Alaric arrived outside Cassie's building a little more than ten minutes after seeing them off, only a fraction of the hour long trip by car.
He immediately began scouting the exterior of the building. The four storey red brick structure had two exposed sides, the front entrance faced the street and one side wall faced into a lane. The other two aspects were the supporting walls to adjacent buildings. The building on the far side was a squat single story house, while the rear building was a double storey office complex. From the roof top he had full view of the surrounding area for hundreds of meters in all directions. On the corner of the lane, opposite Cassie's building, the local pizza shop was just closing up, an interior light behind the counter illuminated a short distance of the narrow lane with dull half light. Directly below him, on the third floor, overlooking the lane, was Cassie's bedroom window.
The street light opposite flickered intermittently. An occasional car drove by on the otherwise deserted road, and a group of teenagers laughed and joked in the park across the road. They were no threat, so he ignored them, concentrating on the shadows of the adjacent buildings.
Every muscle was tense, his senses tuned to every noise and every movement. He made a couple of sweeps of the area, including spying inside the other apartments of Cassie's building for signs of any intrusion.
Satisfied it was safe, he called the Professor.
"Well, good news," the Professor said, turning in his seat to speak to Cassie and Alex. "There's no sign of any unwanted visitors in your neighbourhood, so it's safe to take you home," giving Cassie a reassuring wink.
"What, do you mean, he's already there? But, we only left twenty minutes ago." Alex commented, impressed by the speed he must have travelled.
"Actually, I believe he's been there for some time," chuckled the Professor.
He remembered when he was first introduced to vampires and the mixture of fear and admiration that he'd felt toward them. It's funny how when you become so accustomed to something, it loses all its wonder, he thought. Seeing things through new eyes brought it all back to him. For him, that first time was so very long ago.
He noted Cassie's anxious expression. "Don't worry lass, he'll be back with us again in a couple of minutes. Then, he'll follow us the rest of the way. He just wanted to make sure it was safe before you arrived." Dark circles filled the hollows beneath his weary eyes. His bones ached with the strain of his aging years and the burden of the stressful disturbing events over the past week.
"Oh. That makes sense, I guess," she answered a little dejectedly. Although she couldn't explain why, she felt like crying. She'd felt so much stronger when she thought he was following her, bolstered by his shadowy presence. Now, suddenly she felt exposed and vulnerable. She bit down on her bottom lip to stop it from quivering.
A minute later her phone beeped with a message.
It was Alaric. "I'm back," was all it said. But it was enough.
She sighed in relief, letting out the breath she didn't realise she'd been holding.
The car windows had fogged up. Every few minutes she cleared a circle with her hand and peered out. As hard as she tried, she couldn't see him but hoped he was nearby.
Her phone beeped again.
"I'm still here." She quietly giggled to herself, satisfied that she had his attention, and wondered if his attention equated to his interest as well. She hoped so because the attraction she felt for him was completely out of proportion for the time she'd known him and she didn't want to be the only one inflicted with such an irrational need.
Three streets from her apartment, her phone beeped yet again.
"It's all clear." He wasn't one for long messages, short and sweet, straight to the point.
As the car pulled up outside her apartment building, they all started talking to her at once.
"Don't do anything out of the ordinary," said Lilith.
"Any problems you call Alaric. If he doesn't answer, call me or Alex," said the Professor.
"If I call Alaric and he doesn't answer, what does that mean?" feeling panic beginning to leech into her calm façade. Her hands began to tremble.
"If he doesn't answer, it's because I've come back to kill the son of a bitch for using you as bait." Alex said. Bold words he wished he could follow through on, but reality was rarely what you wished for. He gave her his best confident smile and slapped her on her knee.
"You'll be fine. Get a good night's sleep lass, and we'll speak to you tomorrow." The Professor's smile too, masked his worry. Unfortunately, neither of them could hide their eyes, loudly telegraphing their true concern.
An air of trepidation hung over all of them, except maybe Lilith.
It might have been her imagination, but Cassie got the impression that Lilith didn't particularly like her. Spilling coffee on her skirt this morning may have had something to do with it, she thought, but she suspected it went deeper than that.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the car door, stepping out into the crisp night air, closing it behind her quickly to cut off any chance of more well meant parting comments.
