Pocket lighters are there for a reason
“Ugh, get the pot out of your system, Cynthia. You taste like shit.” I lick the thin trail of blood that slipped past my mouth and down our servant girl’s usually tasty neck. Then I give the double punctures from my fangs a last lash with my tongue so the wounds start to heal.
“You can smoke it, you can eat it,” Cynthia growls and squirms away from my lap, releasing the handful of long, brown hair she was holding up to give me better access to the spring of life. “If my blood isn’t good enough for you anymore, go eat the cook next time.”
“Ooh, somebody’s crabby tonight,” I tease, then pull her back next to me on the white leather couch and drape my arm casually over her shoulders. “You know you would be jealous as hell if I nibbled on the cook instead of you.”
Cynthia cuts me a loathing glare that is all fake. After working for my great-great-granduncle for several years, she’s used to me feeding from her. And from the soft moans she gives whenever I sink my teeth into her skin, she enjoys every single minute of it. There’s no need to even wipe her memory afterward because her mind is already altered to where she won’t say a word about vampires in public. Besides, if she did, my uncle would kill her.
Not that I would actually know how to wipe or even control a human mind. With all the partying, there just hasn’t been enough time to learn it over the past two decades.
Ronin, my uncle’s new gardener, hands Cynthia the joint he was taking a drag from while I drank from her, but I snatch it out of her hand before she can smoke that shit again. “I mean it. No more dope for you. It spoils your flavor.”
Ignoring her pout, I salute Ronin on the couch opposite the coffee table with a smirk and fill up my lungs with the gift he brought tonight. It’s been a while since I last smoked weed, but the heady feeling it gives me is more than welcome.
When you’re stuck in the body of a nineteen-year-old and nothing can ever kill you—well, nothing but a pencil stabbed through your heart maybe—you stop caring about things like healthy living and caution. At some point, you’ll do just about anything to give your non-aging self a little purpose, and your endless life some meaning. So if tonight said meaning comes gift-wrapped as a joint or a bottle of vodka, fine by me.
“Good stuff, eh?” Ronin says, shaking off the red wisp of hair that permanently falls into his eyes. His hair needs a cut as badly as mine, but as long as the blond strands don’t yet cover my eyes, I’m good. I might ask my great-great-grandaunt’s personal assistant to trim it next week—and steal a sip of her afterward.
Feet stacked on the coffee table, I lean back and take another pull. Just as the smoke infiltrates every vessel of my lungs, the double-wing doors to my room burst open and crash against the walls. One inch short of panic, I jump to my feet, toss the joint out the open French doors behind me, and turn to face my furious uncle, mouth clamped tight.
“What are all of you doing in here?” he bellows with this thick Romanian accent, something he hasn’t lost in over five hundred years. His shoulder-length, black hair frames a face that looks paler than usual tonight.
The term inflamed with rage takes on a whole new meaning when the seam of his shirt goes up in flames. Somebody should tell him that he’s about to incinerate himself, but I’m still trying to hold the smoke inside my lungs and can’t open my mouth. You don’t want to blow pot smoke into the great Dracula’s face. You just don’t.
He smells the burning fabric soon enough and dabs at it until the flames go out. Needless to say that ruining his shirt doesn’t exactly improve his mood.
Ronin rushes off and jumps after the joint—from my second-floor balcony—totally abandoning ship. That might cost him his job, but I guess his immortal life means more to him right now.
Cynthia isn’t immortal. She wouldn’t survive a forty-foot drop from this luxurious villa, yet she looks entirely ready to follow Ronin over the banister just to evade my uncle’s temper. “Forgive me, master! The boys begged me for a meal,” she murmurs and flitters out of my room.
Uncle Vlad’s combustible gaze is still settled squarely on me so I can’t release the smoke, and I start to feel really sick. Lips pressed together, my chest convulses as I try to cough through my nose. My eyes glaze over, too. There’s a strange, watery thickness to my vision now.
“Oh, for goodness sake, let it out already!” Vlad shouts at me and throws his hands into the air.
Shifting my mouth to one side, I blow out a stream of smoke that rises like a column in the spotlight above. Then I draw in a deep, settling breath, never breaking eye contact with the man in front of me.
“So now it’s drugs, is it?” His voice thunders not only through my cavernous room but also through the three-story, seven-hundred-square-meter mansion. “When will you grow up, Quentin?”
I’m not entirely sure this is just a rhetorical question. Am I supposed to answer? My mind is a little hazy right now, so all I can offer is a helpless shrug. I’m just about to grow out of my childhood. No need to rush.
“You’re my only heir, and it pains me on so many levels to see how you’re wasting your time, your life—and my money!”
Okay, that’s not fair. I buy one Maserati, the only one in this goddamn decade, and get told off by the man who stores sixteen of the most exclusive cars in the world in his underground garage? Really. Not. Fair!
“I work hard for the money I get from you!” I counter when I find my voice again and can speak despite the furry feeling on my tongue.
“Really? What do you do?”
“I do…things.” Now that’s a stutter I recognize. Arguing with the infamous Count Vladimir Andrei Dracula, my great-great-granduncle and coven leader of two-thousand Californian vampires, always turns me into an edgy little boy. Ugh, how I hate that.
