Shades of Red - Book 3
Prologue - 1941
My left foot slipped out from beneath me, and I gripped the ledge tighter. Standing on the lip of the Queensboro bridge, my heart thundered in my chest. As my hair slapped my already stinging face, strands stuck to the tracks of my tears.
The pages crumpled in my hand as the wind whipped them with its ferocity. I’d only received the letter this afternoon. My fiancé, Leo, had been killed in action.
How could I live in a world without him?
After scanning the pages, my feet had taken me here to the bridge. My hands had pulled me over the railing. The slick bottomed heels strapped to my feet were unsteady on the narrow metal lip.
I hadn’t planned to jump, but here I was, contemplating it.
Compelled to do it.
Leo was dead.
A sob caught in my throat.
My skirt billowed up, and I instinctively reached down to grasp the material but in doing so the fingers of my other hand slid along the metal banister. As my hand lost contact with the metal railing, I pictured Leo’s blue eyes, crinkles around them as he smiled, his brown hair messed up from the wind.
My heart thudded in my chest as I fruitlessly tried to clutch the round rail. The pages of the letter began to slip away and fly into the wind. When my grip was secure, I let out a relieved sigh and a shaky laugh. But as soon as I’d relaxed, my foot flew backward off the slippery narrow ledge, shifting my weight dangerously. I dangled, trying uselessly with my feet to pull myself back up. My simple work dress and underskirt hampered my progress as I frantically tried to save myself. When my fingers slid off the ledge, a cry escaped my mouth.
Time seemed to slow, and I felt nothing below me but air.
The black water beneath me reflected the moonlight, the surface menacing and frigid.
It was going to hurt, and I was going to die.
My father’s face flashed in my mind. Even though I was one of eleven children, my death would devastate him. He’d never wanted me to come here to New York, but I pushed and prodded and planned.
He would be shattered.
Why had I come here to the bridge? Why had I climbed the handrail?
Fear and regret for my foolishness swamped me, and I cursed myself for my stupidity.
The water came closer and closer, and in those few moments, I began to accept my fate.
I began to accept my stupidity.
Would my father know? Oh, the shame! He wasn’t a religious man, but we were Catholic, and my suicide would be seen as a sin. According to the church, I would go to hell.
I’d never thought about what I believed, but I knew that soon, very soon, I would find out what came after this life—If anything.
The water hit me like a wall of ice, and as I entered the water everything went dark.
* * *
I assumed that was the end of my twenty-nine years of life until consciousness crept up on me.
The pain was the first sensation I can recall after waking—pain and a beautiful, dark-haired angel looming above me.
When he opened his mouth to speak, the coppery scent of his breath blew across my face.
“Did…did you save me?” My breath came in shallow gasps, and when I coughed, blood filled my mouth and came to my lips. I tried to move, but my body wouldn’t obey my brain’s commands. “What? Oh God!” I cried out, unable to move.
The angel’s hand smoothed the wet hair from my face.
“Shhhhh… It’s alright. Just tell me this—do you want to live or did you mean to jump and die?”
“I…” cough, “I fell. I want….live.” My voice gave out on my last word. Did it matter what my intentions had been?
Pulsating, angry agony encompassed every inch of my body. He should’ve just let me drown in the water, quickly, instead of suffering on the shore—freezing in the breeze and wet to the bone. My vision began to blur, and unconsciousness pulled at me.
Then my dark angel kissed my neck and blackness encompassed me again.
When something nudged at my lips, I groaned awake again — slowly remembering everything that had happened.
I didn’t want to wake. I didn’t want to open my eyes, so I kept them closed. Why hadn’t I died yet? How long was I going to have to suffer?
Leave me alone! I wanted to yell, but lacked the strength.
Then tangy, metallic liquid began to fill my mouth until I was forced to swallow the foul stuff. It brought on a coughing spell, and I tried to lift my arm, but it refused to obey me.
Dark drops spattered my savior's face, and it took several moments for me to realize what I was drinking.
Blood, I was drinking blood. But I was so tired and so broken that it didn’t matter.
In my mind, I wanted to slap the angel away, but when my eyes opened, my gaze locked with his. His eyes seemed to be black as night, and I wondered in my pain and cold addled mind if he was a demon, come to collect me for Hell because of my sins.
Then sleepiness overcame me and my world went black again.
* * *
Swimming to the surface of my consciousness, I stretched one arm above my head and let out a long sigh.
Then I sat up abruptly after memories came crashing over my mind like waves.
I gasped and clutched the cream-colored bedding to my naked body.
Gazing around the room, I tentatively called out, “Hello?”
On a chair, next to the bed, lay a silk kimono. Trying to keep myself covered and snag the gown, I dipped one foot out of the bedding, and it sank into a plush carpet.
With my modesty intact, I tied the belt around my waist and neared the window. Thick curtains held the light of day back, save a narrow sliver of gold that held swimming dust particles.
