Blood & Rain

Blood & Rain by Doris Ross

Cover for Blood & Rain by Doris Ross
Book 1 of the Hidden Reaches Series

 

Published: July 11, 2014

Trade Paper ISBN: 978-1941426104

Kindle ASIN: B00LPLX29Y

 
 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

August 30, 2004
Jacksonville, FL

 

“Ugh. You’d think people would have some consideration.”

Brandy wrinkled her nose in disgust, letting the door swing shut as she moved to the next stall. Normally, she wouldn’t have bothered with public restrooms. They were never clean enough, the toilet areas were all too often cramped cubicles, the dispensers were either broken or empty – the list went on. These stalls didn’t even rate a comparison to closets; closets were more spacious. Yet she had no choice. She’d found herself in Wal-Mart, up a creek without a paddle with nature calling insistently. If she didn’t find a decently clean stall soon she wasn’t sure what she’d do. Her bladder was sending out the warning signals of impending social doom.

“Well, that’s what I get for going shopping after dinner,” she muttered as she inspected another hopeless possibility. “Not like I had a choice. I need some new notebooks and I know I won’t be able to get up early enough to buy them before class starts… Finally.”

She gave a small smile of relief at the sight of relative cleanliness. Not wanting to take any chances given the state of the rest of the stalls, she swiped a seat liner before stepping inside to take care of business. Through the ceiling, she could just barely hear the tattoo of hard rain. Thunder rolled, and she hoped it would be over by the time she left.

A crash of sound overhead had the lights flickering. Brandy prayed that they wouldn’t go out. It would be like a cave in here without them. She could just imagine herself walking into things in her search for the exit. She’d experienced that before – painfully.

Footsteps echoed on the tile floor, becoming louder as they approached. Good luck, she thought. She was in the only decent stall to be had. The sound stopped in front of her stall just as she was finishing up. She noticed the toes of the boots under the door. Workman boots, she thought with a frown, then shrugged it off. There were some girls at college who wore workman boots, along with some very ratty, not-quite-matching clothing.

“I’ll be out in just a minute,” she called out, as she got her person in order. Flushing, she opened the door, almost running into the person waiting there. “Oh, sor – ”

It was a guy.

That was her last thought.

 


 

Chapter 2

 

 

 

 

 

Thunder boomed. The lights flickered. Alex Rosselle sighed as the CD player began to have audible fits. If there was going to be a blackout it would be best to shut down the computer she’d just finished setting up. She made a face at the weather outside her window as she did so. She would have to get online another time to check on her web site. The timing sucked, though. She hadn’t been able to look over her site or customer orders in almost three weeks due to her move. It wasn’t the kind of thing she wanted to lose track of.

At twenty-six, Alex was a modestly successful fantasy artist. While she didn’t have gallery showings, she did have regular commissions for book covers, trading cards, and the occasional logo design. She did other pieces as well, selling print runs on her site. As it was the main source of her income, she was antsy to see what had sold since she’d last checked.

“Patience is a virtue, I guess,” she muttered, rising from her seat at the computer desk. “Better get out the candle works.”

She crossed the room to turn off the stereo system, then began the great hunt for matches. There were still so many things packed up from her move to the new apartment that she wasn’t sure what was where. At least the important things were already unpacked, she mused. Her studio equipment, art supplies, her books, all her furniture, music, and electronics. Unfortunately, that didn’t include matches.

After going through several boxes to no avail, she considered asking one of her new neighbors if they had any. There was a bright flash of lightning, quickly followed by an ominous roar from the sky outside. Her lamps did a strobe light effect for a moment.

Muttering to herself, she grabbed her keys off the dining room table. A tiny LED light hung from their ring, something that would be useful if the electricity failed. Running into the bedroom, she snatched a brush off the dresser. A glance in the mirror hanging on the wall made her laugh. Her shoulder-length hair was a mess. If she widened her emerald green eyes a bit, exaggerated her already fair skin, and added shadows underneath her eyes, she’d look a demented patient who had escaped from a psychiatric ward.

Making a mental note to keep that in mind for Halloween, she dragged a brush through her auburn hair before pulling it back. Then cast around the room for one last thing.