He folds his burly arms over his chest, his sinewy muscles twitching under the rolled-up sleeves of his black dress shirt. “Things?” Uh-oh, his voice is dangerously low.
Don’t tap your foot, Uncle. If he starts doing that, the light bulbs will burst over our heads next, and I really like the daylight ambience I created in my room. It’s cozy.
Right, the light! That’s it! “For one, I made your place a little homier.” Nonchalantly, I shove my hands into the pockets of my blue jeans that hang loosely on my hips. “It was a freaking tomb when I moved in, all morbid and cold. Now, you live in faux day all night, and the color therapy does a hell of a lot of good for your temper.”
Holy shit. Wrong thing to say.
The slow breath Uncle V inhales seems to be long enough to suck all the air out of the room. And then there’s the foreboding twitch of the blue vein in his neck. I may have talked myself into an early grave.
Slowly backing behind the couch, I never let him out of my sight. In a mood like this, he’s likely to start breathing fire—or sweat it, considering the new glow to his shirt.
But then he totally surprises me when he cools down and rakes a hand through his black strands. “I’m at a loss with you, Quentin,” he says in this resigned voice that he only ever pulls off when his wife is near. And, sure enough, Eleanora walks up behind him and gently rubs his upper arms. I’ve never seen anybody affect him like she does. If ever a dragon fell in love with a doe, it’s my great-great-granduncle Vladimir and the woman he saved from the clutches of a ruthless viscount back in seventeen-hundred and something.
“What has he done this time?” Eleanora asks quietly.
Uncle V tilts his head back and rubs his temples. “Weed, darling. He’s smoking weed in our house. And he’s still feeding on the staff. How often do I have to tell him—?”
“Quentin,” Eleanora softly cuts him off and looks at me from over his shoulder with big, brown eyes. “You shouldn’t upset your uncle so. You know how much he struggles to rest after one of his fits.”
Startled, my uncle turns his head to her and silently questions her with an arched eyebrow.
Great. She can say all these things and gets away with a simple head tilt? I snort. If I ever take a wife, she certainly won’t control me like this. No freaking way. But for now, I’m just glad my aunt is here.
She smooths out her white summer dress and steps around her husband. With her hands on his forearms, she moves him back toward the door. “Come, darling. When you’ve calmed down, we’ll talk to him.”
Two more steps and I’ll be free again. A breath of relief is waiting in my lungs to be released. But it’s not going to happen.
“Talk?” Uncle Vlad bursts out and stops on the threshold. “I have talked to this kid for two decades, but nothing ever gets through his skull!” Uncle Vlad moves Eleanora out of his way and storms forward again, but she’s at his side in an instant, shoving her honey-colored hair nervously over her shoulder.
I rake a shaky hand through my own hair. Maybe the pot was one step too many in the wrong direction, but Vlad can’t complain about me eating the staff. They freely offer their necks.
“I know you love the boy like a son, Ellie,” my uncle growls. Thankfully, his temper is fading again. “But, one day, he’ll be the leader of our coven, and he has learned nothing as yet. Lily and Tristan would turn over in their graves if they knew what has become of their child!”
“Yes, I love him like a son,” Ellie barks back, unafraid. “And so do you. Don’t try to tell me otherwise, Vladimir.”
Ha! I know she loves me. But my uncle? I wouldn’t bet my immortal soul on it.
“And as for Lily,” Eleanora continues, “your great-grandniece would be happy to know that her son didn’t have to share her fate in the car crash and got to live.”
There are actually a lot more greats in front of grandniece, but I know that Vladimir Dracula wouldn’t have saved me from my inescapable death as a human if we weren’t blood-related. After his sister Cecilia died as a human woman, Uncle V kept a close watch on her descendants. They were the only family he had left. Sadly for him, his line will abruptly come to an end with my death. Vampires don’t breed.
“Ellie, I’m the one who changed him.” My uncle narrows his eyes at her. “He should have inherited all my powers, but I doubt he can even light a candle with his will. How will he ever protect an entire coven? And what’s with the feeding? He’s eating nothing but the parlor maid, the butler’s granddaughter and, for all we know, your assistant. If he doesn’t learn to bite and control strangers soon, he’ll be a dead man outside our house.”
Slowly, Eleanora turns to me. Her eyes go lethal first, followed by her voice. “You’re drinking from Cassandra?”
Thank you, Uncle V! Pit my favorite member of this family against me, why don’t you?
My gaze averted, I mumble, “Only a little. Sometimes. Not often, I swear.” I knew Eleanora wouldn’t like it if she found out that her assistant was a donor. That’s why Cassie promised to keep it a secret. She’s like a daughter to Ellie, and my aunt would protect her with her immortal life. Unfortunately, that also includes keeping vampires away from Cassie’s sweet little neck.
“Quentin Constantine Etheridge! This house is not an all-you-can-eat buffet!” my aunt roars. “You will stop sucking my P.A., do you understand?”
I scrape my toe on the parquet and lower my head. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Fine. Now go…clean your room or something!”
“That’s it? Clean your room?” Uncle Vlad questions her incredulously. I might have done the same, but I know this is as angry as she ever gets. You cannot turn a doe into a dinosaur just by changing her into a vampire. Unfortunately, you can do so with a dragon. Very well…
“See, that’s exactly the problem,” my uncle rages. “The kid gets away with everything. But not this time!” With only a blink of his eyes, he sends the couch—which stood like a wall of protection between us—out of the way, and it crashes into my queen-size bed. “We’ve pampered you for over twenty years, but not a day longer! Herewith, I ban you from this house.”
