Authors: Jeanne Bannon
Beautiful Monster — The Hunt (Book 2)
Copyright © 2016 by Jeanne Bannon
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real in any way. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental.
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If her heart hadn’t stopped beating over two hundred years ago, Alina would have felt something akin to love for this place. It was the most famous city in the world—New York, New York! Though she did prefer her native Romania, and the rest of Europe to trounce around in, this city was perfect for her and ZoZo. The impish girl was an eye catcher for sure, with her wild red locks and crooked legs, but in Manhattan, the two of them walked down Fifth Avenue hardly drawing a glance. Alina wondered why she hadn’t visited before.
As they made their way past the gated and locked stores, she was pleased to see there were still people milling about on the streets so late into the night. Her nostrils flared as she passed a gaggle of young women, all spiky heeled and short skirted, despite the late fall chill. She turned to watch as they passed, cocking her head to enjoy the pattering of their heartbeats, a growl escaping her. A tug at Alina’s sleeve made her look down.
ZoZo stared up at her caretaker, shook her head, and whispered, “Nooooo.” Her eyes were large and filled with warning.
Alina smiled warmly. “Of course not, child. Don’t I always behave myself?”
ZoZo’s expression brightened, and she returned the smile revealing a mouth of crowded teeth. The girl reached for Alina’s long, slender hand and took it.
They walked for hours, Alina slowing her pace to ZoZo’s. The girl’s legs were short and uneven, giving her the waddle of a penguin. When she complained, Alina picked her up and cradled her charge in her arms, ZoZo’s large head rested on Alina’s shoulder. But as they neared their destination, a hotel in Chelsea, she insisted Zo walk the rest of the way. Soon the child could get some sleep, and she could plan.
Once in their tiny hotel room, ZoZo sat on the end of her bed. “Where?” she said, her voice gravely, too deep and unnatural for a child.
Alina knew what the imp was referring to and tapped the side of her neck. ZoZo promptly tilted her head to allow Alina access. With fangs at the ready, she expertly sunk into the girl’s jugular. Once sated, Alina pulled away and ZoZo, now exhausted, barely made it to the head of the bed and the waiting pillow before falling asleep.
Alina removed Zo’s tiny pink running shoes and pulled the sheets over the child’s crooked body. She kissed her on the forehead before taking a seat at a small desk beside the girl’s bed. On it was a newspaper and above the fold, a headline—Vampire-Style Serial Killings. Fifty-One Dead.
She didn’t need to read the article. She knew more than the reporters did; more than the cops even. However, Alina did look at the pictures all lined up, row after row. The victims were men, women and yes, even children. A grainy photo of a “person of interest” stared back at her. Her eyesight was better than even the keenest bird of prey. She knew that face and that long slender body, but couldn’t believe Alexei Baranovsky was capable of such viciousness. Was he a bastard, yes! Had he used her, played her, fooled her, yes! But she knew him well. That was why she’d been sent by Those on High to stop him.
A shake awoke Alina. She opened her eyes in the darkened room to see ZoZo standing on the bed beside her. She bounced up and down, giggling; her red curls flew high into the air and sprang back down, with each leap.
“Wake now,” ZoZo began to sing. “Wake, wake, wake.” Then she jumped onto her caretaker’s bed. Immediately, she rolled up a sleeve and offered her arm to Alina.
Alina grinned and cupped the girl’s face in her hand. She looked into ZoZo’s pale blue eyes and saw an eagerness to please. Where most would see a tiny, deformed monster, Alina saw beauty and generosity, and the only thing that kept her from letting loose the murderous creature living inside her.
“Thank you, sweet one. I’ll only take a little. You’ll need your strength today. We’re traveling north of the city, to our next stop.” She sunk her teeth into the girl’s wrist and drank. It was always difficult to stop but ZoZo was her lifeline, and she knew she must be careful with her, especially because of her size as the imp could easily be drained.
When they checked out of the hotel, the desk clerk remarked that it was an odd hour for anyone to be leaving. “No one checks out at three in the morning,” he’d said. Alina wanted to explain that she’d overslept and usually arose when the sun set, but that would take her down a road she didn’t want to travel. Although she would have taken delight in the clerk’s assumptions, and the fear that would accompany it, especially if she flashed her fangs with her smile. Instead, she didn’t bother to reply, only flicked long dark hair over a shoulder. ZoZo took her hand, and they made their way onto the street to a waiting cab. The clerk watched them leave; a stupid smile plastered on his face. Alina gave a flirty little wave before getting into the taxi, and ZoZo blew him a kiss.
Despite just having awoken from her catnap, ZoZo slept the whole way to their destination, the taxi ride lulling her back into dreamland. An hour and a half later, they finally arrived. After paying the fare, Alina lifted her charge, cradling ZoZo in her arms. The driver reversed out of the driveway, tires crunching on gravel.
The girl’s eyes blinked open. “Here?’ she rasped.
“Yes, my darling, we are.”
