Cherry Pie

Prologue

 

“Cherry, can’t you see he’s lying through his teeth? I can, and I’m on a different continent.”

Alex had his reasons for being suspicious, but Constantine wasn’t lying. Things would have been much easier if he were.

I wouldn’t have to die again.

But I’m starting the story in the middle.

Let me fix that.

 

Chapter One

 

I open myself to the scenery around me, until the stitches holding it together glow a pure white. The sunglasses holding my hair back from my face are useless against this light, but I don’t want to dim it, anyway. I need to take it in.

The sight is beautiful in its eeriness.

I focus on a single point along the seam between golden sand and blue morning sky. About where the overhead light switch should be. It doesn’t give, but it will. I’ve been practicing since I was trapped in Alex’s dream.

I use my finger to draw a bright-red thread over it, and snap it with my finger. I tug, and my strawberry daiquiri fades to transparency before it’s gone completely. The book on my lap follows it to oblivion. The wind has dropped, and the waves no longer lap at the shore. They’re frozen in place until I pull again, and then they melt into the sky that in turn gives its place to the white of my bedroom walls.

I close my eyes and smile when the beach chair beneath me yields into something softer. Fluffier. I open my eyes again and—

I blinked away my much-needed sleep. Did Constantine have to drop into my dream tonight of all nights? His timing sucked.

Speaking of timing, I should start keeping track of how long it took to enter and exit a dream. I practiced every chance I got and was improving—another reason I was so tired; I needed to let my mind switch off once in a while—but I wanted tangible results.

Maybe I’d ignore my ex’s new bout of drama and sink back into my dream.

Sure.

I’d forget he said I could be human again, so I could catch some shut eye. ’Cause I was cool like that.

Not.

I kicked the sheets off and stood. My inner clock told me the sun was still down for the count, which meant so were my parents. I didn’t want to sneak out of their home without saying goodbye, but if what Constantine said was true, I couldn’t wait to get more details out of him.

I pulled on my jeans and sneakers, and wore my hoodie over Alex’s T-shirt I’d been using as a pajama top. His scent was barely there after ten days. I didn’t know where we stood, other than that we weren’t a we, but I liked feeling close to him at night. And it was a comfy shirt.

I scribbled a quick note for my parents on a Post-It and pressed it to the fridge door with the heel of my hand.

 

Constantine needs me at the mansion. I’ll be back tomorrow, for my stuff and a proper farewell. And I’ll need pancakes. Lots of them.

Love you both,

Cherry

 

It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive back to L.A. without traffic, but traffic didn’t apply to me and neither did driving. I was flying there. I pulled my hair into a tight bun and raised the hood, to minimize damage, and took off.

The crisp night air felt refreshing on my skin and called up memories of the warmth of the dream. The heat had been at its strongest when Constantine was there.

And when wasn’t that the case?

As trees and hills gave way to wide open road beneath me, my mind flew forward, to the mansion and the man waiting there.

Constantine didn’t reach out before tonight, respecting my time with my family. I appreciated that, but until I dreamed of him topless beside me, I hadn’t realized I’d missed him. It was weird. We broke up years ago, but the last few months he’d been a constant in my life, and I liked having him around.

Another thing to sort out if I wanted a future with Alex.

Which I did.

With the exception of his… dark period, Alex was the yang to Constantine’s yin. He was open with his feelings, unafraid of commitment, and with a moral compass so strong, you could count on him to always draw a clear line between right and wrong.

Constantine was all about gray areas and fuzzy limits.

And I was confused.

Not about which of them to choose. Constantine was history—though who knows what would have happened between us if Ádísa hadn’t planned and executed our breakup?

Not what I should be considering.

The hazy scenery beneath me gained shape. I cut into the smog, thankful I didn’t have to breathe. I began my descent, careful to keep away from the lights. Not easy in downtown L.A. but doable around Constantine’s mansion.

My feet met solid ground at the same time, and I brought my body to a perfect halt. Can I get a yay for bending the laws of physics?

I lowered my hood and let my hair loose. It felt stiff, and I bet it looked it, but this wasn’t a social call.

Constantine said I could become human again.

How?

And why wasn’t I ringing his doorbell and asking him?

I pressed the button by the wrought-iron gate and smiled at the closed circuit camera, waiting for Wesley, Constantine’s aging human butler, to buzz me in. Flying all the way to someone’s front door unannounced is considered an aggressive move among our kind, but I wasn’t afraid Constantine would see it as such. I was simply being polite. He was waiting for me, but I wasn’t staying here yet. Or again. Or at all, depending on how our chat went.

