by Lara Hayes
Elizabeth Dumas is under quarantine. As the newest Strigoi in Fane’s family, she must prove her loyalty and discretion before she can leave the freight tunnels they call home to hunt on the streets of Chicago. Publicly, she answers to Irina. The name Fane gave her. But how long can Elizabeth deceive the Moroi before he discovers her true allegiance lies with her Maker, Stela?
Stela is in debt. When she killed a human associate to protect Elizabeth, she terminated a lucrative business endeavor. Now her fledgling Elizabeth is yet another Strigoi Fane must feed, clothe, and protect. And he will have his recompense.
Together in blood, body and mind, Stela and Elizabeth must keep the truth of their bond and the depth of their love hidden from Fane and the rest of the family.
After all, one Strigoi cannot belong to another.
All Together Stranger is the riveting sequel to the ground-breaking Terrible Praise.
The Redamancy Series Book 2.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"When I wrote Terrible Praise, the first book in my series, I had to grapple with the fact that I knew nothing about writing books. That was understandable, as I’d never done it before. All Together Stranger was tricky because I believed I had a better understanding of story construction, but realized later on that I knew nothing about writing a sequel.
Growth is hard work, change is hard. I shared these pains and insecurities with my newly turned vampire Elizabeth as she navigates a new world and a new way of life with her lover and sire Stela. Elizabeth’s transition from mortal to immortal is not a smooth one. She’s regarded with suspicion by Stela’s family and this struggle to fit in, to carve out a place of her own, tests their relationship."
I’m never tired anymore.
My eyes open of their own accord at sunset, a phenomenon I sense in my marrow, but no longer witness. The sensation is not exhilarating, bearing some resemblance to vertigo.
Falling asleep occurs without my knowledge or consent and is not prefaced by fatigue. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, at precisely five a.m. my vision tunnels, my ears ring and an impenetrable slumber sucks me into oblivion. I don’t hear the voices of those around me while incapacitated. I can’t discern light from dark and absolutely nothing wakes me until my body registers the descent of the sun.
Stela is the only reason I was able to verify any of this. We tried everything I could think of to postpone my inevitable shutdown, but I will black out mid-sentence when sleep comes. Even standing in the middle of the room or walking. After two rather embarrassing attempts to prolong my coherence through physical exertion—during which I fell asleep on top of and underneath her—I gave up.
The others tell me that they too rose and fell at dusk and dawn in the early years, but that after a time—months or years—they were able to delay this forced repose, though not by very much and not without considerable physical and mental discomfort. For beings with an astounding capacity to retain even the most mundane, the Strigoi have a curiously lax relationship with time. They’ve also urged me against comparing Stela’s sleeping habits and my own. She is unique in that respect, and by her own account she’s been largely in control of her sleep patterns for as far back as she can remember.
Fane is another matter entirely. The only thing I know for certain about his chronobiology is that his tolerance for sunlight far exceeds Stela’s. In fact, I’m not sure whether he sleeps at all and any question is swiftly rebuffed by everyone, including Stela, who is being either intentionally evasive or honestly does not know.
High overhead the projector switches on and washes the empty window panels in stark white nothing. The bedside lamp follows a few seconds later, precipitated by the clunky tick of an automated timer. The ticking stops and in the gritty illumination that casts a spiderweb of shadows along the floor, her right arm tightens around my waist.
Delicate fingers trace abstract patterns on my abdomen in silent salutation. The gesture has become something of a ritual for us, and I roll over on my back to find her smiling down at me warmly with her elbow propped on her pillow. Stela’s pale blond hair falls in a perfect swatch across her bare shoulder, and every time I wake to find her waiting for acknowledgment, I wonder whether I’m still dreaming.
“Welcome back,” she says with a smile.
“To the land of the living?” I smile back at her as her fingers trace the arches of my brows and run lightly across my bottom lip. I have asked her repeatedly not to greet me with “Good evening,” which she and the rest of her family use as a salutation at the start of each night, though I had difficulty articulating why it bothered me. Stela took the criticism in her stride, and like everything that concerns us, made the necessary adjustments. She’s been testing alternatives ever since, my favorite of which so far is “Good morrow.”
Stela tilts her chin, feigning consternation. “In a manner of speaking, I suppose.” Her obsidian eyes shine jovially which delights and disappoints me at once. She’s a much better sport on nights when it is her turn to feed, a necessity I resent only because it means an evening without her.
