SIX

Pavements glittered wet under the glow of streetlights. Chilled air had that 'after rain' smell. I should have been cold, considering what I was wearing, but the heat of the fight still blazed under my skin. It almost hurt… a buzz on the back of my neck and over my shoulders. An itch I couldn't scratch. Images were scarred into my memory. Lizzy's illusion played over and over in maddening repetition.

I had no set destination in my mind so I couldn't be certain if it were by luck or design when I ended up on the high street. It was still pretty early in the evening by vampire standards, and being a Friday, the drunken parties were in full swing. I got a few wolf whistles from a group of men, and where that would have intimidated me before, now it didn't bother me in the slightest. I suppose I had Lizzy and Casey to thank for that. I clutched my rosary tight in my fist. If they came near me, I'd break their noses!

I passed under the railway bridge and leaned against one of the filthy walls, putting a hand to my head. My body trembled, no matter how much I tried to calm down.

I would be lying if I said I'd never wished for my father's death, but that wasn't something I'd ever admitted to myself, let alone faced, even as an illusion. I tried to tell myself that's all it was: just a deception to test my resolve, to make me strong. I kept reminding myself that my father was still alive… yet, strangely enough, that didn't make me feel any better. In fact, what horrified me was how that made me feel worse. I wanted him dead. More than that, I wanted to be the one to kill him!

I turned and braced my hands against the brick, feeling the rough chill of the texture and trying to focus on it. Were I mortal, I might have been short of breath. My heart would probably be thudding hard against my ribs. But everything was eerily still, and somehow, that made the burn worse. I dragged my fingertips against the wall as I clenched my fists. What could I do? This feeling was unbearable! The deadly calm I'd found earlier was failing against this heated frenzy. I needed it to stop. How could I make it...?

A hand tapped my shoulder, and like an over-stretched rubber band, I snapped.

With a hiss through fang I spun around, my fist pulled ready to strike.

He caught my blow with long fingers and an arched brow. "Who spat in your blood, Sweetheart?"

"Nick!" I let my fangs fall back into flat teeth. "Merde! I'm so sorry…"

With a scoff, he released my wrist. "Good to know you're on guard at least."

"What are you doing here?" Despite his very sudden appearance, I felt relief wash over me at the sight of him, dulling the incessant burn to a more tolerable level.

Nick pushed his hands into his trouser pockets and mocked up a shy expression. "You never texted me back."

"Texted… Oh!" I slapped my hand to my forehead as I remembered Lizzy watching a message come through on my phone, which I still didn't have in my hand. "I must have left it at the Nest House."

"I'm sure Derek will pick it up for you," Nick reassured me. "I saw you leaving in a hurry, so I went after you." He dropped all his teasing, his concern for me apparently genuine. "Seriously, though, are you okay?"

I leaned my back against the wall and gave a weak nod.

Nick didn't seem convinced. "Do I need to teach someone a lesson for you? I'm very good at that sort of thing."

I shook my head wildly in surprise. "No! Not at all… It was…" I wrapped my arms around myself. "Training was just a bit more intense than I was prepared for."

"Ah." Understanding dawned on his handsome face along with a fresh smile. He rested his hand against the wall by my head and leaned into my space, filling it completely with his enthralling darkness. "All wound up and ready to pop?" His tone was little more than a whispered purr, the sound making me tense up that little bit more.

"Nick…"

He backed off so abruptly that I blinked in stunned surprise. Taking my hand, he pulled me away with him. "Come on. I know just the thing."

A weak smile passed over my lips. It was good to see him. Emboldened by the tornado of unspent emotion, I dared to weave my fingers with his. "And what's that?"

Nick's hand tightened about mine in approval. "Alcohol!" He gestured to the bars on either side of the street. "Plenty to choose from. Any preferences?"

"Funny. Casey recommended the same thing."

"Well, ordinarily it wouldn't be my first suggestion…" He glanced down at me with his butterfly-releasing smile. "But given how one goodbye kiss rendered you catatonic, I figure alcohol is probably a good place to start, hmm?"

My eyes went round as an embarrassed heat rushed to my cheeks.

Nick laughed but squeezed my hand again. "Come on. We'll try that one."

He'd chosen one of the smaller places on the street, perhaps deliberately. The crowds were thinner. The music was a little softer. Not a vampire's first choice for hunting, and thus, less chance of us bumping into any of our own kind.

A pair of men with fluorescent cuffs and radios stood outside the doors, checking people's identification as they entered. My stomach flipped nervously. "Nick, I don't have..."

But he wasn't listening. He charged towards the door, and as I expected, one of the men reached out to stop him, his broad hand bracing against Nick's chest. "Woah there, mate. Need to see some ID."

Nick glared at the hand touching him as though it were something filthy. The air became stiflingly hot. What was Nick's usual 'bad vibe' intensified into a deadly, wrathful power. He looked up and glared the bouncer down. "No, you don't."

