Prequel to Awakened by Blood Trilogy & Blood Hunters Series
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-910245-12-5
[ Vampire Romance, MF ]
When opera singer Francesca encounters the vampire Vadas, who means to kill her, then lets her live on a whim, life becomes more bizarre than any opera. Vadas’s nearness melts her bones, forcing her to choose between personal safety and the most powerful desire she’s ever known.
When the knife thudded into her heart, she cried out in shock. Clutching her chest, she stared in disbelief at the blood spilling between her fingers. He’d done it. He’d really done it, and she was falling, falling.
She’d never imagined he could hurt her now, let alone kill her. She’d moved on to new love; he should have done the same. Pity, fury, the remnants of the love she’d once felt for him, flooded her struggling heart as his familiar arms lowered her to the ground. Through his words of love and despair, she ached to follow her new love, yet knew she’d never see him again. Precious freedom taken from her at last, by José.
The soldiers were coming for him. The music rang out in a death knell. It was over. The curtain fell, applause erupted, and José—whose real name was Mario—grinned at her, reaching down to help her up.
Francesca, who’d been dying like this every night for a week, stumbled to her feet. She struggled to shake Carmen from her person, to be herself again. The effort made her limbs shake. But as the curtain rose again and she joined hands with Mario—not José anymore—and Dominic, the standing ovation of the audience brought delightful reality crashing back around her. They were cheering and shouting, clapping, whistling, and the joy of their appreciation did most of all to banish Carmen’s tragedy to the fringes of consciousness.
And that was when she saw him. In the nearest box to the left of the stage, a man sat alone, leaning forward over the rail—black hair, pale skin gleaming in the fringes of the light which cast deep shadows in a broken, almost diagonal line across his face. What she could see looked handsome, but it was his vivid eyes that arrested her—dark, glistening, unwavering as they gazed directly at her. The world tilted, as if she were falling into those unfathomable eyes, and just for an instant, she wanted to. What could be better than this accolade of the opera-loving Viennese, and the attention of this solitary, intense-looking man?
She blinked, bowing with the others, and when she straightened, she forced herself to look at him only after a broad, smiling sweep of the whole wildly applauding audience. Although she still couldn’t fully make out his face, he was on his feet, a champagne flute in one hand. He raised it in a silent toast, perhaps to the whole company, although it felt curiously personal to Francesca, as if the enigmatic half smile that went with it was meant only for her.
She couldn’t help it. Her heart was already bursting with pride in her performance. She felt powerful, successful, and blissfully happy. And so as Mario and Dominic dropped her hands to give her the stage, she kissed her fingers to the dark stranger and laughed, raising her arms to embrace the whole audience before sinking once more in her deepest curtsey.
Making any kind of personal contact with unknown audience members was dangerous. There were a lot of nutters out there. And so, having broken her own rule for once, she refused to look at him again, merely accepted the flowers passed on to her by Mario, and stooped to pick those thrown on to the stage for her. She felt her face would break, she was smiling so much. This appreciation, this was what she’d worked so hard for in recent months. Once it had been just singing that she loved. Now, it seemed she needed the justification of public success. And in her first lead role with a major company, she was achieving it.
Euphoria flooded her as she finally left the stage, the audience’s rapturous applause still ringing in her ears. Almost as wonderful, pride shone in the face of Guzman, the director, as he hugged her with a rare lack of inhibition. They’d been playing smaller theatres across Europe, to great reviews and audience acclaim, but the State Opera House in Vienna was their first major event, and the tour’s success was surely now assured—along with the World Opera Company’s finances for the next year.
“Hey, Francesca,” Dominic called from farther along the corridor toward the dressing rooms. “Party tonight?”
Francesca laughed. “Stop me if you dare!” She flung open her dressing room door and swept in, dragging the ornate Spanish comb from her hair. “Tracey?” she called, dropping the comb on the dressing table. “They loved it! We’re in!”
“In what?” enquired a deep male voice that certainly wasn’t Tracey’s. Startled, Francesca spun around to find a total stranger gazing at her from the arm of the winged chair in the corner. He rose and inclined his head, and with sudden dread, Francesca recognized him.
He’d been half in shadow when she’d seen him from the stage, but this was definitely the same man who’d toasted her with champagne during the curtain call. She could tell by those amazing eyes.