Her bare thigh presses between mine as she stretches above me, like a cat after a long nap. She is without doubt the greediest and most generous partner I’ve ever had, especially in the first few hours of wakening. Stela’s palms slide beneath my shoulder blades as she pulls my body directly beneath hers, placing me as she would have me. Not that I’m complaining. This preference for evenings is one of the most predictable things about Stela and ranks among her most endearing traits.
Lips the color of turned strawberries ghost along my clavicle. They press lightly against the last scar I’ll ever receive, nestled in the crook of my neck. The scalloped muscles of her back tighten under my hands, but her resolve falters and then her affectionate ministrations cease.
“You dreamed of me again,” she says.
I find it more than a little bit irritating that she doesn’t even ask anymore. Her body relaxes and she lays both hands against my sternum to rest her chin atop them. Stela arches an expectant eyebrow when I’m less forthcoming than she would like. She quakes her hands gently, as though shaking me out of my silence. “Were you there?”
“Elizabeth, you know that I was not.”
“Then how do you know I dreamt of you?”
Stela plants her forearms on the bed, the convivial gleam exchanged for something more serious. I run my fingers through her faultless hair, scouring her unobstructed gaze for deceit. She made a promise not to pry into my mind, an agreement that now goes both ways, though I’m still fighting to control that ability. Stela shifts her weight to her right side, pulls my hands from her hair to plant a kiss upon each palm, and then she folds my hands pointedly over my heart.
“Your touch is desperate, my darling. Troubled.”
“I’m not troubled.”
An exasperated sigh threatens her otherwise tranquil expression. She leans forward and grazes my jaw with her teeth. I hadn’t realized I held my body clenched until it unfurls from her playful nip. She kisses my cheek and pulls her thumb down the cleft of my chin. “Tell me about your dream.”
I twist toward her and place my palm on the small of her back, urging her to resume her place above me. She smothers a victorious grin which sharpens the corners of her mouth into two satisfied points and reclaims her perch.
“It was the same dream,” I say.
“Was it day or night?”
“Night this time.”
The time is the only variation I’ve noticed in the dream. The rest follows an eerily simplistic and specific track.
I’m walking along a cliff and find Stela is standing at the edge. My heart soars with longing and my stomach clenches with dread at the sight of her motionless silhouette. I call her name, but she remains fixated on the moon’s reflection in the ocean below. I scream at her and still she doesn’t move, so I run. But I never reach her.
“Does it frighten you when I leave to hunt?” she asks. “Are you afraid that I will not return?”
I hook my calf around the back of her legs and pull her body against mine. “What worries me isn’t the thought of you leaving to hunt. It’s the way the dream feels.”
“How does it feel?” she asks quietly.
“Like a memory.”
Stela says nothing. My arms lock around her neck and I tug her down into a kiss that is equal parts punishment she doesn’t deserve and the adoration she quietly craves. Her mouth remains open afterward, an unspoken invitation, our faces only an inch apart. I hesitantly pull the swell of her bottom lip between my teeth, appraising her reaction. A second set of incisors slide down over my human teeth. When I feel Stela’s lip pull taut in a taunting smile, I seize upon the offering in earnest and gouge the resilient flesh. The blood that mingles in our mouths causes my body to convulse as Stela cradles my face in her hands, a delighted hum crawling up her throat. I clench my fists so ferociously that every knuckle and both my wrists crack from the strain.
When she pulls away Stela is the portrait of a sage tutor and I crane my neck to chase her mouth.
“Very good, dear one.”
She guides me back down against the bed, her palm pressed to my pounding heart. She closes her eyes, no doubt remembering the way my human heartbeat once raced against her fingertips at the slightest provocation. “Soon you will be fit for a hunt of your own.”
Her eyes remain closed, fingers drumming against my sternum as the thirst takes hold. The few meager drops of blood I wrenched from Stela’s lip are just drops of gasoline to the flame of my persistent hunger. Every fleck of dust sharpens into a pinpoint of light, casting a shimmering cloak across the room. My pulse—normally twenty beats per minute—thunders behind my eyes, my fingers curl into talons gripping the edge of the mattress. My vertebrae shiver and then snap into alignment. My legs twitch and I expend my last vestige of control to wrench the first syllable of her name from between my clenched teeth.
