Pick Your Poison . . .
The Blackthorne Vampires
The soft thud was what woke me. Not the breaking glass of the window in my mother’s bedroom, nor was it the cry for help she must’ve certainly let out. Just a soft thud. I remember that sound more vividly than anything else from that night. It was the night that changed everything. In the span of a few moments, I lost my entire life.
“Mom?” I whispered in the dark, my feet cold on the hardwood floor of the hallway that separated our rooms.
Strange gurgling noises floated out from behind her open door, and my gut clenched. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go inside. Apprehension prickled in icy patches across the back of my neck. Something was very wrong behind that door.
Then I heard it. The rasp of her voice, strangled and weak and so unlike my mother’s usual musical tone. “Liv,” she said.
“Mom?” My words trembled, almost stuck in my throat, and when I pushed open the door, terror gripped my heart and turned it to stone.
My beautiful, raven-haired mother lay in a pool of her own blood. A raw wound ran from her jaw down to her shoulder, the blood poured freely over her white nightgown. It was a sight fit for a horror movie, not my home. She stared at me, eyes glassy, mouth moving, but no words escaped. I rushed to her, kneeling in the still warm blood, my knees slipping as my hands fluttered uselessly over her. I didn’t know what to do, how to stop the bleeding without hurting her. Panic flashed across her features and I leaned down to tell her she was going to be okay, even if it wasn’t true. Instead, she whispered one word that sent ice down my spine.
I stood at the balcony rail of the bar in the middle of the city, staring at the Portland skyline. Lights, noise, and people, it was everything I never got to experience as a kid. A soft breeze washed over my face and I tilted my head up toward the darkening sky, ready for tears or despair or crushing grief to take me.
Tonight marked one year since my mother’s murder, and the anniversary of the night my entire world changed. Instead, I watched the clouds and wished I was completely alone so I could have shouted into the air. The cold fist of anxiety clutched my chest, making it hard to breathe as panic threatened to take control of my senses. I balled my hands into fists, squeezing my fingers until my palms ached from my sharp fingernails digging into the flesh. Blood welled in a few of the crescent-shaped indentations, but I brought myself back from the edge.
“Are you okay?” a male voice asked, catching me by surprise.
Embarrassment mixed with irritation at being interrupted. I turned on my heels to find a man standing near me, gaze roaming my form. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
His lips quirked up in a grin. “You look like you’ve got something on your mind.” As good-looking as he was, I was nowhere near in the mood to deal with his attention. “Would you like me to get you a drink? We could talk about whatever’s going on.”
“I said, I’m fine.” I shook my head and moved to head back inside, hoping to get past him.
His eyes were a heavy weight on my back as I walked away from him and back to the table where my friend had been sitting. Though friend wasn’t really the right term for Masie. She was my co-worker, and somehow she’d talked me in to a night out in the city.
Searching the crowd, unease curled in my belly with every passing moment. Where the hell was she?
My tension ebbed as she came into view, her long wavy teal hair like a beacon. Until I spotted the man I’d just been talking with at her side, along with another man who had his hand on her waist.
“Hey, girl. This is Davis,” she said, motioning to the guy touching her. “And this is Matt.”
Matt offered me a sheepish grin, but I didn’t reciprocate. This was why Masie and I weren’t destined to be friends. We were far too different. “You know, I’m not feeling very well,” I said. “I think I’ll head home.”
Masie’s brows rose in surprise. “Really? We just got here.”
“You stay. I’ll get a cab.”
She didn’t think about it for very long. “Okay. See you Monday.”
“Unless you’re too worn out after tonight,” Davis said, nuzzling her neck. “You might end up drained.”
I wanted to tell her maybe she should come with me, but Masie was already shoving her tongue down his throat. Matt locked gazes with me again, his attention making the back of my neck prickle. Apprehension had my heart racing with every step I took toward the exit. I’d been on the verge of a panic attack most of the evening and I didn’t know why.
The music died to a dull throbbing of bass as soon as I got into the corridor and the door closed behind me. I was so ready to get out of there. The elevator dinged and the doors slid open without me needing to push the button. Adrenaline coursed through me, making me run for the elevator. My toe caught on the edge of the piece separating the corridor from the elevator car, sending me hurtling toward the floor with a cry. But instead of landing face first, I found myself in the arms of a tall, handsome man. His dark eyes sent a wave of unease and dark desire through me as he looked me up and down.
