“WHO the hell is this?” Alexei Novik said when he saw the car turn into his driveway. He’d idly noted the presence of the car as it made its way slowly down the gravel road; there was little enough traffic up on the mountain that any vehicle stood out. Irritation flared when he saw it stop, back up, and begin the long descent down his driveway.
Behind him, Nick snorted. “Told you that isolating yourself up here was a waste of time.”
Alex threw him a sharp look. Nick merely shrugged. His dark sunglasses hid his eyes, but Alex knew Nick was laughing at him by the little smile hovering on his lips.
“Where’s everyone else?” Alex glanced back at the moving van, but no one was in sight.
“Duncan and Tish took the mattress set upstairs. We’re waiting on them for the heavy lifting.” Nick indicated the large rectangular crate sitting at the top of the basement stairs. “Peter went looking for something to drink.”
The fewer people this uninvited guest met, the better, especially if Alex wanted to maintain a low profile in the neighborhood. He cast a narrow-eyed glance at Nick, who was nothing if not memorable.
“Go find Peter and keep moving stuff inside. I’ll get rid of whoever it is.” Alex moved off to intercept the battered-looking Subaru Forester.
“No doubt you will,” Nick drawled, raising his voice slightly. “But remember, you’ve just moved in. You don’t want to be run out of town before nightfall, do you?” He ambled away toward the house with his usual easy grace, laughing as Alex quickly flipped him the bird.
The dark green car had mud splashed up along its doors and a dinged front fender. The personalized plate read PETVET. The driver came to a stop and pulled up the brake, unbuckling his seat belt as he opened the car door.
“Hello,” the man said cheerfully as he got out of the car. “My name’s Tate Edwards. I live at the end of the road.”
Alex suspected the first thing anyone noticed about Tate Edwards was his hair. Its vibrant russet color caught the late-afternoon light like the autumn leaves on the surrounding trees. The tousled curls reminded Alex of the cherubim popularized in paintings during the Italian Renaissance. No doubt the angled cheekbones saved Tate Edwards from having his cheeks pinched on a regular basis. The late-day stubble on his jaw was a deeper shade than the rest of his hair, making the contrast between the two striking. His eyes were an unusual shade of brown, so light they looked gold. If Alex had to describe either hair or eyes, he wouldn’t have been able to name their exact color. Tate had skin pale to the point of near-translucence and a light dusting of freckles that kept him from being downright gorgeous.
Pity he didn’t know how to dress.
He was wearing a blue nylon jacket over a shapeless tan sweatshirt. Mud caked the bottom half of his hiking boots, and Alex had to resist the urge to take a step back as Tate brushed clouds of dog hair off his baggy jeans while shutting the car door.
“Look,” Alex interrupted before Tate could continue. “I appreciate you stopping by, but I moved up here to be left alone. So if you’re the advance guard of the welcome wagon, thanks, but no thanks.”
“I can take my casserole and shove it?” Tate flashed a saucy grin that made his face look sly and foxlike. He had a slight Southern accent, mild compared to most of the locals Alex had met so far. “Relax. I’m not going to set you up with my nerdy cousin or make you join the neighborhood watch. I used to help out the elderly couple that lived here before and—”
Alex said abruptly, “That’s nice. I don’t care. Thanks for stopping by. Don’t do it again.” He turned back toward the house, only to see Nick and Peter approaching instead of returning to work. Bastards.
He supposed Nick couldn’t help himself. He probably thought the whole thing hysterically funny, seeing how Alex was determined to isolate himself up here. As long as it didn’t affect Nick’s own circle, he’d find the idea of Alex dealing with the neighbors priceless. Nick was odd like that. He could be charming in some settings and aloof in others. Alex had been surprised when Nick had volunteered his friends to help with the move when the subject had come up. Alex watched him now, walking up with a smirk firmly in place, and he reminded himself that Nick was off limits.
