Something bad waited for me, lurking just beyond the shadows. I could feel it like fire igniting deep in my bones as I peered through the darkened room of the bar where I worked, waiting for my shift to end. The burn had been incessant for days. The urge to burst out of my skin had strengthened as the hours ticked by, like if I could just figure out how, I’d be free from whatever it was that stalked me now. I hadn’t felt this way since I’d broken free from the wretched path my life had been headed down years ago. Club Dead might have been a dead-end job, no pun intended, but it beat the hell out of taking my clothes off to line someone else’s pockets.
To make matters worse, my mother had requested that I meet her for dinner, which was likely the reason these old feelings had resurfaced. I hadn’t seen her since I’d accepted that she had never truly loved me, accepted that I was unlovable, and that no matter what I did, my life wasn’t going to get any better until I got away from her. In order to cope with what was severely lacking in my life, I’d told myself that if a mother could not love her child, then love was something that didn’t truly exist.
Her addiction had squeezed the life out of normalcy for me when I was a child, but the gambling hadn’t surfaced until I was a teenager. I’d stuck with her for far longer than I should have out of some naïve sense of loyalty. Once I turned eighteen, she put me on the pole and took nearly every last dollar I made while I nearly starved as she fed her addictions and began to encourage them to grow within me. I’d never given in, but she never gave up in offering me things a mother should never offer her child.
She’s my mom, the only one I have, I’d told myself every time I started to work up the courage to leave. My father had bailed on me as a baby, and somewhere in this fucked up mind of mine I’d given my mother brownie points for not abandoning me like he had.
I regretted every chance I’d ever given her and had already started to regret agreeing to see her tonight. It was probably stupid to have cut my shift short just to meet with her. The likelihood that she had changed for the better was slim to none. Still, a part of me couldn’t help but be hopeful that maybe this was the time she’d pull through it. Maybe this was the time she’d apologize for everything she had put me through and actually mean it. Her voice had been chipper, nothing like the voice I’d grown accustomed to that had swung wildly between rage and defeat, depending on the hour and circumstance. She’d promised she didn’t want anything from me and had just missed me, but I hadn’t extended an invitation to my apartment. Nothing good could come from her knowing where I lived, at least as far as I was concerned at the moment.
Instead, I’d agreed to meet her at a restaurant downtown. Her treat, she’d said. I’m not too ashamed to admit that I felt like she owed me something, even it was only a free meal. That, and I had been wanting a thick juicy piece of meat for days but hadn’t gotten around to satisfying the craving.
“You’ll never guess who just took a table in my section,” Sabrina, one of the other waitresses said, pulling me from my thoughts. “Looks like he’s waiting on someone, too. Maybe you.” Her eyebrows jumped high as she grinned at me, like I should want to drop everything and go running to this man.
“Stop right there,” I responded, putting my hand up before going back to wiping down the bar. “He’s probably here to meet with Lucien. That’s usually why he’s here.”
“Oh, come on… You think we haven’t all seen the way you two look at each other? You’re the only one he ever talks to for longer than it takes to order. He might be here officially to speak to Lucien, but he’s here to see you.”
“Listen, love… I’ve got a lot of shit on my mind tonight. There is simply no room in my brain for any of that right now.” Even if he is the hottest thing I’ve ever laid eyes on in my life…
“What’s going on?” she asked, worry lines settling on her face. “You need my help with anything?”
“No… It’s just… My mother asked me to meet her at that new steakhouse that just opened down town.”
“Oh, wow… How long has it been since you saw her last?” she asked and placed her hand on my upper arm for a brief moment before letting go. Sabrina may have been the only person I’d ever told a few of the sordid details of my life to. She was the closest thing to a friend I’d ever had, though truth be told, if I picked up and left town tomorrow, I’m not sure she’d be all that upset. It’s not like we hung out outside of work all that often, and we had very little in common other than our place of employment. She was into country music and as far as I was concerned, the faster and harder the better when it came to what I liked to listen to. She had come from a rich family and working at Club Dead was her way of rebelling. I’d come from nothing and was thankful for every second I worked there.
“Two years, at least. Maybe three. I lost count.” Not true. I knew exactly how long it had been. Next week would be three years and two months.
“Redwood’s back,” Tonya, the other waitress working, whispered into my ear as she squeezed past me behind the bar where I’d been cleaning. “Third time this week.”
