The Immortal’s Salvation: First Look
Stone Haven, Pennsylvania
Attending a wedding solo sucked. Toni actually liked them otherwise, mostly because they were an excuse to dance. And in the itty-bitty town of Stone Haven, Pennsylvania, the only place to dance was the Jazz Hall, but good dance music was not regularly on their schedule. Although her kitchen made a perfect dance floor, it lacked a certain something in the ambiance department.
As she waited for the best man to finish his toast, which had turned into a rambling story about his drunken escapades with the groom, Toni spun her wine glass around and around by its stem. Finally, someone had the sense to take the microphone away from him, and the emcee announced the couple’s first dance. Toni snuck a glance across the table at Birdie and Uncle Jim, who were watching the bride make her way to the stage with a good deal more interest than she felt. Birdie’s smile was so genuine, Toni vowed to at least pretend to enjoy herself. The mother of the bride, an old friend of her aunt’s, cried as the couple began swaying to a top ten pop song.
A cute couple. And a fine venue for a wedding. The Lakehouse was a highly rated restaurant along the second-largest man-made lake in the state. Decked out in white fairy lights, inside and out, the restaurant looked especially charming that evening. How much must it have cost to rent the place for a night?
Likely more than she made at the shop in a year. But whose fault was it that, even working two jobs, she likely couldn’t afford a wedding here?
No one’s but hers.
“I’m grabbing a drink,” she whispered to her aunt. “Want anything?”
Birdie shook her head, still enthralled by the dance. Her uncle’s drink, a soda, sat full in front of him. Might as well make use of the designated driver. Toni stood, pulling down the black and gold lace dress that had ridden up her legs, and downed the last of her wine.
The indoor bar was closer, but she found herself walking toward the pop-up one on the deck. Toni pushed open the door and breathed in the fresh mountain air. She really should get away from town more often. While The Lakehouse was only twenty minutes away, it was nestled between the State Game Lands on one side and residences on the other, providing an ideal view. During the day. The same mountain range that graced the outskirts of Main Street back home rose high into the night sky, though only shadows were visible in the dark.
“Pinot Noir, please.”
While the bartender refilled her glass, Toni looked down to the docks below and watched the pontoons and speeders sway each time a wave made its way toward shore. Despite the hour, boats continued to roam the lake. During the summer months, Stone Haven and the surrounding areas were popular with tourists, something townspeople bemoaned but were secretly proud of.
“Thank you,” she said, taking her newly filled glass.
“You work at Ye Old Curiosities,” said a woman next to her.
Toni tried to place her.
Remembering people was not one of her finest qualities.
“I do,” she said, her tone polite. “I’m assuming you’ve been there before?”
“Once. It’s a cute shop.”
“Thanks,” she said, accepting the compliment on behalf of her aunt and uncle. Although she’d worked at the shop for years, she was only an employee. Birdie and Uncle Jim were the ones who’d made it their life’s work, selling everything from antiquities to novelties, the more eccentric the better.
“You can practically believe vampires are real when you go in there,” the woman added with a smile.
Toni couldn’t help but smile back. Part of her wanted to shock the woman by revealing the truth—vampires were real, and two of the originals had just moved to Stone Haven.
“Nice wedding,” she commented instead.
“Extremely,” the woman said as she waited for her companion to get his drink. “Do you know the bride or groom?”
“My aunt is good friends with the bride’s mom.”
Toni knew the mother well enough, but the daughter had been sent away to boarding school as a young girl. She’d only come home for holidays and summer vacations, so their paths hadn’t crossed often.
An odd thing, sending your kid away. Her parents had both been career-driven and ambitious, but they never would have considered such a thing. Shaking away the thought, she smiled at the quirky woman and stepped away.
Toni sipped her wine, not a bad Pinot Noir for a wedding, and watched as white dots bobbed and weaved in the distance, the water below nothing more than a mass of black from this distance. Mesmerizing. Even though she couldn’t see the water, just knowing it was there brought her a sense of peace as it always did.
In a former life, Toni must have been a mermaid. Or a pirate. Or something having to do with the water. Did everyone love it as much as she?
Her train of thought was broken by a prickling awareness. Someone was watching her.