The bouncer seemed ready to wet himself he was so petrified! The brawny man snatched his hand back and even seemed close to tears. He took a trembling step away from us.

All my bravery drained in an instant. My stomach twisted in terror. Instinctively I tried to pull away, but Nick held me tightly as he glared down at the pitiful human that had dared to stand in his path. "Smart man." With a venomous smile, he pulled me along behind him as he sidestepped security and entered the little club. I tried to make some protest, or at least some excuse to turn around, but my voice had deserted me.

A small entrance and cloak-room opened into the main hall. Lighting was comfortably low: blue in shade and strongest behind the glossy, black bar that ran the length of the room. A dance floor hosted most of the patrons as they ground together to the beat of heavy trance music. The club might have been wealthy in its day, but Torsk's rapid decline was apparent in the worn seats, the threadbare carpets, and scratched table surfaces.

"I'll get you a drink." Nick gestured to a cluster of empty tables in the far corner. "Go wait for me over there."

I nodded obediently, still unable to find the courage to speak to him. That 'shot of something strong' Casey had recommended was starting to sound extremely tempting.

I squeezed past other customers – most, if not all of whom, were considerably taller than me. Feeling claustrophobic and wildly out of place, I chose the table furthest away and clambered up onto one of the stools. My feet hung embarrassingly high off the floor. Sweet Mary, I didn't belong here. I stuck out like a sore thumb and was already wishing that I'd just gone home with Derek.

I craned my neck to see if I could spot Nick at the bar. Not that I needed to see him; I could still sense the lingering power of his presence permeating through the club, thick and evil. I frowned, my eyes glancing at the doors we'd come in through. I knew Nick wasn't entirely as he appeared. I'd seen this happen once before. I'd been on the receiving end of that terrifying switch from friendly to fiendish myself. It unnerved and terrified me how quickly he could snap from one to the other and how easily he seemed able to hide that part of himself. It made me question the wisdom of associating with him, which scared me even more. My fingers twisted around my rosary. The thought of losing his friendship made me feel sick inside. However terrifying he was, I still took pleasure from his company, from his touch. I gazed down at my beads, running them over my hands. What the hell was wrong with me? I cavorted with dangerous men. I fantasised about murdering my own father. And I enjoyed all of it!

I dropped my beads and pressed my forehead into my hands in frustration. Damn it. I was so confused. I hated all this insecurity. This wasn't the kind of girl I wanted to be anymore. I was a fighter vampire. I wanted to live up to that. Could I do it? Casey and Lizzy certainly seemed to think so.

Lizzy had used Nick to provoke me. I'd tried to pretend I didn't understand why, but in my heart, I knew the truth. I wanted Nick. I wanted him more than I cared for my own beliefs. His look of admiration, his charming smile… I wanted him to keep telling me that I was tough, to keep calling me 'Sweetheart'. It was in him that I found the strength to fight.

It bothered me a great deal, how much he'd come to mean to me in so short a time. He'd called and texted me several times since we exchanged phone numbers. But this was only our third face to face meeting, and yet I was starting to feel like I'd known him forever, that I'd been waiting for him all this time. Even when he wasn't around, I could still feel the ghost of his power, beckoning, calling me in… Could he do that? I found myself looking at the door again, my brow furrowing. He'd never told me about any specific abilities that he had, but he seemed to wield power over people that even Lizzy might have envied… or feared. For all her talk of admiration and inevitability, she did seem extremely wary of Nick.

He returned and set a tall glass of dark liquid in front of me. "You look pensive," he half laughed.

I looked up at him, meeting his eyes with as much fearless determination as I could muster. "Are you a mind master?"

Nick's eyebrows arched in surprise as took a seat beside me. "Not that I'm aware of. But I am extremely observant. Why?" He kept his eyes on me as he took a sip of his drink. "You think I have you under a spell?"

I looked away, unable to reply.

"Ah…" Nick's tone turned serious, and he set down his glass. "There are some things even magic can't fake, Amber. Spells that influence the heart are dangerous and massively unpredictable." He reached over and rested his skeletal hand over my own. "Certainly not something I would risk with you."

With a flinch, I pulled away from him. I didn't want to talk about that. It led down a path I couldn't yet face. Instead, I accepted his answer with deliberate blindness and cut him off with a strained smile. "If you're not a mind master, what vampire powers do you have? Are you a fighter class too?"

Nick laughed. "Gods no. I'm a subterfuge. Not the most powerful class, I know, but I make up for it in other talents." He winked at me as he took another drink. "Besides, I learned a long time ago that knowledge is the best kind of power."

"It is?"

"Sure." Nick shrugged. "It's much harder to take away."

"So…" I glanced at the door again. "That stunt outside. Was that one of your 'other' talents?"

