© Krista Heiser, All Rights Reserved.
This is a rough draft. It likely contains typos and other errors, and may not be copied, reproduced, or quoted in any form or format.
Makenna Wilkensen felt the darkling stir to life deep within her. The first tendrils of a thirst so compelling she would never completely slake it crept through her veins, demanding replenishment. Instinct created a pressure along the roof of her mouth and in her teeth.
Her mood, already soured from the last hour spent trying to balance the bookstore’s accounts, darkened even further. She glanced down at the calendar on her desk. November 10th. Early by two weeks and wholly unwelcome. As she studied the calendar she knew waiting for her next night off would become an agony. She’d have to make some adjustments to the store schedule.
Just as soon as she finished cashing out.
She recalculated the figures only to come up short once again. Damn it. She slammed her hands down on the oak desktop and cursed long and loud, her voice easily carrying over the jazz sweeping out of her computer’s speakers.
She needed to calm down. Getting out of the office and away from the source of her frustration would help. Like any other negative emotion, her anger lent power to the fledgling entity trapped within her. Her small outburst had quickened its awareness and heightened her captive senses.
Coffee mug in hand, she pushed away from her desk. The realization that she couldn’t trust her staff made her pause to lock the door behind her. “They have no idea how lucky they are I make it a policy to never kill my employees,” she mumbled as she slid the key into the pocket of her jeans.
As she moved in the direction of the stairwell leading to the main floor, she couldn’t help glancing longingly over her shoulder toward the reinforced steel door at the opposite end of the hall. It opened into a spacious three-story apartment. As the owner and sole tenant of the building, she had spared no expense in remodeling and decorating the space. She often retreated there when a little distance from her business became necessary.
She glanced at her watch. Her nightshift help would be leaving in an hour. She needed to resolve the monetary discrepancy and readjust the schedule before then. She didn’t have time to do more than fill her coffee cup.
The stairwell led to the rear of the bookstore where she had installed a trendy cybercafé. She could hear the clacking keyboards before she reached the landing. She pushed open the door and smiled in greeting to the customers who sat at the surrounding computers. A couple of them had become regulars and she knew them by name. They smiled or waved but didn’t break from their online pursuits.
Respecting their privacy, she moved silently past them and into the bookstore proper. As she moved through the labyrinth of bookshelves the smell of newly installed carpet competed with the rich aromas originating from the small café counter at the front of the store. Coffee dominated the other scents as she drew near.
“Among the living again?” Chelsie Roberts asked, grabbing the nearest coffee pot as Makenna approached the counter. “I just made this, so it should be nice and fresh.”
“Thanks,” Makenna said, watching the dark brew fill the mug as she considered the irony in the sales clerk’s innocent question. She’d never been among the living. She had been created a vampire and would always remain one. She smiled and gripped the mug with chilled fingers, savoring the warmth emanating through the ceramic. “Let’s just say I’m temporarily free of my crypt.”
Chelsie laughed at the pun and returned the coffee pot to its rightful resting spot as Makenna inhaled the aromatic bitterness of the house blend, delighting in the very real pleasure the smell gave her. The brew couldn't sate her darker thirst but she'd enjoy every last drop. She made sure to carry the best quality blends.
“Does that mean you're done balancing?”
“I wish. Unfortunately, it’s not looking good. Either I don’t know how to use a calculator or someone’s ripping me off.” Makenna took a sip, thanking her regenerative healing powers for their quick response to the sting of burned taste buds. “I’m hoping it's me. I’d hate to fire anyone this close to Christmas.”
Chelsie grimaced but looked as innocent as a newborn babe, which Makenna believed she was. “Any idea who it might be?”
"No, not really." Makenna had her suspicions but she had no desire to trade in gossip with an employee, not even one as likeable as Chelsie. Especially when she didn’t have any proof.
Hoping to distract the growing curiosity she could see in Chelsie’s eyes, Makenna redirected her thoughts to a more mundane topic. "How’s business been so far tonight?"
The bookstore had opened a year ago and, although most of her serious concerns had been laid to rest, Makenna wasn't naïve enough to think the store was free and clear. The area had earned a poor reputation for commerce in the past and it was taking time to overcome the stigma. People didn’t trust the neighborhood after dark. They expected thugs on the streets, homeless sleeping in the alleyways, and prostitutes grouped together on the corners.
The effort to clean up the city’s image had been made possible only through great effort. The local University had added student housing on their downtown campus. City planners, taking this influx of viable consumers into account, had worked long hours trying to bring large and small business alike to the area.
Makenna had been one of many to take advantage of the opportunity. She had stumbled across an online article and, in less than twelve hours, she had decided to take a chance in moving here and opening the store. Luckily, it seemed to be paying off. Business was good and getting better. Her nocturnal habits and the odd hours she kept coincided with the needs of the nearby students.
“It’s been pretty steady,” Chelsie said, sipping from her lipstick-stained cardboard cup. "Not too bad for a Tuesday anyway."
Makenna knew by smell Chelsie had filled her cup with hot chocolate and not coffee. Another sign the darkling had emerged; her heightened senses would continue to sharpen until she satisfied her body’s needs.