“What?” Eleanora and I blurt simultaneously.
“I’m going to send you to Europe. Tonight. There, you will learn what it takes to be a vampire. And you will learn fast.”
“Europe? What the hell is in Europe?” I’m quite sure vampire academies don’t exist in real life.
“My old home. Poenari Castle. In Romania.”
“You mean Castle…Dracula?” I swallow.
At the same time, my aunt pales. “Darling,” she whispers. She sounds terrified. “We don’t have any friends in Wallachia. He’ll have no servants to aid him during daylight.”
“He will find servants, just like I did. If he’s a true descendant of my bloodline, he’ll make his way on his own.” His furious gaze returns to me. “An informant told me that a wolf apparently went berserk in the forests of Transylvania.”
“Exactly. It seems to have fallen into bloodlust.”
Why in the hell would my uncle send me to deal with a man-eating animal? Sure, vampires are superior to those beasts in many ways, but a werewolf bite is still deadly to a vampire. And painful, I hear.
“Our law forbids all night creatures from drawing attention to our existence. This is a good way for you to prove yourself worthy as my rightful heir. Show me that you have what it takes to become leader of our coven, and you can return. But not before you find and kill the incensed wolf.” Vlad crosses his arms and narrows his eyes dangerously. “Do I make myself clear, boy?”
“But I—I can’t go! I have friends here. And…and this is my home.” I sweep my arms around the combined living and bedroom area and then leave them pointing at Vlad and Ellie. “You’re the only family I have.”
“That is true. And you need to learn to protect your family and your friends. But, most of all, you have to learn how to fend for yourself. Your aunt and I may not live forever, and we cannot care for you for all eternity.”
“But— But, Uncle—” Dammit, what can I say to change his mind? California is my home. I don’t want to go to fucking Siberia or wherever that abandoned castle is located.
“Don’t you ‘but, Uncle’ me! The decision is made! Now, go pack everything you need for the next few weeks and get ready for the journey. I will have Reginald prepare your coffin.”
My chin smacks my chest. “You want to stuff me into a fricking casket?”
“How else will you travel to Europe? Sit in the cabin of an airplane with two-hundred people watching you combust in the sunlight?”
I guess there’s no chance of catching a night flight to Castle Dracula then. “At least let me go by ship. I can hide during the day.”
“No. Reginald will travel with you. I cannot afford for him to be gone for weeks. He’ll take you to the castle and return immediately.”
“Leaving me all to myself in a creepy ruin? How am I supposed to survive without any help?”
“That is for you to figure out, Nephew.”
So the great Dracula has spoken. I roll my eyes and slump down on the cushion of the couch that Ronin so hastily abandoned earlier. “If you hate me so much, why didn’t you just let me die in the wrecked car? It would have saved you a damn lot of trouble, wouldn’t it?”
Uncle Vlad stares at me with something that might be sympathy, but I can’t be sure with his burning, dark eyes. “This is for your best.”
“My best?” Ha! “What would you do if you wanted my worst? I’d love to know.”
“I would bury you alive to suffer from insatiable hunger for all eternity. But that’s not the point.” He waves his hand and comes over. The part of the couch that crashed into my bed earlier returns as if pulled by invisible strings, and Vlad lowers gracefully onto it as if nothing were amiss.
Eleanora sits down beside him, still clinging to his arm. “Darling, don’t be so hard on him. He doesn’t deserve this sort of punishment.”
“You really think he can become a capable leader in a house where everyone treats him like a toddler?”
“We can set up new rules,” she pleads.
Vlad pats her hand where it rests on his arm. “Rules that he will break before the week is over, love. You know it as well as I.”
Since this isn’t the first time we’ve talked about rules, I can’t even contradict him. Whatever I say now to defend myself will only end in his temper exploding again. Silence seems the more diplomatic way to handle this, and a hurt look at my aunt could prove useful.
“See,” she says, “he’s already sorry. Give him a chance.”
Yes, give me a chance, for blood’s sake.
What? I sit up straight. He really relented?
Uncle Vlad’s gaze moves from me to my aunt and back to me. Then he picks up the matchbox from the table and pulls out a single stick. He holds it in front of me. “Light it.”
I blink several times. “I’m sorry, what?”
“If you can light this match, you can stay and show that you’re willing to learn to control the powers given to you.”
“Okaaay…” I’m certainly missing the catch. I search his face for any hint of what he really means, but his features are unreadable. So, I reach out for the match in his fingers.
Uncle Vlad pulls his hand away. “No. With your mind.”
Aaaaand, there it is. My stomach slides to my feet. Vladimir Dracula can burn a city to ashes with only his will. He juggles fireballs while deep in thought, and in the past ten years, he hasn’t used a match to light the fireplace once.
I, on the other hand, believe that pocket lighters are there for a reason. I have never done anything even halfway close to this with my mind. Ever.
“So?” he prompts, brows lifted.
All right. Get your shit together, Quentin. This can’t be so hard. I take a deep breath through my nose, push up the sleeves of my white hoodie, lean forward with my elbows braced on my knees, and concentrate on the tiny, red head of the match. My hands ball into fists, my molars grind against each other, and my eyes may pop out any second, but the damn little stick won’t go up in flames.