"More or less." He rolled his eyes when I frowned at him. "I have to mask my power. If I didn't, I'd never pass for human." He leaned forward against the table and lowered his tone. "Mine is black magic, Amber. If I need to, I can release some of that power, enough to confuse and intimidate humans, or even other Zenronians, if the occasion calls for it."

"So, what I felt at the door," I matched his volume cautiously, "that wasn't… it wasn't your 'full power'?"

"No."

"And…'black magic'… what does that mean?"

"Exactly what it sounds like," he stated shortly. "Black magic is my natural form; it comes easier to me than light magic."

"Your natural form?" My brow furrowed in puzzlement.

Nick tutted, his irritation growing palpable. "Sorcerers can't choose what magic they inherit any more than you can choose what class of vampire you turn out to be." He frowned and wove his unnaturally long fingers together in front of his face. "I come from a family of black magic sorcerers; it's in my blood, as it was in my father's and his mother's before him. It's genetic."

"Oh."

A small smile quirked over his lips and hid his displeasure behind strained amusement. "Frankly, though, I really can't see myself as a light magic sorcerer. It just doesn't suit me." He cocked his head, trying to catch my eye. When that didn't work, he reached out to reclaim my hand. "Amber… I would never hurt you. You know that, right?"

There was more sincerity in those words than I'd ever heard him speak with, yet I couldn't find any comfort in it. I tried to pull my hand away.

"Stop doing that!" His frustration was back in an instant. It flashed in his eyes with a spark of threatening emerald power.

Instinctively, I recoiled, terrified that I was about to see his monstrous side for the second time in one night. Apparently, I wasn't the only one feeling on edge. Should I leave? Did I want to?

Nick had enough decency to seem troubled. He looked away and took a second to compose himself. His power retreated to a more comfortable level and his expression smoothed out into that amiable charm I knew so well. "It's okay." With deliberate slowness, he reached again and took my fingers, this time lifting them to his lips to press a warm kiss to my skin. "You've had a rough night."

My heart gave a feeble flutter. "It's certainly been intense." I was starting to feel the exhaustion. With a sense of defeat, I forced the last of my trepidation to melt away and surrendered to the peaceful comfort Nick's presence had always offered me before.

"So, what happened with training?" Nick paused to take another mouthful of his drink. "It didn't go well I take it?"

"Actually..." I played with the condensation mounting on the surface of my untouched glass. "I think it went a little too well."

Nick arched an eyebrow, begging an explanation.

"Casey asked Lizzy to help her," I told him. "She used bad memories from my past to…trigger…my new instincts."

Nick was quiet for a long moment as he contemplated this. "You have a dodgy dad if I remember correctly?"

I nodded solemnly. My gaze fixed on the table, tracing the scratches on the surface.

"Did it work?"

I nodded again.

"So, what's the issue?"

I shuddered, refusing to meet his stare as I felt shame creep over my cheeks. The memory was playing out behind my eyes once more, stirring sickness and disgust in my stomach. "The issue was…I…liked it." I fidgeted nervously. "Lizzy painted an illusion that allowed me to murder my father, and I feel rubbish because it wasn't real."

"Hmm…" I dared to glance up and found him looking thoughtful. "No. I still don't see the issue."

"What? But–"

"–Your father is a dick." His tone was harsh and unforgiving. "I don't need to know the details. I don't even need to meet the man to know that. Vampirism may have erased any scars on your skin, but he's still left his mark, Sweetheart." He drew his brass tobacco tin from his coat pocket and set it on the table. "You should have your revenge, and you should take pleasure in it."

"But–"

Nick's eyes flashed again, cutting me off as, for just a moment, I felt a fleeting explosion of renewed anger. "You're a vampire! Killing is what you were made to do." He shrugged, reigning in his power once again as he focused on making his smoke. "There's a certain poetic justice in it, don't you think?" He licked and folded down the paper, fixing an unnervingly emerald gaze on me. "You keep looking for me to disapprove of you. Right now, you think I'll hate you or be disgusted with you because that's all any man has ever done." He shook his head. "But you won't get that from me. I will never disapprove of any thirst for vengeance."

Not for the first time, Nick's unique insight into my own self stunned me. It didn't bother him. I had confessed to perhaps the darkest part of my heart and not only was Nick utterly unconcerned about it, but instead appeared to approve of it. I struggled as my head tried to understand this, while my heart swooned in awe of everything Nick was. I had never, in all my life, felt so accepted by anyone.

I watched as Nick set aside the unlit cigarette and pocketed his tobacco tin. "Try the drink. You'll feel better." He nudged at the beverage in front of me.

"What is it?" I looked at it nervously.

"Vodka and coke. A double. You look like you need it."

