Chapter One: Fate Comes Knocking
There better be coffee waiting for me when I get there, Stas typed to Owen after punching the elevator call button. It was his idea to get together this early to study. He owed her coffee and a few extra hours of sleep.
Her birthmark started to itch as she entered the elevator. It was a heart shaped nuisance at the base of her spine with a mind of its own. She ignored it and fidgeted with her messy blonde bun. She looked somewhat presentable in jeans and a billowy blue top. Her overall appearance was something her friend would no doubt comment on, but anyone who expected her to be made up at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning could go to hell. Her favorite study friend included. Not even her internship at the Catastrophic Relief Foundation (CRF) made her get up this early.
Her phone buzzed as she exited the elevator. It was a text from Lizzie. Her crazy roommate was already up and baking, and needed more butter. Typical. She typed back a reply as she walked. The man leaning against the wall beside her friend’s door made her pause mid-step. He was tall with broad shoulders, a lean waist and strong thighs, all wrapped up in a tailored suit. His chestnut hair and expensive style didn’t match Owen’s trademark obsession with blond men, but the athletic physique was right up his alley.
“Morning.” Six years in New York City hadn’t stripped Stas of her country manners, but she kept it short. Nothing was good about being up this early.
Striking blue eyes met hers, making her heart skip a beat. Holy crap. The man was gorgeous. His high cheekbones, chiseled jaw, and straight nose made for a deadly combination with those midnight irises. “You see me?”
“Uh, yeah.” She doubted he escaped much female notice.
He pushed off the wall. She was used to feeling tall at five foot eight, but his over six foot frame dwarfed her.
“You must be Jonathan’s newest toy. How intriguing.” His deep voice held a touch of a foreign lilt that she couldn’t put her finger on. English, maybe? But not exactly. The accent seemed aged somehow.
“Who’s Jonathan?” she wondered as the man started to circle her. She didn’t know anyone by that name. Maybe it was a friend of Owen she hadn’t met?
His midnight gaze touched on her hair first, moved down to her breasts, lingered around her waistline and continued to her jeans. Warmth climbed up her neck at his blatant appraisal. The way he was looking at her was not the way a gay man looked at a woman. Who the hell is this guy?
“He has good taste,” he murmured.
“Hmm, you have no idea what game you’re playing, do you, darling?” The endearing term was very English, but his accent didn’t quite match. Whoever he was, it didn’t matter.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, that’s for damn sure.” Done with this nonsense, she stepped around him to knock on Owen’s door. Her fist never hit the wood.
Warm hands grabbed her hips, yanking her backwards into something hard and masculine. The unexpected move addled her brain, making her blink. The man stood behind her with his chest to her back, holding her captive in front of him. One solid arm secured her waist while his other hand covered her mouth.
What the fuck just happened? Owen’s apartment was to the left, meaning they were pressed up against the wall beside it. She scanned the hallway and found it empty.
“Shh,” warm lips brushed her ear. “I’m not done with you yet.”
Every line of his body was tense. She started to squirm, trying to get her mouth free, but it was like fighting a brick wall. He didn’t budge. Oh, hell no. Gorgeous man or not, she was not okay with being held against her will.
The futile scream building in her lungs lodged in her throat as Owen’s door opened. The stench that wafted into the hallway sent a chill down her spine and brought tears to her eyes. Burning flesh. It was a distinct scent, one she would never forget, and it was coming from inside of her friend’s apartment. Vivid memories overwhelmed her, locking her in place. Her parents screaming in the flames, telling her to hide.
Two bulky men stepped into the hallway, neither of them her friend. Their clean attire and amused expressions didn’t match the stench wafting out with them. They were clad in black and at least six and a half feet tall. That’s where their similarities ended. One had sandy hair and pale features while the other was olive toned with dark locks and matching eyes. They were the kind of men who had names like Hank and Brutus.
The arm tightened around her waist, his silent warning clear. These men were bad news. It wasn’t the guns visible on their belts or their dark attire that put her nerves on edge, but their shared looks of grim satisfaction and the foul air. Oh god.
“He says to leave it.” The blond she nicknamed Hank said as he texted someone on his phone. “Someone will discover it soon.”
The other, Brutus, shrugged. “Works for me.”
She held her breath as Hank turned to close the door. He would see her in three, two, one… He looked right at them. Nothing.
“All right, let’s go.” It was directed over her head. Oh great. They’re all working together.
“Nah, something seems off out here.” Brutus searched the hallway. “You feel it?”