Another gasp escaped my lips as the view below was revealed to me. I was inside one of those new steel buildings downtown. The water sparkled in the distance between houses, and I could see Lady Liberty standing tall in the gap.
I guessed the time to be around late morning because the sun shone from the east.
Where was I? Did my angel (…or demon) from last night live here? It was such a strange sight for a girl from rural Iowa.
I’d come to New York two years before to work as a secretary for a friend of a friend of my father’s. My employer was a partner in a small law firm. I’d always been interested in the legal system but as my father had told me several times, “Women don’t become lawyers, it isn’t done.”
I’d graduated from St. Mary’s Ladies College back in Iowa, ripe for adventure and ready to take on the world.
A noise startled me from my reverie, and I jumped.
After pulling the curtains back, I got a proper view of the room but had little time to investigate. I needed to find my clothing and escape this strange place.
Opening up ornate drawers of the bureau, I found them empty.
But someone was out there, in the hall or elsewhere in the vicinity.
“Hello?” Nearing the door, I turned the knob and pulled it open. Biting my lip, I hesitated to explore this strange home without proper clothing. A silk robe was near to nothing. Not to mention, I wore no undergarments. My poor mother would roll over in her grave.
Poking my head out into the hallway, I could hear some dishes clanging and followed the sound to a tidy kitchen with large windows that looked over the city.
My dark angel turned to me, his chocolate eyes sharp.
“Good, you’re awake!” He smiled, his steps eating up the distance between us. “Our introduction is a little late. I am Aurev Vatia.”
Reaching out, I took his cool palm in mine. “Better late than never,” I told him. “Hazel Richards.” I pursed my lips and averted my gaze in embarrassment, my naked toes tapping on the pricey tile floor. His eyes searched my face, and I stared back at him defiantly. “Where are my clothes?” I asked abruptly. I wasn’t by nature a modest person, but this situation put me at a disadvantage.
Aurev wore a dashing pinstripe suit, and his matching hat sat on the table nearby. “Oh! Right.” He blinked, and his cheeks suddenly blushed, “Oh…no. I didn’t undress you…My housekeeper Gerta…erm… I’ll send her to fetch your things from your home. Just write down the address.” His pale cheeks now thoroughly flushed pink at this point, and I laughed as he pushed a tablet of paper and a pencil toward me.
“No. I’ll dress and go myself. I board with Mrs. Jennings. I need to get back. She’ll be worried sick.” Mrs. Jennings was a meek lamb and couldn’t care less where I’d been, but I didn’t want him to know this. My angel might have saved me, but trust needed to be earned.
“Gerta!” He called into the apartment. A moment later, a thick blond-haired woman in a maid’s uniform strode in. My angel, Aurev, spoke to her in German, my first language. I had been the first generation in my family to be born in the United States. “Where are this young lady’s clothes from last night?”
She answered in the same language. “They were wet, and I washed them.”
He looked at me. “You’ll have to wait. Would you like to write a note to your landlady? I can have my valet take it over.”
A corner of my lips twisted and I snorted. What was this, the 1800’s? “May I use your telephone?” I looked over to it sitting on a table next to the wall.
When my angel’s hand settled on my arm, it sent a fission of pleasure and danger through me. “Not quite yet.” He motioned to the table. “Please, have a seat. We need to have a conversation.”
I pulled the silk robe closer around my body, uneasy about my bare legs beneath. “I prefer to talk when I’m decently dressed,” I told the dark angel, pulling on the hem next to my thigh.
“I’m afraid this cannot wait.” Pulling out the elegant wooden chair, he motioned once again for me to sit.
Sucking in a shaky breath, I pursed my lips and sat, narrowing my eyes.
Angel? Or Demon?
I would leave, even scantily dressed.
I would leave and scream and get help. We were in the city and as mortifying as it would be, I would do it.
“Fine,” I told him, raising one eyebrow as he gracefully slid into the chair opposite.
“Last night, I’d been taking my evening walk when I saw you on the edge of the bridge. I watched you. You weren’t going to jump. Then you slipped, and I jumped in after you, pulling you to shore. Do you remember last night?” He sighed.
I scoffed. “Yes, of course. I’m fine. I’m obviously fine…” My mind reeled as uneasy memories of the night before swam through my thoughts: the pain, the paralysis. “I’m fine now,” I said uneasily.
“No, you weren’t fine.” His long fingers reached out and held mine. “Your back broke when you fell, and you were bleeding internally. You were going to die…” He paused, searching my skeptical expression, “And I asked you if you wanted to live and you said you did.”
I nodded, puckering my lips in thought. “What does this have to do with anything?”
There aren’t words to describe this conversation as I remember it. What Aurev told me next, changed my life forever in ways that no imagination could comprehend.
