Hunter’s Hope by Alyssa Day

Chapter One

“I bet this never happened to Dracula,” muttered the man—now vampire—hanging upside down after falling off the roof of the Savannah riverfront hotel. He watched his keys and wallet fall out of his pockets and plunge to the street several stories below.

Again.

Hunter Evans was having a bad damn day.

Night.

“This vampire thing is not for weaklings,” Luke told him, his voice filled with laughter. “The first thing you learn is to keep your pockets empty.”

No. The first thing you learned was that the thirst was everything. All-consuming.

Fire.

They—the vampires who had Turned him—had promised that this would pass. That soon the thirst would be manageable. In time, it would be a mere background presence in his life. That he’d be able to eat normal food again. Drink a beer without gagging.

Be normal.

Almost normal.

He laughed, a sound so bitter it rasped like the screech of rusty nails being pulled from metal. Who was he kidding? He’d never be normal again.

Luke sighed. “I know, man. Believe me, though. It gets easier.”

Luke Calhoun had been Turned decades ago. He’d had plenty of time to adjust. Hunter had been a vampire for all of three weeks. Nothing at all was easy or even getting easier.

Most evenings, when he woke up out of a sleep so heavy he may as well have been dead or in a coma, he was afraid he’d actually turned feral, like a lion maddened by starvation. He woke up wanting to rip and tear and rend.

To drink.

Most of all, to drink.

“Why don’t you go back to the house and find a few more bags of blood? I know they keep plenty in the walk-in refrigerator in the basement,” Luke said in a crooning, singsong tone that sounded like what Hunter might have used with a rabid dog.

Before, when he was the man, not the rabid dog.

“I don’t want more bagged blood,” he growled. “I want it fresh and hot and pumping out of the vein that I sink my teeth into. And I’m disgusted by myself for wanting it. How can I ever get used to this? How can it ever get easier?”

Luke hopped down lightly onto the balcony of a darkened room. Hopefully an unoccupied room, or some tourist was going to get the surprise of a lifetime. Then he held out his hand and a tiny flame appeared above his palm.

“It gets easier,” he said again. “When I first became a vampire, this fire-starter power was so far out of my control that I nearly burned down an entire town. Nearly killed myself and my family. Ironic, a fire starter teaching a firefighter how to be a vampire, isn’t it?”

Former firefighter, it looks like.” With some effort, Hunter managed to right himself and climb onto the balcony. “And you said you nearly killed your family. Meara and Bane?”

Luke’s laugh was as bitter as Hunter’s had been. “No. Not this family. My human family.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing I plan to share,” Luke said flatly. “I’m tired of this. You’re on your own the rest of the night. Try not to kill any innocent humans.”

“What happens if I do?”

Luke hopped up onto the balcony railing and turned his head to look at Hunter. “If you do, you’re a murderer. Do you want to spend the next few hundred years with that on your conscience?”

Hunter’s throat tightened. “Few hundred years?”

But Luke just shook his head, leapt out into the dark night, and was gone.

Hunter blew out a frustrated breath and headed down to the street to find his keys and wallet. This time, though, he walked through the empty hotel room and out the door and then punched the button for the elevator. Nothing in the vampire handbook—was there even a vampire handbook? If not, should he write one?—mandated that he had to climb back down the outside of the building for twelve floors, although Luke or Bane would probably have something to say about it. He had been climbing around rooftops, learning the patrol routes, because part of his job now was to help his new family protect the city.

“Like Batman.” His innate sense of humor kicked in then, and he grinned a little. Batman. Bats. Vampires.

Heh.

The elevator door opened just then, empty except for a man and a woman who both looked like they were about a hundred years old. Hunter nodded politely and stepped in, pressed the Lobby button, and thought about flashing his new fangs just for fun, but it would probably send them into cardiac arrest. He wasn’t sure his attempt at CPR—something he’d done hundreds of times as a firefighter—would work all that well, since he still wasn’t completely in control of this new vampire strength.

And there were probably cameras in the elevator, so the news would be something like:

Missing Firefighter Crushes Elderly Couple’s Ribs for Fun

And wouldn’t Bane have a cow about that. Vampires were a big damn secret, after all.

“Freaking elevator music,” he muttered, the thirst squashing his momentary amusement.

The old man scowled at him, but, to Hunter’s surprise, the old woman peeked at him from behind her husband and flashed a cheeky grin. “If I were twenty years younger—”

“You’d still be old enough to be his grandmother,” the man grumbled, putting a possessive arm around his wife.

Hunter couldn’t help but grin a little, even sunk in a foul mood. When they reached the lobby, he stepped back for them to exit first, and the woman winked at him. “Whoever she is, she’s a lucky woman,” she whispered, chuckling when her husband snorted.

Right. How lucky a woman would have to be to meet a man whose main desire was to drain her dry.

Maybe he would have been better off dead.

As he started to step out, an odd-looking dog raced in front of him and darted inside the elevator.

“Marigold!” a woman’s voice called. “Marigold! Stop!”

Hunter looked up to see a flurry of color as a woman rushed down the hallway toward him. Or, presumably, toward the dog.

