The woman in front of me was clearly going through a difficult time. From her scuffed, worn jeans to her disheveled dark blonde hair to her ragged sneakers, she had to be from the working class. At least, what I could judge from standing behind her, waiting my turn at the order kiosk. I paused in my appraisal. Or she could have merely come in from a household job or construction activity. Although why would she not change afterwards?

            And yet, I haven’t changed clothes in forty-eight hours. I tugged down my waistcoat, thankful that the black brocade hid the blood from an altercation only an hour earlier. A rogue vampire who had escaped custody from his confinement at the Regeleus House, and the manager, Akira Yamamoto, was a close friend, so I made time to track down the escapee. A rehabilitation house hardly worked if the vampires wouldn’t cooperate.

            A sigh escaped me, coupled with a yawn that I swallowed. Yet, it was a true pity I had to cut the rogue’s head from his shoulders. As a side irritation, vampire eyeballs were not even pleasant to eat. Though it wasn’t as if I could shift into my raven form to enjoy them properly.

            That form had been forever lost due to my turning.

            Speaking of consumption, has she made her choice by now? I checked my watch. I had spent fifteen minutes in the small convenience store while she hunched over the only operating kiosk, ceaselessly tapping through menus. I should have gone to a coffee shop, but this place had been closer. As well, I had a certain fondness for the bright red color and shiny displays of a Sheetz. Shiny objects, whether of monetary value or otherwise, were highly underrated by humans.

            I could almost hear Akira’s voice in my head. Once a raven, always a raven. It wasn’t entirely true—I was a vampire now—but my soul. Yes, my soul remembered its shifter nature.

            A nature that really desired a large cup of coffee, accented with blood from the small, tightly-sealed bag secure within the front inner pocket of my coat.

            The woman still hovered over the only working kiosk. Did she have some obsessive compulsive ailment? It was common enough among vampires and perhaps, among humans as well. I hadn’t made that close of a study of humans. Perhaps that was why she couldn’t seem to choose a single item, but instead continued to add items onto her order, then delete them.

            Or was it a monetary concern?

            If it was an OCD issue, someone needed to break the cycle within her mind. If the problem was merely financial, that could be easily solved as well. In either case, allowing the woman to continue in this manner was clearly harmful to her. And, in addition, it prevented me from procuring my own beverage.

            “Pardon me,” I said, making sure to pitch my voice gently but firmly.

            She started, only slightly.

“Yeah?” A warm, weary tone. As though she had just awoken.

Then she turned around to face me, looking up and giving a tired smile. Her blue eyes studied me with a sharp friendliness that stole my breath away. Copious freckles dotted her fair skin, which had flushed rosy beneath the layers of spots as she studied me in turn. I longed to see if the trail of freckles down her neck covered her entire body.

Her eyes surveyed me just as intently, although what she thought was a mystery. I couldn’t read her shifter scent, nor any magical elements whatsoever. Yet I was inexorably drawn to this woman, so she had to be unique in some way.

As an exceptionally rare shifter-turned-vampire, it wasn’t magically possible for me to be attracted to a human. But what was she then?

“I’m sorry, I’m taking forever.” Her words started out bright and high, before it fell again to a flatter, alto tone. “I’ve just cleaned four houses, so it’s been a long day.”

            “I understand. I too, have had a long day.” I returned her smile. I could do nothing else—found it hard even to think. All of the fatigue from being awake for forty-eight hours had vanished. There was only her oval face, her figure—what was visible beneath the worn blue jacket and jeans. Attire that made perfect sense, for who would wear fine clothes to clean houses?

              Then she whirled around to the kiosk, her fingers moving quickly to remove the remaining additions to her coffee.

            She was concerned over a matter of a few dollars? How unfortunate. I could easily help with that.

            “I can pay for a more luxurious beverage. If you would prefer, that is.”

            “Luxurious?” She repeated the word incredulously. Whirling back around, she slid a few locks of hair behind her ear and stared up at me. “Why?”

            Ah, suspicion. I recognized it well, although not from human women. My vampiric charisma from being of Talamar House usually smoothed over any conversations. This woman had to be of magical origin.