“Come to the parlor. We’ll watch the sunrise.” Constantine’s voice came from behind me, instead of from my left, where the intercom was.

I spun on my heel. Nothing. The acoustics out here were wonky.

The latch clicked, and the gate slid open. “I didn’t come for the sunrise,” I muttered under my breath, though I couldn’t wait to see it. Couldn’t get enough sun since my grandmother’s potion made it possible for me to walk in daylight. If only I could tan…

I followed the path to the front door and let myself in. Wesley poked his head out of the kitchen, and a smile brightened his lined face. He looked tired. I couldn’t blame him; he’d been taking care of too many people for a while now.

“You’ve been missed,” he said. “Coffee?”

“I missed you too.” I returned the smile. “And yes, please.” No need to tell him how I took it; he’d made me coffee more times than I could count, both when I dated Constantine and in the months Alex and I stayed here.

I padded softly on the plush carpet, as I trailed through the ground floor, praying I met nobody else before I talked to Constantine. I’d love to catch up with Sheena, and the little masochist in me missed the three fledglings Constantine sort of adopted on the day he decapitated his maker, but I could do without diversions until I had answers.

From past experience, odds were Constantine would be less than fully dressed, so I wasn’t surprised to see him in nothing but a pair of silk pajama bottoms. I crossed the threshold to the spacious parlor at the exact same moment the rising sun appeared through the glass panes taking up three sides of the room. The rays that a couple weeks ago would have reduced Constantine to ashes now set his pale skin ablaze with red, orange, and purple hues. The muscles in his wide sternum stood out in stark relief, and his blue eyes sparkled.

He was magnificent.

I didn’t try to hide my ogling. He expected it. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’d timed my entrance specifically for this.

I blinked, and whatever thrall he held over me evaporated. He was still stunning, but now I could focus on things beyond that. “You said I could become human again?” I asked.

“I did.”

I was looking right at him, but I didn’t see him move his lips.

“Finally, she catches on. I’ve been dropping hints for a while.” His lips never parted.

“How are you doing this? Are you messing with my mind?”

He held my gaze. “I’ve broken my promise,” he said, and this time I watched him form the words. His serious tone was a far cry from the seductive purr he usually opted for when shirtless. “I’ve kept something important from you.”

Ah, now I got it. “How long have you known I could be turned back?” I glared. Would he never learn? Omissions and lies always came back to bite him in the ass. And I wouldn’t think of that thing’s perfect curve.

“No. Not that. I informed you of the possibility as soon as Ruby told me about it. There’s something else.” His mouth stopped moving, but the words kept coming. “When two vampires who’ve killed their own makers exchange blood, they get a sort of telepathy.”

Shock and surprise short-circuited my brain.

“I killed Ádísa, and you killed Willoughby,” he said. In my head. “And then—”

“You cleaned my wounds and fed me your blood. Three times.”

“Yes. And you don’t have to speak aloud. I can hear your thoughts.”

This was too fucking much. He’d crossed lines and pushed my limits time and again, but to be able to straight-up pull thoughts out of my head? No. “You do that, and I promise to hurt you so bad, you’ll taste it for eternity. My thoughts are mine. No trespassing. Got it?” I refused to use my inside voice.

“Cherry, I would never disrespect you this way. You have to believe me.”

“Do I?” I was tired of believing him. Of trusting him. More tired of reminding myself not to. “Don’t tell me you only found out about this now, too.” Oh, he knew for a while. He’d insisted on giving me his blood when Alex tried to feed me.

“No.” He said this aloud. “I’ve known for years, and after Alex… After you were hurt the first time, I couldn’t overlook the opportunity.”

“To bind me to you?” I asked. The arrogance was strong with this one.

He frowned. “Of course not. To never let you get hurt again. Wherever you are, whatever happens, you’ll be able to reach me at the speed of thought. Think about this, Cherry.” His eyes pleaded with me to forgive him, and I found myself wanting to.

“You should’ve let me choose for myself.” I was tired of people thinking they knew what was best for me.

“You were drained. There was no time to discuss it.”

“You could have come to me later.”

“I didn’t think that far ahead.” He stood and scratched his chest, his bicep bulging. He used his body as a distraction, but I knew all his tricks, and they wouldn’t work this time.

“You’re lying,” I said. “You jumped at the chance to have an in with me, and you knew it when you told Alex you wouldn’t be my default choice. Games. It’s all about games with you.”

His blue eyes darkened to near black, as he narrowed them at me. “There was nothing game-like about seeing you drained in your parents’ basement, with your crazed lover still inside you, and knowing I could have prevented it. You’d be dead now if I didn’t act.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Alex might have stopped.”

