hris followed the directions and carefully measured each ingredient before pouring it into the bowl. She was supposed to stir until a stiff dough was formed. She hadn't made cookies since her daughters were teenagers, but she had to do something to keep busy and awake. It was only midnight, but she intended to do a lot of baking this night to keep herself occupied.
She hadn't read all of John's books, but she'd had enough of vampire lore for now. All the stories and legends had become a jumble in her mind. And she had searched the internet as thoroughly as she knew how. She'd traced most of the items on the list of paintings to museums and public galleries. The rest, she assumed, had gone into private collections.
Of the ones she tracked down, she wasn't surprised to find that half had disappeared again over the past two decades. Slowly, one by one, each had been stolen in the middle of the night. A few of the thefts had made national headlines, but most were relegated to a couple of paragraphs in the back sections. All had occurred between 1979 and 1994. Something had happened five years ago. But what? Chris had no idea.
Her arm had grown tired and she had yet to add the chocolate chips. She tore open the bag, poured some in, and stirred again.
During the past few weeks, she struggled to adjust to her new sleeping schedule. It didn't matter how long she slept in the daytime--and she made sure she got at least eight hours--she always felt drowsy in the hours just before dawn.
Unfortunately, she had dozed off and dreamed a few more times. Anton beckoned to her from the ruins of a derelict castle, on the windswept sand of a deserted beach, in the bowels of an ice cavern...as if he would find her no matter where she tried to hide. She resisted but, ultimately, he came to her and claimed her with the same words:
"Do you give yourself freely and of your own will?"
"You are mine."
The dreams ended at the same moment as the others, when he placed his lips on her throat. She always awoke straining toward him but...he wasn't there.
While her vivid imagination supplied the various gothic backdrops, Chris recognized she was having the same dream over and over. Fascinated by what he was and physically drawn to him, she would not--could not for John's sake-- give herself up to him.
Yet, she acknowledged that if Anton truly wanted her, nothing would stop him. And she reluctantly admitted part of her wouldn't want him to be stopped. Anton had reached into the primal core of her self, ripped it open and laid it bare, allowing hidden needs and emotions to surface. In the end, he had put them back and resealed the core but, like broken pottery mended with glue, she would never be the same again. He had touched something inside of her that could never be untouched.
As she stirred the last of the chocolate chips into the dough, Chris felt the tears slip down her cheeks. During those few moments while Anton held her enthralled, she had glimpsed a passion within herself, as well as within Anton, that she never knew existed before. And she wanted to experience it again, wanted it more than anything she had ever wanted in her life.
Chris angrily wiped away the tears and dropped spoonfuls of dough onto the cookie sheet with more force than she intended. As much as she might desire to explore that passion, she couldn't because of John. Her brother had already lost his wife to Anton; he wouldn't survive losing his sister to the vampire as well.
She took more care with the dough as she flattened and rounded each spoonful. She tried to concentrate on makeing them uniform in size and shape, to keep her thoughts away from Anton. He consumed too much of her life now, just as he had consumed John's twenty years ago.
As she finished shaping the last cookie, the hair on the back of her neck prickled, and she had the feeling that someone else was in the apartment. She dropped the spoon with a clatter that sounded like an explosion and made her heart race.
"John? Is that you?" she called out nervously.
When he didn't answer, Chris crept silently from the kitchen to the living room. The drapes were closed over the sliding glass doors to the terrace, but a dim light filtered through. She stood a moment, watching and listening. She heard nothing and saw no movement.
Chris hurried to John's bedroom and cautiously opened the door. He lay in his bed, fast asleep. She shut the door and returned to the living room. As she moved toward the middle of the room, the feeling became stronger that someone uninvited was near. Raw instinct led her to the drapes, and she pulled them fully open with one strong tug on the cord.
Anton stood in the center of the terrace. The high winds whipped his white gold hair and the red-lined cape he wore. Chris gasped and clutched the small silver cross at her throat. John had given it to her months ago, but she only started wearing it after her encounter at the coffeehouse. She looked down at her gown and realized it bore a passing resemblance to the lacy night rail in her dreams: white, long-sleeved, lace-trimmed.
Stepping back, she searched the dark sky behind him, almost expecting quick flashes of light even though lightning was a rare occurrence in San Francisco. She almost laughed in relief when nothing changed the night sky. Perhaps tonight wasn't the night he came to claim her after all.
The disappointment she felt disgusted her.