Hank was moving towards the elevator, but paused to look around. “Yeah, I feel it. It’s probably residual from that.” He flicked his gaze towards Owen’s door.
Brutus glanced at the door and shuddered. “Yeah, that was bad.”
Hank didn’t seem bothered and continued walking. “Let’s just go.”
Yeah, no thank you. She wasn’t going down without a fight. All she needed was her mouth free and she could demand they leave her alone. She slammed her foot down on the man’s expensive shoe, making him wince. She lifted her foot again with the intention of jamming her heel backwards into his shin, but didn’t get that far. By the time she brought her foot back, all she hit was air. Her back protested as it hit the wall. Fuck.
She struggled to move, but couldn’t. Both of her wrists were in one of his hands above her head. The rest of her was pinned between the wall and his body. Her chest heaved against his at the wasted effort. She would have screamed but his other hand never left her mouth.
His blue eyes were liquid fire. The intensity sent goosebumps scattering down her arms. She tried to move back, but she was trapped between him and the wall. The intimacy of their position was too much. He was looking at her like he was a second away from devouring her and not in a good way.
Her mouth went dry. This close, he was irresistible. His midnight blue dress shirt was unbuttoned, leaving a tantalizing view of pale skin. It was a way of giving a brief view of the package beneath the clothes without advertising too loudly.
“What the fuck was that?” Brutus was staring right at them with wide brown eyes.
She waited for her captor to react, but he didn’t. He seemed to be concentrating very hard on holding her against the wall, yet she wasn’t struggling.
“Probably one of the neighbors waking up. We gotta go, dude.” Hank was at the stairwell.
“Nah, man, that was something else…”
“Dude, I’m leaving with or without you. Your choice.” He went through the door, leaving Brutus in the hallway. Those beady brown eyes passed over them again without focusing, as if they weren’t there. He can’t see us. The man’s first words, “you see me,” took on a whole new meaning.
She learned a long time ago that the supernatural was real. Not the kind kids enjoyed reading about or the stuff of fairytales, but the real kind. The scary kind. The kind that killed.
His irritated expression said, Finally.
Her eyes went wide. Impossible. The idea that he was cloaking them, somehow, in this open hallway was unfathomable. And yet, not quite. She knew it was possible, just as she knew men with abilities like him were dangerous. They killed for sport and they liked to play with fire.
He couldn’t be here for her, could he? She was always so careful. No one knew about her psychic talents. No one alive anyway.
The door to the stairwell slammed.
For the first time in a very long time, she felt fear. Not of her captor or what he was no doubt capable of, but of what fate had in store for her next.
Issac did not like complications and the woman he had pressed up against the wall was a complication. Why he felt the need to hide her from the two Conclave lapdogs was beyond him. He almost let her fall into their sight when she tried to kick him, but thought better of it.
She was resistant to his gifts. That was new, but she wasn’t dangerous. Her accelerated pulse told him she had no idea who he was or why he was here. That was all he had time to think about right now. The rest he would ponder later.
“Either you’re an excellent actress or my earlier assertions were incorrect.” He dropped his hand from her mouth. The other Ichorians were no longer within hearing range, but if she screamed he wouldn’t hesitate to knock her out. There was only one kind of screaming he enjoyed and this was neither the time nor the place, regardless of how soft and pliant she felt against him right now. “Unfortunately, I have work to do.”
The poor girl almost fell as he pushed away from her. She was in shock. She could be faking it, but his centuries of experience said otherwise. The woman had no idea what world she had stumbled into. He almost felt sorry for her. Now that he knew she existed, her life was about to change.
Her ashen features told him she wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. He would deal with her after he finished his task. He pushed open the door to Owen Angelton’s apartment. He knew the kid was dead. What he didn’t know was how he died or why he was in New York City. It wasn’t that he cared, but Lucian had called in a favor. The Hydraian king wasn’t aware his immortal was living in the city until he received a distress call last night. By then it was too late.
Issac started in the kitchen of the one bedroom flat, which was to the left of the front door. He was sure the kid paid a pretty penny for all this square footage in the East Village. He preferred his condo off Chambers Street, but the way they lived their lives were very different. As was evident by the small kitchen he was standing in.
The shattered wine glasses and splatters of blood indicated the struggle started here. A half bottle of Merlot was on the counter, the cork laying askew. He read the label. Not a bad year or brand. The kitchen didn’t yield any more clues, so he followed the sweet aroma of Owen’s immortal blood into the living area. Nice and open with big windows overlooking the city. A decent view this early in the morning.