I felt the same trepidation as when Lizzy had offered me cider. I'd never drunk anything alcoholic before. I was still underage, but considering everything I'd done this evening, I realised that Lizzy really was right: alcohol was the least of my sins. I picked it up tentatively and tried it. I recognised the flavour of the cola, but I was unprepared for the vodka's intense burn. It wasn't unpleasant, though. In fact, the warmth of it running down my throat was strangely soothing. I took another sip and balanced the drink back on the table, my fingers lingering against the cool glass. I finally managed a real smile for Nick as the last shreds of my fear and disgust melted away. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." I watched with interest as Nick's eyes slowly turned back to the blue I was so fond of. His anger seemed to dissipate as he amused himself playing with my fingers. I wondered what it was about me that seemed to soothe him, but I couldn't find it in myself to mind. His touch was as thrilling as ever.

I took a larger mouthful of my drink this time, the burn of the alcohol already somewhat addictive. I cast my mind about, searching for a new topic of conversation. I liked talking to him. I liked his voice and how easy he was with giving real and truthful answers. Besides, it still bothered me that I knew so little about him. He always seemed to know everything about me…

"What's 'Nick' short for?" I asked, settling on a question. "If it's short for anything, that is."

He gave a brief laugh. "Nicklaus."

I felt my eyebrow quirk in surprise. "Really? Not Nicholas?" I took another sip from my glass.

He shook his head, still smiling. "No, definitely Nicklaus. That's what everyone's been calling me for the last twenty-four years anyway."

I choked on my drink in surprise. "Twenty-four? You're…" An eight-year age gap stood between us! For just a moment it was uncomfortably mind-boggling.

Nick smirked at my shock. "How old did you think I was?"

"I don't know," I admitted, somewhat flustered. "Nineteen, maybe twenty? I'm not very good at guessing ages, though, clearly."

"Well, the average sorcerer, warrior, or werewolf will live five-hundred years," Nick told me with a casual shrug. "We tend to mature at the same rate as humans for the first sixteen to eighteen years of our lives, then our ageing starts to slow down." He finally released my hand and drained the last of his own drink. "Our people officially come of age at twenty-one, but by that point we still have a mental age of about eighteen, so, actually your guess is closer than you think."

"Oh. I suppose I figured Zenronians must live longer, since Casey said she was almost four-hundred."

"She looks good for her age," Nick mused. "She'll start aging again soon though, which is probably why she's so keen to find someone to turn her." He turned his dashing smile on me. "Who knew she'd find someone so beautiful."

I felt my cheeks flush and glanced at the table in embarrassment. "You…find me attractive?"

Nick scoffed. "Sweetheart, if that's not painfully obvious to you then clearly I am way off my game."

"No!" I shook my head, nibbling at my lower lip through a shy smile. "No, I'm pretty sure I've just been living under a rock these last sixteen years."

Nick was laughing again. "No arguments there."

My smile fell as, once again, I ran out of things to say. I felt awkward and useless. I wished that I knew how to be flirtatious like Nick. I tried to think of some way to tell him all the incredible new feelings he brought to life in me. But everything I came up with just sounded stupid and pathetic, so I kept my mouth shut.

A human man brushed past me as the crowds in the club thickened, and I bristled as the sound of his heartbeat echoed in my ears for a few seconds. I caught a whiff of his strong aftershave mixing with the tantalising scent of fresh, heated blood.

"Hungry?" Nick already knew the answer. He was teasing me, I thought.

I nodded and smiled weakly. "Maybe I should head home to Derek. I don't think I'm really cut out to 'eat out' yet."

"I could teach you," he offered casually. "I know you've only hunted once since being turned, and frankly…" A frown trespassed back onto his expression. "...starving yourself on whatever your sire keeps in the fridge isn't going to help your transition any." He said this last part with a firmness that resembled his earlier irritation.

An answering caution returned to me. "How do you–?"

"–I have eyes." Eyes that were smouldering with fresh emerald fire. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, Amber. You are what you are. You need what you need."

"I know. I just…" I looked away from him, his gaze burning me. "I'm afraid." My voice was so low I wasn't sure he'd hear it over the music. "I don't want to hurt anyone. I hate killing."

Nick pushed himself off his stool abruptly and offered me his long hand. "Let me teach you. I can show you how to eat without killing."

I bit my lip. My brow furrowed in hesitation. Much of his attitude tonight had shifted into something a bit more dangerous than I was entirely comfortable with. A powerful emotion had taken over his expression, though what that emotion was I couldn't be sure. A hunger of his own, perhaps? Still, something about him beckoned me in, his offer almost a dare.

A voice in the back of my head was warning me against going with him. Squirming in my gut begged me to say 'no, thank you' and go home to Derek. I'd had enough of 'lessons' for one night, hadn't I? Nick had more than proved that I didn't know him as well as I'd thought, and that maybe there was something worth listening to in Lizzy's cryptic warnings.