She watched as the others drove away, discretely looking around to locate Alaric.
There. On top of the building, above the pizza shop, one floor below her bedroom window, but nonetheless a reasonably good view of her apartment.
She would've preferred it if he was watching her from inside her bedroom though.
She quickly squashed that thought.
Her neck ached with nervous tension, knotting her muscles in protesting strain.
Fumbling in her bag, she retrieved her keys and entered the building. Her heart pounded in staccato beats against the wall of her chest.
The glass door opened silently, the fluorescent light flickered to life in the entrance foyer as she headed for the stairs. As much as she wanted to behave normally and climb the stairs in a calm and sedate manner, she had way too much nervous energy buzzing through her system for that to happen. Instead she took them two at a time until she reached the landing on the third floor.
Breathless, she closed her door, locking it and almost collapsing against it.
Dumping her bag on the floor beside her couch, she headed for the kitchen.
Out of habit, she searched the cupboards for a snack. It was only now that she realised how hungry she was. Her tummy rumbled with a hollow growl. How many hours had it been since she ate, really ate? She thought about it for a minute. It must have been lunch yesterday. She couldn't remember eating last night after leaving the University, she was too traumatised by seeing Jarvis again. She didn't count the chocolate bar she ate in the library, and she'd only had the two corners of a sandwich at Alaric's.
She opened the refrigerator and grabbed the only thing in there that didn't look like it could escape of its own accord and heated it in the microwave on high for an extended period. Surely, no bacteria could survive a blast of nuking of that magnitude, she postulated.
The combination of lack of food and sleep, not to mention stress over the past few days left her head feeling light and giddy. It wasn't likely she'd get much sleep tonight either, she was wound up tighter than a spring. She was conscious of each shadow twisting and stretching around her and every noise made her jump. Even the dripping tap in the kitchen echoed loudly in her apartment and made her twitchy.
Alex had grudgingly given Alaric his key to her apartment and she knew he had been through already as evidenced by the single red rose he'd left on her pillow. A thoughtful gesture maybe, but it didn't make her feel any less tense.
She sank down into her couch amongst the collection of soft cushions. Relax, relax, relax, she silently chanted. Clutching the TV remote in one hand she flicked through channels, while the other hand mindlessly shovelled away the four day old lasagne which she'd grossly overheated in the microwave. She'd need a jack hammer to get through the edges she thought, pushing them to one side.
Her mind swam as she reflected on everything that she'd seen and learnt over the past few days.
Relax, relax, relax, she continued to chant, snuggling deeper into her nest of cushions and slowed her breathing, trying to imagine waterfalls or a peaceful meadow. Anything else but Jarvis, but all she managed to achieve was an imaginary grass rash and a sudden feeling that her bladder was about to burst.
The old clock on the mantel chimed. She shifted her eyes wearily to check the time. 1:00am. Alex had chided her about that clock but she refused to get rid of it, even though the glass on the face had broken years before, and she had to wind it up every couple of days to keep it going, there were no batteries when this clock was made, but she loved its deep resonate chime and its monotonous ticking. She found it comforting.
It was her grandmother's clock originally and although she'd never met her, it was a family heirloom and a bridge to her past. Unseen and unknown ancestry which spanned generations. A comforting thought, even if they were no longer living. The only family she had left now was Alex, although he wasn't related by blood. Not that you would ever know it as they were so much alike in many ways. Since there was no genetic link between them it gave rise to the notion that environmental influences were responsible for bringing about their similarities, having been raised together from birth. Maybe, she theorised, it was similar to groups of women who live together, all having their monthly cycles synchronised to the same time.
With a weary sigh she pushed herself out of her comfortable nest of pillows, turned off the TV and made her way to the bathroom. The mirror showed the dark circles beginning to engrave themselves beneath her glassy eyes. She looked as tired as she felt. Her hair was becoming limp and stringy, desperately in need of a wash.
She turned on the shower. Steam filled the room and fogged up the mirror improving her reflexion exponentially, she thought. Cassie's mind wandered as she stepped naked under the hot water and soaked up its heat, relaxing and unwinding her tense muscles.
