"Trust me. They don't come any worse than him. And you're about to see just how right I am."
Retta had forgotten the beauty of her homeland. But as they made their way up the narrow mountain pass toward the hotel where she and Francesca would stay, old memories slammed into her. Even with her eyes wide open, Retta could still see this land as it had been when there were no power lines or modern buildings to mar it. No roads except for dirt paths worn by horses as they traversed the Wallachian landscape on their way to villages and Bucharest.
God, how she missed the mountains of her childhood. As a young woman, she'd spent countless hours staring out at them from the windows of her convent. No matter the season, they'd always been breathtaking—like a piece of heaven that had fallen to earth. It had never failed to capture her imagination and make her wonder what it would be like to fly over the mountains and explore distant countries.
Of course in her human lifetime that had been an impossible dream. Since her death, she'd traversed the entire globe trying to escape Velkan's cruelty.
As they rode in the taxi, they passed many thatched cottages that seemed lost in time.
Some she could have sworn were here five hundred years ago when she'd fled this land to escape her husband.
She'd vowed that night to never return.
Yet here she was. And she was every bit as uncertain now as she'd been then. Her future every bit as unclear. The only thing that had kept her going back then had been Francesca's friendship. Francesca had joined her in Germany as Retta had been making her way from Wallachia to Paris. They'd met in a small inn where Retta had stopped for food.
There had been an awful rainstorm that had come up suddenly while she dined. It was so bad that her driver had refused to go onward until it stopped. Because of that, there weren't any rooms left for rent. Francesca had been kind enough to share her room with Retta.
Since that fateful night, they'd been virtually inseparable. There was nothing she'd treasured more over the centuries than Francesca's loyalty and wit.
"You okay?" Francesca asked.
Francesca nodded as she looked out the window. "Is it the way you remembered it?"
She didn't comment as she realized the driver was looking at them in the rearview mirror.
"Goat!" Retta shouted in Romanian as the animal darted into the road in front of them.
The driver slammed on the brakes, causing her and Francesca to tumble forward in their seats. They both let out "umphs" as they hit the back of the front seat and had the breath knocked out of them. Exchanging looks of aggravation, they resettled themselves back into place.
Francesca fastened her seat belt.
The driver smiled at them from the rearview mirror. "You are one of us, eh?" he said in Romanian. "I thought you looked like a natural daughter."
Retta didn't respond. How could she? He'd die to know just how natural a daughter she was.
After all, it was her infamous father who had made this little corner of the world such a tourist spot.
That thought made her ache as she remembered the turbulent time of her mortal years. This land had been covered in blood as battle after battle was fought between the Romanian people and the Turks. Between her family and her husband's as they vied for political power.
She'd foolishly thought that by marrying Velkan she could ease the war and hostility between their families so that they could focus on the land's invaders.
That mistake and the well-known tragedy of their lives during the fifteenth century was what would lead a man called William Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet roughly a hundred years later. And just like his couple, their secret marriage had led to both their deaths.
But it'd been her husband's black sorcery that had led to their resurrections and immortality.
Damn him! Even after all these centuries she couldn't forgive him. Besides, what few times she'd weakened, he'd always done something to renew her anger.
She pushed that thought aside as they reached the hotel. She got out first while the driver went to pull their suitcases from the trunk. Retta looked up at the quaint hotel with its highly arched roof and stylized black trim. Dusk was setting as she took her suitcase from the older man and paid him his fee.
"Thank you," he said.
Retta inclined her head as she and Francesca made their way toward the hotel's blackwood stairs.
Francesca frowned at a flyer that was on a bulletin board at the base of them. It was identical to several others except for the fact that it was written in English. "Did you see this?
Dracula tour begins in an hour at the old church."
Retta seethed. "A pox on both his testicles."
Francesca laughed at that. "That's harsh."
"Yes, it is. But he deserves a lot worse. Bastard."
"May I help you with your bags?"
Retta jumped at the deep, thickly accented voice that appeared suddenly. Where the hell had he come from? Turning around, she met the gaze of a handsome man in his late twenties who stood just in front of her. A man who looked enough like Francesca to be her brother—right down to the dark chestnut hair and strikingly blue eyes. "Are you with the hotel?"
"Yes, my lady. My name is Andrei and I will be here to serve you in any manner you wish."
Francesca laughed, but Retta had a sneaking suspicion that his double entendre wasn't from trying to speak a different language. He knew what he was offering. "Thank you, Andrei," she said coldly as she handed him her bag. "We just need to check in."
"As you wish… madame?"
"She's a madame, I'm a miss," Francesca said, handing him her suitcase as well.
"I knew I should have left you in Chicago," Retta mumbled as Francesca winked at the handsome Romanian. Yet she wasn't flirting with him, which for Francesca was a first.
"I am sure you will both enjoy your stays here at Hotel…"—he paused for effect before he rolled the next word with true Romanian flare—"Dracula. We are having a special tonight.
Staked steak with a tart raspberry sauce and minced-garlic mashed potatoes for keeping away those evil vampires." There was a devilish gleam in his eyes that Retta didn't find charming or amusing.
Rather, it just pissed her off.
"I imagine the garlic will keep away much more than vampires, eh, Andrei?" she said sarcastically.
