Charleston, SC, 1981
Ulf couldn’t get that last image of Grigori Kuznetsov out of his head.
Bloody. Broken. Dead.
Two KGB agents had hurled the young engineer out a tenth-story window after a brutal beating. Payback for smuggling blueprints for a Soviet fighter jet to the CIA. Since Ulf had been the one to convince Grigori to pass the information to the Americans, he felt responsible -- especially given that he’d been comatose in the Daysleep when the KGB kicked in the engineer’s door. Yeah, he’d hunted down those responsible and exacted his revenge, but it was a little Goddamn late at that point.
I’m getting sick of watching innocents pay the price for my heroics. He grimaced, hearing the bitter self-pity in the thought. No wonder Arthur had told him to take a month off.
You need a break, Ulf. You’re so burned out, you’re one long ash.”
So here he was. Charleston. The lovely South Carolina town had always called to him, with its art, architecture and beautiful beaches. Maybe it could help him rediscover his commitment to humanity’s survival.
Though some humans really need killing. With extreme prejudice and suitably agonized screams.
Brooding, Ulf turned down King Street, though he had no interest in quaint shops or art galleries. Hunger gnawed at him, making the roots of his fangs sting. A block ahead, he spotted a red neon sign.
Scarlett’s. Probably a bar. Just the thing -- he needed to get laid. Or failing that, a good fight would blunt the edge of his frustration…
“Dixon, you’re drunk.” It was the tone that caught Ulf’s attention. Tense, alarmed, tightly controlled. “You need to leave now.”
“Now, don’t be like that. If you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you.” The reply sounded alcohol-slurred and nasty.
Eyes narrowing, Ulf glanced around, homing in on the source of the voices. They were so muffled, a mortal wouldn’t have heard anything at all.
“I’m going to call the cops if you don’t get out.”
“Baby, all I want is a little kiss…”
A scuffle, a soft, outraged cry, ugly laughter.
“Get off me!”
There. The shop across the street.
Granger’s Books. A plate glass window displayed a poster of a shirtless man with long blond hair walking out of the ocean. Between the poster and the shelves beyond it, Ulf couldn’t see who was doing what inside. He crossed the street at a jog, ignoring the squeal of brakes and the blare of a horn. Jerking the bookstore door open, he stalked inside.
“Dixon, you prick, I said no!”
Ulf’s upper jaw ached. He clamped his mouth shut, knowing his fangs had emerged in his rage. He paced through the shop, spotting a man’s dark head over a set of bookshelves in the back. The drunk seemed to be wrestling with someone too short to show above the shelves. Ulf stormed down the aisle and rounded the bookshelf.
Just as the woman tore herself out of the beefy young man’s arms, snatched up the carpet sweeper lying on the floor, and drove its business end into her attacker’s crotch. The guy bent double with a howl, grabbing himself, and she slammed the sweeper into his jaw.
With a muffled grunt, he toppled to hit the carpeted floor with a thud. The bastard sprawled there on his back, unmoving, eyes rolled back.
Ulf stopped, nonplussed, staring down at Dixon. The prick was barely out of his teens, with the broad, beefy musculature of a college football player and short-cropped brown hair. He wore a pink knit shirt with a tiny alligator on it, a pair of hunter green chinos, and brown leather Docksiders.
Eighties fashion could be eye-watering.
“When I say no, I mean no, asshole!” the girl snapped, glaring. Her victim didn’t stir, beyond the blood rolling from a cut on his swelling lower lip.
“Would you like me to take out the trash for you?” Ulf asked, suddenly finding himself in a much better mood.
Her head snapped up. She stared warily at him a moment, hazel eyes narrow, sensual mouth in a tight line. “No, but if you’ll hang around to keep an eye on this jerk while I call the cops, I’d appreciate it.” She curled a lip at her would-be attacker. “I’m filing charges. I hope they kick him out of school.”
Ulf grinned. “Good for you.”
“He thinks he’s entitled to anything he wants because he can throw a ball. Sorry, dickhead, no.” She wheeled and stalked toward the checkout counter, grabbed the big black rotary phone sitting there, and dragged it closer.
Ulf walked over, leaned a hip on the counter and watched her dial. When the dispatcher came on, she told him what had happened in a few clipped, crisp sentences, then gave the store’s address.
Damn, she was pretty. She wore her dark hair quite short on the sides, but long enough on top to curl down over big hazel eyes. Her face was delicately boned, with an angular jaw and a long, narrow nose. That soft mouth looked so deliciously full and pink, he instantly wanted a taste.
Her loose black T-shirt tucked into tight jeans, cinched by a wide, chunky belt. The jeans’ rolled cuffs displayed high-top black sneakers. Dozens of bracelets clicked on her narrow wrists, some leather, others metal.
Hanging up the phone, she caught him staring. Her return gaze was justifiably wary, given that he towered over her. “Thanks for charging to the rescue.” Her voice was low and pleasantly sexy.
“You’re welcome, though you obviously didn’t need saving. I’m impressed.” Ulf nodded at the bruiser, who groaned, stirring. “He must outweigh you by seventy pounds.”
“Yeah, but he’s also drunk and stupid.”
Dixon stirred and opened his eyes. “Heeeyyyy,” he slurred. “Hey, wha’ happen’d?”
“He’s a football player for some college, which he evidently thinks should impress me. Told me what position, but I wasn’t paying attention.” She extended a hand to Ulf. “Cheryl Parker.”
“My head hurts,” Dixon moaned.
“Good.” Ulf returned the shake, suppressing the urge to kiss her hand instead. Mortals didn’t do that anymore. Her palm felt small and warm in his. “Paul Rogers,” he said, giving the name on his false identification for this trip.
“Ooow! My balls! What did you do to my balls?”
“You had it coming,” Ulf told him, releasing her regretfully without looking away from those entrancing hazel eyes. “And you’re lucky she got to you first.”
“Somebody call the amb’lance. I think I got a concussion. And my balls are swelling.”
Ulf’s gaze fell on a paperback lying open face-down on the counter. Diverted, he lifted his brows. “The
Return of the King?”
“I love Tolkien. I was just thinking before I was so rudely interrupted…” She aimed a pretty sneer at Dixon. “that Samwise is the real hero of the book.”
Ulf had read
The Lord of the Rings trilogy back in the 1950s, but he remembered it vividly. “Well, he did keep Frodo in one piece.” Since Ulf had the same kind of relationship with Arthur Pendragon, he’d always approved of Sam.
“Exactly!” Cheryl met his eyes and smiled. The bright joy of it pierced his cynical depression like a shaft of sunlight.
That was when Sir Baldulf, vampire Knight of the Round Table, started falling for the mortal girl who didn’t need saving.
“Hey. Hey? Anybody got a bag of frozen peas?”