Alex noted Tate’s interested look of assessment as the two men joined them, and he blinked. Not the sort of reaction he’d have expected from any of the locals, to be honest. Certainly not from any of the local men.
Alex found himself looking at Nick with a stranger’s perspective, and he had to admit there was a lot to admire. Nick had to be one of the most beautiful people Alex had ever seen. With his Black-Irish coloring, his shock of unruly hair, and his perpetual three-day stubble, Nick was undoubtedly handsome. And dangerous. He had “bad boy” written all over him. An unfamiliar sense of amusement made Alex consider taking Tate aside to tell him he was barking up the wrong tree. Alex only just refrained from snorting aloud.
He shifted his glance to Peter, who was folding a slice of cold pizza into his mouth.
“What?” Peter said, with a raised eyebrow as he chewed. “I was hungry. First rule of having your friends help you move: you have to feed them. Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
Peter was fair where Nick was dark, his sandy-brown hair cut close to his head, making him look more like a high school football player than the college professor that he was. His blue eyes glittered with the humor of the situation.
“He was just leaving,” Alex said.
“I’m Dr. Edwards. Call me Tate. Nice to meet you.” Interestingly, Tate did not step forward to offer his hand.
Alex sighed, giving in. “Nicholas Carter. Peter Mabry.” He indicated each of the men in turn, hoping that the brevity of the introduction would drive his point across once more. “I’m Alexei Novik. Alex.”
“As I was saying,” Tate continued with a wry note in his voice. “I noticed as I was driving by that it looks as though you’re moving this stuff into the basement.”
He indicated a stack of boxes and the large crate.
Alex frowned. “So?”
“So, it floods several times a year. Usually in the spring, though sometimes in the winter as well.” Tate was matter-of-fact. “I wouldn’t put anything valuable down there.” He patted his pockets and fished out a business card, holding it out to Alex. “Like I said, I helped out the Beasleys before they decided this place was too much for them. I know where all the bodies are buried, so to speak.”
Nick and Peter shared a glance, their expressions full of amused glee—like twelve-year-old boys who had just heard a fart joke.
Alex reluctantly took the card, conscious of the contrast between his own fingers with their neat, blunt nails and the grubbiness of Tate’s hand.
Tate’s smile lit up his face, as though rewarding Alex for accepting the card. He turned to leave, presumably before Alex told him again to do so.
“Oh, by the way.” He paused with a snap of his fingers as he was getting into the car. “There’s a population of semi-feral cats around here. Don’t feed them; it just encourages them. There’s one brown tabby that acts tamer than the rest. Don’t try to pet him; he’d bite you as soon as look at you.”
“Not to worry,” Alex said dryly. “I’m not the petting type.”
“I noticed.” Tate’s smile was distinctly sly again. “More’s the pity.” He got into the car and started the engine, backing up and turning around to head toward the road once more.
Alex pocketed the card as he watched the Subaru crawl up the drive.
“Yum. There’ll be some good hunting toward the end of the month.” Peter looked a little dreamy-eyed, the way he always did when speaking of food.
“I said you could hunt up here, but you know you guys have to be careful. I can’t have the locals on a witch hunt because you get carried away.” Alex kept his tone light, but they all knew what was at stake here.
“Hell, they’ll probably thank us for cleaning out the area of stray cats.” Peter had a crooked, impish grin on his face that normally would have made Alex smile in return.
“We’ll be careful,” Nick assured him, sounding like the leader he knew Nick to be. “What about you?”
“Me?” Alex asked, frowning.
“Yes, you,” Peter crowed. “I’m thinking the handsome neighbor and you will have plenty to talk about on the long winter nights to come.”
“Don’t be an ass, Peter,” Alex said sharply. “Are you two going to flap your jaws all day or get this stuff moved inside?”
“Remind me again: why’d we agree to do this?” Peter asked plaintively, stretching out his broad shoulders with a wince as he spoke to Nick.
“Free pizza.” Nick shrugged. “Besides, I wanted to see what Alex was signing himself up for this time.”