But there was another, darker part of me – still lingering from my training, perhaps – that was at war with this sensible reasoning. I admired the beauty of his skeletal hand, the silver bats and skulls of his rings glinting in the low light. That part of me wanted, more than anything, to be a vampire worthy of someone like him. It was that same part that seemed to be controlling my limbs tonight. I'd taken his hand and let him pull me to my feet before I'd realised. My head screamed that I was a fool. My heart was too busy burning to notice. Something about Nick, even this dark and deadly part of him, sang to me.

This wasn't a simple crush, I realised. This, whatever it was, was far too deep… painful. It was a constant ache in my chest and a tingle in my fingers as they itched to touch him, to feel the warmth of his skin or the softness of his leather coat. My mind jumped again to the thought of love spells and mind mastery, but I shoved aside the uncomfortable thought. I didn't care. I liked the way he made me feel. It was euphoric, like waking up from a long sleep and finding all the world laid out at my feet.

Nick led me out of the club and back into the chilled evening air. He kept his fingers woven tightly around my own as if concerned I might try to run. Admittedly some small part of me was still fighting, but sensibility was drowning under thirst. I wrapped my arm around his and walked close enough to rest my head against his bicep. I wasn't tall enough to reach his shoulder.

I let him lead me away from the high street. We turned onto a deserted road, and with a quick glance in both directions, Nick put his cigarette between his lips and summoned emerald flames around his fingers to light the end. I watched in fascination as the colour danced over his pale face, both illuminating the sharp definition of his cheekbones and brow while causing deep shadows to hover around his sunken eyes and along the length of his jaw. He shook out his hand. The flames vanished, and red smoke poured its sweet scent from the smouldering end.

"What is that you smoke?" I was feeling emboldened now that we were away from the bar. The warm comfort of Nick's fingers twined around mine only added to my confidence.

"Not tobacco," he answered shortly, taking a long breath of the red smoke.

"I figured that out for myself."

"It's expensive. Hard to get hold of…" He glanced at me from the corner of his eyes. "…And it's the only thing that works."

"Works on what?" I pressed. "Why do you smoke it?"

He waved the hand holding his cigarette towards his head emphatically. "It gives me…focus."

"I don't really understand–"

"–And nor can you. Don't try. If I explained it right now, you still wouldn't understand, and it'd just give you a headache." He glanced at me sideways again. "Not that I'm discouraging your questions. Anything else, consider me your personal encyclopaedia." He smiled as he blew out a cloud of smoke. "I believe tonight's topic of choice was safe hunting, yes?"

A fresh flash of anxiety flipped my stomach. "I…guess. You could just take me back to Derek's, though, or even the underpass. I think I can find my way back from there. I won't mind." I looked up and found him smirking at me.

"Oh, no. You're not getting out of it that easily."

I frowned at the pavement beneath my feet. "I just think…maybe I'm not cut out for this..."

"You always seem to think that, yet you always surprise yourself. Besides, hunting is perhaps the most fun thing a vampire gets to do. You're missing out!"

"I don't want to hurt anyone," I reiterated.

"Why not?" Nick arched an eyebrow at me. "Hurting people is the best part."

I gazed up at him, shocked by this sudden, unnerving declaration.

Nick shrugged at me. "They're only human, Amber. Plenty more where they came from. Most of them are little more than a damn infestation."

I frowned, unease creeping back over me with every cruel word he spoke. "I was human not that long ago."

"But not anymore. You've evolved into something better, something greater."

"Is it better or greater to turn into a mindless killing machine?"

He waved his hand dismissively. "Hunting is hardly a mindless game. It's part of who we are as vampires. To hunt indiscriminately, keeping the balance between life and death… it's what we were created to do. The human population swells and thus so do we. Cause and effect." He smiled at me, trying to be reassuring, I think. "Do foxes not hunt rabbits? Do spiders not consume flies? We're just another form of nature's pest control. There's nothing more natural… except maybe sex." He turned suddenly. His coat swished around his ankles, and his fingers slipped from my grasp. His smile widened into a callous grin. "In fact, hunting is a lot like sex. If you're not enjoying it, then you're not doing it right."

My cheeks burned red, and I glanced away. "Well, I wouldn't know much about that either."

I caught a glimpse of another of Nick's smirks from the corner of my eye. "No shit." He paused and reached to reclaim my hand. Bending down, he kissed my knuckles, drawing my gaze back to him properly. He winked at me, his eyes smouldering over the top of my fingers. "Stick with me, Sweetheart. I'll steer you right."

I wasn't sure if he was still talking about hunting or if we'd moved on to something else entirely. Whatever it was, I felt an alarming heat mounting rapidly somewhere between my legs: a heat I hadn't known was possible, let alone what to do with it. The urge to touch him, to reach up and run my fingers through his silky golden hair, or to slip a hand beneath the folds of his coat to feel his shirt against his warmth, was once again almost unbearable. It made my skin prickle, and I kept my gaze fixed long past the point I wanted to look away.

Nick laughed outright, obviously entirely aware of the effect he had on me. He pulled me against him to kiss my forehead, then abruptly let go and continued walking.