She didn’t have a sixth sense like her best friend, Alessandra, did. She wasn’t one of the Cheld—a line of superhuman beings created to counterbalance vampires. She wasn’t the one who’d led the vampires to Stone Haven, and yet she could tell one of them was currently watching her.
Toni turned to look at him, her heart lurching as it did every damn time he was near.
What in blazes was Lawrence Derrickson doing at her wedding?
Well, not precisely her wedding, but she hadn’t seen him at the ceremony earlier or any time before now. She was pretty sure she would have noticed. When it came to Lawrence, she couldn’t help but notice. He was a six-foot-plus, sandy-haired, green-eyed vampire, for heaven’s sake. And sure, it turned out vampires weren’t the gothic, garlic- and daylight-phobic creatures popular culture set them out to be, but they were still practically demigods. They were immortal, and they drank blood, for God’s sake.
Pretending she hadn’t seen him wasn’t an option. There were no more than ten people out here on the deck, the bartender included, and Lawrence was staring straight at her. She couldn’t see his eyes from here, but Toni knew their piercing green color. He was Alessandra’s friend and trainer, an ever-present part of their circle. Avoiding him was difficult, but that hadn’t stopped her from trying. She’d gotten quite good at it in the past two months.
Breathe, Toni, breathe. He’s just a man.
Well, not quite a man, actually. He was so much more.
But it couldn’t matter. Even if Tyler wasn’t the best boyfriend in the world, he was hers. And at least she was committed to something in her life. Being with him felt safe, a word she’d never use to describe how she felt with Lawrence.
The thought of Tyler made it easier to ignore Lawrence and the sidelong glances he always gave her. It made it easier to pretend she didn’t wish there was some admiration or affection in his eyes. Truth was, Alessandra’s friend looked at her as if she’d just stolen a treat from his dog. No, not that. It was like he could see something in her she didn’t even know was there. Like a bit of icing on her nose. If she hadn’t been thinking about that three-tier wedding cake all night, she’d probably have been able to think of a more profound comparison.
As it was, cake seemed as good an excuse as any to dart inside. Avoiding Lawrence. And maybe herself a bit too.
* * *
“Hi, I’m Kat.”
Attractive. Same age he’d been before the change, just over thirty. No ring.
Alas, she lacked long red hair and amber eyes that shot arrows through his soul.
“Pleasure to meet you, Kat,” Lawrence said, watching Toni retreat back into the restaurant. His feet itched to follow her. Instead, he smiled at the pretty blonde guest and took his drink from the bartender.
“When I first moved to Pennsylvania,” he told Kat, “I couldn’t get away from this stuff.” He lifted his Yuengling, remembering. He’d asked for a lager, and the bartender had handed him one of these—a beer with a label he couldn’t even pronounce.
He’d lived in nearly every country around the world, had been alive for over seven hundred years, and still there was so much to discover. A beautiful side to the curse that had created so much ugliness. Despite that, he was more than ready to stay in one place for the foreseeable future. Lawrence was ready to settle down.
“So,” she said, her honeyed tone leaving no doubt as to her intentions. “Do you know the bride or groom?”
Actually, he had become close to the bride’s father, Stone Haven’s mayor, over a business deal, but telling her that would prolong a conversation that he was ready to end.
The floor-to-ceiling windows that gave guests a view of the dark lake behind him also gave him a clear view of Toni. She stood alone, her profile effortlessly elegant, her gold and black gown eye-catching. “Pardon me,” he said to the woman at the bar. “I just got here and want to greet the new couple.”
Lawrence itched to go to Toni, to take her shoulders in his hands, but she wouldn’t welcome it. He forced himself to make a wide berth around her. Trying to distract himself, he found the bride’s father at the table closest to the dance floor. Murmuring apologies for his late arrival, he made up for his tardiness by fawning over the couple as if he were a subject in their court, a role he’d played more than once before over several hundred years.
In England. In France. Though not in his homeland. He’d not seen Scotland for centuries, and though he still dreamed of his homeland, he knew he could never return.
Later, as he made his way to the inner bar, Lawrence’s eyes found Toni once again. He allowed himself to study her for a second—the strands of hair that had escaped her updo, the curve of her neck. What was she doing here? And where was Tyler?