She tried not to think about the thirst. “No problem costumers?”
While not likely, the possibility existed. The late hours attracted trouble-makers as well as honest citizens. On more than one occasion Makenna or one of her employees had been forced to either take action or pick up the phone.
“Not a one.”
“Good. Let’s hope it stays that way.” She was about to retreat to her office and the accounting books when the door opened, ushering in more than the brisk November air.
The man might have been a model with those cheekbones and that chin. It was his eyes, though, that commanded attention. Even at this distance the bright blue irises stood out in stark contrast to his black hair and tanned complexion.
Tall, dark and handsome took off his gloves and shoved them into his coat pockets. His eyes scanned the bookstore. With a determined stride he moved past table displays, end caps, and bargain piles and straight into the horror/suspense shelves.
Chelsie sighed, her eyes admiring his backside as he disappeared into the horror section. She flashed Makenna a wicked smile. “He’s gorgeous, isn’t he?”
Makenna nodded. “Yes, he is.”
“He’s my English prof. Every woman in his class has the hots for him, married or not.”
Makenna could appreciate the reaction. She felt a little hot herself. “I’ve never seen him in here before.”
“Me, either, but he could come in before the late shift begins,” Chelsie pointed out, shifting her position in an attempt to keep him within her sights.
Makenna refused to admit she catered to the darkling’s wanton reaction as she flashed her employee a wicked smile. The thirst wasn’t the only manifestation which accompanied the darkling’s emergence. “Maybe I should find out.”
Chelsie smiled knowingly. ”Good luck. He’s not much on flirting. Some of the guys even think he’s gay. The way most women throw themselves at him and he hardly seems to notice, it might be true.”
Makenna’s gaze roamed over his broad shoulders, tight ass, and everything in between. “That would be a complete waste.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Chelsie said, reluctantly turning her attention to a mousy coed who had approached. “Hi, what can I get for you?”
Makenna slipped away, leaving her employee to her work. Coffee cup in hand, she walked across the bookstore, noticing more than one admiring glance directed at the handsome professor. It seems she and Chelsie hadn't been the only ones to notice his entrance. The girls on the computers monitored his progress with hungry eyes, as did a couple of young women seated around the café's small, metal tables.
When Makenna approached, the man looked up from the jacket of the horror novel in his hands, a polite smile fixed in place. His eyes locked on hers and Makenna felt something spark between them in that instant. Yet, his expression and body language told her he either hadn't felt it or refused to acknowledge it.
She could taste the pheromones; the darkling’s ascendance made her sensitive to their presence. His heartbeat pounded in her ears and the hormones began producing in excess, signaling her body on what would normally be a subconscious level. She thought of Chelsie's comment and had to smile. The man was far from gay.
Feeling empowered by his reaction, she stepped closer and glanced down at the book in his hands. The title brought an ironic grin to her lips. “Hm. A vampire fan?”
He didn’t retreat but his body language told her he meant to keep his distance. He glanced down at the glossy jacket and a rueful smile appeared. “Research.”
His answer roused a wicked delight in the darkling. She’d happily help him with any research he might be conducting. She offered him her hand and a sensual smile, “Makenna Wilkensen. I own The Scriptorium.”
His firm grip created chaos within her body.
Her hand in his made his blood surge through his veins; the pounding of his heart resounded within her ears. “Gabe Anderson.”
“Pleased to meet you, Gabe. Is this your first visit?”
He shook his head, dropping her hand when he realized he had held it a moment longer than necessary. He seemed perturbed. “No, I’ve stopped by once or twice. I work at the University.”
She nodded, “So my Sales Clerk said. You're an English professor?”
He nodded as he glanced over her shoulder, his gaze seeking and finding the petite brunette behind the café counter. “Chelsie Roberts. Intro to Prose Fiction.” He met Makenna’s eyes again. “She’s a nice girl. Good student, too.”
“I’ll be sure to tell her.” She flashed her dimples, knowing full well how they affected the male populace. "Perhaps I can help you with your research. I happen to know the title of every vampire book we carry."
“Hazard of ownership?”
“Call it a hobby but the truth is it makes restocking much easier,” she said.
He smiled and looked down at the book in his hands. “I’m in need of vampire fiction and non-fiction. I haven’t had a chance to look around much but I assume you carry both?”
“I do and I’d be happy to make some recommendations, Dr. Anderson.”
“Please, call me Gabe. I’m not a doctor yet but, even if I were, I’d rather have people use my given name.” His self-conscious grin gave him a boyish appeal. He relaxed his stance. “Doctor seems a bit pretentious. It’s not as if I save lives or anything.”
Makenna took the book from his hand, scanned the title, and assumed her professional mien. “Are you looking for fiction that sticks to the legends or are you interested in some of the more inventive stories?”
He shrugged, “I’m not sure. Perhaps a little of both would be a good idea. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what I’m looking for. I’m hoping I’ll recognize it when I see it.”
Her curiosity became as aroused as her body. She hoped the latter didn't show as she handed the book back to him. “While I won't complain if you buy this at full price, I also carried this one in the Used section upstairs.”