“Shoes,” she murmured. The sky outside loudly proclaimed itself again. She gave the ceiling, and the unseen sky beyond it, a disgruntled look. “I get the picture already. Ease up, pal.”

There were an errant pair of black pumps by the open closet, which she kicked back inside it. She hated that pair; why had she kept them? At five foot six she didn’t need the height and they pinched her toes. Turning, she scanned the floor and spied one tennis shoe by the bed. As she took a step forward, something fell with a loud ‘thunk’ behind her. She glanced back to see her short sword had fallen over in the closet.

Exasperated, she picked it up and threw it on the bed. It landed next to an open suitcase full of clothes. She really had to organize her hunting gear. Half of it was still packed, and the rest shoved into whatever space had been handy. Right now, if she had to suddenly hare off to do battle with a paranormal bad guy, or deal with a violator of supernatural law, she’d be unprepared.

That was what she did. Artist by day, periodically chipping in at the café she owned a percentage of, and playing paranormal lawman when the occasion called for it. She loved the role. Now if only her magic skills became more powerful, she’d be one happy hunter.

Well, this occasion had nothing to do with the preternatural. Snagging the lone shoe off the floor, she peeked under the bed to find its mate. With a satisfied grin, she pulled them on and proceeded to walk out of the apartment – only to reverse just as quickly.

It seemed that the Floridian summer had given way to a very early preview of winter. It was freezing out there. She rushed back into the bedroom to grab a sweatshirt from her suitcase. Not having a clue as to where her jacket was, it would have to do. She tugged it on before braving the chill outside.

She didn’t bother with her second floor neighbor. Nate Forge, worked the late shift at a local movie theater; he wouldn’t be home until after two in the morning. The thought of him made her smile. He looked just like his daddy, a man she much admired – and had actually dated once upon a time. Kent Aisley had certainly passed on his good looks to his son, and she wondered just how much of the vampirism Nate had also inherited. Her ex, a full vamp dating from the crusades, had never said. All she knew was that Nate’s mother had been human.

Alex hadn’t actually met Nate before the welcoming party the community had thrown for her. She had, however, seen him a few times over the years, as she did still work with his father from time to time. If Kent’s son had been familiar with her name or her connection with his sire, he hadn’t shown it at the party.

She paused on the first steps leading down. The rain was coming in torrents so thick that she could barely see the parking lot outside. She was grateful that she didn’t have to duck in and out of the wet while going down the flights of stairs. Whoever had designed the buildings in Hidden Reaches Apartments had consideration in that regard.

Once on the ground floor, she could see that the parking lot was beginning to flood. She chewed her lip a bit nervously at the sight. The last time she’d seen rained like this had been during a tropical storm last year. It had been a hurricane the day before it had hit.

Well, the news didn’t mention anything big like that. They would, if one was out there.

Mentally shrugging it off, Alex continued down the steps.

She rapped on the door with the brass characters spelling out 301A. Another crash of thunder caused the wall-mounted outdoor light to flicker. It made an ominous buzzing sound. Hugging herself against the frigid, damp wind, Alex hoped Edna wasn’t in the middle of something. She really needed those matches. She sighed gratefully as the door opened.

“Why, hello, dear,” Edna Bodsworth greeted her, her silver-gilt hair looking white in the twilight of the downpour. She looked like a retired grandmother, clutching the lapels of her thick, red terry cloth housecoat, and peered up with cheery faded blue eyes. “I trust you’re staying dry? Would you like to come in?”

“Hi, Edna,” Alex gave her an easy smile, making no move to step inside. “I’m just looking for some matches. You wouldn’t happen to have some I could have, would you?”

“Hmmm.” The grandmotherly woman looked thoughtful, idly tapping a finger on her chin as she considered. “I think I’m on my last book. You could always ask Michael. He almost always has little things like that.”

“Michael?” The name sounded familiar. Had that been the name of one of the residents above her? She hadn’t met either of them yet. “Who’s Michael?”