As if you give a shit about that condescending asshole.
“There you are.”
Lawrence turned to face his admirer from the deck bar. The time for subtlety had passed.
“You did indeed,” he said. “But you should know, before we take this any farther, I haven’t eaten in nearly two weeks.”
“Oh.” She frowned in confusion. “Are you on some kind of a cleanse? There’s plenty of food here—”
He leaned down, her perfume as overpowering as her personality, and said, “I don’t mean food. Men like me, we need something very different to sustain us. But do not fear. It won’t hurt . . . too much.”
Poor Kat, properly appalled by his innuendo, could only stare. Good. One time he’d used this same trick to ill effect—the woman had smiled coquettishly and put her hand somewhere it didn’t belong.
His sister didn’t like it when he hinted at his true nature. Few knew of their existence, and the only unwritten code of their community demanded it stay that way. All well and good, but they were cursed for eternity. Surely they deserved a bit of fun.
“Hurt?” she muttered. “Uh, yeah. It was nice to meet you.”
She fled without offering a proper excuse for doing so. A pang of guilt nearly made him regret his methods, but the blonde woman immediately sidled up to another man at the bar. A slight grin lifted his lips. No damage done.
He would finish his drink and then leave. At least he’d stayed long enough to pay his respects to the mayor of Stone Haven. If he were to stay in the area, and Lawrence had every intention of settling in the quaint Pennsylvania town for as long as a man who didn’t age could, he would weave himself into the fabric of the place as necessary.
Staring at the bottle of half-drunk lager in his hand, Lawrence heard the music change to a song with a faster beat. Most of the guests would be dancing, he guessed, although he couldn’t bear to turn around and look for her. At least her foolish boyfriend didn’t appear to be in attendance. It killed him to see a woman so beautiful and intelligent waste her time with a man so unworthy of her. A man who disrespected her with his roving eye. But it was her choice, and it didn’t matter in the least to him.
A bald-faced lie.
Toni tugged at him. She always had, right from the first time he’d seen her at Murphy’s Pub, her hair swept up in an effortless bun, her amber eyes sparkling with life. That passion she felt for life, for her friends, and for everything she loved was infectious. It made him feel almost human again. Like he was the man he’d been before his brother died.
The way he felt about her was dangerous. For him and for her.
He drank the remainder of his beer in one long, deep swallow.
“You’re unusually broody this evening.”
He’d sensed her coming. Although she wasn’t a Cheld like Alessandra, Toni had an almost supernatural draw. Maybe it was her perfume, part coconut and part amber and spice. A scent that reminded him of the sun-kissed beaches of Brazil, combined with the sophistication of a Parisian boutique. Though not nearly as pretentious.
This interaction diverted from their usual pattern. Toni typically avoided him—rather, they typically avoided each other.
He turned slowly, careful not to lean too close or appear otherwise interested.
“And you are unusually . . .”
Sexy. Radiant. Desirable.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, cocking her head.
“I could ask you the same.”
Toni took a bold step toward him, the proximity making his skin prickle with awareness, and leaned over the bar.
“I’m here,” she announced, “for another drink.” The raven-haired bartender, who was mixing a drink at the other end of the bar, ignored her. Had a man been tending bar, he would have immediately abandoned his other customers to serve her.
“I see,” Lawrence said, leaning back and crossing his arms. He did not respond to the obvious dismissal.
She refused to look at him. He refused to move. One minute passed. Two. Finally, he made eye contact with the bartender, who had been eyeing him as if he were a dessert martini that she intended to drink rather than make. The young woman smiled and glided toward him.
“What can I get you?”
He lifted his bottle in response and added, “And a Pinot Noir for . . .” Struggling, he landed on, “. . . the young lady.”
He’d said it on purpose, knowing it bothered Toni that she was approaching thirty. Though the milestone was still a year off, she’d told Alessandra it made her uneasy.
She gave him a look that said, Go to hell, even as she smiled.
A grin twitched on his mouth. He should back off. Stop provoking her. And he definitely should not say what he was thinking at this moment.
But Lawrence Derrickson had never been a cautious man.
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