Chapter 1 - Sangreal
Charleston, South Carolina, May 29th
"Dear Lord," a woman called to heaven, "such a young man. So near death. What could have happened to you?"
My body was one long, cold ache, but a hot center throbbed in my chest. Wet and shivering, I craved only sleep and the blackness that held me.
Sirens wailed to a crash of thunder. Somewhere, someone was in trouble.
I drifted on the ebb and flow of pain until the woman gave me a gentle shake. Forcing my eyes open, I blinked to focus on the indistinct shapes materializing from fog. Rainbow angels battled demons in a stained glass window. Marble statues leered at me from the shadows. An ornate crucifix cast its silhouette on the ebony saint bent over me. Her countenance was round and full, her nose broad. Pity glistened in her dark eyes.
"Youíre awake." A smile trembled on her lips. "Thank you, Jesus."
She seemed to be in close communication with the man on the cross. My upper body rested on her lap, my legs stretched on a shiny wooden floor. Lush breasts cradled my head. Her red blouse smelled of fresh baked bread, the tiny pearl buttons mesmerizing.
"I do declare you had me worried; you been so still-like."
Her thick dialect called to me from the past, but I didnít know if it was yesterday or years ago. I donít know who I am. I frowned, trying to remember. A trill of music scrolled through my mind. The woman gave a tentative smile. I started to smile back, but the scent of fear distracted me. My clothes reeked of fear.
Another fragrance-dusky red and delicious-sent a shiver through me. The rich aroma of her blood appealed to me on levels I didnít understand. The sensation was raw hunger mingled with passion. Beyond the blood-scent, the musk of old wood and incense, the perfume of religion, summoned a vision of a blond boy in blue velvet and white lace kneeling at an altar. As I grasped at the memory, like a wave retreating from the shore, something important slipped away from me.
The womanís admiring gaze drifted over my face. I wanted to touch her, tell her how much...how very much...I ached to kiss her black satin throat, but when I tried to lift my hand nothing happened. Terrified, I glanced at my hands. The bleached fingers were curled into dead claws. The hands once considered magic and beautiful were horrible.
Panic drew my knees toward my chest. "Oh, God, my hands canít be paralyzed."
The blow was physical, knocking the breath from me. If Iíd been struck blind, even deaf, I could still play, but if my hands were paralyzed-I was lost. Music was my beloved mistress. My piano alone stood between madness and me.
My companion shook her head, refusing to meet my wild-eyed gaze. "Shush now, you going to be all right. Mother Superiorís gone to call for help."
"Mother Superior?" Was I lying in a nunís lap? I was in a church, and that seemed totally absurd for some reason, but I was too terrified to laugh. Crisp dark curls peeked from beneath a blue bandana, not a wimple. "Youíre not a nun."
She stiffened as if Iíd offended her. "I come help the sisters out. I might be a nun some day."
The womanís expression softened. Lips pursed, she shook her head, dark eyes sad. Her pity mortified me. No one, since Iíd been that boy in velvets and lace, had seen me cry. Swallowing tears, I squeezed my eyes closed. The other feelings she excited, I couldnít deal with now. She stroked my cheek, and I remembered to breathe but refused to open my eyes. I couldnít bear the sight or the scent of her.
An internal map-an anatomical image of flesh, muscles and veins-spread across my eyelids. Hours, days, years might have passed, but it was probably only a moment or two. Tingling needled my numb arms, swept into my fingertips, relaxing the ugly claws. Holding my breath, afraid to hope, I willed my right hand to lift, felt the sensation of movement and opened my eyes. The hand rose, hovered, flopped on my abdomen. Dried blood crusted a jagged hole in my black velvet coat. Fresh blood warmed the center of the wound.
Ah, another shade of the dusky red fragrance. My blood possessed a wild bouquet, almost feral, and completely different from the womanís blood.
"See. Your hands is okay. You want a drink of water?" She rested a warm palm on my forehead, reached behind her with the other to produce a ruby and gold chalice. "Youíre not feverish. Chilled more like. Try to drink a little, hon."
Relief made me giddy. I smiled, imagining a geyser rushing from the hole below my chest. Mustnít laugh or Iíd never stop. To be sure, my situation was no laughing matter.
The water smelled mountain-spring fresh, and I was parched. When I placed my hands over hers, she inhaled, surprised how cold they were. I took a deep drink, the molten liquid searing my throat and bursting into flame in my stomach. Agony folded me over her arm. Bloody water spewed between my clenched teeth. She stroked my back while I retched, trying to vomit my guts on the church floor. At last, shuddering and weak, I collapsed in her lap.
"Poor angel." She fished a paper towel from her pocket and wiped my mouth. "We found you on the river bank, legs in the water. When we pulled you out, we thought you was-" She trapped her lip between her teeth, biting off the last word.
Dead whispered in my mind as if I had heard her thoughts. I glanced at the man on the cross. What miracle is this?
"We was looking for a little girl. Her momma called and said she was coming this way. Lucky I was here. Iím strong. I helped them get you up to the church."