“You don’t believe that any more than I do, but I’m not talking about then. How do you think I found you in that clearing?” Where Willoughby made Alex bleed me out.

I remembered wondering about that at the time, before more pressing matters had demanded my attention. Like surviving. “But you hadn’t had my blood then. You only licked my wounds clean after,” I said.

“When I gave you my blood the first time, I held you. Your blood was all over me, driving me insane. I knew the effects wouldn’t last if I only tasted it, so I went for it.” He raked his fingers through his long blond hair.

“And at the clearing?”

He held my gaze. “You’d almost died twice, Cherry. I wouldn’t leave it to chance. I took enough to know this bond would last. That I wouldn’t lose you again.”

I should be livid. He’d made the decision for me. Twice. To protect me. As if I were a helpless little girl, and not a vampire who could stand on her own two feet—and kick ass, when need arose.

But his last words… His eyes, swirling with color that I knew corresponded to pain and hunger and even love…

He didn’t want to lose me, and more than once he’d gone above and beyond, to keep me safe and happy.

I closed the distance between us and touched my lips to his cheek. “I forgive you.” I tried to think it at him, unsure how this worked.

He slid his hands up my arms, his touch lighting my skin on fire. When he reached my shoulders, he dug in his fingers, holding me to him. “I’ll make you happy, if it kills me.”

The emotion in his words slammed into my chest and made me lightheaded. It took all my willpower not to think of a response. I couldn’t trust myself not to project it to him, and I didn’t know what it would be, when my gut reaction was to lose myself in him.

But that way lay badness.

He nuzzled my cheek. “I made so many mistakes as your mentor. I fancied myself a sort of Pygmalion and tried to sculpt the perfect woman out of you, when I should have spent our time together letting you know you already were perfect. Are perfect.”

He’d approached me as my VSS-assigned mentor and had done his best to teach me all he could, but I never shook the feeling he found me lacking. That I couldn’t compare to the Valkyrie who made him. My insecurities intensified when he cheated on me with her, and they didn’t go away even when he killed her for me.

He’d said he loved me—before and since—but this validation filled my stomach with butterflies.

“You really think I’m perfect?” I whispered against his ear.

He shifted to touch his forehead to mine. “You’re beautiful, and you’re smart. Funny and brave. A hellcat, in and out of bed. And your heart… This world has broken you down and stomped all over you, people have hurt you and betrayed you, and you still see the good in them. You see the good in me. Fuck yes, you’re perfect.” And then, with the slightest tilt of his head, he found my lips and claimed them.

Soft, full lips glided against mine, before his talented tongue slid between them and caressed my own. I melted against him, my heart absorbing his words. I skated my palms up his sides, enjoying the hardness of muscle beneath his smooth skin.

It was incredible.

I was kissing Constantine again, after so long. After I was sure he and I were done.

When I’d been thinking of another man.

I said I wouldn’t wait for Alex, but part of me wanted us to fix things. To regain the normal, easy relationship we had before Willoughby and Ádísa threw us the mother of all curveballs.

With great reluctance and even greater regret, I broke the kiss. “Too soon,” I said.

He ghosted his thumb over my cheek. “Will it ever not be?”

I had no reply for that. “Is it okay if I stay here?” I asked after a second.

“Of course.” His smile lit up the room.

“And you’ll tell me about the whole vampire-to-human reversion thing?”

The smile wilted. When it reappeared, it didn’t reach his eyes. “Anything to make you happy.”

Chapter Two

 

I took a sip of the coffee Wesley brought me, and bit back a moan of appreciation. His brew could wake the dead—I vouched for it.

“I’m ready,” I said. “Tell me everything.”

Constantine nodded. “My last year as a human, I was one of a select army of Viking warriors, sent to guard the Byzantine emperor Vasilios the Second. It was the late tenth century, and we were known as the Varangian Guard.” He’d reverted to his most cultured tone, the one unaffected by me and the three vampettes who taught him things like OMG and WTF.

He cleared his throat. “During the battle of Abydos—you might know it as Hellespont—”

I wouldn’t know it as anything; I had no clue whether it was a place or an artifact. Plus, I was still doing the math, to calculate his exact age. He’d been turned in his early thirties, so… I’d always thought of him as ancient, but I guess he was only eleven hundred years old or so. Only.

“—we were fighting the rebel Bardas Phokas, when a sword sliced through my side. I dispatched of my attacker and was forced to seek shelter in the catacombs of a monastery. There, among the robes of a deceased priest, I found a scroll. At the time, I didn’t know what its significance was, but I held on to it nonetheless.”