I watched after him for a long moment, stunned, trying to work out what in God's name had just happened, before realising that I would lose him to the night if I didn't hurry.

"Everyone has their preferences," Nick told me as I caught up. Again, I found myself puzzling over what exactly we were talking about. "A vampire's taste and hunger varies from person to person, as much as a human's taste in food does. In the same way that some humans won't eat meat–"

"–Some vampires don't drink humans?" I suggested hopefully.

Nick shook his head, chuckling again. "No, human blood is pretty much essential. Some vampires prefer to hunt among other Zenronians if they can, but that's much harder. Other Zenronians know what we are, know how to identify us and our methods of attack. Many of them have gifts and powers of their own that make them dangerous. Since we're such a petty bunch, you piss off the wrong Zenronian and you can end up triggering a war." He glanced down at me, giving me another meaningful gaze to make his point. A warning: watch out for other Zenronians. "What I was going to say is that in the same way that some humans won't eat meat, some vampires won't touch a specific gender, race, or age group, either because of prejudice, past experiences, or simply as a preference on flavour." He paused to drop his dying cigarette onto the pavement and stepped out the embers. "I know one vampire who refuses, point-blank, to hunt among the lower classes. Nothing but the elite of a population will satisfy his hunger." He shrugged. "Most of us can't always afford to be so picky."

"Wow. What if he's caught? I mean…getting caught drinking from someone that high-up would cause a lot of bad attention, wouldn't it?"

"Well, yes. But all vampires have venom in their fangs that blurs and corrodes between twelve and twenty-four hours of memory, depending on the resilience of the victim." He explained this in his fast, textbook manner. "That helps. Besides that, this guy is a top-level kind of vampire. He's been around; he's powerful and knows what he's doing. You follow?"

I nodded emphatically. "Start small," I reiterated. "Practice."

"Exactly."

My stomach lurched as the reality of what we were discussing leapt on me again. I shoved it away angrily. I had to learn. I needed to know! Nick was already proving to be a better teacher than Derek. I needed this.

"That's the biggest preferences," Nick continued on. "There are more superficial ones too. I mean, a human might say, 'I like pizza,' but within that, they have their choice of type and brand. Then they pick their meal based on what they have access to. Understand?"

"Not…really." I wasn't entirely sure how anyone could compare human beings to pizza. I gazed up at Nick expectantly, waiting for his clarification.

"I'm saying you have to cross the details of what you like to eat with the practicality of getting it." He gestured to himself. "Every vampire is different; we have different personalities, skills, and strengths. The humans that I would pursue – the ones I would find easiest to hunt – aren't going to be the same as yours." He shrugged and gestured towards the pavement. "For me, it's the shy, vulnerable types."

"It…is?" That surprised me. I'd envisioned, however unconsciously, that Nick would hunt among the beautiful and the popular, perhaps because of his own overwhelming charisma.

Nick scoffed slightly and smiled at me, apparently picking up on my shock. "Humans that are confident and powerful tend to feel challenged by someone who is too like themselves, someone who can steal their thunder, so to speak. It makes them wary of me." He pushed his hands into his trouser pockets. "Thus, it's actually harder for me to get close to people like that. The weak and the vulnerable, however, want to be me. They look up to me. Often, they're so envious they're in awe. They stick close to me in the hopes that something will rub off on them." He gave a dark grin, his eyes flashing in a way that sent a not so pleasant tremor down my spine. "In the end, all I have to do is beckon them close." He shrugged. "It'll be different for you. You have to find your own niche."

"I wouldn't even know where to begin," I lamented.

"Give it time. Best way to learn the game is to play it." He glanced at me from the corner of his eye. "There is more to it. Considering who the easiest meals are is one thing, but not all the vulnerable people are going to have the same…appeal." He pulled an expression that was part disinterest and part disgust. "I'm really not interested in pathetic or whiny people, for instance." His smile became a chilling grin, and his eyes wild with maniacal excitement. The darkness in his aura thickened intensely. "Insecurity… that's intoxicating. Creativity and high intellect…charming." He gestured towards me as he spoke. "I also have physical preferences. I target people who are cute or pretty. If you want to get really specific, I like young gay men. Not the flamboyant or athletic ones; the shy, passive ones that are too scared to come out to their parents even when it's painfully obvious." He took a moment to chuckle in amusement. "Those guys often go crazy for a charismatic, strong man like me… something that could have jumped out of one of their comic books. Someone who can make them 'believe in themselves'." He spoke like he was describing some delicacy he'd tried at a restaurant, his mouth almost watering from his own descriptions. He turned his eyes to me again and shrugged a little. "If I fancy something female, I look out for 'alternative' girls, the cute, petite ones that read those god-awful vampire romance stories." He chuckled to himself and shook his head. "Damn, I love those books."

"You…do?" I arched an eyebrow, confused by this confession. I'd overheard a little about gothic romance novels from other girls at school.