The woman whoíd rescued me struggled for words of comfort. None came. Her gaze shifted. We both watched her fingers untangling blood-matted blond hair stuck to my jacket. As she worked, she hummed the hymn, Just As I Am.
"Youíre very kind." I brushed my fingers to her hand.
Her gaze lifted to mine, a wistful smile on her lips. "Are you English?"
"I think I am." I frowned at the effort to remember. "Yes."
"You talk like it." As gently as a mother with a child, she stroked the hair back from my forehead. "Do you hurt bad?"
I shook my head. The pain had lessened with each heartbeat. No longer warm and wet, the wound tingled, and Iíd seen it healing. Was I delirious?
"Talk to me some more if it donít hurt. I do just love an English accent. I used to dream of going off to England, meet a handsome man, you know."
Dreams misted the dark eyes drifting over my face. Her memories came to me clear as images on a movie screen. She thought I resembled a British musician in the rock band sheíd been watching on television the day the lawyer delivered adoption papers. That sinful day Mary Jones had cast her illegitimate son away, like little Moses, on a river of legal documents. She considered taking vows to atone for that sin.
My heart segued to the rhythmic throb of her pulse. I was too sick to question why I could hear her thoughts and simply closed my eyes to listen. In the limbo between wakefulness and sleep, the sorrow in her soul lapped at me. I wished somehow I could ease her pain.
Razor-sharp memory sliced through me, jerking me upright. "íodís teeth!"
Before the fall, Iíd been shot.
Rapid-fire images snapped before my eyes. I saw my Jag plunging over the guardrail at the top of the Cooper River Bridge. Now, in the silence of a church, I felt the wind whistling past my face as the force of the fall sucked the breath from my lungs and tried to pluck me from the convertible. Irrationally, Iíd clung to the wheel while my beloved roadster sank, in a slow rocking ballet, to the river bottom.
During that interminable swift plunge, I hadnít been afraid of dying.
Mary touched my arm. "Be still, hon, or youíre gonna start bleeding again."
I was in no danger of bleeding to death or dying from any natural cause. I knew why Iíd heard her thoughts, why the aroma of her blood bedeviled me. I knew who and what I am.
The blood staining her blouse was a miracle drug that could cure the most grievous of human diseases-and secure eternity for a predator. The wound that would have been fatal to a mortal had almost healed. Within hours after the ritual blood exchange, a fragile yet potent virus had mutated my DNA. Iíd never actually died; would never feel deathís cold hands. The Vampyre Effect was a transformation from one species to another. All so long ago. For almost four centuries, I had been a vampire.
The woman leaned over me. I heard the blood whispering in her veins, saw the jugular bulging with each strong heartbeat. Even the scent of my own blood fed the craving. Hunger wrenched my stomach, the need for blood shuddering over me in flashes of heat. The pain twisting inside me was a living thing-ugly, urgent, older than the world. In a vain attempt at control, I ground my teeth until my jaw ached. My hands clenched into fists, the tendons bunched like steel bands beneath the skin. I was losing it, my eyes turning red.
"Run, Mary," I panted, shoving her. "For Godís sake, run."
Her hands branded my shoulders. Need coursed through me.
Her brow puckered. "How did you know my name?"
"You look like a Mary," I gasped, trying to crawl away. "Bloody hell, run, woman."
Saliva broke beneath my tongue. My heart thundered like a cavalry charge. Fever stung my veins. Instinct twisted me around to face my salvation and my damnation. My lips parted to reveal the one unmistakable characteristic of my kind.
"Fangs," Mary breathed, clutching her cross. "Lord Jesus, save me. Youíre a demon."
I knelt in front of my savior, bowed my head over her heaving breasts to touch the cross to my lips. "Too late to run, too late to hide, and Mary dearest, your cross wonít save you."
I held her gaze, a slow smile parting my lips. Her eyes clouded, jaw slackening. Too weak to command my more esoteric powers, I could still mesmerize my prey. It was just too bloody easy. Vampires are the perfect predators. But I had a choice. Didnít I?
"Whatís your name?" She inhaled a long, slow breath, toying with my hair. "Youíre as beautiful as an angel."
Another wave of misery broke over me. She wasnít the only one who thought I looked like an angel. Once, the woman I love-the woman who didnít love me-believed I was an angel.
"My name is Morgan." I couldnít bring myself to say my second name, an angelís name.
Mary ran her finger down my cheek. "Pretty name, Morgan."
So simply, the seductive dance that would end in death began.
The pulse beneath her jaw and her breathing quickened. I was starved for living blood. Moth to flame, I bent over her, sucked her soft, dark skin into my mouth, teasing anticipation. My tongue traced the thudding artery. Mary whispered my name, and a tremor of desire shook me. I straightened, ripping her blouse from neck to waist. Pearl buttons popped from the soft cotton material, danced on the floor. Mary didnít cry out. She slow-blinked, her gaze fixed by my red eyes.
"Iíve been bad." She stroked my shoulders. "Sold my body to men. Had to."
"One does what one must to survive." I wisped my tongue over her lips.
Her mouth opened for my kiss, and, trembling, she melted into my embrace.