I glare at it with more intensity. The muscles in my neck cramp from the effort. Heck, with this much channeled power, I should be shooting lasers from my eyes. Fire! I command. Burn! Burn, you little shit! Burn, burn, burn!
A grim smile creeps across my uncle’s face. “If you do whatever it is you’re doing just a little longer, you’ll likely detonate right there on the spot.”
Letting go of all the tension in my body, I slump back. “Yeah, very funny!”
“It is funny.” The next instant, the chiding grin drops from his face. “Now, pack whatever you want to take with you. You’re leaving before dawn.” He lifts from the couch and strides out the door, Eleanora following on his heels and compassionately glancing back at me.
“Does this stupid castle have Wi-Fi?” I grumble after them.
The lightbulbs explode above my head, and a thousand tiny glass shards rain down on me in the dark.
I guess that means no.
We don’t stock frozen humans
I’ve never been out of the United States before; thus I haven’t yet had to travel in a goddamn coffin. Usually, we can arrange for night flights or just take the cars to get where we need to go within the country. But Romania—with a stopover in Paris? Not possible. So, here I am, sealed away in this little, itty-bitty, three-by-eight-foot prison. And already after the bumpy takeoff, I know this is going to be the worst eighteen hours of my life. Anybody would become claustrophobic in here.
Hopefully, Uncle Vlad has some sleepless years because of this.
At least I have my phone. The little light it puts out is the only thing keeping me sane while trapped in this wooden cell. That and the chance to while away time on Twitter. May he rot in Hell for this! #uncomfortable #WhoNeedsFamily was my last tweet, thirty minutes ago.
We must be somewhere over the Atlantic now, and it’s nearing dawn. I’m getting tired, thank God, so I close my eyes. Sleeping is the best way to survive this journey. Since I’m entering a deathlike state now, I won’t breathe myself into a coma either and can save some of the air in the coffin for later. Not that I would die without any air in here, but the pain in my lungs would certainly drive me insane.
A hard rattle of my casket wakes me up. Can it be that I slept all the way to Paris and we’re changing planes already? There’s no opportunity to lift the lid even just a tiny bit because it’s tied down with a strap. And stretching my limbs won’t happen in here either.
I pat the soft insides of the casket for my cell phone to check the time, but when I punch a button—any button—the display remains as black as my cruel uncle’s soul. Really, the battery died? Now, in my absolute worst misery? Figures.
Snorting, I notice that we’re moving again, so I brace for another rattling takeoff. But it never comes. We’re just headed in one direction. So either this is the longest runway in the world, or we’re driving down a road. I must have slept through Paris, and we already landed in Romania. Uncle V said Reginald was supposed to take a hearse the last bit of the way, so shouting won’t get me anywhere with him. He won’t hear me, sitting in the front.
The journey comes to a sudden end after a bumpy ride that gave me a headache. Ten minutes later, I hear noises that sound like the straps being released. Eventually, Reginald opens the lid. About time, old man! I want to snarl, but the first breath of fresh air is too precious to waste on him.
“Good morning, Master Quentin,” he greets me with his usual emotionless look from under those bushy gray eyebrows. “We’ve arrived.”
I rise from my sleeping position, aching and stiff. Every joint pops with a much-needed stretch.
“We have to hurry,” Reginald informs me. “The sun rises in a few minutes, and we need to carry your coffin inside. I already took your suitcase to the great hall in the west wing.”
“The west wing, huh?” I groan with mild sarcasm. Just how big can an ancient castle in no man’s land really be? It’s probably a barn with an attic. Ignoring Reginald’s disapproving gaze, I climb out of the coffin and squeeze past him in the low back of the hearse that forces me to bend over to get out. An endless landscape stretches out in front of me, with a small village situated at the foot of the hill we’re on. Far, far in the distance, the mountains reach so high that there are no houses to be seen on the upper halves, only steep rock walls and an occasional tree growing here and there. Vampire eyes work better than any binoculars in the world.
The rising sun already touches the peaks, and the golden light is fanning out quickly. Whatever is behind me throws a giant morning shadow over the dreamy village a mile below us.
I walk around the black meat wagon and lift my head, then I nearly land on my ass with my eyes popping out. Holy bat shit. This isn’t a castle my uncle ran in the late fifteenth century. It’s a freaking town!
“I couldn’t get the gate to open any farther, or I would have driven all the way to the entrance, Master Quentin,” Reginald apologizes as he walks up to me on the pebbled path in front of the stone wall enclosing the castle. He’s not blessed with inhuman strength, another feature vampires are amped up with.
With a slight push, I shove open the iron gate and walk a few steps onto the property. Grass, bushes, and trees cover everything from here to the castle’s massive black double doors. The panels are made of wood with intricate iron sublimates and stand slightly ajar. Over the last five-hundred years, the vegetation has claimed this place like mold eats a slice of bread forgotten in a corner.
And this is where my uncle wants me to live? Where the hell is the beach? The swimming pool? The garage, for blood’s sake?