Stela needs no warning. Neither worried nor surprised, she blocks my involuntary attacks before pinning my wrists above my head in the tender fingers of one firm hand. The other hand she uses to muzzle my mouth, pressing gently down until my head rests once more on the pillow. Her bright laugh roils in my belly as every muscle rails against confinement. She whispers my name between breathy laughter, the pale curtain of her hair tickling my cheeks. My pulse slows, restoring me to myself.
We can’t cry, but my body hasn’t forgotten the need. Stela stills, releasing my face and limbs as she rears back on her knees. She pulls me with her, holds my cheek to her chest.
“No, my dearest,” she gently admonishes, “you are making remarkable strides.” She rocks us slowly back and forth.
I swallow another impotent whimper and scrub my face with my palm, which comes away clean and dry. The lack of tears only underscores the many unwelcome changes to my physiology. Frightened to face the monster I sense inside, I clasp her face despairingly. “I would never hurt you.”
“Elizabeth.” She pulls my hands from her face and wraps my arms around her waist. She kisses me lightly and presses her forehead against mine.
“You need to feed,” she says.
“I’m fine for now.”
Stela purses her lips, frowning. We’ve had this argument many times before. She leaves the safety of our bed in a rush, gathering her black silk robe from its haphazardly flung heap on the floor and my blood roars for her the moment she secures the belt around her waist.
No amount of intimacy or proximity is ever enough to satiate this terrible magnetism. Sometimes she can feel it too, the gut-deep pull, though I doubt her affections are as eclipsing as mine.
Stela descends the three generous steps into the sitting area and selects an emerald-green forestscape for the window panels. I leave my own robe where it lies on the floor as I stand behind her.
“I’ll eat soon. I promise.” I drag my nose along the side of her neck and she reclines into my waiting embrace. Her fingers dance across my knuckles, but her back is tense.
“I wish you would stop this self-inflicted hunger strike. It changes nothing, Elizabeth. Over time the need for daily feedings will abate, but first you must indulge your body. Give yourself time to grow stronger.”
I press my face between her shoulder blades. “I don’t like feeling this way.”
Stela turns in my arms. “You do not have to be in control of everything all the time, dearest.” She splays her hand against my lower back, brushing her lips over mine. “Let go. Permit yourself to revel in the hunger when it possesses you.”
“Stela, I literally just attacked you.”
“If you wish to achieve restraint enough to enjoy me without the fear of harming me, you must accept what you are. You have to embrace these cravings to conquer them. I promise, my darling, if you do not, they will drive you mad. And I know you absolutely abhor the thought of being slave to anything.”
She’s right. She knows she’s right and she knows she’s won but has the good sense not to gloat.
“Come.” She takes my hand and pulls me back up the steps toward the bathroom. “A shower first. Then you must feed.”
* * *
I sit on the lip of the tub, wrapped in Stela’s robe, with a blood collection bag on my knees. At first, I was wary of them, unlabeled and possibly riddled with contagion. Stela laughed it off, assuring me that my constitution was such that any virus would find my body an inhospitable host.
They won’t tell me where the bags come from. Only that the family keeps a steady supply for my sake. Neither will they tell me where they store them, which is wise. Stela brings me three a day, unless she’s hunting or otherwise occupied. In which case Bård usually procures my lunch.
If the act of ingesting human blood of unknown origin once sickened me, I can’t remember. Not with the first bag or any that followed. My apprehension lasts only until the first taste. However, I do have trouble feeding in front of an audience and given my reluctance—in general—to assimilate, Stela rebuffs any attempt on my part to feed in private.
The blood bag sloshes around on my knees. Transfixed, I poke the carmine liquid.
“Having met the woman only once, I am certain that Claire told you not to play with your food.”
My head darts up, the bag forgotten in my lap. Stela regards me scrupulously from the corner of her eye in the mirror as she pins her hair back. She drops her hands to her sides and kneels in front of me.
“I apologize. That was thoughtless of me.”
I straighten my spine and clasp my hands in my lap. “I don’t want to talk about her, Stela. Not even in passing. Not yet.” The mention of my mother’s name still carries an echo of her accident on the stairs, the sounds her body made as it shattered. Just one missed step. I had nightmares of killing her for months before she slipped. In the most recurrent, I stood over her sleeping body and smothered her with a pillow. That was the first nightmare I shared with Stela.
Stela kisses my cheek. I close my eyes but remain unresponsive as she stands and moves back to the sink. “I will not repeat the misstep,” she promises. “It was careless.”