“Nothing,” Alex said decisively. “That’s the whole point. I’m tired of the Life; I want something different for a while.”
“Well, different you’re certainly getting.” Peter huffed a bit as he looked up at the old house and back at Alex. “I doubt seriously any repairs have been made to this place in the last fifty years. By the way, I put my foot through the back porch stairs when I went inside this last time.”
Alex closed his eyes briefly.
“Don’t worry.” Nick’s voice was suddenly warm. “We’ll help you fix it up, if you like.”
“Thanks, but part of the reason I bought this place was to give me something to do.” Alex smiled thinly at him.
“You could always get a job like a normal person. Or you could go back to school.” No one commented on the fact that despite his various degrees, the best job Peter could get was at the local college.
“Nah, I think he should be a model,” Nick drawled. “Gotta tell you, Alex, I thought I liked you better as a blond, but going dark suits you. I like the edgy, razor-cut thing with the hair too.”
“You are such a fucking metrosexual,” Peter said, giving Nick a disbelieving glance. “Though why you show an interest in fashion when all you ever wear is black is beyond me.”
Nick pulled down his shades to peer over them at Peter. “Black is easier to coordinate. Nothing to think about. Reach down, grab it, and pull it on. You’re just jealous.”
“Jealous!” Peter’s voice jumped up an octave. “You couldn’t pay me to be you!”
Alex felt a rush of fondness for his friends. They were part of the reason that he’d chosen to come to this area again. He knew deep down that his choices here were not entirely rational. It was just that he was tired of living as he’d done for so long, and even if he couldn’t really belong to Nick’s circle, he was ready for a change, for something different.
The image of Tate’s dark auburn hair flashed into his mind, and his brain supplied the word “titian” to describe it. Yes, of course. Titian. He could picture Tate in a portrait by the artist whose name had come to describe the hair color of his subjects. He wiped the satisfied smile off his face. It was just a shade of hair, for crying out loud.
“I’m just glad we didn’t haul the coffin down to the basement first,” Nick said, and Alex realized he’d lost all thread of the conversation.
“Right,” he agreed belatedly. “Well, I guess you’d better bring it into the living room for now.”
Peter snorted, mouthing “living room” at Nick, and Alex rolled his eyes to show him that he’d recognized Peter’s infantile sense of humor.
“Did you notice anything odd about that guy?” Nick said thoughtfully, indicating the driveway with a tip of his head as the three of them headed back toward the moving van.
“Aside from the fact that he looks like he buys all his clothes at the local hardware store? No.” Alex was already bored with the subject and wished Nick would just let it go.
Peter snorted again.
“He wasn’t afraid.” Nick was serious now. “People tend to fall into a handful of categories when they meet us: instinctively frightened, instinctively suspicious, or stupidly oblivious. He didn’t strike me as any of those things.”
“What did he strike you as?” Alex asked curiously. He picked up a heavy carton labeled “books” and handed it to Peter, who heaved a dramatic sigh when Alex reached for a smaller box for himself.
“Amused.” Nick said it as if he wasn’t sure it was a good thing.
NICK and his friends stayed until shortly after dark. Duncan got restless first, prowling around the empty rooms, the naked light bulbs in the overhead fixtures throwing his already impressive form into giant shadows on the walls. Of all the members of Nick’s group, Duncan was the one Alex felt he knew the least. The uneasy truce between him and Duncan was most evident when Nick wasn’t around, and Alex had often wondered what kept Duncan hanging about; it was so obvious the man was born to be an alpha himself.
Duncan had no other name that Alex knew. He spoke with a slight Scottish accent but, like Alex, years in the United States had blurred and smoothed his speech until the accent was only noticeable on certain words. He wore his light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and kept his beard neatly trimmed to frame his jaw line. Like the rest of Nick’s group, he never seemed to get cold, and even now, with the temperatures falling, he was in a sleeveless shirt. Tattoos marked his well-muscled arms; Alex was certain there was some symbolic meaning behind them. He had both ears pierced, as well as one eyebrow. An angry scar bisected the other eyebrow and curved around the left side of his face, narrowly missing his eye. Alex had gathered from Nick that Duncan was a bit of a brawler.