Behind me, a loud thud pulls me out of my staring. I whirl around and see that Reginald has made short work of my casket and pulled it out of the hearse by himself. “Hey, careful with that,” I gripe. “I need it intact for my journey back home.” How hard can it be to kill a wolf, anyway? With some luck, I’ll be out of here before the week is over.
Together, we carry my coffin to the entrance, the pebbles on the path crunching eerily under our feet from the extra weight. I put it down and knock on the panel of one of the doors, peeping through the crack. During the first months after my transformation, I bumped into several invisible barriers, even though the door to a house was wide open. It’s another stupid thing about being a vampire. You can’t just walk into anybody’s house as you want. The inhabitants always need to ask you in first. There are some other rules that Uncle Vlad taught me in Vampires 101, but it’s been so long that the only thing I remember off the top of my head is the allergic reaction to garlic. And, of course, the tiny issue with wood being really painful if it’s driven through any part of our body. No return when it stakes the heart.
“Hello?” My voice echoes inside.
Reginald coughs beside me. “You’re a direct descendant of the Dracula bloodline, Master Quentin,” he says with a professorial edge to his voice. “You can enter the place without being invited.”
Uh-huh. I cast him a dismissive glance and then push the heavy door farther open. It’s dark inside, except for a lonely candle burning on a table near the stone wall. “Did you light that?” I ask the butler, turning to him.
“Yes, Master. I also shut all the curtains in the west wing so you can move freely without the sun burning you.” On that cue, he pushes me inside just as the sun peeks over the highest tower of Castle Dracula, lighting the green ground outside and making it look almost juicy. I flinch farther back and escape to absolute safety. After a wager with Ronin where he made me stick my hand into sunlight once, I know how it feels to get the flesh burned off your bones. I don’t recommend it. It’s only because of our super-healing ability that my hand was back to normal a few hours later.
Reginald drags my casket into the big hall and lets it drop to the floor without respect for my personal belonging. “Welcome to Castle Dracula, Master Quentin. I hope you have a pleasant stay.”
Isn’t it nice when an eighty-six-year-old man pulls out his dusty humor? “Not funny, Reg. Where’s the food?” My stomach started rumbling when I woke and thought I was in Paris.
“Well, if you’re lucky, you might find a blood sausage somewhere in the kitchen. Then again, maybe not.”
He is enjoying this a little too much. I grit my teeth and plant my hands on my hips. “Where’s the living food?” He knows I can’t eat anything but humans for breakfast. “The staff!”
“Ah. I believe your aunt and uncle informed you that there is no staff at this castle. You will have to go down to the village and fend for yourself.”
“The sun is up,” I point out with a wry face.
“Well observed, Master Quentin. Then I suggest you wait until the evening before venturing out. If you’ll excuse me, the way home is long, and I have to catch a return flight.”
Oh, what a warm-hearted old man. I never liked him much. Then again, I never had much to do with him. He is strictly my uncle’s personal servant. That Vlad would send Reginald with me surprised me the moment he mentioned it. He must be getting a hell of a laugh out of this.
Instead of being unhelpful, Reg should let me open his vein. Drinking from a man would be a first for me, and he’d probably taste of wilted human, but old food is better than no food. “Did my uncle pay you to be such an ass?” I grumble.
Reginald snickers. “He did mention something about a bonus.”
“Come on, Reg. I’m hungry,” I whine and step around the casket between us. But the old man surprises me when he flaps his long coat aside and pulls out a goddamned crossbow.
“He also said I should shoot you in the chest if you go for my carotid.”
“Seriously?” Halting in my tracks, I resist the urge to lift my hands in surrender. Instead, I point a finger at his face. “This is such a load of bat shit, and you know it. When you get back, tell my uncle I hope he rots in Hell for this.”
“I believe he knows that already from your Twitter feed, Master Quentin. The altered instructions came after you tweeted #WhoNeedsFamily, I may add.” His eyes crinkle at the corners with a gleeful smile. “By the way, you should know that your uncle also sent out a decree to the entire coven last night. For the time you’re in Romania, none of your friends are allowed to get in touch with you or even reply to your messages. You’re out here on your own.”
A scornful laugh breaks free from my throat. “And you think they’ll abide by that?”
“They would be suicidal not to.”
There’s not a fucking ounce of humor in his tone now. Shit! I’m doomed.
He whirls around and shuffles out the door, pulling it shut with a loud thud, and leaving me and my coffin behind in this alien place.
Frustrated and hungry, I heave a sigh. Trapped in a castle that reeks of death and mustiness is not exactly my idea of a nice summer vacation. What’s worse, I’m not the least bit tired. This is normally the time when a vampire goes to bed and sleeps away the sunny hours of the day, but with my damn jetlag, I’m wide-awake. Might as well give myself a tour of Casa Dracula.
I pick up the candle from the small, round table. The light doesn’t illuminate much more than a three-foot radius around me, but with this source, my vampire eyes do the rest.
I’m inside a bloody rock. Everything is made of dark stone. The walls, the floor, the wide staircase leading to the second level. Only the doors opening to more rooms in this catacomb are made of solid wood. Black like the front door, I should add. With the lack of friendly color in this place, I can understand why Uncle V was so crabby when he lived here. I wonder how long it will take for me to go insane and start knocking my head against a wall.