“Careful, little bird,” he murmured. Something in his voice made me shiver. It was like he’d just told me he wanted to fuck me instead of offered a warning. The doors slid shut behind us, and the man hit the button for the basement level.
“Thanks,” I said, shrugging out of his hold. “I’ll keep that in mind.” I reached for the buttons so I could press the one that would let me off at the lobby, but he stopped me.
He leaned forward and inhaled, his body far too close. “What are you running from? Your heart is beating so fast.”
Alarm shot through me. “What?”
“And you’re bleeding.” Long fingers toyed with the ends of my hair and he frowned as his hands drifted to mine and turned them palms up to expose the small cuts from my nails. “I can smell it.”
“I had…a panic attack. The pain brings me back.” Why was I telling him all this?
A low chuckle rumbled in his chest as he backed away. “What’s your name, little bird?”
The last thing I wanted to tell this guy was my name. “Thanks for catching me. I should get going.” I tried to move past him, but he stood in my way, and I really had no way out until the elevator opened.
“Your name,” he demanded.
“Olivia Stewart,” I supplied, working hard to keep my focus off his magnetic gaze. It seemed like he was pulling me into the depths of his eyes.
“Olivia.” His soft utterance of my name twisted things low in my belly. He was strange and sexy, but I was also desperately uncomfortable. “You smell delectable, Olivia.”
I had no idea what to say to that. His entire demeanor was so inappropriate, so socially odd, I was at a loss for how to react. “Thanks?” I said, but the word sounded like a question.
“You’re like…sunshine. Like a warm summer day. Like exactly what I need.” His hand wrapped around my upper arm, gripping me hard. “Who sent you here to tempt me?”
There was such anger in his voice, I wondered if he was stable. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about. I came here with a friend.”
I tried to pull free of his grasp, but he held me fast, leaning in and running his nose along my throat. “Just a taste,” he whispered, his breath leaving a trail of ice over my skin.
“What?” The word trembled.
I shuddered at the feel of his lips trailing up my throat. “Let go of me.” I hated the fear in my voice, but I had no idea what this man was going to do to me. He was so much taller, broader, stronger than I was. Was he going to rape me? Kill me? I wasn’t sure. All I knew was I needed to get out of here, get away from him.
“I don’t think so, little bird. Did you really think that once I found you, I would let you get away from me? Smelling the way you do, it’s a wonder no one else has taken you.”
What was he talking about? I tried to pull away, but his hold on my arm was like an iron band, immovable. “Please, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
A dark chuckle fell from him, low and dangerous. It would’ve been seductive if I wasn’t so terrified. “Do you really not know?”
I shook my head, the adrenaline coursing through me, making my heart race. “I’m not who you think I am. I promise. I’m nobody.”
Then he lifted my hand and licked my palm where my small wounds were already healing. A shudder left his body and the elevator stopped, doors sliding open to reveal the underground parking garage. “No, little bird, you are exactly who I think you are. I’m not letting you go anywhere. Now.” He gripped my chin with his fingers and tilted my head until my eyes were on his. “Look at me and relax. You will come with me, without a fight, or I will make you, and it won’t be pleasant.”
There was a strange pull from his eyes, it made me weak in the knees and left my head spinning. His lips turned up in the ghost of a smile, and a wicked gleam lit his eyes, but the moment he tried to pull me with him, I snapped out of it. I fought, kicking and screaming and clawing his face with my free hand. I begged for help, for someone to rescue me from him.
He grunted when my knee connected with his groin, but other than that, the man was unaffected by my fight. “You’re only making this harder on yourself.”
He kept both of his arms around me, holding me tight to his chest as I flailed and screamed, but soon, my breaths were weak and shallow from the pressure of his arms around my chest. Before long, I lost the battle with consciousness, and with my attacker.
“Run.” My mother’s voice echoed in my mind as I woke screaming for her. I shot up in bed, my heart pounding.
“Fuck,” I muttered, dragging a hand through my hair. I worked to calm my racing pulse and reminded myself that I was safe. It had been a year. I didn’t need to be afraid, but that wouldn’t stop the nightmares.
When my heart rate slowed enough to wash away the dark chill of anxiety, I took a few measured breaths and rested my head in my hands. I couldn’t be in my room. Why did everything smell so strange? Like moss and dirt, sandalwood and bergamot. Was someone burning incense? I fought the unease that curled in my gut, but as my vision adjusted to the darkened room, absolute terror took hold. These soft sheets weren’t mine. Unfamiliar shapes gave way to an equally unfamiliar space. This was not my bedroom. This was twice the size of my entire apartment. Where the hell was I?