“Michael lives on the third floor, dear. Apartment 303A. He keeps odd hours, so it’s hard to tell when he’ll be home,” Edna explained as her cat yowled demandingly from behind her. She took a moment to shush the Siamese with an admonishment to behave herself. “Just go on up and introduce yourself, dear. Tell him that I sent you. He really is quite a nice young man. Helpful, too.”

The tone, so sweet, so earnest, so innocent, set off an internal alarm. Eyeing the older woman a bit warily, Alex ventured a cautious response.

“Since there’s usually a reason for such a qualifying statement, I’m going to have to ask what’s wrong with him.”

“Oh, it’s not that, dear,” Edna assured her with a sheepish laugh. “Michael can be moody sometimes. He’s a sweetheart, really; it’s just that there are times when it’s truly hard to see that. Now,” she made shooing motions with one hand, “go on upstairs, and ask about those matches.”

 


 

Chapter 3

 

 

 

 

 

Not having too much choice in the matter, Alex she went up the stairwell. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Edna; it was just that she hated imposing on people she hadn’t met before. She also was wary of matchmaking. If anyone bore the hallmarks of a matchmaker, it was Edna.

She paused on the top landing. The noise of the storm seemed a little quieter, more distant, on the third floor landing, though Alex couldn’t figure out why it should. It was kind of weird. Trying to shrug it off, she stood in front of the apartment marked 303A. She took a deep breath to help calm her nerves, then knocked on the painted surface. A full minute passed with no apparent signs of life inside the apartment. Alex decided that Michael probably wasn’t home after all. Granted, it was possible that he hadn’t heard the knock, but it was only matches. She would just root through her boxes and bins until she found her own. So thinking, she turned to leave.

The door opened.

Alex turned back to face a man who could only be Michael. Somehow, Edna’s description of ‘sweetheart’ didn’t fit. Tall, lean, black-haired, and blue-eyed, the man had a face that could have been twenty-eight years old, or forty. His gaze was unreadable, yet powerful. He had the kind of countenance that said his personality was formidable, that told of hard-living while hinting at dark promises. He had a sense of presence that spoke of strength. Packaged all together, there was a definite allure. Definitely someone of interest.

A good-looking, enigmatic man like this, she concluded, was either already taken, not in the relationship market, or had a really big secret to hide that made him completely unsuitable for dating.

Okay, that’s a little clichéd. Still, clichéd or not, it’s generally true.

“Hi, I’m Alex Rosselle, in 302A. I was just wondering if you had some matches to spare? I asked Edna. She said that she was on her last book and that you might have some.” Alex gave him her forgive-me-I’m-a-sweet-little-girl-in-need-of-some-help smile. “I’d really appreciate it.”

He raised an eyebrow, the corner of his mouth quirking upwards.

“It shouldn’t be a problem. One moment.” His voice complimented his face perfectly. It had the four classic Ds: deep, dark, dangerous, and desirable came readily to mind at the sound of it, making her stifle a reactionary shiver.

You can’t judge a man by his voice, but you could dream about it, right?

Michael didn’t invite her in. Instead, he left the door open as he went to fulfill her request. Alex stayed right where she was while craning her head around to peek inside his apartment. She couldn’t see much besides the small L-shaped foyer, which was awash in what could only be candlelight. No wonder Edna had recommended coming to him for matches.

The wind picked up, pouring a fresh stream of cold onto the landing. She wasn’t left shivering in it for long. He came back with four boxes of kitchen matches.

“Thanks,” she said, with eyebrows raised at the abundance as he handed them over. “I really don’t think I need this many, though. One would have been more than enough.”

The corner of his mouth quirked again.

“Two for you, two for Edna.” He glanced at the heavy rain behind her. His intense, vivid eyes went distant for a moment. “It’s going to get worse,” he murmured, the barest hint of an accent audible. His eyes move to meet hers. “The power grid’s likely to go out. Do you have enough candles?”

“I think so…” Her answer was said to the empty air as he left the door open again. He reappeared a moment later with three cardboard boxes in his arms. Thrown slightly off balance by his abrupt generosity, she said, “You really don’t have to do this.”