She runs over her reflection with an appraising eye, one hand reaching deftly for the small hook beside the mirror. She selects a long, delicate white gold chain adorned with a nondescript medallion. She loops the chain over her head and buttons the front of her gray silk blouse so that the medallion is only partially visible. Enough to lure the eye if her physique somehow failed to do the trick. I feel fiercely possessive as I flop the bag between anxious hands.
“Elizabeth, eat. Please. Would you have me distracted on a hunt? Wondering whether or not you have fed?”
There’s something vaguely juvenile about the moment. Waiting on the tub while she readies herself, my breakfast on my knees. I used to sit on the closed lid of the toilet in my mother’s enormous bathroom, watching her do the very same thing. I chase the comparison away as a familiar pressure builds behind my eyes. I can’t cry for her anymore. For weeks I wished the tears would stop and now that they have, I realize how important they were. I thought the grief would leave me but it lies dormant, coiled in my chest and immovable. Stela seems so in control of her limited emotions. I was expecting a similar alexithymia to afflict me, but nothing so far. Perhaps, like the urge to feed and the inescapability of sleep, compartmentalization is just another muscle that slowly strengthens through the passage of time.
I turn toward the shower wall for what privacy I can manage in the small en suite. The plastic of the blood bag is tepid against my lips as it punctures between my teeth. I’m only distantly aware of the sounds I make when the first few drops trickle past my lips. My senses flood with life, my tongue alight with elements. Notes of sodium, chloride, potassium, phosphate mixed together. I brace myself against the shale-covered wall as a starved and painful shudder wrenches through me.
When I open my eyes, Stela is towering above me, her hand extended and a haughty expression on her face. I take her hand and she pulls me flush against her. “Good girl.” She wraps a fist in my hair as she closes her mouth over my parted lips. Her tongue chases the taste of blood as I gather her blouse in my hands and shove her against the wall. The sharp splintering of tiles halts my affection, shards of chipped black slate clattering to the floor. Her extrinsically girlish laugh rings in my ears as she rests her forearms on my shoulders.
“Sorry.” I release her blouse, smoothing the silk, but Stela’s brilliant smile tells me that this was precisely the reaction she was after. She sucks on her bottom lip and a rebellious lock of pale gold hair slips against her cheek.
“How do I look?” she asks, stepping away from the wall. She tucks the front of her shirt back into the waist of her black slacks. I retrieve a damp cloth from the edge of the sink and drag the frayed edges around her mouth, smeared with blood. I take a step back, her eyes locked on mine.
Stela glows. The medallion nestled between her breasts shimmers, catching the light, and I know with sickening certainty that someone else will admire it tonight. Someone will feel her deliberate breath in their ear. Someone will put their hands on her body. Someone will thank whatever deity they worship for placing this creature in their arms, and they will adore her right up until the moment she rips out their throat. I wish their imminent death consoled me but seeing her dressed in an outfit that calls to mind our first encounter makes the knowledge unbearable. If she knows what I’m thinking, she chooses to ignore it, her expression one of good-natured indifference as she takes my hand and tugs me toward the bathroom door.
“You are unforgivably late for your sparring lesson. Bård will never let me hear the end of it if we make tardiness a habit.”
My fingers close around her wrist and I drag her back to me with a strength that surprises us both. It only lasts a second, but the fingers of her free hand curl and I know she was startled enough to retaliate. “Take a man this evening.”
She isn’t pleased. “I take a man most evenings,” she says in a diplomatic tone. “You were an exception.”
The thin bones in her wrist flex experimentally against my fingers, like she’s testing my hold. I drop her hand, disgusted that I caused her alarm. “Just—promise me. Just for tonight. Promise you won’t make another exception.”
She broods mutely, the air between us dangerously silent. I sense that I’ve crossed a line. I just don’t regret it. Stela has never once apologized for what she is, has never lied to me about her nature. Her steps are soundless as she crosses the bedroom and stands beneath the hatch in the ceiling.
“Do not keep Bård waiting, Irina,” she calls over her shoulder in a completely neutral tone. One I haven’t heard since the night she told me that the choice to live or die was mine. The hatch settles shut behind her. The name Fane gave me echoes lamely through the room.
* * *
“You are quiet this evening.”