            The only way I’d learned to combat suspicion was simply to be even more outgoing, caring, and concerned. And since I already felt all three emotions on a daily basis, and more around her, it was easy to show.

            “I mean no offense.” I gave her another smile. “You just seemed indecisive about your order, and if finances were the issue for you, I assure you that they are not an issue for me.”

            She appraised me again, quickly.  “Ha, I guess that’s true.”

            Her gaze turned off to the side and distant. I could almost see her mind working through thought after thought. How much I needed to know what those thoughts were!

            “Okay, sure.” She focused on me once more. “How’s this gonna work?”

            “Allow me.” I slipped around her with deliberately graceful movements. My soul had already decided to begin the mating dance, it seemed. It would do no good to fight that, nor did I have the slightest interest in doing so. After all, I could always retreat if necessary.

            Although I somehow knew there would be no retreat from this woman, that she already held me, heart and soul, in ways I couldn’t even define. Not since Zsófia had I been this drawn to someone.

            No, this was even stronger than Zsófia. The traditional shifter mating attraction had drawn me to her, a pull made stronger by our frequent time together.

            This…this was far more…certain.

            Could it be dark magic, as with Lilah? Worry clouded my heart for a moment. Lilah, who had tricked me more than any other woman. Who had used every wile when I was at my most vulnerable, having given myself to my vampiric urges and turned my back on my life before—because it had turned its back on me. Lilah, the deceiving sociopathic trollop.

            If I had been drawn to her, magic aside, what had that meant about my own desires?

            I pushed the thoughts aside. The mysteriously compelling woman here, now, needed coffee—and so did I.

            I stared at the screen, the letters and words scrambling before my eyes. Basszus! Troublesome dyslexia. Perhaps forty-eight hours was too long without sleep.

Fortunately, I could parse the images well enough—and my mind remembered those more easily than words. I deftly entered the woman’s exact order, added my own beverage of choice, and pressed the submit button. All the while, keenly attuned to her presence mere inches away. Yes, there were the scents of sweat and cleaning supplies from her exertion, but that was easily dismissed. After all, as a raven I had been often told my own olfactory senses were askew.

            No, what attracted me was something beneath that scent. Something strange and alluring and inexplicably…shiny. There was no other word for it. Shiny like the stars in the sky. The opposite of Lilah’s cloying shadows.  

            “There, all is taken care of.” She stared up at me yet again, although this time, her expression was shock and, yes, attraction to me. Success! “If you wish, you can follow me—or you can remain here. You seem tired.”

            “Exhausted is more like it. One of the houses included dog mess.”
            My own expression turned rueful. “Yes, I understand all too well. Animal keeping can be difficult.”
            “You understand?”

            I fell into step with her easily as we walked to the counter. How much should I reveal? Caution would be wise.

And yet, she had been only direct with me, even when it worked against her. No woman with darkly seductive intentions brought up animal excrement. “Indeed. I fund and oversee a menagerie of animals, exotic and domestic.” I studied her carefully. “Magical and mundane.”

            Her face lit up like pure starlight, transforming her weary features. “Oh, cool! Do you have a cockatrice? I’ve always wanted to see one of those. They’re like evil lizard doom roosters.”

            A laugh escaped me, and I threw my head back. I couldn’t help myself—her response was so unexpected. Shades! I really needed that laughter. “An excellent description. And yes, there are several. You’re the first person I’ve met who shows such excitement about them. Most are terrified. After all, they can kill you by looking at you, or in several other ways.”

            “Maybe not me. I’m not easy to kill. People have tried, y’know?”

            Who would dare hurt her? Anger rose within me, although I managed to channel that into a merely concerned look. After paying for the coffees, I turned back to the not-human, magically unidentifiable woman.

            “Why have people tried to kill you?”

            I needed to kill them in turn. It was the only reasonable answer. Or at least serve them with very strong sanction magic.

            We returned to the beverage pick-up area.

            “My good looks, charm, and fashion sense obviously.” She flashed me a smirk, bitter shadows dimming the light in her eyes. “Why else?”

            “Clearly.” I paused. The bitterness made her seem far older than she had a moment before. I had thought her in her second or third decade, but now…perhaps seventh or eighth. She certainly carried sufficient experience. “Are you in trouble?”