“Two for you, one for Edna. She’ll have most of hers set out already.” He raised an eyebrow at her, moving the boxes out of reach when she made to take them from him. “I’ll carry them. Edna first,” he said. “If you would close the door.”

“Um, sure.” At a loss as to what else to do, she did as he’d asked before trailing after him.

Edna was pleased to have the extra supplies. She fussed over them both as Michael maneuvered into her apartment. He deposited the waxen pillars on her coffee table. Edna insisted on rewarding them for ‘thinking of a little old lady like me,’ after Alex handed the matron her matches. She gave each of them a Tupperware bowl of homemade chicken soup as well as a jug of spiced apple cider. As she did so, Michael made a point of mentioning the impending blackout. Edna’s reply was simply, “That’s what candles, matches, and gas stoves are for.”

Now that was something Alex hadn’t thought of. Their stoves were the old-fashioned gas stoves, an asset when it came to blackouts. She had yet to actually use hers, as it was just easier to microwave whatever frozen meals Richard, her friend and a café partner, had prepared. It shouldn’t be that different from electric stoves, she reasoned. She could learn. At least now, she wouldn’t have to worry about eating cold food.

After Edna had shown them out, Alex led the way back to her apartment. She opened the door, bolting inside. Ah, warmth, she thought. She waited impatiently for her neighbor to do the same so she could cut off the draft that was blowing in.

Michael navigated a winding path through the array of moving containers towards the dining room table. Thunder crashed overhead, loud enough to vibrate the walls. The apartment was doused in pitch-black darkness. Fumbling with her keys, Alex thumbed the tiny flashlight. A thin beam of light pierced the dark.

“Excuse the mess and watch your step,” she quipped belatedly as she threaded over to his side. In the dining room, they unpacked the candles. Alex opened a matchbox, striking one of the sticks against the side. It flared to life with a chemical sizzle. Michael held out a thick pillar candle, touching the wick to the flame.

Together, they stationed lit candles all around the room, leaving several on the table in a haphazard centerpiece arrangement. The soft glow was a comforting buffer against the violence of the storm outside. Michael didn’t seem in too much of a hurry to leave, scanning the shelves, taking in the multitude of books, the knick-knacks that had been randomly placed here and there. They picked up the light beautifully, twinkling at them.

“Unicorns, dragons, a few faeries.” He seemed amused by her collection of fantasy-themed keepsakes. She shrugged in response, idly wondering if he was going to make any wisecracks about her collection as she watched him scan the room. “Every genre save horror.” He swung his gaze over to where she stood. “True crime, yet no horror.”

“I was never a horror fan,” she replied, moving from the table to put Edna’s gifts in the kitchen. She picked up another lit column of wax while she was at it.

The candle was placed on the counter to shed light on what she was doing. She fiddled with the stove, grinning to herself when she got the burner working properly the first time. She adjusted the setting, then filled a kettle with water.

“Would you like some tea? The water’ll be ready in about five minutes.”

“If you don’t mind.” He continued to look around. “You need pictures.”

“Way ahead of you.” Placing the kettle on the burner, she came out to lean against the dining room table. “The really big, thin box over by the computer desk has some art prints. Right now, they’re waiting on the new frames I ordered.”

Michael wandered over to the box. He ran a finger lightly over the cardboard top, giving her an inquiring look. More intrigued by his interest than anything else, she snagged a box cutter from the bar and tossed it to him. Catching it easily, he opened the package. Carefully, he pulled out the prints one by one to look them over in the candlelight.

None of them were her own work. Alex was of the general opinion that hanging one’s art in one’s own home – especially when one lived alone – was like basking in one’s ego. It was begging for compliments, attention. While she enjoyed a bit of praise as much as anyone else, she liked to think that she was more subtle in soliciting them. So these were by fantasy artists that she had long admired. Fauna, both fantastic and mundane in nature, were illustrated in a variety of styles that blended instead of clashed. The binding thread, she reflected absently, was the Celtic influence evident in each.

Michael studied them intently. Finally, he slid them back into the box.

“They suit you.”

“I like to think so,” Alex replied, feeling a wave of bemusement at the pronouncement. They had only just met after all.