“That’s nice,” I replied, acting as if I had no fucks to give.
“Oh, come on, Sydney,” she said. “I know you like him. Sabrina knows you like him.”
“It’s true,” Sabrina interjected.
“Even Willy the doorman, who never comes inside, knows you like him… Go talk to him.”
“Lucien wants me behind the bar cleaning and making drinks, not waiting tables.”
“You’re impossible… Why did you start calling him ‘Redwood’ in the first place?” Tonya asked.
“Because he’s huge,” I said quietly, glancing toward him. She didn’t have to tell me he was there. I’d known it the moment the door had opened and he’d stepped through it, even if Sabrina hadn’t announced his presence. Before I’d known his name, I couldn’t get him out of my mind and had given him a nickname to remember him by. “Like a redwood tree.”
His actual name was Stellan, and he’d definitely gotten my attention the first time I’d seen him come into the club weeks ago. I’d told him my blood type, as was customary for wait staff at Club Dead to do when vampires came in, but he’d declined. In fact, I’d never seen him take blood from anyone.
I’d begun to wonder if he was actually a vampire, especially since he didn’t smell like the rest of them. Every single one I’d encountered in my time at Club Dead had a distinct fragrance, like a hint of death. But not Stellan. When I’d asked the others if they’d noticed the lingering scent when a vampire was near, they’d told me no. Why I could smell them the way I could was a mystery to me, but most of them were great tippers, so I didn’t question it too much. I’d simply chalked it up to some weird sort of sixth sense.
“Funny you’d compare him to a tree… Almost like you want to climb him or something,” Sabrina said with a shit-eating grin as Tonya laughed loudly, drawing his attention our way. I wondered if he’d heard our conversation. Likely, he had.
Sabrina wasn’t wrong, but I’d die before I admitted it to her. In fact, he’d been the only man I’d ever found myself even remotely attracted to. Maybe that’s why I felt lighter when he was around, like the weight of the world had lifted from my chest and I could finally breathe. Of all the men I’d ever encountered, he was the only one who made me feel like he could protect me from all the dangers the world could throw at me, though that probably had at least a little bit to do with his size and build. How could a person that size not be able to offer protection? For all I knew, that was the normal reaction to have for someone you were attracted to, but as far as I was concerned, no good ever came from the male species, so why willingly congregate with them? I doubted vampire men were any better than human males, and I’d basically written them off ages ago. Thanks to my mother and the louses I’d been exposed to over the years, I’d been ogled, beaten, and groped, sometimes worse, by men more times than I could count, but working for a vampire had put a stop to most of that. The clientele at Club Dead had rules to follow, and number one was to treat staff with respect and don’t force them into anything they were unwilling to do.
Stellan could be a bit broody, but he was always respectful. Never rude or demanding, but it was his scent that had truly drawn me in; even more so than the way he’d physically made me feel. Masculine, rich, and a hint of danger, like nothing that had ever tickled my nose before. I was aware of it even now with him sitting at a table at the opposite end of the floor. I didn’t know how or why I could smell him, especially at such a distance, but I think the strength of his scent, despite the distance between us, had intrigued me more than anything.
“Looks like it’s time for my break,” Sabrina said, pointing at the clock on the wall. “And isn’t the bartender supposed to cover breaks when we’re not busy? Redwood hasn’t ordered yet.”
“Tonya can do it,” I said. “He probably won’t want anything anyway. He never does.”
“Oh, man,” she said. “I would, but my bladder is about to burst if I don’t find a bathroom right now. Be a doll, would you?” She winked at me, a big grin pulling at the corner of her mouth as the two of them took off toward the back.
“Oh, I’d love to,” I said sarcastically and grabbed a menu, secretly giddy at the thought of interacting with him and thankful that there weren’t any other customers I’d have to take care of while they were on break. The club was… well… dead at the moment, but that would likely change in a few hours. I wouldn’t be around for the excitement of the late shift since my boss had agreed to let me duck out early to meet my mother.
I made my way over to Stellan, his scent growing intoxicatingly stronger the closer I got. My bones began to ache as heaviness settled over my chest and I prepared for an asthma attack. Reaching into my pocket, I made sure my inhaler was within reach and hoped I could get through taking his order before I would need it. I thought my heart would pound right out of my body the closer I got to him, but the moment I was within a foot or two of him, everything subsided, like he was the cure for all my ailments. I could suddenly breathe again as the heaviness drained away. My heart still raced, but it was much less noticeable.