I arched my eyebrows. “You were wounded and in a place filled with dead people, and you decided to keep a piece of paper that meant nothing to you?”

Parchment, Cherry. It was old, and it called to me.” He gave a rueful smile. “And it was in my hand when I died.”

I leaned forward. “That’s when Ádísa turned you?” I ached to reach for him and was grateful for the coffee table acting as a barrier between us. Touching him again wouldn’t lead to good things. Correction—it’d probably lead to great things, which would be bad.

“Indeed. I remember the cold stone beneath me and the smell of mold in the air. When she leaned over me, I was sure she was a Valkyrie, come to take me to Valhalla.”

She’d cultivated that myth for a while. Before I dusted her childe and co-conspirator, Willoughby, I found out she was really a succubus, who lost the Devil’s favor when she fell for a mortal and failed to get his soul.

“What was Ádísa doing there?” I asked.

“She thrived on war. She joined the guard looking for blood and mayhem.”

“But—” She was a woman, was what I meant to say. I must have thought it too loudly.

“Viking women never shied from battle.”

“Makes sense.” I could picture her slaying people, running them through with a sword, or tearing into them with her bare hands.

Constantine’s gaze was vacant, as if he’d been transported to that time so long ago. “She was beautiful and fierce, and when she offered me immortality, I didn’t refuse her. She sealed my wound, her lips cold against my fevered skin. She closed her mouth over my throat, and I wouldn’t mind dying in her arms. I hadn’t felt a woman’s touch since I left my wife behind.”

The shocks wouldn’t stop coming. “You were married?”

He sighed. “I never saw her or my two daughters again. Never went back. I was dead and reborn that night. I buried my name together with my past.” His eyes were dark and stormy with pain.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He shook his head. “I loved them. I left. I died. I expect so did they.”

I wouldn’t press for more. This was his story to share.

“When I woke up, I was disoriented and ravenous. She fed me her blood and we spent the night together. I was enthralled by her beauty and ruthlessness. We joined the fight side by side and fed on our enemies and our warriors alike. By the time the battle was done and Phokas was dead, I was so taken with her, I’d have done anything she asked.

“You know the rest. I did her bidding for years. I followed her like her trained guard dog. We fought and parted ways for decades at a time, only to pick up where we’d left off. We traveled the world. Witnessed the wonders of technology. Broke up and reunited. Blood and death followed her. I didn’t approve of senseless slaughter—no honor in that—but I didn’t object. She was my everything, even when there was an ocean between us.”

I did know this part, from bits and pieces he’d shared about his past the year and a half we’d been together, but I’d never heard this condensed version that showed how important she’d been to him. How deep his feelings for her ran. It wasn’t jealousy I felt; in the end, he’d proven he loved me more. Hearing him talk about her with such awe, though, made me hurt for his loss and the hard choice he had to make when he killed her to save me.

“Society changed,” Constantine said. “The need to hide our nature became more pronounced, but Ádísa was as reckless as ever. I cleaned her messes because I felt I had to, but as time went by, I became more vocal about questioning her decisions. And then there was Ruby.”

My grandma, whom Ádísa left behind for dead and Constantine turned.

“And then there was me,” I said.

Constantine’s smile was brighter than the sun. “And then there was you.” The warmth in his voice tugged at my very core.

I refused to meet his gaze. He’s the only vampire I know whose eyes change color to match his emotions, and I didn’t trust myself to resist what I’d see there. “Tell me about the scroll.” My voice came out gruff and throaty.

He sat back and steepled his fingers on his stomach. “It was torn, but the part I found read, they can walk under the sun and count finite remaining sunsets once again, requiring breath and sustenance, and growing as nature and God meant Man to. At the time, I thought it was a blessing. Maybe part of a Christian Orthodox psalm. I knew nothing of their religion.

“I kept my piece in a box, alongside my Viking shield and sword, but never thought to look more into it. When Ruby came to my dream, she told me she’d found a translation of an ancient script in the Romanian mountains. It mentioned a way to revive a specific type of Strigoi, as they call vampires. The latter part of the text matches what I found in Abydos, and it seems it would work on us.”

Well, hello, new information. “Us?”

He looked at his fingers. “It speaks about two immortals who’ve killed the ones who made them, assuming our understanding is correct.” His voice was low.

“You’re hiding something,” I said.

“Not hiding. I’m merely savoring the next part.”

I arched an eyebrow. “Spill.”

He raised his head to face me. “The ritual involved calls for mutual draining”—mischief danced in his eyes and on his smirk—“during intercourse.”

I laughed. The man knew how to relieve tension.