Her thoughts drifted back to Alaric, outside right now, watching her building. Did he know she was in the shower? Would he sneak into her apartment and join her? What would it be like to see him naked? The picture it conjured in her mind inspired her to grab her razor and 'tidy-up' all relevant areas, just in case. Her mother always told her, "If you wish hard enough, your wish might come true." But on the flip side, she also said "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it." Cassie pondered the likelihood of her fantasy coming true being slim to none, but opted for the side of optimism, running her fingers over her smooth legs checking for the prickly stubble of any missed spots.
Feeling much more relaxed, she lingered under the hot water for an extra couple of minutes, enjoying the sensation of it pounding rhythmically against her skin.
She pulled on her pyjamas, collecting them from the floor where she'd dropped them earlier that morning when she'd dressed so hastily. A pair of hipster pastel chequered pants and a tank top, cropped just below her rib cage exposing her perfectly flat stomach.
She made one last round of her apartment to check she'd turned off all the lights, locked the front door and checked the dead bolt was soundly fastened before climbing into bed and setting her mobile phone on the bed side table next to her. Alaric's number was on the screen, her finger itched to press the call button but she restrained herself grudgingly. If she called him now, he'd think it was an emergency and probably break down her door to rescue her. The vision spawned a new fantasy in her overactive imagination that sent arousal pulsing through her body.
She lay on her back and pulled her doona up around her, leaving her arms free to reach the phone in a hurry if need be.
The window, which opened inward, was left ajar a few inches allowing the soft breeze to caress her face. She hated the feeling of being closed in and so habitually left the window open for the fresh night air. Even the threat of Jarvis coming didn't tempt her to close it. Besides, she was three floors up and there was no fire escape anywhere near her window, not to mention Alaric outside on guard duty in full view of her window. She had nothing to worry about.
Though, tired as she was, she fought her desire for sleep. Not yet. Instead, she waited, lying silently in her bed listening to her grandmother's clock. Tick. Tick. Tick.
To no avail, the heaviness in her head blanketed her thoughts and sleep slowly stole her consciousness.
It had been a couple of hours since Alaric had heard any sounds coming from Cassie's apartment. The night air had turned cold and a blustery breeze had blown in an hour or so earlier. The bottom of his black leather duster snapped about his crouched form in the gusty wind. Maybe the duster was a bit of a vampire cliché, as were the shit kicker boots and black leather pants, but he found them comfortable and highly practical.
His senses probed the surrounding neighbourhood. There was nothing out of the ordinary.
Nothing ventured into the vicinity except for the occasional car passing and a family of rats which scratched through rubbish in the lane below.
Only a couple of hours before first light and everything seemed...too quiet.
An increasing uneasiness tugged at him.
His phone vibrated in his pocket.
Retrieving it, noting the time, 4:30 am, he checked the caller ID. "Alex," he grumbled as he opened his message.
"Any trouble? Is she ok?" he wrote.
"You'll be the first to know if there is!" Alaric replied.
Alex could be on the other side of the world and he'd still find him annoying.
As he placed his phone back into his pocket, a flash of movement on the roof of Cassie's building caught his eye. Someone was up there.
In a single leap he cleared the lane, landing lithely on the opposite roof.
"Well, it looks like Jarvis was right," said a spiky haired boy with more tattoos and metal studded through his face than the average teenage boy had pimples. A human imitation of a painted pin cushion, Alaric thought.
He stepped casually to the side, drawing Alaric away from the edge of the building.
Alaric's lip curled, his fangs descended and his eyes flared with a lethal glow. The temperature on the roof plummeted as his power exploded from him.
A stiff cold breeze woke her. Goose bumps rose on her naked arms.
Blinking the sleep from her hazy mind, a shadow crossed in front of the window at the end of her bed.
"Alaric?" she whispered.
Straining to see in the darkness, she asked again. "Alaric, is that you?"
"No poppet, Alaric is presently occupied. Did you miss me?" The shadow moved to the side of her bed, his profile outlined by the light from the window. He began to laugh, a vile, malicious laugh, filled with the promise of pain.
"I think you did," he declared, as he picked up a photograph of Cassie and her mother from the dresser.
"Oh, God no. Jarvis!" she whispered, her throat suddenly dry.
"We didn't get a chance to get to know each other the other night." His southern American accent oozed a mixture of honey and acid, sending a chill down her spine. Her whole body went cold with fear.