“Hi,” I said in an overly put-on tone. I called it my customer-service voice, and much preferred using it over the shall-I-take-my-top-off-so-you’ll-give-me-all-the-money voice that I had cooed into too many ears to count. “I’ve got O positive on tap, but since you never seem to be interested in that, can I get you something else.”
“Coffee is fine,” he said, his voice smooth and deep. “How are you this evening?”
“I’m good… Cream or milk?” I asked, wondering why he would come to a bar and order coffee. Even if he wasn’t going to partake in blood, there was every kind of alcohol anyone could ever want.
“No,” he said, avoiding looking at me.
“Think you might want something else? Do you need more time to look over the menu?”
“No, I’m good. Coffee will be all.”
“Okay, I’ll have it right out for you,” I said with a smile.
“Thank you,” he said and returned a smile to me as his gaze landed on mine. The breath caught in my throat at the sight of his eyes, gray and intense, like storm clouds with a hint of chaos brewing just beneath the surface. My eyes drifted to his full lips and the way one side had turned up into a devilishly handsome grin. “Can you let Lucien know I’m here?”
I’d gotten so lost in his eyes that I hadn’t heard most of what he’d said. Every time I looked at him up close it was like a jolt to the system, like I’d forgotten just how fucking incredible he was until he was right in front of me. My brain went into overload, and I felt like an idiot for reacting so strongly toward him. His scent, his eyes, the way he stared at me like he wanted to devour me, and how badly I wanted him to do just that… It was too much.
A second later, I dropped the menu, which proceeded to hit the edge of the table and damn near fall into his lap.
“Shoot,” I said. “I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s no problem,” he said and handed me the menu, his finger brushing against mine as I took it from his hand.
Shockwaves traveled up my arm like a bolt of lightning the moment our skin met. The air seemed to sizzle with electricity as my skin prickled, the chaos I’d seen behind his eyes crying out to mine, and I wanted to answer it with every fiber of my being. I’d never felt anything like it before in my life. Was I going crazy? Perhaps that’s why I’d been able to smell his scent from clear across the room.
None of this was normal… What the hell was wrong with me? Or him? And why did I want to fall to my knees and beg him to take me away from this life? Did he have me under some sort of spell? Was this what it felt like to be seduced by vampire tricks?
I glanced at him, desperate to know if he felt it, too, but he’d looked away and there was nothing more than the normal couldn’t-give-a-fuck-less look on his face he usually sported. Retreating back to the bar, I quickly poured a cup of coffee and asked the other bartender who had just come in to start her shift to take it to him.
The ache in my bones grew once more and my head spun as I tried to catch my breath. Thirty minutes to go before my shift was over, and each second ticked by so slow I thought it would take an eternity to complete. I didn’t usually leave work early. Couldn’t generally afford to, but I headed to the back and grabbed my hoodie and my bag before finding my boss standing at the backdoor.
“Excuse me, Lucien?”
“Yes?” he asked and turned to face me. Lucien was handsome with his long blond hair, dark eyes, and lean muscles, but there was something cold about him that detracted from his looks. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful to him for allowing me to get out of the shit I had found myself in. He’d given me the opportunity to escape my former boss and my mother and the protection to make sure no one harassed me, but he made me uneasy.
“First, before I forget, Stellan is out front. I think he might be here to see you,” I said, trying to remember if he had actually told me to fetch Lucien for him or not. The details of our short conversation were fuzzy, and I still couldn’t focus on much other than the way his skin had felt against mine during that quick second.
“Oh, how lucky for me,” he said, sarcasm coating his words as he rolled his eyes.
“And second, I’m going to head out, if that’s okay. I’m not feeling well. Probably nerves.”
“I suppose it’ll be fine. Business hasn’t picked up yet anyway,” he said.
“Thank you,” I replied before darting out the door and into the back alley.
Dark clouds gathered above, a crack of thunder echoing throughout the city. I pulled my hood up over my head and took a deep breath.
It was most likely a quickly passing storm that wasn’t unusual for this time of year, but perhaps it was an omen for things to come.
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