Nick laughed, throwing his eyes back to the stars. "Yeah! A lot of vampires get pissed off. They hate that the world is romanticising us, making us out to be everything we're not. Me… I see it as an opportunity." His laughter trailed into a dark chuckle. "Vampires used to be feared! We struck terror into everyone. Can you imagine how hard that made hunting? But not anymore. Thanks to trashy romance, those misguided girls are just dying to meet a 'dark prince'..." He put a hand on his chest dramatically. "...wounded from his lonely eternity and desperate to atone for his sins. It shoves them right into my arms! It's so easy it's almost criminal." He shook his head. "I don't think I've ever heard of a real vampire like that. To be honest, I don't give a shit." He shrugged, genuinely unconcerned. "I am what I am, and I made my peace with that a long time ago. There is nothing more thrilling than the hunt…except perhaps the kill." His tongue slipped out to run along his top lip. "Besides, girls like that tend to read those novels because they're lonely, insecure… Like I said: child's play."

I stared at him. My brow furrowed. Disgusted agitation crawled over my skin. I hardly knew what to make of all this. He was talking about people like they were dishes on a menu, about the kind of people he preferred to stalk and murder! I had almost accepted my fate as a vampire; I wanted to learn to hunt without hurting my prey. But Nick seemed to take a sick kind of pleasure from it. He spoke as if this was normality for this existence. I wasn't sure that I could ever regard humans with the same blatant disrespect. "So, your preferred victim...would be like me?" I asked. "Human me, I mean."

Nick paused our walking and gazed at me for a long moment, reading God only knew what from my expression. I tried to look impassive, maybe a little cold to show my displeasure, but I wasn't convinced that's what he saw. Whatever it was he deduced, however, he was entirely unapologetic. In fact, he smirked at me, the thick shadow that hung around him flashing with the same nasty malice I'd felt when he'd got us into the club earlier. "No, Sweetheart," he purred, stepping towards me. "What I would love to do to a human girl like you would be so much worse." He scoffed and began walking again, his pace slower than before, his gaze wandering over the road ahead of us. "The pious, Catholic virgin. You're lucky it was Derek that found you. If it were any other vampire, you'd more likely be dead… or worse." He glanced sideways at me, still with that cruel smile. "You're a fighter. You don't really believe it yet, but you are. I imagine you'd put up a struggle. But that would make the hunt all the more interesting. The way I see it, when it comes to your being turned, you got the easiest route."

I gaped at him in disbelief. "Nothing about what Derek did to me was easy!"

"A nastier vampire would have done terrible things to you. The thrill of corruption is unlike any other. Trust me: what you experienced with Derek was the far smoother ride." He turned my way, his tongue brushing along his lips again. "I would have savoured it. I'd have loved it. I'd start small, entering your world carefully to offer you all the little things you ever denied yourself in the name of faith. A little taste of freedom, a little harmless fun to whet your appetite." He shrugged his shoulders. "Slowly, you'd come to want it, feeling as much pleasure from my company as guilt. I'd wait for you to come to me, watch the war in your eyes every night. Fighter that you are, I know you'll take the chance. You can't bear to miss it. You've missed too much already."

I tore my eyes away from him. The intensity of his gaze had renewed the burning between my legs. It spread upwards towards my chest. A fire I hadn't known I possessed slowly consumed me. The things he said were terrible, but the smooth, rolling tenor of his voice was hypnotic. I couldn't help but listen, couldn't stop myself from clinging to every wicked word.

Gleefully he continued. "I'd tempt you with a little more then watch as you fled to church every Sunday to pray a little harder, to confess your sins and beg your God for deliverance. You wouldn't know if I was an angel come to free you from torment, or a devil come to drag you to hell." He scoffed again. "I'd probably find it very funny, watching you on your knees in front of a perverted old priest while begging him to protect you from me." He laughed outright.

"Stop it…" My protest sounded weak, half-hearted, even to my ears.

Nick laughed a little harder. "He wouldn't be able to save you," he told me bluntly. "You'd know that terrible truth even as you begged for mercy. There's no turning back. Your desire would turn to a beastly lust far beyond your ability to control. It would terrify you… but denied as you have been, the lust would become a wild, unadulterated need. You would be utterly desperate for it." He stopped walking again and snatched my arm. My heart leapt in my chest as he dragged me against him, his irises burning emerald as he gazed deep into my own. "That's when I'd strike. Maybe I'd give you what you so ardently desired, but more likely, I'd torment you with it. Torture you until your sanity itself broke. Then…I'd probably turn you, because, let's face it, Sweetheart, you'd be begging for death, and I'm really not a merciful man."

A lurch of disgusted fear swelled in my stomach. I shoved at his chest, pushing him away from me with more strength than I knew I had. Nick stumbled back several long strides, his footfalls trespassing off the edge of the pavement and onto the road itself. But he was laughing at me. "Hit the spot, did I?"