A sudden, bright flash of white through the kitchen window heralded a lightning bolt. The building shuddered again in the booming thunder that followed it. Alex sent up a brief prayer that her car remained safe from flooding while behind her the kettle had begun to whistle. She hurried into the kitchen and took it off the burner.

“What kind of tea would you like?” she called over her shoulder.

“What kind of tea do you have?” came his countering question.

With her back to him, she allowed herself to revel in the sound of his voice, like smooth ebon silk. A voice, she had to admit to herself, which sent a nice little tingle up her spine. The song Black Velvet played in the back of her mind as she made herself answer.

“Check in the pantry. Most of what I have is loose leaf.”

She turned around to find him already following her instructions. He retrieved a candle from the counter before casually rummaging through her stash of teas and coffees. Those had been the first things she’d unpacked. She was a woman who needed her caffeine in the morning.

Alex gave her attention to pouring the hot water into mugs for them both.

“There’s a canister labeled ‘Richard’s Specialty;’ could you grab it for me?”

He handed it to her, then stepped away from pantry with another can. A glance proved that it was Licorice and Cardamom, another tea by Richard Douglas, one of her long-time friends. She dug in a kitchen drawer for two mesh balls for steeping loose-leaf teas. Handing one to him, they filled their respective spheres in companionable silence. After setting the tea balls to steep in the mugs, they regarded each other speculatively.

She raised an eyebrow, waiting.

“What is it that you do?” he asked finally. She couldn’t tell if that was polite interest or just thoughtfulness in his tone.

“Oh, this and that,” she said off-handedly, her smile widening into a grin. “Actually, I’m an artist. Sometimes I do special commissions, and then there are the times that I just do what I want to. I get lithographs made of my non-commissioned work. Those can be bought online through my website.” She made a face. “I sound like an ad. Anyway, I do that most of the time. I also help out in the café I partially own when it’s needed.”

A flicker of interest came into his eyes. “Which café?”

Candlelight and Magic.” A note of pride rung in her voice. Why shouldn’t it, when she and her friends had worked so hard to achieve it? The ghost of a smile danced over his face. His eyes brightened with it. That little tingle she’d felt earlier spread.

“I’m familiar with it.” He raised his cup to test the scent of the steam. “Most of the community is. Edna is trying to set up regular get-togethers there, although work schedules keep getting in the way.”

“What kind of get-togethers? Friends, coffee or tea, board games, conversation?” She thought it over. The café could certainly play host to something like that, so long as people didn’t get too loud. “Casual informality, maybe some eclectic music?”

“You should talk to Edna.” Michael swirled the ball in the tea, watching the liquid go dark. Alex checked her mug. She decided to let it steep a bit longer, making a mental note to get with the elderly woman at the next opportunity.

“So,” Alex began, deciding to turn the tables, “what do you do?”

He took another leisurely sip, watching her over the rim as he did so. Alex had the feeling that he was debating as to what to tell her.

Secrets, secrets, and more secrets.

“Whatever I feel like,” he answered. “I’m well enough off. For the last few years I’ve been indulging in hobbies or helping out friends with the odd problem.”

Well enough off…she supposed that meant that he didn’t have or need a day job. People with that much money usually had houses, not apartments. Interesting… The way he said ‘the odd problem’, though, made her wonder if he sometimes dealt in the paranormal as she did. If that was the case, he might also be bound not reveal that to anyone. It was a standard rule of the Hunters’ Guild, which she was a member of.

She didn’t say anything for a moment, fiddling with her mug as she mulled over what to say next. She really wanted to dig a little. She didn’t. She had secrets of her own to keep, so she would respect his. At least, she would until she had a reason not to.

“Must have been some inheritance,” she said with just a touch of blandness, causing his eyebrow to inch upward. She pretended not to notice. “Hope it wasn’t someone you were close to.”

“It wasn’t.” He gave her a small smile and didn’t correct her assumption.

Outside, the storm made its wrath known yet again. It left them both momentarily deaf and blind.

“So,” Alex said after her ears stopped ringing and her vision cleared. “Do you play cards?”

The corner of his mouth quirked again.

“Yes,” he replied. “I do.”

 

 

 

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