Chapter One: The Choice (ALM)

Chapter One: The Choice

In one hand, the man held a pill bottle. In the other, he held a gun, pointed at her. 

“Your choice.” 

“That’s insane,” Fen said, her breathless voice catching on the cold night air, words barely carrying. 

He’d stepped out of the alley’s darkness, scaring her even before she spotted the gun, but what kind of mugger told you to choose how you wanted to die? 

Hand hidden behind her back, she fumbled for the doorknob of the bookstore. She’d pulled the door closed and it should have locked automatically, but maybe this once… 

She found the knob. It didn’t turn. 

Fuck. 

“Your choice,” the asshole repeated. As if he were being helpful, he stepped closer, into the glow cast by the light over the door, and offered her the bottle.

What the hell? 

She’d imagined being murdered on her way home from work before, but she’d pictured a desperate junkie, strung-out on meth, a knife in his shaking hand, or maybe a skinny teenager with empty eyes undergoing a gang initiation rite. 

This guy wore a frickin’ suit. A nice suit! His hair was neatly cut, his teeth white and straight. Perfect nose, perfect mouth, perfect cheekbones. He even had nice eyelashes, dark and lush around his green eyes. 

And he looked familiar. Not like she knew him, but as if she’d seen him before. 

“Do I know you?” she asked, mouth dry. 

She’d dropped her keys when he’d surprised her. Could she scoop them off the ground before he attacked? Her legs felt weak, her knees made of water, her chest heavy with a smothering fear. 

His lips tightened, but he ignored the question. “I have no interest in hurting you. You can take the pills or I can shoot you. It’s more efficient for me if you take the pills, but choose, or I’ll choose for you.” 

The barrel of the gun lifted.

“Efficient? You want to murder me efficiently?” A trickle of anger broke through Fen’s frozen state. 

“This is just a job, miss,” he said. 

Suddenly Fen was furious. Her voice much stronger, she snapped, “You’re making a mistake. I don’t have anything worth stealing.” 

She stuffed her shaking hands into her jacket pockets, wishing desperately that she had a gun of her own. Or something, anything, that she could use to fight back.

“I don’t intend to steal from you. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

Her hand closed around her lucky crystal. Too bad it didn’t have jagged edges. Throwing the smooth, rounded stone at him would barely leave a bruise. 

Oh, help. Fen’s mind raced. “Are you talking about the other night at Zach’s place?” she asked, hating the tremor in her voice. 

The asshole didn’t answer. 

“He would never agree to this.” Her hand tightened into a fist. 

She and Zach were friends. Okay, maybe not exactly friends, more like flirtatious. Zach had classic bad-boy appeal—dark eyes, shaggy hair, excellent ass. He was a bike messenger, living life a little too close to the bone, taking a few too many risks. 

Maybe for him she had good-girl appeal—the neat and proper bookstore clerk, working nine-to-five, studying six-to-twelve. Or maybe he’d seen hints of the bad girl she’d once been under the surface. 

Maybe he’d caught a glimpse of her tattoos. The one on her shoulder blade sometimes peeked out of her shirt collars and in summer the ivy pattern twining up the back of her leg was easy to spot. 

“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” the Perfect Asshole said. He turned the pill bottle in his hand as if about to put it away. “Last chance.” 

“Wait!” Fen said, despair near the surface. “I won’t tell anyone. I didn’t see anything. And I don’t care. So he’s dealing drugs, so what? It’s none of my business. It’s not like I’d go to the police.” 

The Perfect Asshole blinked at her. Did he look surprised? She couldn’t tell. 

But he frowned and his voice was dry as he said, “I’m doing a job. I don’t negotiate with the target. Pills or pain, your choice.” 

Fen swallowed hard. 

That was a really sucky choice. 

Help me, please help me, she thought, closing her eyes. She didn’t know who she was begging, but she wasn’t going to beg her assailant. 

Hating him with a passion colder than the Chicago wind, she extended her hand in his direction. “Pills.”

“Good choice.” He tossed the bottle to her, an underhanded throw that landed precisely in the center of her palm. 

Her fingers closed around it. “What are these?” 

“Take them all. I’ll wait.” 

She wanted to say that wasn’t an answer to her question, but she drew herself up, back straight, chin held high and said, as regally as she could, “Water?” 

A hint of a grin crossed his face and he dipped his head as he said, “Sorry, miss. They’re not large.” 

Fucking asshole. Slimeball. Cretin. Moronic, idiotic, bastard pretty boy. Total creeper psychopath. 

Her mental diatribe wasn’t helping her feel any better as she forced the lid of the bottle down and swiveled it open. She dropped the cap on the ground and let the first few pills spill out into her hand. 

The bottle was nearly full, at least thirty or forty pills in it. Was she really going to take each and every one of them, knowing each one would bring her closer to death?

She wasn’t ready to die. 