"I'd like to stay and play with you now, but just in case your friend gets the upper hand on my colleague," pointing to the roof above, "We have to cut our time together short. Such a shame," he lamented with an exaggerated disappointed sigh.
His hand reached out to touch the end of her bed. Reflexively, she sat up and pulled her feet up, clutching her knees to her chest through the doona. Fear escalated to terror when she saw his face. His fangs were fully extended, as sharp as daggers, but it was his eyes that held her frozen, like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming truck, helpless to escape. His ice-cold stare burrowed into her soul, while an iridescent flicker in his eyes betrayed his excitement for the kill.
Her scream locked inside her constricted throat.
She didn't want him to get any nearer. Grabbing the only thing close enough to reach, she threw her phone at him, hitting him in the face.
Rage flared in his eyes.
Cassie knew she'd just taken her last breath and closed her eyes, waiting for the inevitable.
An explosion of broken glass showered her room.
She opened her eyes to see Jarvis' hand only centimetres from her throat.
Alaric, behind him, grabbed his neck and pulled him back, flinging the smaller man like a rag doll into Cassie's dresser with such force, it not only demolished the cabinet, but pushed it and Jarvis through the wall.
Cassie scrunched herself up tightly on her bed. Feral growls erupted from both men as they pounded each other with ferocious intensity from one room to the next.
Jarvis was fast but his strength was no match for Alaric's.
"When I'm done with you, I'm going to take my time with my little poppet." Jarvis scoffed, licking his lips sadistically, taunting him.
Alaric's mind snapped. No one was going to touch his Cassie.
Many years ago, he'd made an oath never to take another life, human or other.
That oath had just been nullified.
Cassie watched wide eyed as Alaric came to a complete standstill, not a muscle moved except for his hands which fisted tightly at his side. An unearthly growl erupted from him as he took one slow step toward Jarvis. His next move was so fast it was a blur in Cassie's vision.
Jarvis lay on the floor, Alaric's hand around his throat, pinning him down, his other hand raised behind him, fingers splayed like claws, ready to strike at his captive.
Jarvis may have been pinned down but his hands were free. He punched into Alaric's chest. Alaric released his grip on the smaller man and staggered backward, landing crouched on all fours on the floor.
Cassie strained to see. She heard the sound of breaking bones, Alaric's rib cage. No, no, no. This can't be happening.
Jarvis jumped to his feet, brandishing the spoils of victory in his hand. Alaric's heart.
"You're next my pretty poppet," he boasted. Then his smile began to falter.
The heart he held in his hand was dissolving before his eyes. Not turning to dust as it should, as Alaric should, but the heart was dissolving into nothing, vanishing.
Alaric rose from the floor, the hole in his chest closing over and healing.
"That's impossible. You should be dead," he stuttered, disbelieving.
"It's not my time to die, but it is yours!" Alaric pronounced, ripping off both Jarvis' arms in one move. Dropping his twitching limbs on the floor, he grabbed him by the throat and held him upright.
"I should have killed you the night you tried to touch Cassie at the nightclub. A mistake I won't make twice."
Jarvis' eyes went wide as Alaric sliced open his chest with his taloned finger and removed his beating heart from his chest. Jarvis stared at Alaric, making gurgling sounds in his throat as he tried to speak.
His body shimmered for a few seconds and then exploded into dust.
Alaric's attention turned to Cassie. Her shock and terror displayed on her face, her eyes staring at him incredulously, her brain desperately trying to translate what her eyes had just witnessed.
A strong gust of wind blew through the broken window, brushing aside a wisp of hair from her face. The curtain struck the battered remnants of the window frame, dislodging a shard of glass sending it crashing to the floor and shattering on impact. Cassie jumped.
Alaric stood riveted to the spot, watching her. He trembled with the adrenaline searing through him. He'd come so close to losing her.
He knew he'd frightened her almost as much as Jarvis had. Torn between keeping his distance and rushing to her side, he tentatively spoke softly. His voice little more then a hoarse whisper as he tried to regain control of the storm raging inside him.
"Cassie, are you alright?"