ZoZo struggled in Alina’s arms like an excited puppy. “Down,” she demanded.
Before Alina could place the girl gently onto the walkway, she fell from her arms, hitting the concrete and scraping a hole through her jeans. She cried out cradling her wounded knee and rocked back and forth. “Hurt, hurt, hurt,” she muttered.
Alina bent to her and smoothed the girl’s unruly hair, pushing it out of her face and wiping her tears. “It’s okay, Zo. You’re a big girl now. You can’t let a little scratch like that make you cry, right?” She lifted the imp’s chin with a finger to meet gaze and smiled. “Want me to kiss it better?”
ZoZo tilted her head and grinned. “Yes. Make better.”
Alina helped the girl to stand and gently brought the wounded knee to her lips, but instead of planting a kiss, she licked off the blood that had pricked to the surface. ZoZo wrapped stubby arms tightly around Alina and nuzzled her face into her neck. “Better,” she said into Alina’s hair.
“I’m so glad, my darling.” Alina held ZoZo at arm’s length. Still in a crouch, she tugged her curve-hugging beige and black dress, which had ridden high up her thighs, back into place. “Now, my sweet, see this house we’re standing in front of?” The girl nodded. “A very bad man lives here.”
ZoZo’s eyes grew to the size of silver dollars, and the tip of her thick tongue poked out between her lips. Alina knew she wanted to speak, probably was desperate to say something, but sometimes words didn’t come easily for the child.
“Now, now, don’t worry. We won’t be here long. I have a job to do. You know how that works, right?”
“Bad man, go bye-bye,” ZoZo said and laughed. It was a husky rasp more suited to a lifelong smoker than a child.
Alina laughed too. “Yup. If everything goes as planned, then you and I will be on our way back home in just a few hours. Now, see that big tree over there?” Alina pointed to a spot on the sprawling front lawn. The girl nodded. “I want you to stay there. Go and sit down on the other side of that tree and no matter what, do not come up to the house.”
A scent wafting on the breeze caught Alina’s attention. She sniffed the air, and her eyes flashed red. “He’s near.” There was no time to take chances, Alina scooped up the girl and flew to the spot behind the tree. Alexei wasn’t
the house as she’d hoped. She smelled blood, hot and thick. He was on his way home from a hunt.
ZoZo worked her lips in an attempt to form words, but Alina was quick to place a palm over her mouth and shake her head. The girl fell quiet and pressed herself as close to her caretaker as possible.
A moment later, Alina saw him, Alexei, the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on. She pulled her wits about her; she was not a love-smitten schoolgirl, she was one of the powerful ones, an ancient, hand-picked for this job. Alexei must be stopped. Even creatures of the night had rules, and Alexei was in violation of the most sacred—kill because you must, but do not be careless or greedy. The punishment for breaking that law was death.
Alina glanced up at the night sky. The moon was full and bright but the hours were waning. He was coming home to go to ground; that’s when she’d get him.
Alexei strode up the walkway. Alina heard the tap of his expensive shoes, noticed the cut of his suit. All at once, she had an urge to run her fingers through his thick black hair that hung loose, brushing his broad shoulders. She sunk her nails into the bark of the tree as if it were made of clay.
Alexei stopped. His head whipped in her direction.
ZoZo let out an ear-piercing scream when Alexei jumped around the tree. He now stood in front of them, eyes narrowed and glowering. “I smelled you from three blocks away,” he said.
ZoZo shivered behind Alina, clutching at her caretaker’s clingy dress.
Alina sneered at Alexei and then turned her attention to her charge. “It’s okay, my love. No harm will come to you.” Then back to Alexei, “Isn’t that right?”
“I would never hurt a child.” He tried to peek around Alina to catch a glimpse. Red hair flashed and then disappeared. “She is a child, isn’t she?” He said a look of puzzlement on his face.
“Yes, and if you touch her, I will kill you.” Of course, she was about to do that anyway. Gently, Alina pulled ZoZo out from behind her and held her hand. “She’s mine. No one touches her. Understand?”
Alexei’s eyes grew wide. “What is she?” His nose wrinkled in a look of disgust. “Where did you get ... that thing?”
Reflexively, Alina smacked Alexi on the side of the head, sending him back a step. “Don’t be mean!”
His eyes were wide as he brought a hand to his face, then they narrowed along with a furrowing of his brow. But Alexei’s glare was quickly replaced by a beautiful smile, full succulent lips turned up to show even, white teeth. He bent to the child’s level. “I’m very sorry if I hurt your feelings, young lady. Please accept my apologies.”
He stood to face Alina and asked, “Why are you here, lurking in my front yard?” There was silence between them for a moment, but again his smile returned as if he’d just reminded himself to play nice; a rude child learning his manners. He waved a dismissive hand. “Ah, never mind. Do you have time to come in for a visit? We have a little while yet before sunrise. You could go to ground here, with me, if you like. Does your little friend need such accommodations?” His tone was overbearingly pleasant, setting Alina’s teeth on edge. This was not the Alexei she remembered.