I open several doors and peek inside. Behind one there’s a kitchen that sure doesn’t hold frozen human in the freezer. Black curtains as thick as ship sails seal the windows—the same ones as in the main hall, the library, the washhouse, and the staff room. Past the stairs is another door set into a wall. This one’s made of iron instead of wood, but it’s not locked as I first guessed when I noticed it.
Trying to hold my non-existent enthusiasm in check, I open the panel to see what’s behind the door. Hmm, there’s no room. Instead, it’s a narrow set of stairs, leading down. Cobwebs hang from the low ceiling. I can’t see what’s at the end of the stairwell because it curves, but when a rat scampers up and speeds toward me, I bang the door shut and press against it with my back, letting out a hysterical gasp.
Vermin. Just great.
Done with exploring the ground floor of what Reginald referred to as the west wing, I ascend the dominating stairs, hauling up the wheeled suitcase that Reg left at the bottom for me. The bedrooms must be on the second floor, and I intend to move into the biggest one.
Upstairs, the hallway runs in both directions away from the staircase with windows on one wall of the corridor and more doors on the opposite side. Here, too, the faintest light beam is shut out by those thick linen curtains. I check out three bedrooms before I find the one that I’m going to make mine. It has a huge four-poster bed with red velvet curtains tied to the sides. A fireplace has been hewn into the wall opposite the two giant windows with their heavy curtains, and a shelf lined with books is fastened next to a heavy chest of drawers.
A porcelain bowl and a jug rest on it, which reminds me that I haven’t seen a bathroom in this pseudo hotel yet. A shower would have been asking too much, I guess.
Uncle Vlad must be rubbing his hands with glee right now back in our cozy home in California, finding joy in the thought of me having to take a bath in the freezing castle pond. Gritting my teeth, I pull my suitcase over to the bed, place the candle on the nightstand, and perform a belly flop onto the blanket-covered mattress. Centuries of gathered dust soars up around me, momentarily blocking my vision. I cough until the cloud settles again, and my lungs catch a tiny breath of clean air. This creepy castle definitely comes equipped with every necessary detail of a Frankenstein movie.
Now, aren’t I lucky? If only they hadn’t left out the good parts, like the young, female staff members I could eat.
And then I hear it. The humming of a girl.
Dead man walking
I drop my suitcase in front of the wooden frame bed and run to the ancient double wing window. After some fumbling with the old lock, I manage to get it open, and a warm summer breeze tickles my nose. Gee, how I missed the hills and grasslands here in Romania. I lean out as far as I can without falling and breathe in so deeply that my lungs expand to a painful point.
“That’s something different from the smog you get in Norwich, isn’t it?” my grandmother shouts up to me from the front garden where she’s milking the three goats she owns. Her English is clipped, and when she says smog it sounds like shmug, but I’m glad she’s speaking my language at all because, as much as I love to spend my summers here in Ardeal, learning Romanian has never made it to my to-do-list.
I grin as an answer, then head to the rectangular mirror on the door and rake my fringy, shoulder-length hair back into a ponytail that I fasten with a rubber band from my pocket. A few of the dark blue highlights that weave through my black strands slip out and caress my neck. I blow my bangs out of my eyes and then flitter down the wooden stairs in this old stone house to join Nana outside. Hunkering on the other side of Esther, the white goat, I offer, “Let me do it. You can go inside and rest a little.”
Although my grandma stops massaging Esther’s teats, she doesn’t let go of them. Instead, she lowers her head from where she sits on her stool so she can gape at me from under the goat’s round belly. “Do I look like an old hag, my dear?”
She’s small, her boobs reach her stomach under her simple, black dress, her gray hair is secured in her typical salt-and-pepper bun that has seemed to be glued on her head since I was five, and she’s still wearing clogs from ancient times, but no…she doesn’t look like an old hag at all. In fact, anyone who sees her out and about in her stonewall-surrounded front garden would never believe for a second that she’s survived three husbands, two of her own children, and is about to celebrate her ninety-seventh birthday come fall. Some say only witches can flitter about like that at such an advanced age. But I don’t care. She makes the best apple strudel in the world!
“No, Nana. Of course, not. I was just—”
“You were worried that your great-grandmother might drop dead from a little milking,” she mocks me and gives me a very wrinkly grin. “Go unpack your things, Abby, and then run so you’ll be back before lunch.”
She straightens and resumes pulling on the teats of the grass-munching goat, but I can hear her chuckle from the other side. “You think I forgot what you do first every summer you come to visit me? Run up to Emilia Dalca’s paddock, of course. I heard her white horse foaled three weeks ago.”
Oh, right. That’s what Nana thinks I’ve been doing every summer when I leave her house in the morning and return sometime before dark. Actually, I couldn’t care less about those horses.
What I really did each time was run up to the dark Castle on Mount Cetatea. Nana’s little village lies right at the foot of the hill. Tilting my head, I gaze off into the distance. We’re so close to the plateau that I can even see the west tower from here. The view is enough to make me sigh with excitement, but Nana can’t know. She would lock me inside my room for the entire summer if she found out that I spend most of my days in Romania around an old, abandoned castle that, in her estimation, is haunted. I’d better let that sleeping dog lie.
The only person who knows about my secret is my friend Rosemarie. We used to go up there together to explore the musty place or just hang out around the wild gardens. It’s alleged, the castle once belonged to a real vampire. The infamous Count Dracula.