“Used would be great,” he said, glancing at the small sign posted above the stairwell leading upstairs. “I tend to forget you sell used books.”
She laughed, her amusement real, as she glanced toward the large window panes facing the street. The word Used was only slightly smaller than New. “Too subtle then?”
He shared in her laughter. “No, I’m sure it’s just me.”
They had to walk past the counter where Chelsie struggled to appear nonchalant. The high-wattage smile she flashed at Gabe made him pause, his smile politely professional. No doubt about it; he wouldn't be forgetting she was his student. “How are you, Chelsie?”
“Oh, I’m good. A little tired but it’s late, you know?”
He nodded, not bothering to look at the neon clock hanging on the wall above her head. “Well, try to get some sleep before class. I wouldn’t want you falling asleep on me.”
Chelsie shook her head, her expression becoming quite somber despite his teasing tone. “I would never sleep through your class, Professor Anderson.”
Makenna saved him from further fawning by moving into the stairwell. She caught Chelsie’s eye as he obediently followed and tried not to smile. The girl looked positively green with envy. “If you need me for anything, Chelsie, I’ll be upstairs.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
Makenna started up the stairs, the realization he had no where to look but at her derriere heightening her awareness of his proximity. When they reached the second floor she led him through the maze of stacked books, some tattered and worn, others in near perfect condition. The room had a distinct, aged paper smell.
“Wow. I should have wandered up here before now. This is amazing.” His eyes roamed the room, lingering every now and then as something snared his interest. The used section of the bookstore was only slightly smaller than the new books displayed on the first floor. “How long have you been trading in used books?”
“I’ve only been here a year,” she reminded him.
“Really?” His gaze settled on her.
“You must be new to the area,” she said, leading him toward the back corner. The soft lighting on this floor gave off an ambient glow, creating shadows between the rows of books.
“I moved to here in August, right before I started teaching.”
Four months. No wonder she hadn’t seen him before, especially if he frequented the store during daylight hours. “And what do you think of it?”
Her periphery vision caught the slight shrug. “It’s okay. I’m more of a country person so living in the city, even one as small as this one, has been a bit of an adjustment.”
She moved along the row of books, her finger trailing along creased bindings. “Here. This one is pretty good. And this one.” She tapped the outward facing spines, her French manicure in marked contrast against the dark jackets.
He paused to collect the recommended books. “Thanks, this is really quite helpful.”
She plucked one from the shelf and turned to face him. She held it to her chest, holding his gaze with her own. The secluded privacy of the upper rooms, combined with the subtle lighting, put crazy ideas into her head. The darkling wondered what he would do if she pinned him to the bookshelves and had her way with him?
Instincts honed over the last century raged forth. Without conscious thought she projected her will upon him, intent on assuming control of his thoughts and, through them, his body. Lust, both for his body and his blood, filled her.
She bounced off an impenetrable barrier.
A flicker of pain flashed across his face. He lifted a hand to rub the bridge of his nose as if a headache had suddenly hit him square between the eyes.
What the hell?
The darkling howled but Makenna refused to relinquish control. She dampened its reaction to a wry smile and held out the book. “I can also special order anything you might need.”
He held her gaze for a moment and she could see how he struggled against his attraction to her. He might be interested—very interested if his pheromone production had anything to say about it—but he wasn’t going to act upon the attraction.
A man with morals? Oh, he just got better and better. It had been centuries since she had had a true challenge.
“Thank you.” He glanced at the book she offered him, grasping it without touching her hands. Not even a casual caress. “This is a good start.”
Makenna glanced at his hands. No ring. No tell-tale indentation of a recent breakup. Yet, something held him back, something significant enough to drain all the warmth from his expression.
Perhaps he had sensed her psychic probe. The idea disturbed her for reasons should couldn't quite articulate. She decided to retreat, confident this wouldn't be their last meeting. Her store was simply too convenient for him to avoid it, especially when she had given him no reason to do so. “Well, I should get back to work. It was nice meeting you, Gabe.”
“It was nice meeting you, too.” He glanced down at the book in his hand. “Thank you for the recommendations.”
“Anytime. The non-fiction section isn’t as large but you should be able to find a couple of good titles in the back corner, there.” She pointed in the general direction he would need to go.
Makenna didn’t want to walk away but she forced herself to leave him to his shopping. She did have work to do. Besides, he seemed the type who would react more to a subtle seduction than blatant propositions. Despite the mutual attraction he had not responded to her on more than a biological level. His body wouldn’t require convincing but his mind and heart certainly would.
As she neared the stairwell she glanced over her shoulder. He had resumed shopping but she sensed his awareness of her. She felt it along her skin.
The sensation faded as she descended the stairs.
“Well?” Chelsie asked. She brushed cookie crumbs from the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand. Curiosity shone in her eyes.
Makenna moved behind the counter and topped off her coffee. She grabbed a cookie for herself, grateful she could enjoy the taste of it even if it would be unable to satisfy her body’s true hunger. “Well, I can tell you one thing for sure.”
Chelsie met her eyes.
“He’s not gay.”