“No. But I’m sure you already know that. Surely, you can hear the beating of her heart. It’s pounding so hard right now that even
ears hurt.” She forced a smile. Her task might be easier than she’d anticipated; after all, he’d invited her into his home. Perhaps the sneak attack was the wrong approach. “We can stay for just a little while. I was in the city. My first time and, well, I wanted to see you.”
“You’ve missed me?” Alexei’s brows shot up with interest.
Alina placed a palm on his chest. “Yes, my love,” she purred, “I have.”
He laughed then and the burst of sound held an awkwardness Alina found disturbing. Alexei took a step backward, another unexpected gesture.
“Let’s go inside, shall we?” He held out a hand signaling for Alina and ZoZo to step in front of him. They made their way to the massive front door. Alexei turned the old brass handle and pushed it open.
“Interesting place you have here,” Alina said, as she walked down the short hallway with ZoZo in tow, peeking into the adjacent rooms.
“It’s turn-of-the-century. Very old, but not nearly as old as we are.”
Alina feigned amusement at his joke. Yes, the house was old, but it was also filled with stuff. She eyed Alexei. “I remember you as being a more
man. Looks like you’ve become a bit of a hoarder.”
“One tends to accumulate a lot of things over the centuries and it’s not as if I can hire a cleaning lady.” He laughed but it was without humor.
She’d insulted him. Oh well, he wouldn’t have to suffer hurt feelings much longer. He wouldn’t suffer anything at all very soon. In a way, she envied him. He’d have no more longings, no blood lust, no need to kill, no living a sort of half-life. Love didn’t come to creatures of the night often and there were things that she missed so much it almost made her cry; like the warmth of the sun on her skin. What had been so familiar once, such as the beating of her own heart, was now foreign. Alina missed that, too. She missed a lot about being human but she could not allow herself to think of those things now.
“Go now,” ZoZo muttered from behind her. The imp had taken to hiding behind her again.
“Now, now, we can’t be in such a hurry, Zo. We’ve only just gotten here and we wouldn’t want to insult our friend.” She threw Alexei a smile.
He gave a tight-lipped grin in return. “Do you want to look around the house, little girl?” Alexei offered with a flourish of his hand. “You are free to roam everywhere except for the basement.”
ZoZo looked up at Alina wide-eyed, her lips moved, but no sound escaped her. Alina knew the look. “It’s fine, child. Go and have fun. I...we, won’t be long.”
Alexei pushed a few boxes out of the way and grabbed up an armful of books and old magazines to form a path. “Let’s go into the front room, the parlor. I don’t much like that room but it’s less crowded with
. Haven’t been in there much since moving in. You’ll see why shortly.” He winked but there was unease in the gesture. A gesture she’d seen him make thousands of times. Alexei with his swarthy good looks. A man-child who could seduce anyone, male or female, with just a look. He’d changed. No longer did he exude sensuality even though he was still drop dead gorgeous.
A tingling down the back of her neck gave Alina pause, he was searching her thoughts. She would have to be sure to keep her barriers in place. Though older and stronger than Alexei, she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d learned a thing or two in the decades since they’d last been together. He was stronger now. She felt him probing around in her head, searching for the reason for her visit. Perhaps even searching for more. It was almost as if he didn’t know her and was just playing along.
“I’ve never been to New York. I wanted to visit and when I heard you were here, I had to stop by,” Alina said.
“And hide behind the tree in my front yard?” He laughed as he gestured for her to take a seat on one of the couches.
Alina didn’t respond, only sat and when she did, she looked up to see a stained glass tableau arcing across the top of the picture windows.
“Do you like it?” Alexei asked pulling a face. “I can’t stand the sight of it. It makes me sick.” He snuck a look and turned away.
It was a depiction of St. Francis of Assisi, a crucifix in one hand, the Bible cradled to his chest with the other, and a white dove perched on his shoulder.
“It’s... unique,” she answered.
“Not disgusting? There’s a Bible in it for Christ’s sake.”
Alina laughed. “A Bible? So what? By the way, you just said Christ, doesn’t saying that name upset you?”
He shook his head. “It’s a figure of speech, common these days.” Alexei sat in an old chair beside her, positioning it so his back would be to the window. “Remind me. How long has it been since we’ve last seen each other,” he said.
Alina felt her brow furrow and had to warn herself not to react. She put a hand to her face, smoothing away all signs of emotion. How could he not remember? They’d been together for decades. They’d been lovers! “Perhaps you’ll remember me better if I do this...” She stood and smoothed her dress, then sat in Alexei’s lap, long legs straddling him. She opened her mouth to kiss him and felt his fangs slip into place. Hers did the same. There was hesitation in his kiss even though she tried hard to arouse his interest, tongue slipping inside his mouth, her hips against his.
A low growl escaped him and his hands flew to her throat.
Long powerful fingers wrapped around her neck. “Who are you?” he hissed, lips peeled back, teeth bared.
“Who... are... you?” Alina had responded before blackness fell.