“You, my dear, have taken your last mortal breath. As of that moment, when you drank of my blood, you have been transformed into a new creature.”
I pulled my hand from his, crossing my arms in front of my chest. “You’re mad! I need to go,” I said even as the truth of his words sank into my mind. On some level, looking into his deep dark eyes, his smooth complexion and old fashioned speech, I knew he was telling the truth.
I felt different.
That small pain in my hip from when I’d been thrown by a horse as a twelve-year-old—that same ache I’d felt every day since—was gone. My thoughts felt a clarity that I’d never experienced before and my poor eyesight—now razor sharp and crystal clear.
Sucking in a breath, I felt my racing heart beneath my breast bone.
I was still alive.
I was alive.
Instead of following the actions of leaving, I sat rooted to my chair. My lips parted in some understanding, shock and wonder—and fear—zigzagging through my head.
“What am I? What have you done to me?”
He tapped his ring on the table and said, “Are you familiar with Bram Stoker’s book, Dracula?”
I blinked, eyes wide, staring at my angel—my demon, before nodding.
“Those legends are based on my kind. I am moroi, a real vampire. A living vampire.”
I laughed, “What? I’m a vampire?” Incredulity colored my words, and I pushed my chair back to get up. “I’m leaving.”
This situation was crazy. Aurev was crazy. Was this a trick of the mind? I questioned my hazy memories from the night before.
The strong German maid held my chair in place. “Nein, liebchen,” she told me—no honey.
Aurev stood and took a carafe from the icebox, pouring some red liquid into a crystal glass before setting it before me.
I scoffed again. “Blood? Is this blood?” I blinked my eyelashes doubtfully. As the aroma drew me in, I salivated.
Instead of the sharp metallic scent I'd expected, I caught a whiff of sweet grass in the summer with an underlying spiciness.
Unconsciously, I’d raised the cup to my lips. The pattern of the crystal pressed into my fingertips. The thick, cool drink slid down my throat like water, refreshing and quenching. Yet at the same time, it seemed to satisfy much deeper needs within me. Moaning with pleasure, I felt giddy and smiled when I’d finished.
My gaze met my angel’s, and his eyes sparkled as we shared an understanding.
Narrowing my eyes, I asked, “What if I’d wanted to die?”
His expression never wavered, “I’d have drunk you dry and left you on the river.”
“What? Drained my…” My mind seemed to freeze, unable to process what he’d just said. Gerta took my glass and began to wash it out in the sink.
I shivered. “You mean, kill me?”
Aurev watched me thoughtfully, judging my reaction.
His eyes narrowed and his voice was low. “As someone who has lived a great deal of time, I respect life, but I also respect an individual’s right over their own body.”
Shaking my head, I blinked rapidly.
Aurev continued, “You will never grow old, and you won’t die unless you are burned up or decapitated.” His intelligent eyes assessed me. “However, you will need to learn how to live with this gift. Live here until I am sure that you can manage yourself.”
“What? I can’t live with you. What would people think?” I began to protest when he cut me off again.
“I am a man of many resources. I don’t make other moroi lightly. Don’t make me regret my gift to you.” His eyes returned to me and seemed to bore into my soul. “I’m a patient man, a compassionate man. I will help you fulfill your wildest dreams, and you can help build my Clan here in New York. I have three other progenies, other moroi that I have made here in New York. You are the fourth. Ignatius and Elsbet live in the building here and Jonathan—who is new like you, lives here in my apartment as well. I expect you to live in the bedroom you awoke in.”
Now, I wasn’t a high maintenance type of gal. I’d grown up with a certain lifestyle, and I’d have to admit that giving all that up to be independent had been difficult. My father had owned the local general store back in Iowa, and I’d been used to servants and nice things until living on my own.
But, living with a man? How scandalous!
My father’s letters regularly arrived, still asking me to move home and marry. It had been years, and I knew at my age, I was already an old maid. But I wasn’t ready to give myself up to marriage…to a man.
Now, here I was…giving myself, my freedom, up to a man. I licked my teeth, the tang of blood still lingering, making my stomach growl.
“Mr. Vatia, you need to understand that I will not be kept as a child. If I’d have wanted that, to be kept at home and away from my work and my job, then I’d have married.”
His full mouth turned up at the corners, and a chuckle escaped his lips. “Then, my dear, I’ve chosen correctly. I do not believe that females are the weaker sex, especially not you. I expect excellence and education. Push the boundaries, explore, invent! I want to have the most forward-thinking clan.”
I narrowed my eyes, a smile trying to curve my mouth. I purred, “Very well, then I want to go to law school to become an attorney.”
This was an unthinkable idea during this time.
He didn’t even blink, “Then, you shall do it.”
And my partnership with my maker began. He’d never wanted me pinned back or held down—he wanted me to thrive and be independent.
I’d had a dream, and my angel had kept his word and helped it happen.