“I’m leaving,” Duncan said abruptly, catching Alex’s gaze upon him. Without waiting for his thanks, he turned to Tish. “You coming?”
The only woman in Nick’s group smiled at Duncan and checked her watch. “Yes, I should be leaving too. I’ll go with you.”
Leticia Howard came over to give Alex a hug. The easy contact made something contract inside of Alex and he felt an unusual sensation of tightness in his chest. Tish smelled both lightly floral and woodsy, reminding Alex suddenly of his mother. She smiled warmly at him when she released him from her embrace. Her sculptured cheekbones and rich, café au lait coloring gave her an exotic look that made her stand out among women in general, but among Nick’s friends, she was clearly the diamond in the rough.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come back later in the week and give you a hand? It would be my pleasure.” Tish’s suggestion made Alex smile.
“No. I’ll be fine. Thanks, anyway. Thank you, all of you. I know you didn’t have to come out here today, and I don’t know how I would have managed without your help.”
“Another way of killing time,” Duncan rumbled. He looked impatient to be off.
Tish shot a fondly tolerant glance in his direction. She gave Alex a quick squeeze on the shoulder. “If you change your mind, let Nick know.” Leaving Alex, she moved gracefully over to where Nick and Peter were now standing, giving each of them a brief hug goodbye.
Nick brought his hand up to the back of her neck, where her short, black hair curled at the nape. He cupped her head, bending to nip gently at her ear before she moved off with a smile.
Peter waved goodbye with the hand-flap gesture of a small child and took another swallow from his beer as Tish and Duncan left the house. A few minutes later, they heard the powerful roar of Duncan’s Harley as it rumbled up the driveway.
“We’ll help you clean up,” Peter offered. He and Nick helped Alex pick up the empty pizza boxes and plastic cups and place them in a garbage bag.
“We can hang around a bit longer, if you like,” Nick said when they were done. They stood in the kitchen, watching as Alex stepped out on the porch and quickly shoved the trash bag into the can outside. “Help you unpack, that sort of thing.”
“Speak for yourself,” Peter said with a snap. “I’ve got papers to grade.”
Nick leveled a long stare at him and Peter suddenly dropped his eyes to peel the label from his bottle of beer. “Fine. We’ll stay. No hurry whatsoever.” He sighed.
Alex took pity on him. “No thanks,” he said lightly. He took Peter’s empty bottle away from him as Peter grinned sheepishly and shoved the bits of label into his pocket. “You’ll put my stuff away with no logical order and then it will take me centuries to find it again.”
Nick chuckled. “You said you wanted something to do.”
Alex rolled his eyes and barely refrained from punching Nick in the shoulder. Nick smiled back as though he could read Alex’s mind. “Okay, but don’t be a stranger. You can come see us in town, you know. Or invite us back for something other than moving heavy furniture or hunting.”
Alex walked them to the door. Outside, the air was cool and crisp, tempting him to walk out into the night with them. Peter hesitated on the way out, standing in the light spilling out onto the porch. “Are you sure you’re going to be all right? Seriously, the papers can wait. I didn’t mean—”
Alex waved him off. “I’ll be fine. Go home, Peter.”
He watched as Peter and Nick left, taking the moving van back to town as they had agreed. The house felt colder in their absence and, as he shut the door, he wondered about their lives. Nick’s little group seemed devoted to one another. Alex wondered what it was like to have those kinds of bonds. Alex’s people were solitary by nature. One day, he’d have to ask Nick how his friends had come together. None of them were typical of Nick’s kind and yet the misfit little band worked somehow. He found himself envying the solidarity and affection they shared.
With a little snort, he brushed aside such sentiments. Yeah, like he’d ever envy werewolves.