She blinked the fog of shock from her mind. "Um, yes. I think so," she replied. Her eyes began to moisten as she fought back tears threatening to overflow. Her hands were trembling so fiercely, she could barely clutch them around her own body. Vaguely she became aware of a sensation like bee stings all over her arms, neck and face, intensifying as she tried to move.
She tried to look herself over but saw nothing in the dim light.
Until this moment, Alaric hadn't noticed the carnage in the apartment created by his dramatic entrance and his battle with Jarvis. He followed her gaze to her arms and his heart sank. With his preternatural sight he clearly saw the small trickles of blood slowly oozing from a multitude of wounds she'd suffered from the fallout of his enthusiasm to save her.
"Um, I don't think so," her voice quivered slightly, desperately trying to hold onto her self control. As she reached for the lamp beside her bed, the movement of her doona sent a tinkling of glass onto the floor. The forty watt globe, which normally seemed so dull to her, now made her wince. As her eyes adjusted, she became aware of Alaric staring at her from the other side of the room, silent and motionless like a statue. The demon he'd been only moments ago was gone, his fangs retracted and his eyes were no longer wild but showed his growing distress.
She couldn't look away as he slowly closed the distance between them, mesmerised by his stare and spellbound by his commanding presence. Unconsciously she held her breath until he was sitting beside her, inhaling sharply when her lungs began to burn from lack of air. As she exhaled a ragged breath, her bottom lip began to quiver.
"I'm so sorry." He said, his distress seemingly surpassing hers. The horror now a forgotten blur in her already hazy mind, was replaced by an overwhelming wrenching need to comfort him. All her fear was gone. She felt safe again, safe with him.
"You saved me. Again," she replied. "I'm still alive because of you." The small cuts began to sting more, causing her to wince.
Alaric lowered his eyes and took her hand in his. "Do you trust me?" he asked, searching her eyes, delving deeply into her soul.
"There's no one I trust more," she answered breathlessly, her heart pounding in her chest as a flush of heat filled her cheeks.
His fingers ran lightly over her hand and up one arm, carefully removing any small splinters of glass which had become imbedded. He raised her arm a little higher, to his lips and gently kissed each scratch and cut. His lips felt like cool silk brushing against her skin but his touch fuelled a fire inside her hotter than Hades.
As he moved up her arm, she noticed the cuts he'd just kissed had now healed.
Cassie inhaled sharply. "Whooa. What did you do?" Blood still traced lines over her arm where it had originated, but the skin was intact. No trace of any injury was visible.
He didn't answer. He continued to kiss each of her wounds.
As he reached the first shoulder, he lowered her arm gently beside her, before taking hold of her other hand to repeat the process.
His touch created a feeling of euphoria such that she couldn't form a single rational thought, let alone voice one.
"Ahh..." She groaned. She didn't realise she'd groaned out loud but Alaric stopped, his hands began shaking ever so slightly. He sat very still for a few moments with his eyes closed, concentrating to regain his composure. He felt every sensation that rushed through her. It would be so easy to give himself over to his vampire nature and share in the rapture he knew his kiss was flaring within her.
"Please don't stop," she begged breathlessly, completely unashamed in her blissful state.
Slowly he continued again. Reaching the top of her second shoulder, he stopped and examined her face, thin trails of blood oozed from a couple of small scratches. The veins in her throat pulsated. Her expression of ecstasy sent his heart racing as he fought to control his desire for her.
He held her hand, still not daring to look into her eyes. He'd skipped over a larger piece of glass deeply imbedded in her arm just below the crease of her elbow. Gripping it between his fingers, he dislodged and removed it. The sudden sharp pain shocked her out of her trance-like state and blood began to flow freely from the deep gash.
"Ooh, I think that one's going to need a few stitches," she declared anxiously, beginning to feel a bit queasy.
"No it won't. Watch and see," grinning his lop-sided cheeky grin she was beginning to recognise as a smile he saved just for her, his lips were flushed with traces of her blood. "You do still trust me, don't you?"
"Yes, completely," she confessed, a little hastily she thought, but she couldn't help herself.
Alaric raised her arm up higher and placed his lips around the edges of the wound and closed his eyes, his face was expressionless but she could feel his cool breath on her skin, quicken.
Moments later he released her arm but his eyes remained closed. He could feel her heart beat in unison with his own and he savoured the moment.