            “Oh yeah. And I am trouble too, so it all evens out in the end.”

            Her tone could have cut through the neck of the vampire I’d so recently beheaded. And yet, as earlier, I couldn’t sense any darkness from her—no more than my own. Although perhaps that was its own warning to retreat. To remain far from this exquisite woman. I had far too many responsibilities to others to risk an entanglement. If she truly was trouble, would she be the next person at the end of my blade at a future date?

            My raven soul and my vampire nature cried out against that, the protests ringing deep within me. Never before had they been aligned.

            Well, at the least I could offer aid. I did so to many, Fae and Unspoken alike.

            I reached for her arm through the windbreaker she wore, keeping my touch light. Still, she shuddered and jerked away. “I’m Cendric Antalek, attorney-at-law. I help people in difficult, magical situations.”

            “I’m Allis Evanenko, and I have no money to pay for fancy coffee, much less a lawyer.” She shot the words back like bullets.

            The harsh pain of the victimized. I’d learn to discern it over the years, especially after falling prey to Lilah’s treachery.

I kept my tone even. There was no need to arouse further defensiveness from Allis. What a beautiful name. “I don’t need money.”

“Wow. Well…I don’t need your charity.”

My lips quirked. If this woman could deliver quick words, she could receive them as well. “So the coffee with three flavor shots and double whipped cream is—?”

            “A vital part of my existence.” Allis backed away, brushing off her hands on her jeans. “Although I don’t need that either, man. I was fine with buying my own plain stuff. I don’t need to owe you anything.”

            She grimaced.

Damn. Two steps backward in our conversation. Although her continued bluntness was refreshing and far easier to answer with bluntness in return. Which, since I had not rested in two days, was easier for me anyway.

            “I know.” I sighed. “I offered to help. Not as a way to make you in debt to me or to otherwise coerce you. The gift is free.”

“Only God gives free gifts. Everything else costs.”

She invoked God? And from the earnest look in her eyes, Allis meant it. Beneath the sarcasm and cynicism was a desperate belief beyond hope that I knew all too well. No matter if she and I ever mated—though a part of me demanded it—no matter what happened, I would help her.

“Allis, not with me.”

Her glare turned even fiercer. She shoved up her windbreaker sleeves, revealing a black and silver curse-mark that twined around both forearms. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “You see this? I’ve had this curse-mark since birth. Since birth, Cid. Insta-criminal from the womb, enough to lock away most of my magic. And yeah, I’ve broken laws to survive—and sometimes, because I felt like it. So don’t even pretend like you care.”

I fell silent, my blood boiling within me as I fought the urge to screech at whoever had sullied her arms so. I had not seen a curse-mark such as this in decades. The mark did more than cut off access to magic—it leached away at the lifespan of the bearer and attacked every part of their body with plagues and pestilence. Allis should be dead from that mark. The fact that she was not dead spoke even more to the power within her.

Now was not the time to show my anger, not with the human nearby. As it was, I drew additional glamour to hide the shadowy magic that surrounded me. I would go after every person who inflicted these on her, if it was in my power. Even if it were the highest echelons of the Fae court, they would pay.

“I’m truly sorry.” Somehow, I managed to keep my voice calm and sympathetic.

Somehow, I managed not to reach out and pull her into my embrace, vowing to guard her against all foes. Vowing to bring justice to her.

I made the vows nonetheless, but within my heart. She was in no place to receive them.

            “Whatever that means. Not your problem.”

More callous disregard. More hopelessness. Now, I understood why. She had been mutilated since birth, paying for the crimes of whichever parent the Fae court hated.

It was no wonder she distrusted me, a powerful leader demanding her attention.
            At that moment, our drink orders arrived on the red pick-up counter. Allis immediately snatched hers up and took a large slurp of coffee and whipped cream. Surely scalding her mouth—a mouth that was covered with whipped cream that festooned her nose as well.

Despite her dire situation, she took delight in a simple beverage. Shook off the pain as easily as an otter shook off water. Astonishing.

“My dear, you might need this.” I handed her a napkin.