Five years ago, she might not have cared. She might have been grateful. This asshole could have done the deed she hadn’t quite managed to do herself. 

But today—today she was getting her life together.

Okay, so she was way behind the curve, still studying for her high school equivalency when kids her age were graduating college. But she was getting there, even if it was an inch at a time. 

And twenty-one was too damn young to die. 

“How fast will it be?” she asked, keeping her voice steady with an effort. 

“Pretty quick if you’ll get on with it.” He raised his gun again. “I don’t need any melodrama about this, all right? Believe it or not, I’m being nice.” 

Fen put the first pill in her mouth and grimaced as she swallowed. It was bitter, unpleasantly so. Shouldn’t it be coated with something? But maybe he’d gotten some kind of deliberately fast-acting poison, rather than easy painkillers. 

“Hurry it up.” He glanced over his shoulder into the darkness of the alley behind him. 

For a split second, Fen thought about rushing him. Maybe she should fight. She didn’t want to get shot, but why make her death easy on him? 

But then his cold eyes returned to her and the moment was gone. She took another pill, trying to swallow it faster, without tasting, and another, then stuffed half a dozen in her mouth at once. 

It was too much, the taste disgusting, her mouth too dry to swallow. She couldn’t get them down. She choked, coughing, spitting them out. More pills spilled out of the bottle she still held, landing on the asphalt. 

“Damn it,” the asshole said. 

“Oh, shit. Sorry.” Fen covered her mouth. 

Had she really just apologized to the guy who was murdering her? Something about the thought struck her as funny and she giggled. “Oops.” 

Holy shit, these were good drugs. They were already affecting her, a rush of sensation flowing through her body. She felt like she was floating, her feet lifting off the ground, levitating into the air. 

She lifted a foot to check. Nope, still standing. She set it carefully down again. 

“Pick them up,” her murderer ordered. 

“Five second rule,” she answered. “Three, four, five. Sorry, can’t take those now. They’ve got germs.” She waggled a finger at him, the motion causing her to sway. 

“Goddamn lightweight,” he muttered. 

Fen looked down at herself and then back at him. “Um, yeah?” 

Talk about stating the obvious. She’d always wanted to be taller and definitely curvier. Breasts would have been nice. Instead she had the build of a 4th grade girl, short, skinny, flat-chested. 

His lips tightened, but he didn’t comment. He nodded toward the pills on the ground. 

“Pick them up,” he ordered again, gun lifting. 

Fen considered. 

Pills, gun, right. Getting shot would hurt. She didn’t want to hurt. So she should pick up the pills. Logical, but somehow it seemed awfully complicated. 

She crouched. She eyed the pill bottle she still held, then set it carefully on the ground, and reached for a pill. 

“What happens here?”

The voice was male, but young. 

Was that a boy? 

Fen turned her head in the direction of the voice, past the dumpsters and toward the street. She should tell him to run. Guy with gun, don’t come in here. Yep, that’s what she should say. 

“Run,” she said, but the word was barely a breath. She could hardly hear it herself. She took a deeper breath to try again, putting a knee on the ground to steady herself, and looked up. 

A boy, barely dressed, his hair wet, was confronting the asshole in the suit. 

She blinked at him. Where was his shirt? His jacket? It was cold, mid-winter in Chicago, but his chest was bare. His hands were up, not as if he feared the weapon, but as if he were ordering the asshole to back off. 

The asshole yelped and dropped the gun, shaking his hand. He backed away, then disappeared down the alley. 

Huh. That was strange. 

Fen let her hand drop to the ground. The asphalt was cold under her fingers. 

What was she doing again? Pills. Right, pills. Pick them up. Take them. That was what she was doing. And why was that exactly? 

“Are you well?” It was the boy’s voice. 

Fen looked up at him. Maybe he wasn’t a boy. He looked bigger than he sounded. Who was he? 

“May I help you?” he asked her. 

Crack. 

Fen swayed upright, onto one knee, covering her ears. Shit, that noise hurt. 

The boy’s mouth fell open. 

His hand lifted like he would say the pledge of allegiance. Very patriotic, but maybe not the best time. 

But something oozed through his fingers. He crumpled, falling to his knees beside her and pausing there, face twisted in agony. 

It was a good face. Boyish, but nice. Not like that other guy’s. And where had he gone? 

“Call for help.” The boy gasped out the words.

Fen blinked at him. What? Then she pinched herself hard, taking a bit of skin on the top of her wrist and twisting it brutally. Something was happening. She needed to focus. The pain gave her a moment of clarity. 

Man, going to kill her.

Boy, appearing out of nowhere. 

Loud noise. 

The gun. 

“911,” she said, her entire mouth feeling stiff and numb. “Got it.” 

She looked around her. Her phone was in her bag, and her bag must be here somewhere. 

