chuckled. “I thought perhaps you might feel that way. As it is I will accept your offer as a token of our friendship.”
Mr. Gemmarius dropped his arms to his side and grinned. “Excellent! I knew you’d see things my way. Let’s shake on it.” He stretched out his hand, and Cruor’s hand came into view. They joined hands and shook.
I shrugged and turned away, but Cruor’s calm voice brought meback.
“Now if you would kindly tell me the location and combination of your safe, our business will be finished.”
I frowned and looked over my shoulder. Gemmarius stood stiff as a board, and his face was devoid of emotion. His eyes were wide and vacant. Cruor released his hand and it dropped lifeless to Gemmarius’sside.
When Gemmarius spoke it was in a flat tone. “The vault is behind the picture of Queen Elizabeth the first,” he revealed. “The combination is 1-25-52.”
Cruor chuckled. “Your birthday? That’s very unwise of you to use such a known date, Mr. Gemmarius.” The man didn’t reply.
“Simon! Simon, where are you?” Eileen cooed.
I swung around in the direction of the hall. My shoulder hit the door and swung it open. Cruor turned to me. My hand flew to my mouth to stifle my gasp. His eyes were as red as coals and his teeth were long and sharp, like fangs. I stumbled backwards until my back hit the opposite side of the narrowhall.
Cruor was one moment five yards from me, and the next moment his hand slammed into the wall to the left of my head. He leaned his face close to mine. Those blood-red eyes stared intomine.
“Say nothing of this,” he hissed.
I felt a strange tingle in my mind. My mouth bobbed up and down. I couldn’t release the scream I so desperately desired.
Eileen appeared around the corner. “Simon! There you-oh.”
Cruor face reverted back to human before he looked to Eileen with a smile. I ducked under his arm and rushed behind her. My shivering hands grasped her shoulders and my voice choked on my tremble.
“H-he’s a monster!” I toldher.
Cruor raised an eyebrow, but I noticed his body tensed.
Eileen glanced over her shoulder at me and frowned. “What are you going on about?”
I nodded at Cruor. “He’s some sort of monster! I saw it! He had red eyes and was doing something to Gemmarius!”
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