"You're disgusting!"

"I'm a vampire," he stated frankly. He straightened his coat and stepped back onto the pavement with me. "Not that I was an angel before then, mind you. I suppose you could say I was born for this sort of thing."

I wrapped my arms around myself and joined him as he continued walking. "I wasn't."

"You're more capable than you give yourself credit for," Nick told me with a shrug. "You have a great deal of potential. The likes of Casey Valkyre wouldn't bother with you – I wouldn't bother with you – if that weren't true."

"You're not making me feel better," I protested.

Nick arched an eyebrow at me. "I'm not trying to make you feel better. I'm trying to provoke you." He ran an impatient hand through his hair. "And here I thought fighter vampires were supposed to have short tempers."

"Provoke me… why would you do that?"

"Because when you're angry, you're too busy to feel afraid," he said calmly. "When you let your instinct take over, you allow yourself to be vampire. If you're going to learn to hunt properly, you need that."

We turned another corner and I found myself staring down the underpass where Nick and I had first met. "Where are we going?" I asked him.

"My place."

His answer took me by surprise, and I glanced up at him, pausing in the mouth of the shadowy underpass. Nick stopped a few steps in and turned back, his expression politely puzzled. "You don't want to?"

"I thought… I thought you were going to teach me to hunt?" I asked. Nodding my head down the road we had just come, I added, "Unless that was the lesson?"

Nick chuckled. "Fuck no. That was an introduction to hunting theory. Meaningless without the practical side of the class."

"And…we're doing that at your house?" I asked dubiously. I knocked the toe of my boot against the pavement and wondered if I should just turn around and find my way back to Derek's. Nick's 'theory lesson' had left me confused and unnerved. My courage over the whole affair was starting to fail me.

Nick had provoked me, but not in a way either of us seemed to have expected. His little speech about hunting preferences was disconcertingly thrilling, even the parts that chilled me. When he spoke of what he might have done to me if he had met me before Derek, it had triggered a rush of entirely unknown sensations, feelings, and thoughts… It was overwhelming. I'd already dealt with so much tonight. I didn't think I had it in me to openly admit to being fascinated by Nick's 'theory lesson'.

He doubled back, closing the small space between us. "Amber, Sweetheart…" His warm hand reached out and wove into my hair, his fingertips brushing my head soothingly. "You need to learn this. You need to accept it, preferably sooner rather than later. I can help you." He gazed into my eyes, his own returning to their familiar blue. "You're safe with me," he promised. "I would never hurt you."

"That's really not what unnerves me," I murmured, more to myself than to him. I shook my head a little. "I can take getting hurt, Nick. Pain is familiar, and since becoming a vampire, a fighter at that, it's not something I'm really afraid of anymore." The admission surprised even me, but as the words tumbled from my lips, I knew they were true. After all I'd seen and done in Lizzy's illusion… no, I wasn't afraid of pain anymore. If anything, it seemed to be a part of me, of what had built me. As a vampire, it lasted but a second. I was faster and stronger.

Nick cocked his head to one side, more polite puzzlement on his expression. "Then what are you so afraid of?"

I shrugged, stepping away from the warmth of his hand. "Everything else." I gestured to my chest, the place where my heart was aching against my ribs. "I feel things I didn't know existed, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do with them. I want freedom and strength and power, but I don't know what any of that means. It's terrifying."

"Mm…" Nick looked away from me, but he was nodding his head like he understood. Of course he did. He understood me better than I understood myself. "Most vampires," he told me, his eyes catching mine again. "Most vampires are experiencing life for the second time. They're enjoying the thrills and pleasures the world can offer without the limitation of mortality and fear. But you're different." He pointed at me. "For you, this is your first taste, your first experience. You're taking it much later in life, in a dark world, without the comfort of having someone to rely or fall back on if things go tits up."

I shrugged and wrapped my arms around myself. "I guess that's as good an explanation as any."

"Mm." Nick nodded again, a smile crawling onto his lips. "You want my advice?"

I gazed up at him expectantly.

"Go with it."

"Go with it?"

"You're a vampire. Eternally beautiful, eternally strong. You want freedom and power." He gestured at me. "You have it. You have a body that can take punishment, not to mention powerful and handsome friends." He gestured towards himself with a wink. "Enjoy it however you want. Learn through experience. Sitting around feeling afraid and sorry for yourself… rather counterproductive, don't you think?"

He made more sense than I cared to admit.

Nick offered me his hand. "Come. Let's see if we can't get rid of those training wheels, huh? It'll be one less thing for you to worry about."

He was right, again. Hunting was on top of my list of biggest fears, and Nick was standing right there, offering to help me cross it off.

I took his hand, almost certain that I was going to regret this. Nick's several very good points did, however, reawaken the determined courage to find my place in this world, to not only survive it, but live in it.