If the legends were true, he couldn't enter the apartment unless she invited him in. If they weren't true, she supposed he would have already let himself in. Slowly, she approached the sliding doors and flung them open. A cold burst of air slithered around her and made her shiver. She backed up a few paces, still holding the silver cross in her trembling fingers.
"Good evening, Christina," he greeted her warmly.
"What do you want?" she cried out much too loudly. She glanced back, toward John's room, and prayed she hadn't awakened him.
"Your brother sleeps peacefully," Anton assured her. "He won't awaken while I'm here."
"What have you done?" Fear sliced through her. She hadn't check John closely. What if Anton didn't need permission to enter. What if--?
"John sleeps, Christina, that's all. A small enthrallment, to ensure he won't awaken and find me here. He hasn't the stamina for a confrontation yet."
"He never will. He-He's been ill. Please, leave him alone. Please."
Anton laughed sorrowfully. "I no longer have any interest in John. Once, he would have made a formidable opponent, but--" He shrugged. "Many years have passed and we've both changed. He's not the man he once was and I--I'm not the creature I once was either."
"Then go away and leave us alone!" Although she knew it wouldn't do any good, she had to try. John needed peace. If she could make Anton go away and promise never to bother them again, then she could tell John everything.
"John is a man obsessed. He'll never find the peace he deserves until he rests beside his beloved Leslie."
"No, I don't believe it! John needs peace in his life, not in death. He needs it now and the only way is to make sure you don't enter his life again."
"He's had twenty years without me in his life. What did he do with them?" Anton extended his hand toward her. "Come to me, Christina."
Chris felt the blood drain from her face. He spoke the same words from the dream. "No! And I won't invite you in, so you can't claim me."
"You have the visions, too?" he asked and she believed he was truly puzzled.
She nodded. "Dreams, at night when I doze. I've been sleeping during the day. I-I thought you were sending them to me. What does it mean?"
"No, they come to me at night, too, at odd times. I have no idea what the meaning is behind them. Perhaps that we are connected in some way." He held out his hand to her again. "Come with me, Christina, only for a while, and I'll show you things you've never seen before."
As in the dreams, she longed to go to him, but she resisted. She couldn't give herself over to his enchantment.
"No enchantment. I gave you my word I would not enthrall you again. Only for a little while. I'll have you back well before dawn--you have my word on that, too." He laughed.
What could it hurt? Chris knew she shouldn't go, but his allure was too great and she was too weak. If only she had John's moral strength and commitment. She stepped up to the sliding door. She was safe as long as she didn't travel across the threshhold. Once she stepped over, she would be at his mercy.
"And you won't..."
He smiled wickedly. "I've already fed this evening."
Oh, she shouldn't! But she couldn't resist him. It had nothing to do with enchantment or enthrallment and everything to do with a wildness in her heart that she had stifled far too long.
At seventeen, she had married Terence after a whirlwind romance of only a few months when everyone, including John, said she was too young and it wouldn't last. She'd proved them wrong, divorcing after 23 years and only because Terence had lost his sense of wonder and adventure. He'd let his work consume him until he had no time for her or their daughters.
She couldn't bear the thought of living in stagnation as she impatiently waited for Terence to come to his senses and resume their life together. Now, she waited for her brother to regain his emotional and physical health and, really, what was the difference?
Chris stepped across the threshhold and left the practical and sensible Rawlins behind.
Anton pulled her close to him, enfolding her in his arms. She stiffened with fear, praying she hadn't made the wrong choice. She had no defense against him except the tiny silver cross that hung at her throat. Would it save her if he decided to claim her? Why had she chosen to accept the word of a vampire?
"Why indeed?" he whispered into her ear, his warm breath sending a tremor throughout her body. He wrapped his cape around her against the chill of the wind and they rose into the night.
hris had squeezed her eyes shut the moment her feet left the terrace and her arms tightened around his neck. She had made a horrible mistake! She opened her mouth to beg him to take her back, but he spoke instead. She had to strain to hear him over the sound of the wind rushing past her ears.
"Look, Christina, the city as few humans ever see it!"
She shook her head against his shoulder. "I-I can't. Please, Anton--"
He made a sound of soft laughter. Chris clung to him as they rode the wind even though Anton held her securely. She only feared opening her eyes and looking down, seeing nothing between them and the city below. Finally, he spoke to her again.
"I've given you my word on several counts. Now, I need yours. Will you promise you won't reveal what you are about to see?"
At that moment, Chris would have promised anything to be safely on earth again. "Yes, I promise!"
"What is it?"