It came back in a rush of surreal memory. The man in the elevator, his mesmerizing eyes and impossible strength. My nail beds ached from my efforts to scratch my assailant. I felt normal, well-rested even, not restrained or drugged. But I’d clearly been kidnapped by the man. Where was he? More importantly, what did he want with me?
Getting to my feet, I padded across the carpet, my skin prickling with apprehension and discomfort. It was quiet enough that even my footsteps on the thick carpet made a sound. Tomb-like, I thought. The only light in the entire room beamed in from the wide window, cool blue moonlight spilling across the floor. I stood at the window, trying to get my bearings, but all I saw was a vast expanse of neatly manicured lawn, gardens, and looming on the edge of those, a tall wall with spikes reaching for the sky, threatening and dangerous. Beyond all that, a thick line of forest. No neighbors. No streetlights. This place was a solitary fortress. But was all of that for keeping someone out, or keeping me inside?
I nearly screamed when the room flooded with warm light. My heart lurched and I turned around, ready to fight for my life. But instead of the man who took me, I found a short, squat woman. Her face reminded me of a kindergarten teacher, kind and soft.
“Ah, I see you’re finally back with us.” Her accent was lightly colored with a French lilt, and she smiled at me as though I were a guest and not a captive. “Something to eat,” she said and it was then I saw the tray she held.
My stomach growled at the thought of food. Hunger should have been the last thing on my mind, but my mouth watered as soon as she lifted the silver cover off the plate and the scent of food filled the room. I didn’t even care what it was they were feeding me. I was ravenous.
Heading straight for the tray, I grabbed a hunk of bread off the plate and tore into it. The delicious sourdough was still warm and between bites, I took gulps of the rich red wine next to my plate. “How long have I been here?” I asked.
“It has been two days since Cashel brought you to us.”
Cashel. So that was his name. “Why?”
She shook her head. “I cannot say.”
“But you know I’m not here of my own volition, don’t you? Surely, you can’t want to help him hold me hostage.”
“Eat.” She refused to meet my gaze, instead bustling around the room, starting the fire, then walking into the adjoining bathroom.
I couldn’t resist the food set before me. I demolished the chicken breast, not giving a single damn if I looked like an animal. When my hunger was finally sated, I looked at the woman, my only link to what was going on here.
She smiled with a confusing blend of pride and annoyance. “Good. Now you need to bathe and prepare yourself to be seen.”
“Seen? By whom?” My skin crawled at the mention of…preparing.
“The King. He will want to inspect his new acquisition.”
King? What the hell was this woman talking about? “This is America, we don’t have kings,” I called into the bathroom.
She didn’t answer me, and frustration rolled through my body.
“What do you mean, the King?” The sound of the water running had me moving toward the bathroom.
“He is our king. The country we are in doesn’t affect that.” She shrugged and poured golden oil into the bathwater, filling the air with the heady scent of roses. Her eyes roamed my body and I saw nothing but disapproval in her gaze. “You will disrobe,” she said. “I will bring you something more appropriate to wear.”
I glanced down at my outfit from the night before. “What? His royal human trafficker doesn’t approve of clubbing clothes?”
Her eyes widened at my sass, then that face I thought looked so kind turned into a vicious expression. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll hold your tongue, girl.” She waved her hand and ordered, “Clothes. Now.”
I didn’t move a muscle. This woman would not get my clothes if I didn’t want her to. “You want them, take them.”
With a huff, she strode across the floor until she stood a mere inch away from me. She looked up, her short stature almost comical in contrast to my height. “As you wish,” she muttered.
Then, her hands turned to blurs of motion, flying so quickly I couldn’t see anything as my clothes were sliced from my body. I stood there naked with my eyes wide as my clothes fluttered to the ground in ribbons. As much as possible, I covered my body with my hands.
“How…how did you do that?” My voice shook, limbs trembling in fear. “My clothes.”
“You have no idea what you are in for at Blackthorne Manor.” She waved her hand in front of me, razor-sharp nails catching the light.
“Did you…did you do that with your fingernails?”
“And I could do much worse if I wished. Now, be a good little pet and do as you are told. Bathe, dress, and prepare to meet your King.”
With that, she left, her diminutive frame now more of a contradiction than I thought possible. What were these people?