Owen Angelton’s head was on the coffee table, his body, or what was left of it, was draped over a recliner. Blood, innards and other unmentionables were scattered about, making it difficult to determine a safe walking path. Lucian was one of his oldest friends and technically family, but he wasn’t going to soil his shoes in the name of friendship.
There was a curse from the girl as she entered the apartment, no doubt caused by the state of the kitchen.
“I recommend staying put, darling.” He doubted she would listen. He’d seen the fire in those gorgeous green eyes earlier when she tried to fight him. Pity. A natural blonde with a defiant streak was his favorite brand of female, but he wasn’t here to indulge in pleasantries.
The room was well lived in with photos littering the walls. He spotted the blonde in a few pictures with Owen, indicating a history of friendship. It was evident the immortal had lived here for several years, if not longer. Somehow he managed to hide in the city without being discovered by the Conclave. An impressive feat considering that New York was overrun with Ichorians.
“Oh…” The woman was beside him, one delicate hand covering her mouth as she stumbled backwards. She was either going to be sick or pass out. Another complication he had no time for today.
He tiptoed over to the chair holding the immortal’s remains. It was obvious the boy had been tortured, but not why. He was too young to know much, so it wasn’t for information. Someone was making a statement about the Hydraian’s presence in renowned Ichorian territory.
He picked through the remains. Not much in terms of evidence. The misshapen head on the table didn’t resemble the immortal he once knew. His brown hair and dark skin was replaced by a ball of gore with a gaping hole in the center. The methods used resembled a Conclave assassination, but Osiris sent two of his henchmen to investigate the crime scene. The boy was dead before Michael and Cain arrived, which indicated the Conclave had nothing to do with Owen’s death. This was either the work of a rogue Ichorian teaching a Hydraian a lesson, or something else entirely. Regardless, the murderer wasn’t human.
A buzzing caught his attention. He navigated through the bloody mess towards the origin, careful not to soil his shoes. Crouching down he found the culprit beneath the couch. A cell phone. Using a simple trick Mateo taught him, he unlocked the main screen and started scanning through the text messages.
“That’s O-owen’s.” It came from behind him. Although not entirely composed, the woman was holding herself together. Her arms were wrapped around her stomach and her face was pale, but her voice held a touch of resilience despite having just been sick in the bathroom.
“You must be Sassy Stas?” One of the text messages referenced coffee. Her name was tied to the message.
“Just Stas.” She gagged at the head on the table, her eyes diverting to the ceiling. It was the only surface of the room not coated in blood splatter. She swallowed visibly and her cheeks took on a greenish tint. If he didn’t say something to snap her out of it, she was going to get sick again all over the living room. That would be incriminating.
He stood and read one of the texts from Owen’s screen. “There better be coffee waiting for me when I get there. Unfortunately, no coffee, just a corpse with a cell phone displaying your name. If you don’t contact the authorities, I’m guessing you’ll be their first house call. Woman deprived of caffeine kills best friend, has a nice ring to it for a story, yes?”
Some of that emerald fire he witnessed earlier returned to her gaze. “Who are you?” She winced at the dead body and took a step back. “God. I can’t…” She moved towards the kitchen and stumbled into the wall. From the way her nose wrinkled, he gathered the stench was getting to her. The acrid air burned his eyes, but it wasn’t new to him. Death was an old friend.
He scrolled through the other messages and Owen’s contacts. Nothing out of the ordinary, but he pocketed the phone anyway. Mateo might see something he couldn’t.
He walked into the bedroom to look around. It revealed more evidence of his long tenure in the city. The textbooks on his desk were for a journalism or political science degree program, if the titles were anything to go by. Not a lot of useful information, a notebook filled with scribbles and a laptop that was off. The bed was made, his bathroom clean and the television new.
The blonde was no longer in the living room when he returned. He found her sitting on the floor near the front door. Her arms were wrapped around her knees, but her gaze was clear. She eyed him warily. “What now?”
“You’re going to contact the authorities, which would be my cue to leave.” Except she was blocking the door. He could easily cloak himself in a room full of cops, but he preferred not to go through the trouble. He also had a liability sitting a few feet away to consider. She could see him. That complicated matters.
“I’m not calling the cops.” Quietly stated, but firm.
His brow furrowed. “Why not?”
“Because they’re useless.” The jaded response surprised him.
“How are you going to explain the text messages? Specifically the one time stamped thirty minutes ago?”
“I don’t know.” She shivered and tucked her chin into her knees. “I knocked and he didn’t answer?” So that was how she was handling her shock, by considering her practical options. Interesting.