HE SEEMED unable to settle down to any one task that evening. He would open one box and start to put the items within away, only to become sidetracked by something else. He quickly became annoyed at the fact that he was unable to complete a single objective. What’s your hurry? You’ve got forever. He shut the thought out as unproductive. That was half his problem. When you had all the time in the universe on your hands, it was difficult to stay on track. He was restless and bored and had felt this way for what seemed like centuries. It was why he sought out change, after all. He couldn’t get frustrated so soon. What happened to his sense of patience? His ability to work through a problem?
He wandered through the house, taking mental note of the things that needed repairs, and trying to decide how best to go about getting them done. Inexorably, his path led him to stand outside the small room upstairs that he had designated as a study. Turning the key in the handle, he opened the door to view his coffin.
He’d left the overhead light off, having enough light from the hallway to see the gleaming mahogany wood and ornate scrollwork on the coffin’s sides. He could feel the pull of the coffin from where he stood in the doorway, could feel the insidious tug of its call on his body and mind. He was so very tempted to give in and lie down; he felt suddenly weary and knew the delicious relief and renewal that such an act promised. If he stepped into the room and laid his hand on the wood, he’d be able to feel the warm pulse of Life it promised.
He closed and locked the door instead.
With a sigh, he headed back downstairs. The coffin wouldn’t solve his problems. It only made them worse. The more time he spent in it, the less he’d be able to move in the daytime world. It would have been easier if he could have stored it in the basement. Anything that put another small barrier between him and temptation was good. Upstairs, just down the hall from his bedroom, he could imagine it whispering to him. He thought about how very easy it would be to give in and use it again.
He paused at the foot of the stairs to stare at himself in the large mirror there.
Nick was right; the shorter, darker hair suited him. The razored edges, freed from their heavier length, stood up in careless disarray with only minimal effort on his part each morning. The cut also highlighted his features and accentuated his cheekbones. The rich, chocolate-brown color went well with his dark eyes and pale coloring. He leaned in, assessing his face carefully for signs of aging. He could pass for a guy in his early thirties. He knew if he wanted to maintain endless youth, he could sleep every night in the coffin, experiencing the renewal and regeneration of his body indefinitely.
Of course, he’d stop having a reflection in the mirror. He raised an eyebrow at himself in the glass as he moved on.
Yes, the coffin promised eternal youth, but those who spent a lot of time in it became less human and more vampire. Overall, Alex preferred being able to walk in both worlds.
Too bad Victor didn’t understand that. He won’t let you go that easily, you know. Like the siren call of the coffin, he pushed the thought of Victor showing up one day out of his head. No doubt, he hadn’t heard the last from Victor, but what could Vic really do to him anyway? It wasn’t as if he could force Alex to practice the Old Ways.
Stewing about Victor’s anger and disapproval was nonproductive. What Alex really needed to do right now was make a list of priority repairs and figure out what he needed from the local hardware store. He would ask around and find out who was the best person to get to fix the things he couldn’t tackle himself. Fortunately, he’d been planning this move for a long time and had the resources to see him through this cycle. His last role as a primo uomo had paid well and no one would recognize him now. He had time enough to decide what to do next; it would be years before his neighbors got suspicious of his perpetual youth and he had to move on again. He had too much fucking time; that was the problem.
He wandered into the kitchen, humming “Come to Me” from Les Misérables as he looked for a notepad and pen. Of course, he’d have to be careful. Maybe this time around, he should adopt for himself a persona that would keep him out of the public eye altogether. A reclusive artist, perhaps, or maybe a writer. He snorted at the thought of himself as a novelist. He’d heard that vampire fiction was very popular right now.
THE brown tabby was sitting on the back porch again when Alex opened the door and headed for the trash can. It was just after dark; the temperature was deliciously cool with a hint of frost to come. Alex could feel the woods call to him in a way he hadn’t experienced in a very long time. Maybe he’d take a walk later that evening, after the moon had risen. He recalled with a smile the advice given to him by the garrulous old man who worked at the little grocery at the foot of the mountain. Alex had stopped in to pick up some more light bulbs and the old man had warned him about walking the woods on the mountain at night.