And she’d been right. He was handsome. Devastatingly so. Shortish black hair brushed back from a lean oval face with a thin, straight nose, cheekbones you could cut yourself on, and full lips she could only think of as sinful. Her stomach surged with unexpected lust, even as she registered the danger.
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded. “How did you get in here? Where’s Tracey?”
“Which question should I answer first?” he asked, walking toward her.
Her feet itched to leap back, but pride, or idiocy, refused. Never show fear, her father had told her brother Eddie. She’d always found it good advice too.
“I don’t care, so long as you do it on your way out the door,” she said coldly.
His step didn’t falter. “How fickle. Only minutes ago, you kissed your hand to me.”
“That was hardly an invitation to break into my dressing room!”
His lips quirked, telling her he knew that perfectly well. Her eyes narrowed.
“You’re taking the piss,” she discovered, not without indignation.
He halted, as close to her as he could get without actually touching. “Not a ladylike expression,” he scolded. He spoke perfect English but with a faint accent that told her it wasn’t his first language.
She glared at him. “I’m no lady, as you’ll discover if you lay one finger on me.”
“One finger couldn’t hurt, could it?”
“It will,” she promised, and his smile flickered once more. It was an oddly attractive smile, quick and elusive, allowing not even a glimpse of his teeth. They were probably crooked and rotten. She tensed further, her fingers curling into fists, ready for the attack that was surely coming.
He’d no right to be in here, antagonizing her, threatening her, when he had such beautiful eyes… They wouldn’t save him if he moved a muscle against her.
He raised one hand, and she flung up her knee, aiming desperately at his groin, yet somehow, her knee connected only with air. Off-balance from her attack, she couldn’t stop him taking her hand, although she tried in vain to yank it free, at the same time raising her other hand to thump the side of his head. She even opened her mouth to yell for help.
But the sound never came out. She didn’t even hit him. Because although it might, technically, have been assault, he didn’t hurt her. There was nothing sweaty about his palm. His skin felt almost cold. He raised her hand to his mouth, and the first touch of his cool lips on her fingers seemed to deprive her of breath. She didn’t shout. And her left hand remained poised in midair.
His mouth merely brushed her skin, causing every tiny hair to rise in awareness. Worse, the tingle spread all the way up her arm, and she shivered.
He released her. “My homage,” he murmured. “If I’d known you sang quite so beautifully, I’d have brought flowers.”
She closed her mouth in bafflement. Nothing quite like this had ever happened to her before. “Homage?” she blurted.
His eyes gleamed. “Homage,” he assured her and strolled toward the door.
Intrigued, she almost called him back. Fortunately, a knock sounded, and she swallowed, calling, “Come in,” instead.
Tracey entered almost at once without seeming to notice her visitor. “A triumph, I hear!” Tracey beamed.
Francesca blinked at her. “It went well. Brilliantly,” she acknowledged. Already her eyes were pulling back toward the door. It wasn’t quite shut, but her visitor had gone. She should have been relieved, not…disappointed.
“Did you let him in here?” she asked.
“Oh no,” Tracey answered vaguely. “I saw him in the corridor, though.” Absently, she rubbed at the side of her neck as she picked up the discarded Spanish comb with her free hand.
“Then you know him? Who is he?”
“No idea,” Tracey said in clear surprise.
Francesca frowned as several questions as well as disapproving comments formed in her mind. But she never spoke them, for another boisterous knock at the door heralded the arrival of several more cast and crew, come to offer their congratulations, and all her residual unease at the odd little scene vanished into a resurgence of happiness at the night’s performance.
Well, he thought, as he made his way out of the opera house via the stage door, that was unexpected.
Vadas loved the unexpected; it was all that saved him from insufferable boredom. And right now, the air seemed thick with the anticipation of surprise, as if something really big was about to happen, for good or ill. Perhaps it was this unease that sparked such awareness between him and Francesca Salvona…
He’d fully planned to be leaving here with hunger thoroughly satisfied, happy in the knowledge there was one less Salvona in the world. And yet here he was—strolling among the crowds who still sat in Karajan Square where they’d enjoyed the performance for free on the big screen on the front of the building—still hungry, despite his sip from the girl outside the dressing rooms, because he’d let Francesca live.