In all those years of exploring, Rosemarie and I found as little evidence to prove that particular theory as we have to affirm the rumors of Nana being a witch. But I’ve never come across a better playground than those ruins. In some rooms, one can still find ancient furniture. We especially liked the master bedroom and the kitchen. Playing house there was great, and we always pretended that a real dragon lived in the dungeons—even though we never dared venture down there.
Rosemarie is a little older than I am; she turned nineteen a few weeks ago. And while I still have to finish my A-levels before I can pick a college next year, she graduated from high school—or the Romanian equivalent thereof—last spring. She lives at the very end of the road that goes past Nana’s house. Not many kids live in this residential area, so I enjoyed knowing at least one person my age when I spent my vacations here every summer and winter.
The mountains and the old village were beautiful enough to get me excited every time the end of a school year neared. At the prospect of seeing Rosemarie again in a few days, my anticipation doubled. And Nana’s apple strudel and the fancy old stories about Castle Dracula—as my grandma often called it—make this place my personal paradise.
Since Rosemarie already texted me that our summer reunion had to wait a few days because of a camping trip she’s on, I head out of our garden and straight for the plateau. No detour to her house first, or to Emilia Dalca’s horse paddock.
The dirt road leading to the black castle is broad enough for two cars and winds up the hill like a drunken kite tail to the iron gate in the high stone wall surrounding the place. The front door has been locked for as long as I can remember. However, during one of our early trips up here, Rosemarie found a tunnel close to a fir tree behind the ruins that leads straight into one of the upstairs rooms. A secret escape, probably. We’ve never told anyone about it and made sure to cover the entrance each time we left.
With some effort, I move the branches and stones that we used to cover the rabbit hole last time out of the way and then stoop to fit inside. It’s almost a walk on all fours through the black pit. Feeling my way more than I see, I finally reach the exit and shove the tapestry that seals this side of the tunnel out of the way. Immediately, the familiar waft of musty air creeps into my nose, bringing on lovely memories of my childhood.
This is not the master bedroom. It must have been used as a nursery in old times if the rotting crib in one of the corners is any indication. Right now, I can’t see anything, though. The big windows that always flood this room with daylight are now hidden behind heavy curtains. I pull the one closest to me aside and then wipe the cobwebs I gathered on my way here out of my ponytail. My jeans are dirty from crawling on my knees, and some moss or grime clings to my fitted, black t-shirt.
Swiping my front, I cross to the door and step into the hallway that is lined with a row of arched windows on one side. What the hell? All the curtains are closed out here, too. Somebody must have been here since the last time I came to this place, and it certainly wasn’t Rosemarie, because she wouldn’t do something as stupid as shut out all the light. So, who? Is some rich baron or something going to buy the property?
“Hello?” I warily call into the silence. My voice echoes off the walls, but other than that, there’s no reply. I didn’t really expect one. Maybe some other kids from the village came up here and found the secret entrance. Whoever it might have been, they aren’t around today.
Seriously, they could have at least opened the curtains again before leaving. Now, I have to take a tour around the castle and do it myself.
Humming a song from the movie I watched on my morning flight from England to Romania, I draw back the corridor windows’ curtains one by one until I reach the stairs. I want to walk down first, so I leave the other half of the hallway untouched for now.
It’s no longer pitch-black inside, but I still have to watch my feet as I take one step at a time with my hand sliding down the rail for guidance. In the hall, it’s dark again. The only windows down here are right beside the massive entrance, so I carefully make my way over there.
I slam my shin into something hard. The immediate pain draws a groan from my throat, and I fall over, bracing my hands on the thing I ran into. There’s never been anything standing in the middle of the great hall. But now there is. Smooth wood, slightly curved top. What in the world is it? A screwed coffee table?
I stumble to the other side of the hall and feel for the curtains along the cold stone to pull them aside. A beam of light penetrates the smudgy pane, forcing me to squint. When my eyes focus again, I turn to face the hall and soak in the full view of my favorite place.
Except what I see stops my heart. My lungs shut down, and all the blood rushes from my face.
It’s a coffin. Right in front of me.
I can’t move. There is a coffin in the middle of the hall. A goddamn coffin! For dead people! And I knocked into it. Oh, my God!
A terrified screech echoes in my skull, yet my vocal cords seem frozen, unable to produce sound. I swallow so hard that the noise fills the silent air but does nothing to drown out the hysterical screaming inside my head.
Out! I want out of here!
After what feels like endless seconds, my breath returns with a tremble that rattles my bones. I force my legs to move in one direction. Around the coffin…for dead people…and toward the stairs. Halfway there, a whimper escapes me, and the shrieking hysteria in my mind subsides to sheer panic. Faster. I need to get away from here faster! Why won’t my legs do as I tell them?
I try not to look at the coffin, one that may as well hold a corpse right now, but even with my hardest attempts not to, I still see out of the corner of my eye. I’m in a room with someone’s dead body.
The moment I reach the stairs, I force enough air into my lungs to finally let out the earsplitting scream I had been containing and dash up the stone steps, imagining how the lid of the coffin could be opening behind me with a very dead person sitting up to watch me run. Stiff with terror, I stumble on my way up and fall to my knees, but I’m running again before I even have time to think. The whole place around me turns into a dark blur. Please don’t faint now! It can’t be that far to the top of the stairs. I just need to get up there, back into the nursery, and crawl out through that rabbit hole of an escape. Then I’ll be safe.