“What about the message he sent you around six to make sure you were up?”
“That isn’t incriminating,” was her muffled reply.
“I beg to differ since he’s been dead for at least three hours.”
“What?” The color drained from her pale cheeks. “You’re saying someone texted me from his phone after they killed him? Why?”
“Best guess? To ensure he was found. It would only take a few glances at his message history to see who he talked to most. You.” Someone wanted her to find Owen. It explained the unlocked front doors of the building. That was an abnormality for a residential building in New York City, especially this close to the university. Someone wanted her to get in.
She used the wall to help her stand and leaned against it when her limbs failed to cooperate. “How did you know Owen?”
“I didn’t.” Not well anyway.
“Then why are you here?”
As if he would tell her that. He slid Owen’s phone from his pocket and showed it to her. “I’ll take care of the message history and the building cameras.” The doorman was dead, courtesy of Cain and Michael. The scent of fresh blood had been his first clue that he wasn’t the only Ichorian on the scene this morning.
She gave him a dubious look. “Why would you do that?”
Because I suspect you’re a fledgling, darling. A dangerous thing to be in New York City. He wasn’t sure what to do with her yet, but if she was tied up in a crime scene investigation, she would be difficult to get to. “We need to get out of here.”
Her eyebrows rose. “And go where?”
He smiled. There was the defiance he noticed earlier. “Home, darling. You need to work on those horrible acting skills before the cops show up. All those photos indicate a long friendship and I suspect you’ll be one of their first visits.”
She almost fell down, but his hand on her hip kept her upright against the wall. Why he helped her, he wasn’t sure.
“Again?” Implying this wasn’t her first murder scene?
She shook her head as tears gathered behind those beautiful eyes. They didn’t have time for this. Either she played ball or he would be forced to leave her here for the authorities to find. He wasn’t worried about her mentioning him. Even if she realized who he was, no one would believe he was here. It would be her word over that of a renowned billionaire, and money talked. His reason for trying to help her was selfish. He wanted her easily accessible after he figured out what to do about her. The best way to do that was to get her away from here.
“Did anyone see you enter the building?”
She shook her head again. “No.”
“Did anyone know you were coming here?”
“Brilliant.” He let go of her. “We need to go before someone decides to tip off the cops.” It stood to reason that the person who wanted her to find the body might alert the authorities.
“You think I’m being set up?”
“No.” Fledgling or not, a woman her size could not take down a Hydraian alone. “I think someone wanted you here, though. Are you coming with me or not?” Issac’s hand was on the door. He wasn’t worried about leaving fingerprints. They would never match his identity. And the girl was a friend of the deceased. Any prints she left would be easily explained.
“Yeah, okay. Let’s go.” She pushed off the wall onto unsteady feet and followed him into the hallway.
He didn’t say anything until they got into the elevator. “Is Stas short for something?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You heard me.”
There was no point in lying to her. “So I can find you later.”
The intelligence in her gaze surprised him. Most women in her situation would be shaking at the threat, but not her. She seemed to accept the challenge, as if she expected it all her life. How curious.
“Astasiya,” he repeated. A rare name for what appeared to be a fascinating woman. She might be worth the effort after all. They walked through the empty lobby and outside. The warm June air suffocated him, but seemed to calm her. Her lids fell as she inhaled through her nose, no doubt trying to purge the pungent smell from upstairs. When she refocused on him, he could see the clarity in her eyes.
“What’s your name?”
He almost smiled. His glamour didn’t work on her and she still didn’t recognize him. Fascinating. He rather liked the anonymity. It was a rare gift, one that might persuade him to keep her alive. “Don’t worry, darling. You’ll see me again soon.” He started towards his car before thinking better of it. “Oh, and Astasiya? Mention me to anyone and you’ll regret it.”
He left her on the sidewalk, her escalating pulse a sweet rhythm on the too quiet street. He hoped she did mention him. Teaching this one a lesson would be enjoyable.
He selected a contact from his phone once he was out of her hearing range. Mateo answered on the first ring. “Yes, Sire?”
“I need you to run a background profile.”
Mateo had a proclivity for information technology. It was one of the many reasons he gifted the man immortality a few decades back. “Of course, Sire. Name?”
“I only have a first name. Astasiya.” He mentioned Owen’s death and his respective address. Her full contact information would no doubt be listed in the future crime report once they realized her connection to the victim. “I want everything you can find on her by Monday.” That should give him enough time to review all of the details before meeting with Lucian. “Also, I need you to phone in an anonymous tip to the authorities.”
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