Why, he wondered, had he let her live? Because she sang like a fallen angel? No, he could remember her performance with spine-tingling clarity and it would be just as clear in his memory a hundred years from now. He rather thought it was because the worst thing she could think of to do to him was knee him in the groin, and even then she’d given him far too many warnings to have had any hope of achieving it. She hadn’t tried to stab him or shoot him—much good that would have done her—or even threaten him with her powerful and violent family.
Her restraint intrigued him. Of course, it wouldn’t save her in the long run, but it might be amusing to know her better first.
The theatre audience was emerging from the front of the opera house now. Vadas strolled across, mingling, to lean against the farthest pillar while he waited to pick his victim, his mind still on the Salvona girl.
Although Carmen tended to bore him, he’d come here to the opera on a whim when he’d seen her name on the advertising poster. A glance at the big screen had shown him a sexy, ravishing beauty, singing pure temptation. It was something of a leap to see in her the reluctantly smiling young woman from the photograph on Bernie Salvona’s desk. But it had been enough to draw him into the half-forgotten opulence of the State Opera House.
From the beginning, his intention had undoubtedly been to kill her. No one knew better than he the qualities of bad blood, and hers was pretty close to evil. Not that he minded evil, of course, but the Salvonas had committed the unforgivable sin of pissing him off.
And Francesca Salvona was undoubtedly the daughter. He’d strolled unchallenged through the magnificent foyer and up the marble staircase to the first row of boxes. They didn’t use the ones on the ends, so he’d been able to enter without ejecting or mesmerizing anyone. And there she was, dancing center stage.
Dark, beautiful, sensual, not just the personification of Carmen, but bringing a new sort of modern, almost punk sluttishness to the role, she managed to remain not just attractively human but sympathetically so. Like some fascinating, slightly dangerous friend you couldn’t stay away from.
He’d moved into the box and sat at the front, close enough to the stage that he could actually smell her blood, which, in conjunction with her beauty and her huge stage presence, gave him a pleasant little thrill as he anticipated draining her dry. Only, he hadn’t expected her to sing like that.
Mezzo-sopranos with pure, soaring voices were not so rare. Not when you looked back over as many decades as he did. He could admire perfection, and Francesca Salvona came close. She needed discipline, of course, but she had something more than that, more even than perfection. Her voice held a unique…sweetness that was curiously enchanting. Her voice didn’t just stir his stolen blood; it seemed to join it in his veins.
He still meant to kill her, of course, but he’d been happy to enjoy the opera first. She really made a wonderful Carmen—a sexy, passionate temptress, bound only by the desires of her heart. Francesca didn’t simply sing and act. She was Carmen, and she was spellbinding.
A sophisticated older woman, assisted blonde, wealthy, smart, strolled back and forth across his pillar to the front doors of the opera house and back again. Waiting for someone still inside, or perhaps for her lift. She wasn’t Francesca Salvona, but she’d do.
She hadn’t seen him. It was easy to snake out his arm and spin her into the shadows, out of sight of most, her back flat against the stone pillar as he buried his fangs in her throat. Her clenched fists, clutching his arms in startlement, opened wide. A whimper of terror escaped her lips, became a gasp of surprise slowly changing to a sigh of pleasure as he took her blood in his mouth. Her frail little heart fluttered against his body, reminding him how breakable a human was. He wondered if Francesca Salvona would quiet so easily when he took her. No, she wouldn’t be quiet. There was too much passion coiled up in Francesca. There had to be, or she couldn’t play Carmen as she did. And besides, there had been something when he’d touched her, an involuntary response to the graze of his lips that spoke of much, much more.
“Beate?” a man’s voice said in disbelief, only inches away.
Careless not to have registered his approach, but although the woman suddenly squirmed, as if brought back to herself by her companion’s voice, Vadas elected to make the most of the interruption. Pinning the woman with his body, he released her throat and yanked the man over beside her. Thus he could enjoy the blood of both in peace. It was a broad pillar, and no one else was paying attention.
Francesca had aroused him. The urge to kill was strong. But he was no fledgling, and it had been a long time since he hadn’t been able to control surge impulses. Killing was rarely worth the manhunt it inspired. Much easier to leave one’s victims alive, fuzz their memories, and walk on to the next. Except for those rare kills he allowed himself. Bernie Salvona, for example, last month. And his daughter, Francesca, in just a little, when he’d found out what made her tick.