You’ll be safe in a minute, I tell myself repeatedly to keep my mind focused on something. Anything but the coffin in the hall. And then I bump into someone.
Oh my God, it’s the dead person from the coffin! The dark haze takes over. I’m going to pass out. No, I can’t let that happen. So, instead, I scream my head off.
“Shhh,” the dead person says in my face. “Calm down. I’m not going to…hurt you.”
It’s a man. A young man from his voice. He doesn’t speak Romanian but English with an American accent. So the dead man was a US citizen. Nice. With hysteria blurring my vision, I can’t see much of him. Besides, we’re standing in the shadows with him holding me in a tight embrace. If he weren’t, I would have already collapsed to the ground.
I don’t want to be held by a rotten corpse!
“Let go! Let go! Let go!” I shout. It might have come out something like “l’ugh.” Forming actual words is a little hard right now.
The dead man pulls me deeper into the shadows and leans me against the cold stone wall of the corridor. I slide down until I sit on the floor because I currently have no feeling at all in my legs. He squats down in front of me and says in a soothing voice, “Everything’s all right. It’s just me here, and I’m not going to do you any harm. Now, please”—he grimaces, and his tone gets just a tiny bit harsher—“shut up!”
I would if I could, but it takes him planting his hand over my mouth to silence me. He waits until I look into his eyes, then he demands with soft insistence, “No more screaming, okay?”
Even in this dark part of the hallway, he doesn’t look dead. And he doesn’t smell rotten. His hair is a warm blond—probably California sun-streaked. When he offers me a small smile and a hopeful lift of his eyebrows, I stop shrieking against his palm.
“Now, that’s better,” he says. “Good girl.”
I don’t want to be a good girl. I want out of here. “Who are you?” I croak as he slowly takes his hand away.
“My name is Quentin Etheridge.”
That is certainly a mouthful, but right now, I couldn’t care less. “There’s a coffin downstairs.”
Dead person! Dead person! Dead person!
Obviously noticing the next flood of shock enter my eyes, he quickly pleads, “Don’t scream again. It’s just”—he blinks several times—“film equipment.”
“I’m supposed to check out this castle for a new film set,” he explains and sounds more certain now. “The casket is a requisite. It’s not real.”
Film… That explains a lot. No dead people anywhere. Chills still run down my arms, but as the seconds tick by, and I just stare into this stranger’s blue eyes, my racing heart gradually returns to a healthy, normal beat. He relaxes when I do.
However, with the cold wall behind me, and the cool shadow enveloping me like an eerie blanket, the chills keep coming. I scramble to my feet and move into the light, staying close to the wall for support. When I turn around on shaky legs, Quentin has followed me, but he still remains concealed in the shadows.
There’s just enough light for me to see more of his face. His jaw is set while he silently scrutinizes me with almond-shaped eyes. Unless the shadows play tricks on me, his skin is flawless, and his cheekbones are high-set. His blond hair is long enough to fall tousled over his forehead yet not into his eyes, and his body appears lean yet muscular under his t-shirt, which looks vintage with a Jack Daniel’s logo on the front. He’s quite cute.
“Are you an actor? Because you look like one.”
He laughs softly. “I get that all the time. But, no. I merely work for this…guy who wants this place cleaned out.”
“Did you bring a film crew?”
“I was sent here alone.” His face turns sober, his expression almost annoyed as he tells me so.
“You’re from the States, aren’t you?”
He nods. “L.A.”
Wicked. He probably works for one of those really big Hollywood production companies. “What movie are you shooting in the castle?”
Quentin opens his mouth then closes it—once, twice—then his gaze drifts thoughtfully to the side. Maybe he isn’t supposed to talk about it. Finally, he clears his throat and reveals, “Frankenstein.”
Of course, it would have to be something about monsters. “So…are you going to be around here long?”
“Until everything is taken care of. It’s more practical for me to move in here while I’m doing my job.”
“Did you close all the curtains?” When he nods, I add “Why?”
“Actinic dermatitis,” he answers curtly.
He’s allergic to sunlight? That explains his pale skin. All of a sudden, his eyes go sharp, and I wonder if he wants to convey something different with his look. His jaw clenches briefly, but otherwise, he doesn’t move. I take a step back.
“Umm…I guess I should go now. You’re probably really busy.” I turn around and hurry to the nursery at the far end of this corridor.
“Where exactly are you going?” his voice follows me, louder this time and bouncing ominously around the hall.
In front of the nursery, I stop and look at him. He’s still standing rooted in the shadows across the hallway. “Outside.”
“By jumping out the window?”
“There’s a tunnel leading from this room to the higher plateau of the garden.” Then I wonder. “How did you get in?”
He hesitates, narrowing his eyes. “Door?”
“That door has been locked forever.”
“My boss got the key. You can walk out there now.”
Ah, right. But I’d prefer not to walk past that flipping coffin again. No matter if it’s just film equipment, it creeps me out. And his whole keeping to the shadows and staring at me so hard that a vein might pop from his temple thing doesn’t make me want to walk closer to Quentin either. “I’m fine with the tunnel, thanks.” I offer him a quick smile and dash away.
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