“No.” The boy moaned. Green ichor was seeping through the fingers clasped across his chest. “Call… crystal. Use…” 

His words were faint. She could barely hear them. But the green was distracting her anyway. 

Green? Great, she was hallucinating. Weird hallucination, though, bleeding green.

God, these were good drugs. 

“You need an ambulance,” she tried to say. The words didn’t sound right to her own ears and she squeezed her eyes shut, trying to make sense of the sounds. 

She stuffed her hands in her pockets. Her crystal felt cool under her fingers. Help, she thought. The logical part of her brain wanted the thought to be frantic, but it wasn’t. 

She felt quite peaceful. Placid, even. 

The boy tilted sideways, landing on the ground. 

Help with what? The thought sounded surprised. 

The boy? She thought back. The one who’s bleeding green? The one who’s shot? The one who’s…

The thought stopped there. 

Dying. Was he dying? Was she dying? She didn’t know. 

She let go of her crystal and put her hands down, ending up on all fours next to the boy. She could feel the asphalt under her fingers, the hard road under her knees. She could see grey pavement, brick walls, the metal dumpsters, the boy’s flesh, the green blood leaking from the hole in his chest. 

He opened his eyes. 

“Who are you?” he whispered. His lips, they were so pale. White almost. 

Fen stared at them in fascination. White lips, green blood.

God, these were good drugs. Seriously good drugs. Except for the part about them killing her. 

“I can’t,” she whispered in return. 

“Can’t what?”

“911. I’m sorry.” She folded down, down, down, until all she could feel was the cold pavement. She needed to find her phone. She needed to call for help. She needed… 

…to go to sleep.

 

Fen didn’t want to wake up. 

She was so comfortable, so cozy. 

But her instincts nudged her, pushing insistently at her sleepy mind. 

Something was wrong. 

She was warm. Solidly warm, as if every bit of air danced at the same seventy-two degrees, no drafts from the windows, no uneven blasts from the ancient radiator. Her blankets weren’t weights over her, piled high the way they should be, but a gentle pressure, while the soft sheets caressed her skin. 

Her bare skin. 

Fen stiffened, keeping her eyes closed with an effort. 

What the hell? 

Where were her clothes? Where was she? 

She peeked out between her eyelashes, not fully opening her eyes. 

Sunlight. A lot of it. Far more than her apartment ever saw, more than any place she’d ever lived saw. 

Warmth, a comfortable bed, sunlight—she was definitely not home. 

Fuck. 

Had she picked some guy up? Gone back to his place? 

But she didn’t do that. Not anymore. Back in the day, maybe. After her mom died, she’d been flailing. If a guy wanted to pretend he liked her for a few hours, hell, she took it. 

But it never worked. They were using her and she was using them. Her bitterness, grief, anger… she’d learned quick enough that sex wasn’t a band-aid, and that the world didn’t hold a band-aid big enough to cover what she’d lost. 

So what the hell was she doing here? 

She dredged up her last memory. 

The bookstore. She’d been at the store. And then… the alley? Her brain felt fuzzy, her thoughts heavy as if she couldn’t quite kick them into gear. 

She needed coffee. Not just a cup, an ever-flowing pot.

“I’m aware that you are awake.” 

The voice—deep, dark, determined—sent a shockwave ricocheting from her brain down her spine straight to her core. It was like being drenched in warm chocolate, a complete overload of flavor, entirely captivating. 

Her eyes flew open and she turned her head to the man standing by the side of the bed. 

Holy hell, who was he?

Flawless skin. Gorgeous golden eyes. Drop-dead beautiful. 

She licked her lips. 

His arms were folded across his chest. The controlled energy in his body made it look as if he would start tapping his foot with impatience any second, but he was motionless. “What are you doing here?”

“Who are you?” she whispered. 

“You have got to be kidding me.” The words sounded wrong in his voice. He should have been reading romantic poetry. He glared at her. “I ought to be asking you that. Does your mother know you’re here?”

“My mother is dead.” She tried to keep her voice flat, but didn’t succeed. 

“What?” He recoiled, arms dropping, stepping away from her. 

This guy wasn’t the boy who’d saved her. And he also wasn’t the creepy dude who’d been planning to kill her. Who the hell was he? 

“Which city are you from?” he demanded.

She pushed herself upright, clutching the blankets to her chest. What a weird question. Why did he want to know that? But her mouth opened and answered automatically before her brain could override it. “Zion.” 

“Zion,” he repeated. “Zion?” 

“Zion, Illinois,” she said, starting to feel annoyed as she glanced around the room. 

Huge windows. Enormous. And a fantastic view out over Chicago and the lake. Fancy furniture, a deep, plush carpet, and the bed she sat on was bigger than bedrooms she’d lived in. 

He didn’t respond, just stared at her. 