“Something big and nasty out there,” he’d said, shifting his pipe from one corner of his mouth to the other as he rang up Alex’s purchase. “Some say bear; others say cougar.”
He’d smiled at the old man, thinking he’d been playing up the role of Local Wise Man for his benefit, and suspected the man had rightly pegged him for being somewhat of a city slicker. He’d been secretly pleased that when the next full moon came, no one would be surprised at the reports of some deer being killed.
The cat stood up as Alex came out the door with his plate to scrape the remains of his meal into the trash can. The cat gave him a baleful stare as Alex moved past him toward the can. He had to juggle the plate and knife in one hand as he opened the raccoon-proof latch, and the plate tilted as he did so.
Blood and the remnants of raw meat dripped onto the porch.
The young cat was on it in a flash, lapping up the spillage while Alex watched. After a moment’s hesitation, he set the plate down beside the cat.
Gleaming eyes glanced up at him before the cat moved over to the plate and began licking it clean. A loud purr reached Alex’s ears. He straightened, still holding the knife, watching with amusement while the cat ate.
“You wouldn’t give me the time of day before, but now I’m your best friend, eh?”
The cat ignored him. Alex wasn’t surprised. He’d spotted the young tom off and on ever since he moved in, but this was the first time he’d ever been able to get a good look at the cat. It was ostensibly a tabby, but the stripes blurred to the point of being almost like ticking instead. It had the coloring of a wild rabbit more than a classic, striped tabby. Its gold eyes were striking in an otherwise plain little face. The first time Alex had seen the cat, it had immediately slunk off into the bushes on making eye contact with him. As the days passed and he’d continued to ignore its presence, the cat had deigned to move when Alex came in and out of the back door, treating Alex with cool disdain.
He’d begun talking to it out of sheer boredom.
The cat would lie up under the bushes and watch him when he weeded the flowerbeds behind the house, and it had taken to shadowing him when he spent one long afternoon cleaning out the gutters. Alex liked to sing his favorite arias to pass the time while working. At first, the cat darted off into the fields behind the house, but now it would lie on its side nearby, flicking its tail with its eyes closed to half slits, always just out of reach.
It was nice to have the company. Alex knew he could have called on Nick and the others at any time, and he intended to invite them over at some point, but a part of him needed this time alone to figure out who he was again. Without Victor’s influence. Without being defined by the Life. Though he’d grown up in the Life, he knew there had to be more to it than simply feeding and sex. He wasn’t sure that there was anything of depth or substance to him anymore, and that was disturbing. Surely, someone who had walked the Earth as long as he had should have more to show for his existence than mere ennui.
The cat finished cleaning the plate and began winding itself around Alex’s ankles. “Beat it,” Alex said, as he started back toward the door. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll make yourself scarce by the next full moon.”
A noise startled them both and Alex looked out into the yard, where a large raccoon had emerged from the bushes. It paused at the sight of Alex on the porch, lifting its head to smell the air tentatively. The little bastard probably wanted his trash. He’d had to clean up the yard several mornings in a row before he’d purchased the new can with the locking lid. He was about to say something to run the animal off when a low, threatening growl reached his ears.
He looked down to see the tabby crouched in a menacing stance, ears flat against his skull, an eerie noise emanating from his body in a manner that sent a little shiver down the back of Alex’s neck. Before he could speak, the cat had launched himself off the porch at the raccoon, despite the fact it was twice his size. He landed on the raccoon with such force he bowled it over. When they both regained their footing, the fat raccoon ran at full speed toward the forest, the angry cat chasing it all the way.
“You little son of a bitch,” Alex said aloud to the night. He couldn’t help but admire the cat’s audacity. He hoped the cat couldn’t tell.