Bård pitches a blood bag over his shoulder and I catch it with a reflexive ease that would have made my father proud. I clutch the bag to my chest with my left hand, my right arm hanging lifelessly at my side. Despite the commonality of guns in this country, he insists upon training with longswords, rapiers, and quarterstaffs. His preferred hand-to-hand combat is Krav Maga, but that is easily the most modern thing about him. To call the man an old soul would be as glaring an understatement as calling him a man at all. But combat, he says, is all about form.
He perches nimbly on his toes as he hovers over my shoulder to inspect his handiwork. I chanced one look at the wound as I collapsed. A scalene laceration penetrating to the sternocleidomastoid, shattering the clavicle. I’ve found it’s better not to examine my injuries too closely. I discovered this on my first lesson with Bård. He shot me in the abdomen as I walked through the door. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen a gun in his hands. He said I needed to know what a bullet felt like. Stela had responded by throwing him into a wall, but in his defense, how was he supposed to know I’d already lived through a shooting the night Stela chased me out of a nightclub and into the arms of my assailant. The scar on my left bicep still looks red and angry in a certain light.
As I tear into the blood bag the shards of bone slowly regroup with a series of disgusting snaps. I’m not immune to pain. I just experience it differently. But such a grave injury induces a hunger that is horrific. The more serious the injury, the more insatiable I become.
“You had an argument with Stela,” he surmises.
I roll my eyes at Bård’s knowing smirk. He drops cross-legged beside me to the floor with disregard for the impact, his spine straight, forearms on his knees. I test my right arm. My shoulder pops into place and the wound seals over with new flesh.
“There you are.” Bård slaps my shoulder so hard that my legs skid across the marble floor. “No worse for wear.”
I grit my teeth so ferociously the enamel cracks. I’m sure he hears it too, but Bård is entirely unflappable. I can see why Stela adores him. He’s a warrior with a heart, a genteel murderer. He permits no weakness in his training room, has no time for social niceties, yet here he sits, trying to talk to me about girlfriend troubles.
“What makes you think we had an argument?”
Bård looks about the armory and picks up his discarded saber. His weathered face is that of a man in his early sixties, his hair salt-and-pepper gray. Yet the muscles of his chest are pronounced, his vast shoulders as defined as a rower’s. He is unexpectedly kind, meditative in his patience.
“Do you know why you failed this evening, Irina?”
The light bounces off the blade as he spins the pommel. I’m grateful to have lost the ability to blush. Ever the clever student, I replay our lesson behind closed eyelids, my newly forged eidetic memory a welcome upgrade to my considerable attention to detail.
“Your lunge was a feint and my attack should have been a parry. My shoulder was vulnerable to your counter.”
Bård guffaws. “You were not present. Your thoughts were of Stela and not your opponent. Technique is equal parts practice and focus.”
I scoff and Bård smacks my forehead with the sword. “See? You could have blocked that easily had you been paying attention.”
I stand up and snatch the weapon from his grip, gathering my own fallen sword as I make my way to the rack on the wall.
“Perhaps tomorrow we will practice with the quarterstaff, and tonight you can talk to Stela,” he says.
His obvious fondness of Stela is the only thing we have in common.
“She won’t listen.” I shove the blades into their gilded scabbards and return them to their mounts. Bård remains silent, watching me closely. “Stela doesn’t hear what she can’t immediately solve.”
Bård stands and strolls closer, his bushy brows drawn close together. I’m touched by how invested he seems.
“The two of you are more alike than either of you wish to believe,” he says. “You remind me of Stela when she was young. Impetuous. Bullheaded.”
Bård chuckles, nervously scratching the silver stubble along his jaw. He takes my hand. “The biggest lie we tell ourselves, Irina, is that we can no longer feel. It is an armor of sorts, because eternity is impossible for the faint of heart. In all the centuries I have known Stela, even during her mortal infancy, I have never seen her so happy as now.”
I swallow nosily, my throat constricting.
“She fears disappointment as desperately as you do.”
He drops my hand and retrieves his white shirt from the floor. He shakes his loose, wiry ponytail free from the collar and rolls up the sleeves. “You will be on time for tomorrow’s lesson,” he says over his shoulder, striding to the door.
He grips the doorframe on his way out, spins back inside the room. “And if you tell anyone of our conversation…”
“You’ll kill me.”
Bård bares his teeth in a roguish grin and nods contentedly. “You are a quick study. Almost as quick as your Maker.”
“Thank you, Bård.”
“Do not dawdle in the halls, Irina,” he calls out. “Fane detests idle wandering.”
* * *