“Suburb of Chicago? It’s not exactly Timbuktu,” she added, and when he still didn’t say anything, “Although maybe it’s Timbuktu for rich people.” 

No way did a guy who stayed in a place like this spend time in her former hometown. Not that it was a bad place. She’d definitely lived in worse since she’d left. But it was nothing like this. 

His expression unreadable, his voice abrupt, he asked, “What is your name?” 

“Fen,” she told him, tilting her chin up and scooting back in the bed. She wasn’t scared, she told herself. Waking up in a strange rich guy’s bed didn’t happen every day, but she had nothing to be afraid of. Right? 

“Fen?” he repeated.

“Are you going to echo everything I say?” she snapped.

She’d just find her clothes. They were nowhere in sight, but maybe he was the kind of guy who hung his crap up every night. Or maybe some maid type did that for him. Either way, she’d find them and clear out of here. He must want her gone as badly as she wanted to be gone. 

“Sorry.” A little smile played around his lips. “It’s an unusual name. Felicia.” 

It was her turn to glare at him. How did he know her name? He must have looked in her bag, found her ID. “Don’t call me that.” 

“It’s your name, isn’t it?” 

“I go by Fen,” she told him, her voice firm. She wasn’t scared, she told herself. She wasn’t scared. But her mouth felt dry and something drove her to add the explanation. “It’s Felicia Elizabeth Naylor. My full name. My initials are Fen. I like it better than Felicia.” 

He spread his fingers as if letting something go and said, “What can you tell me about what happened last night?” 

“Last night?” 

He opened his mouth and then closed it. A corner of his lips quirked up. “The time period preceding your arrival here, yes.” 

She stared at him. Her brain still felt fuzzy, but she thought he might just have made a joke. “Was that funny?” 

“Apparently not.” He took a step closer to the bed. “But I didn’t wish to provoke you by continuing to echo your words.”

Fen rubbed her face. Okay, he was making jokes in his incredible voice and almost, sort of, smiling. And he hadn’t killed her yet. So maybe he wasn’t on the side of the asshole who’d tried to murder her last night. Maybe he’d helped her and the boy? 

“The boy,” she said, remembering the blood. “What happened to him? Is he okay?” 

“Injured. Did you do it?”

“Did I—?” Fen’s eyes widened. Still clutching the blanket, she scooted all the way across the bed until she could slide out on the opposite side from Amazing Voice Guy. She stood, trying to look dignified while simultaneously yanking the blanket free and wrapping it around herself. 

“No, I didn’t. And if you thought I did, you should have called the police.”

Would that have been better? Yeah, maybe. Or maybe not. The thought of explaining to the police about the asshole, the pills, the gun, even her suspicions of Zach, wasn’t a pretty thought. Would they believe her? She’d sound like a crazy person.

“I still can if you’d like.” He hadn’t moved from where he stood, but his eyes had narrowed and his mouth was no longer smiling.

“What I’d like is my clothes. My clothes and to get out of here.” Fen knew she must look like an idiot standing in a blanket, her hair tangled, her face sleepy, make-up a total mess. It made it tough to sound as firm as she felt. But she wanted to go home. 

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” 

“Why not?” Her voice cracked on the words. 

“My brother bled extensively. Much of the blood ended up on you. Your clothes were soaked in it. They’re being cleaned now, but I cannot say they will ever be wearable again.” 

Fen swallowed, imagining the scene he’d found in the alley. The darkness, the blood, her unconscious body, his brother wounded and bleeding next to her. She shuddered. 

“Is he in the hospital? He saved my life, I think.” 

“Can you tell me about that?” he asked. His voice was soothing, quiet, as if he were gentling her like a stray dog. 

“I…” Fen closed her eyes. She wanted her clothes. She wanted to go home. She didn’t want to be here. But when she opened her eyes again, she told him everything she remembered, as coherently as she could. 

“I see,” he said when she was done. 

If he did, it was more than she saw. 

“If you can get me something to wear, I’ll get out of your way.” Home, home, she wanted to go home. She wanted her own dingy walls around her, not this glossy splendor. 

“I’m afraid that might not be possible.” 

She bristled. “What does that mean?” 

“Someone wants to kill you, yes?” 

Did he have to put it that way? It sounded so bleak. And so not American. What was the deal with ending a sentence with a question? Was that part of the thing with his voice? His accent—if he had one—was barely noticeable, but something about the way he said his words was subtly different. Is that what made him sound just so, so delectable? 

“Are you American?”

His eyebrows lifted. “Does it matter?” 

“Maybe.” 

He was still for a moment, unnaturally so. Fen shifted the blanket higher, brain finally starting to shake off the sleepiness and the drugs.

Hell. 

Something about him had her scared again. He was scary. It wasn’t the eyes. It wasn’t the taut energy. It wasn’t the voice, still pushing every button she had. It was… 

“Are you a vampire?” she blurted out.

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