He didn't speak as he led them up the stairs to the hotel's doors. There was a stereotypical winged vampire head on each door that opened into the blood-red lobby. There were pictures of different Hollywood depictions of Dracula everywhere, along with sketchings and paintings of Retta's father.
And her "favorite" was the golden cup in a case with the plaque that declared it to be the cup her father had set out in the central square of Tîrgoviste. He'd proclaimed his lands so free of crime that he'd put it there to tempt thieves. Terrified of him, none had ever dared to touch it. It'd stayed in the square all throughout his reign.Right next to that was what appeared to be a stake with dried blood on it and a plaque that said it was the one her father had used to skewer a monk for lying to him. Bile rose in her throat.
"Ever feel like you've walked into a nightmare?" Retta asked Francesca.
"Oh, c'mon. Enjoy it."
Yeah, right. The only thing she would enjoy was kicking Velkan's balls so hard that they came out of his nostrils. Hmmm… maybe she was her father's daughter after all. For once she understood her father's deep need to torture his enemies.
Andrei led them across the lobby. "Would you like tickets for tonight's tour?"
Retta spoke without thinking. "Like another hole in my head."
He frowned at her.
"That's American slang for 'no thank you,'" Francesca said quickly.
"Strange. When I was in New York it was slang for 'no fucking way.'"
"You were in New York? When?" Francesca asked in a stunned tone.
"A year ago. It was… interesting."
Something strange passed between them.
Retta shook her head. "It must have been quite the culture shock for you."
"It took a little getting used to, but I enjoyed it there."
"What made you come back?" Retta asked.
His gaze bored into hers as if he knew who and what she was. "Once Transylvania is in your blood, it never leaves you."
Retta disregarded that. "Tell me, Andrei. Do you know a Viktor Petcu?"
He arched one handsome brow. "And why would you wish to speak to him?"
"I'm an old friend."
"I somehow doubt that, since I know all of his old friends and I would have remembered a woman so beautiful in his past."
Retta turned toward the counter to find a woman moving to stand before the old-fashioned ledger that was there. Appearing around the age of forty, she was dressed in the traditional Romanian peasant blouse and loose skirt. Tall and quite striking, she was someone Retta hadn't seen in over five hundred years.
Surely it couldn't be…
"It is not Viktor she wants, Andrei," the woman said, indicating Retta with a tilt of her chin.
"She is here for Prince Velkan."
"Raluca?" Retta breathed as she stared in shock at the woman.
She bowed to her. "It is good to have you home again, Princess. Welcome."
Her jaw slack, Retta approached the woman slowly so that she could study her features. She looked only slightly older than she'd been when Retta had last seen her. Only then Raluca had been a servant in Retta's father's castle.
"How is this possible?"
The woman glanced to Andrei before she answered. "I am a Were-Hunter, Princess."
Were-Hunter. They were akin to the vampires or Daimons her husband had been created to kill. The Daimons had once been mortals who'd run afoul of the Greek god Apollo. A group of them had assassinated the god's mistress and child. As a result, Apollo had cursed them all to having to drink blood to live and for all of them to die at the tender age of twenty-seven.
The only way for them to live longer was to steal human souls. Dark-Hunters had been created by Apollo's sister Artemis to kill the Daimons and free the human souls before they died.
Several thousand years after that, an ancient king had unknowingly married one of their cursed race. When his wife had decayed on her twenty-seventh birthday, he'd realized that his beloved sons would meet their mother's fate. To save them, he'd magically merged the souls of animals with their race until he'd found a way to save them. Thus, the Were-Hunters had been created. Able to bend the laws of physics and with highly developed psychic sense, the shape-shifters lived for centuries.
But it was rare for a Were-Hunter to be near a Dark-Hunter, never mind serve one. Since Dark-Hunters were created to kill their Daimon cousins, most Were-Hunters avoided them at all costs.
Retta looked over her shoulder to Francesca, who was now squirming uncomfortably. A bad feeling went through Retta as she realized that Francesca had befriended her just weeks after she'd fled Romania. They'd known each other almost fifteen years before Francesca had confided the truth of her existence to Retta.
Now she had a suspicion that sickened her.
"Lykos?" Retta asked Raluca. That was the Were-Hunter term for their wolf branch.
"Raluca is my mother," Francesca said quietly. "Andrei and Viktor are my brothers—it's why I never used a surname. I didn't want you to realize I was one of the family."
Retta couldn't breathe as she stood there with her emotions in turmoil. Anger, hurt, betrayal.
They were all there and they each wanted a turn at Raluca and Francesca, but most of all, they wanted Retta to beat her husband. "I see."
"Please, Princess," Raluca said, her bright blue eyes burning with intensity. "We're only here to help you."
"Then call me another cab and get me back to the airport ASAP."
Francesca shook her head. "We can't do that."
Retta glared at her. "Fine then. I'll do it myself." As she moved toward the phone on the desk, Raluca pulled it away.
Retta saw the sympathy in Raluca's eyes as she cradled the phone to her chest. "I'm truly sorry, but you can't leave here, Princess."
"Oh yes, hell I can and I am." Retta started for the door, only to have Andrei block her path.
"You are in danger, Princess."
She narrowed her eyes on him. "Not me, buddy. But you are if you don't move out of my way."
Francesca took a step toward her. "Listen to him, Retta, please."