“I’m absolutely serious, I’m afraid,” Constantine said. “Though if this is your reaction to the thought of us having sex, I have my work cut out for me.”

I was wrong. No tension relieved, and now mental images of Constantine fucking my brains out came to add horniness on top of my stress. “You’re serious,” I half-said, half-asked.

He gave a slow nod. “It could be worse.”

“Yeah. Could involve ritual sacrifice.”

“In a way, it does.” He frowned. “We’re supposed to drink from one another until we both die.”

“But then we’re reborn.”

His shrug was noncommittal. “Have you told your parents you’re moving back here?”

“I left a note. I’ll fly back tomorrow and get my stuff. Say a proper goodbye.” Unlike last time, when I had no clue they knew about vampires, and I let them wait for my undead ass for more than six years.

“I’ll join you,” he said. “But for now, you should get some sleep. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow. I suppose you’ll want to be back in time to see Sheena and the girls off.”

Huh? “Off, where?”

“They’re moving out tomorrow evening. I’m sure we’ll be reeled in to help with the last of their stuff.”

“They’re moving out? You didn’t say anything.”

“I thought Sheena did. You certainly talked a lot more to her than to me during your absence.” That didn’t sound whiny at all. “They made arrangements while we were in San Louis Obispo. Your chatty friend is returning to her modeling agency and offered to take on the young ladies as clients. Take them in too, I suppose, since she invited them to stay at her place. I didn’t think to mention it, because it wasn’t about me and it didn’t fall into the things-that-affect-you category.”

He was right. It didn’t affect me. Except for the part where he and I would be left in his sexy mansion with no buffer between us other than an aging human butler. Once the women were gone, Constantine might start running around the mansion without a stitch on. That thought brought back memories of him naked, gleaming in the candlelight as he hovered over me, a wicked smile on his lips, and his blue eyes swirling with violet.

Which made me realize—“You changed the subject.”

“I did not.” He sounded scandalized, to say the least, so I was pretty certain it was an act.

“You so did. You said we had to drink from each other until we died, and then I said we’d be reborn, and you changed the freaking subject. You promised you wouldn’t hide anything else to do with me. Promised. Repeatedly.” That he’d had reason to do so more than once should’ve taught me something about his credibility.

Constantine rolled his shoulders and straightened in his seat. When he looked at me, there was no humor in his gaze. “I don’t want to tell you.”

“Great. Now I have to know.”

“This is about me. Not you.”

I tilted my head to the side and studied his posture. His back was stiff, his shoulders square. His knuckles were even paler than the rest of him. “Is it about the ritual?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Tell me.”

“You should decide on your own whether you will return to your human nature or not.”

“Tell me,” I said again.

He huffed and stood in a fluid motion that had the satin of his pants clinging to him and defining every curve.

“Your ass isn’t going to take my mind off this,” I told his sculpted back when he turned to look outside.

“This ritual will make us as old as we’d be if we were never turned.”

I wasn’t sure if he spoke the words or thought them at me, but they chilled me to the core. “That’ll make me thirty, but you… You will be—”

“Gone.”

I was up and in his face—yes, sandwiched between him and the floor-to-ceiling glass—in no time. “And you didn’t think that affects me? Were you not going to tell me at all? I’d wake up human, covered in your fucking dust?” I didn’t know what shocked me more—the fact that he’d keep this from me, or the searing agony twisting my gut at the thought of losing him forever. Not too long ago, I’d convinced myself I no longer cared if he lived or died.

“Cherry…”

“No. Fuck you. No.” I was crying.

He wrapped his arms around me. “I don’t know what I was going to do,” he said. “I’ve been trying to think of a way out, but if there isn’t one… You never wanted this life, and I’ve lived a dozen lifespans. Maybe it’s my time.”

“No. We’re not doing this. You’re not dying for me. And you’re a bastard for even considering it.” I shook off his hold and smacked his chest with my open palm.

He took a step back, and I felt cold. Weird. Vampires don’t feel cold, unless we’re talking arctic temperatures.

“I thought it was kind of romantic,” he said with a shit-eating grin.

I scowled. “Jackass.”

“Chivalrous, even.”

“Asshole.” But a smile tugged at the corners of my lips.

“Yeah, I love you too.”

The words were spoken lightly, but they landed like a punch to my stomach. He really did. I believed him before, but now I felt it in my core. And it left me shaken.

“We should get some sleep,” I said. I’d adjusted to a human schedule for the past ten days, but being a vampire in L.A. was much easier by night, and I’d apparently remain a bloodsucker after all.

Plus, it was a solid excuse to stop looking into Constantine’s soulful eyes.

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