“She’s inside. She’s not going anywhere,” he said, moving to block the entry to keep the animal in, surprised to find himself amused for the second time in ten minutes. For only the third or fourth time in the weeks since he’d died.

“She might push the button for a floor, and then where would I be? Chasing her all over the hotel all night?” The woman, a colorful whirlwind of purple silk, wild red curls, and flashing green eyes, ducked past him and bent down. “You naughty thing! Hotels are dangerous! What if somebody tried to eat you?”

“This may not be a five-star hotel, but I doubt they’ve resorted to eating dogs,” Hunter drawled.

She lifted the animal into her arms and stood, turning to face him but still looking at the animal in her arms.

“Marigold is a raccoon, as you can see. And this is the South. They eat raccoons in the South, or haven’t you read Nathaniel Porter’s Field Guide to Local Fauna?”

“I…can’t say that I have,” he said slowly, because his brain cells seemed to be melting.

It was a raccoon.

In a hotel.

And the raccoon rescuer was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

She was nearly as tall as he was, so maybe five-ten. She had cheekbones that could cut glass, and her smile, directed at the raccoon, was wide and lit up her face. Her eyes were the brilliant green of a spring apple, and her mass of red curls reached nearly to her waist. The purple dress she wore was a complicated thing made of scarves or loose flutters of fabric, and the entire picture gave him the impression of a forest nymph or fortune-teller.

“A raccoon,” he finally said, simply because the situation seemed to call for him to speak, but he had no idea what the hell to say.

“Yes. As I said. If you’d move out of the way?” She finally glanced up at him. Her eyes narrowed, and her glossy red lips tightened. “Oh. I should have known it would be that kind of night.”

He knew she was talking, but he couldn’t quite make out the words or the meaning, because every single molecule of his body was suddenly, painfully focused on one thing and one thing only.

The pulse beating in her throat.

“What?” he finally managed.

“Are you listening?” She narrowed her eyes, but then a look of dawning comprehension spread across her face, and she sighed. “Oh. Oh, right. Well, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to learn the rules. I’m only available for consults from ten until two on Wednesdays, and this is decidedly not that.”

Suddenly, Hunter’s confusion had nothing to do with the thirst, as the meaning of her words penetrated his dazed mind.

“What? The rules?”

“Shush, Marigold,” she told the raccoon, which seemed to be trying to climb onto the woman’s shoulders and into her tangle of hair. “Yes, the rules.”

She glanced left and right and then leaned forward and whispered. “You see, I know what you are.”

Hunter rocked back a step. She knew? But how? He hadn’t flashed his fangs or done anything to expose his new nature…

“You know?”

She nodded, her beautiful eyes warm with something that looked a lot like compassion. “Yes, I know. I can sense when someone is…has passed on. I’m Alice Darlington. You may have heard of me.”

“I don’t think so,” he said slowly. Alice Darlington. It wasn’t a name he’d forget. And her face—damn. He was sure he wouldn’t forget that face.

A flash of what looked like resignation crossed her face so quickly he wasn’t sure he’d really seen it, but then she raised her chin. “Right. You just happened to show up in my elevator.”

But then she took a deep breath and shook her head. “I’m sorry. That was petty, especially in light of what must have happened to you when you were alive. You can come tell me what you need, just like everyone else. Just pop by between ten and two on Wednesday, okay? The rest of my time is my own and—”

“When I was alive?” How did she know he’d died? And he was damn sure still alive.

He jerked his head to the right at the sound of footsteps and laughter. People coming. But he needed this conversation to continue. He put an arm around Alice Darlington and gently guided her down the hall to a windowed alcove, trying all the while to ignore the scent of her hair and the pulse in her throat. He closed his eyes and reached desperately for control when he realized he didn’t want to let her go, because—somehow, some way—holding her was sending a warm sensation of peace through him.

And he hadn’t known a moment of peace since he’d gotten caught in the fire that had killed him.

When he opened his eyes and slowly exhaled, she was staring up at him, her green eyes suddenly enormous in her pale face.

“How are you so solid?” Her voice was barely a whisper; she trembled in his arms. “You’re manifesting this strongly, and you can’t be more than six months dead… Please stop touching me. I can’t help you if I’m afraid.”

Hunter immediately, reluctantly, dropped his arm from her waist and took two steps back. Manifesting? What the hell?

Maybe all of this was a strange dream he was having.

A dream about raccoons?

Nope, didn’t seem likely.

“Three weeks, not six months. How do you know about me?”

“I—It’s my gift.” She laughed, but it was a bitter sound. “My curse. I know you’re a ghost, but I can’t help you right now. Please—I have to go.” With that, she edged past him and raced off down the hallway, still clutching Marigold the raccoon, leaving Hunter standing there staring after her.

A ghost?

She thought he was a ghost.

And she had regular consulting hours with ghosts?

Her scent still floated around him, teasing his heightened vampiric senses, and then a real smile—the kind he hadn’t felt since before he’d become a vampire—spread across his face. To hell with Dracula, climbing around on buildings, and vampire lessons.

He was going to follow Alice Darlington.

His new life had just gotten a hell of a lot more interesting.