As his eyes slowly opened, he watched Cassie's face, her gaze drawn to her arm in wonder, watching intently as the remaining edges of her wound came together and healed without a trace.
Tenderly he stroked her hair, straightening the sleep ravaged knots and picking splinters of glass from it.
His fingers lightly teased the side of her face along her jaw and down her neck. He could feel the effect that his touch had on her as a ripple of goose bumps rose beneath his fingers and her heart beat faster.
Slowly he drew her closer to him enjoying the warmth of her body, the silky touch of her soft skin. He lightly kissed the scratch on her forehead and then the one over her left cheekbone.
All her wounds were now healed. Each tingled and throbbed from the potency of his healing.
All but one. A long shallow cut across her neck over the jugular, slowly oozed. He resisted the urge to heal it. He was the strongest and most powerful creature in this world but he doubted he had enough strength to resist the compelling attraction he felt toward her, if he so much as tasted a single drop more.... As it was, he'd consumed too much of her blood already and feared his fate was irrevocably sealed. The blood bond between them had been created whether he liked it or not.
Her breath bathed his neck, electrifying his senses.
Cassie laid her head on his chest and slid her arms around his waist, pulling herself even closer against him. The smell of her honey scented shampoo was intoxicating. Their embrace felt so natural. Their soul's vibrations rose in harmony, rhythmic, merging into one.
He was a goner and he knew it. From this moment on, it would be twice as hard to keep his distance from her. His craving to kiss her and taste her again was almost unbearable.
He had to resist. It was wrong, but nothing had ever felt more right.
The last thing he needed was to fall in love with her. It would be futile, an adventure into masochistic torture. Each day it would eat away another piece of his soul. Forced to watch over her and protect her, and knowing all the while he can never possess her.
"I have to get you out of here. It's not safe anymore," he said, pulling her gently away from him. Her eyes had glazed over slightly. She was having difficulty focusing on his face and his voice seemed to come from a million miles away.
"Ok. If you say so," she replied absently as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. As she was about to stand, Alaric pulled her back again.
"Not a good idea," looking at the floor for Cassie to follow his gaze.
"Wow," was all she could say when she registered the scene around her. It looked like a scene from a war movie. Debris was everywhere. In fact, Blitz Street in WWII would have looked better than this after the German's dropped the K2 bomb. There were holes where the walls used to be, her dressing table and wardrobe were decimated and part of the ceiling was missing. Her bed seemed to be the only thing left, and even that was tilting toward the floor at the far end. The destruction wasn't limited to her bedroom, although she couldn't see into the darkness of the adjacent rooms. There was barely an inch of floor without broken glass and plaster dust covering it.
On second thought, maybe that wasn't just plaster dust. Maybe, that was Jarvis' remains, …dust.
"Good point. Bare feet and broken glass, not a good combination," she agreed.
A mischievous smirk alighted his face. "You wouldn't want me to have to get down on my knees and kiss your feet too, would you?" Although, he thought, the idea seemed to fit his predicament perfectly. He was, for all intents and purposes, her willing slave, her protector and guardian.
Cassie chuckled. "I don't think that would be so bad," she replied, placing a hand to her head, swaying slightly.
"What's happening to me?" Alaric put his arm around her back to steady her.
"It's just the effects of the healing. It can be a bit overwhelming the first time," he reassured.
"You mean there's going be a next time?"
He didn't answer. His attention was quickly focussed toward the front door.
"There are people coming. We need to leave, now."
"The noise must have woken my neighbours. I don't think I'm going to be too popular with my landlord tomorrow either." She said, grimacing at the thought of the damage bill.
Sirens could be heard getting closer and stopped as the police car pulled up outside the building. Through the window they could see their lights flashing, reflected off the wall of the pizza shop opposite.
Her head swam with the effort of moving.
Alaric picked her up and carried her quickly to the window.
"Close your eyes and hold on," he said.
She buried her face in his neck and wrapped her arms around him.
As gravity gave way to weightlessness, she heard the police break through her front door. Her pulse thundered in her ears as dizziness imbued its call of darkness over her mind. The sensation of floating and the frigid wind against her skin lingered momentarily before she collapsed limply in the vice-like grip of his arms and passed out.