            She wrinkled her nose and waggled her eyebrows. “I dunno, I think this look suits me.”

            A chuckle escaped me at that. She was irresistible. “Surprisingly, it doesn’t. Although I doubt anything could make you look disagreeable.”

            At that, she paused. A surge of triumph filled me. The woman needed to be bested at her own game of witticisms sometimes. 

She cleaned off the coffee and whipped cream smudges. “There. All better.”

“Cleaner, certainly. But your overall appearance needs no improvement.” I took in her form again, both lanky, but also with pleasing curves. But was she underfed? By her own admission, she didn’t have ample funds. Maybe I could offer her some money?

No. That would be rejected as quickly as she had rejected my words. Although, had her eyes softened? It appeared so. Perhaps I could ask her to dine with me. Granted, there was the dead rogue vampire in pieces in my vehicle outside. Still, the parts were encased in a coffin with magically-regulated temperature control. He would keep for several hours yet.

As for Allis’s clothing, well, I was hardly in my best clothing. This suit was several years old, and there was the bloodstain that was only partly concealed on the front. Besides, if she didn’t care about what she wore, why should I? Certainly in my earlier life I had looked as unkempt—and she was still breathtaking. The stardust glimmered from within the scars like a beacon of defiant hope.

God above, I needed this woman, if she would have me. I would do everything in my power to make it the easiest choice she ever made.  

I opened my mouth to speak—but she spoke first.

“Um, okay, so I need to head out. Got a meeting across town.” Allis waved, starting to back away toward the door. “Thanks again for this!”

She was leaving? No. She couldn’t leave. Well, she was free to do as she liked, although free was a poor term considering the curse marks.  

“Are you sure?” I strode toward her, heedless of my earlier insistence on treating her carefully and giving her space. She still had several feet of distance from me. That was sufficient.

“Yeah, Antalek. It’s been real, though. And I’m a huge fan of how you have cockatrices. That is freaking incredible, and I wish I could see them.”

Her random admission gave me a fresh idea. Allis seemed to enjoy animals. I did as well.

Could that be an enticement, only to spend more time with her?

I smiled. “I would love to introduce you to them. Carefully, of course.”

“You don’t even know me. I could be playing you to sneak in and kidnap them.”

“You’re welcome to try. They’d kill you.” Accurate. Although then I would have to kill the cockatrices, and that would be a true shame.

“Like I said, not easy to kill.” People had tried enough times. “Laters!”

She pivoted and pushed through the door, speeding up with each step. I caught the door, pushing through the glass panes to follow her. At the least, we could exchange cell phone numbers, or I could give her my business card. That would be the professional move.

Who was I fooling? My soul chafed at the idea of losing sight of this woman forever. I turned and spied her walking around the nearest corner. At this rate, I could catch up with her easily enough—

The world spun around me, and my vision suddenly blurred. My palm pressed into the nearest building to steady myself. Every thought in my mind shook and whirled frantically, and my soul screamed as something precious was ripped away—

I blinked and rubbed my eyes. The world came into focus once more around me.

What was that? I checked my watch. Cendric, you fool. Your mind plays tricks on you.

After all, I hadn’t slept in over forty-eight hours, and I still needed to dispose of the vampire remains. They must be taken back to the rehabilitation center and any family—human or vampire—notified about the unfortunate occurrence. From there, because this vampire had been committed to the facility, he would receive a proper burial according to his preferences.

I sighed. A grim task, but my portion only involved hunting the rogue, killing him, and returning his body parts. Akira would manage the rest, leaving me free to—to do what?

Something nagged at me, as though I had forgotten something precious. Important. As much a part of myself as my own breath.

After a moment, I settled my suit coat about my shoulders. If the thought was important, I would remember it. In the meanwhile, there was no time to waste, not even to fetch my coffee from within the Sheetz. I could make a cup for myself once I’d returned home.

For some reason, I had the urge to put whipped cream on it.

I discarded the thought. Lack of sleep certainly gave the mind strange urges.

Like the strange urge to give a mourning cry as I settled within the driver seat of my SUV and started back onto the street.

I was a raven-souled vampire. There was always something or someone to mourn.

No reason that this urge should be indulged.