Why did he trust her enough to show her where he slept? she wondered as their flight slowed. How could he risk his very existance by telling her his secret?
He landed them so smoothly that she wouldn't have known except she suddenly felt a solid surface beneath her feet. She didn't let him go immediately. She opened her eyes first. They stood on the circular flat roof of a building. When she saw they were not precariously balanced on some precipice, she disengaged her arms from his neck. She walked to the edge, protected by the thick concrete wall extending beyond the roof by four feet. The structure was surrounded by trees and wild growth of bushes and tall grasses as far as Chris could see.
"What is this place?"
"At one time is was used for water storage, but it had been abandoned for decades when I found it. I had it converted into a house. The wall is concrete, impenetrable by light since there are no windows. There is one door at ground level and this entrance." He indicated the sheltered door in the center of the roof. "Of course there are numerous hidden exits."
He opened the door and stepped into the stairwell, holding out his hand.
Chris allowed him to lead her down the stairs and into his dwelling place. The decor was rich in dark woods, expensive antique furniture, and could have been found in any fashionable home. The only clue to its unconventional beginnings was the curved outer wall of each room. One half of the second floor was given over to a gallery. A half dozen paintings hung along the convex wall, each with it's own spotlight. Anton stood to the side as she stepped closer to the first one. The Lady and the Swan by da Vinci. The next was Monet, then van Gogh, Matisse, Degas, and Botticelli. The Donatello, the Rembrandt, and others had already been returned to their rightful owners.
Chris turned and looked at Anton, the first time she had a chance to study him since seeing him seated across the room in the coffeehouse. His pale white-gold hair was windblown, but still fell in thick waves from the crown of his head to below shirt-collar length. Dark gold brows arched over deep blue eyes that would be mesmerizing on any mortal man. His face was broad with delicatly structured cheekbones, aquiline nose, and full sensual lips. John had described him as appearing to be 35 to 40 years of age, but to her he looked older. She didn't think vampires aged.
"We don't. Exposure to the sun will age us somewhat and it takes decades to recover."
"I do wish you wouldn't read my mind. It's as if I have no privacy."
He smiled. "I hear your thoughts much clearer than most humans."
"You don't consider yourself human at all, do you?" She shivered, wrapping her arms around herself, and suddenly realized it was almost as chilly in his dwelling as outside. "The paintings should be in a controlled atmosphere."
"You're correct, of course." He stepped toward her, removing his cape in a dramatic swirl, and placed it around her shoulders. He drew the edges together at her breast. "I'm sorry, Christina. Extreme temperatures don't affect me and I forgot you would need warmth."
"You were once human, weren't you?" she persisted.
"Yes, over seven hundred years ago. Too long to remember what it was like." He shook his head. "Humans are too fragile."
"Well, we can't all be vampires or there would be no one to feed on."
He laughed and his hands fell away from her. She turned back to the da Vinci.
"She's beautiful, isn't she?" he said softly. Anton moved close behind her, so close that Chris could feel him almost but not quite touching her.
"When will you return them?"
"Soon. As you said, they should be in a controlled environment, protected from temperature changes and humidity. She will be the last to go."
She turned around to face him. "What made you change your mind about keeping them?"
He scowled and paced away from her. "The Lady and the Swan was in a private home. A few months before I had been invited inside under a pretense, so it was easy to enter that night. She was closed away in an otherwise empty vault, mounted on the wall, a light over her. There was a comfortable leather chair with a small table beside it. On the table was a open carafe of wine and one glass." He paced a few steps more then stopped directly in front of the da Vinci. "I sat in the chair and even poured some of the wine in the glass. I took a sip. I hadn't tasted wine since I became vampire. I don't need food or drink, but I can tolerate them in small measures. I thought about the man who owned her, how he kept her for his own private amusement instead of sharing her with the world."
"But you took her anyway," Chris wrapped the cape closer around her. She could smell him in the fabric, a sweet musky odor uniquely his.
"She is my favorite. Yes, I took her," he said passionately, as if she were a real woman he had made love to. "But having her wasn't as satisfying as it should have been. I brought her here and hung her with all the others. And then I saw my own chair sitting in the middle of the room, saw it in the same light as the other one. There was no difference. I was as selfish and greedy as any human."
He remained silent for a long time, staring at the painting. His eyes turned black and a shiver trailed up Chris' spine, but not from the cold.
"Then you decided to return them?" she prompted softly.
"No!" he said sharply. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again, they had returned to their normal celestial blue. "I decided to die."
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