PRELUDE: SYSSI

 

Premonitions are tricky.        

And although Syssi had been having them for as long as she could remember, she could never predict how they’d come to pass.

Yet in one way or another, they always did.

It was a curse.

Knowing something was coming, but not the when or the how, left her perpetually anxious.

Lately, she sensed a dark shadow descending over the world, a malevolence that had an oddly familiar flavor to it. An old and powerful force was on the rise, readying to plunge the world into darkness. Yet again.

It alarmed her.

So much so that she dreaded watching the news or reading a newspaper. To witness global events unfold according to her predictions only fueled their potency. And like one of those biblical prophets of doom, the foreknowledge she was burdened with was too vague to heed—even if anyone cared to listen.

And yet, although the portents were mounting, it seemed as if no one was concerned. Blinded by one trifling thing or another, most of her friends were nonchalant; convinced that recycling with gusto and driving fuel-efficient cars would effectively ensure the planet’s bright future.

Right.

As if weapons of mass destruction in the hands of fanatics were not threatening to annihilate the world. And the slaughter of thousands in Africa and in North Korea and in other godforsaken dictatorships wasn’t happening. Not to mention that hunger was still a serious problem in parts of the globe, and basic human rights were rapidly eroding in those and other parts: specifically, those of women.

It weighed on her.

Being a powerless observer sucked.

There was nothing she could do.

Except, some small part of her was rebelling against this perceived helplessness, whispering in her mind that she was wrong. It was like an itch, a nagging suspicion that she was forgetting something important, and that just around the corner, a life-altering adventure awaited.

Perhaps it had something to do with that godawful dream that had been tormenting her for months. Infrequent at first, lately it had been a nightly occurrence, and she would wake up gasping, sweaty, shaky, and with a mean headache.

The dream always began in the midst of a heart-pounding pursuit.

 

 

Out of breath and desperate, she was running for her life through a dark wood—a pack of vicious wolves on her heels. With the hellhounds’ terrible red-glowing eyes and snarling muzzles never far behind, her panting breaths were the only other sounds to disturb the quiet of the night.

 

What am I doing here?

Why are they chasing me?

Dear God, I’m going to die—horrifically—they are going to tear me apart.

Her eyes darting frantically in search of help, Syssi could see nothing besides the elusive shadows the moon was casting on her path.

She was losing hope, her legs threatening to give out, when up ahead in the distance she discerned what looked like a silhouette of a man. She couldn’t be sure, though. The tall shape was barely visible below the limbs of a large tree—it might’ve been just another shadow.

 

It remained a mystery. She’d never reached him, not even once, always waking up before getting close enough to find out if he’d been real.

Trouble was, Syssi didn’t know what to make of the dream. Was the dark stranger friend or foe? Was she supposed to run to him? Or from him?

On that, her premonition remained undecided, churning up a strange mix of contradicting feelings: a sense of trepidation, but also excitement.

Yes, her premonitions were definitely tricky.

 

CHAPTER 1: SYSSI

 

“Watch out!” Syssi threw a hand out, bracing against the Porsche’s front panel.

Her boss was going to get them killed.

“Would you chill already?” Amanda cast Syssi an annoyed glance and accelerated again, taking advantage of an opening in the next lane over. Syssi held her breath. The space looked like it wasn’t big enough to fit a motorcycle. And yet, Amanda somehow managed to slip her agile sports car into the tiny space without causing an accident.

Would telling her boss she was driving like a lunatic get her fired?

Nah. Not after all the trouble Amanda had gone through convincing Syssi to come work for her. Besides, they were friends. Sort of. “You’re dangerous. I’m never going to hitch a ride with you again.”

Amanda snorted. “I don’t know what your problem is. I’m an excellent driver.”

Syssi would’ve crossed her arms over her chest and huffed if she wasn’t holding on to the dashboard for dear life and hyperventilating. “Why can’t you stay in one lane? Do you really think all that weaving in between cars will get you there faster? And anyway, what’s the hurry? You have plenty of time until your first class starts.”

Amanda let out a resigned sigh. “Fine, if it makes you happy, I’ll drive like a little old lady. But you need to tell me what’s gotten into you. I didn’t hear any complaints yesterday, and my driving style hasn’t changed overnight.”

True. But that had been before the disturbing foretelling that had forced itself into Syssi’s mind as she was getting ready for work this morning. Something about Amanda being in danger or getting in trouble. The details had been fuzzy.

“I had a premonition.”

“Aha, I knew it.” Amanda sounded excited. “Let’s hear it.” She peered at Syssi with a pair of big blue eyes that seemed to glow from the inside. It must’ve been a trick of the light—contact lenses reflecting something—because it could not have been coming from Amanda’s eyes. It sure as hell looked like it, though.

Syssi shook her head. She would’ve dismissed the strange glow if it was the only thing about her new boss that didn’t add up, but she’d noted things like that before. The woman was odd, to say the least. Stunning, but strange. Was Syssi the only one who noticed those peculiarities?

Probably.

Amanda’s students were too busy gaping and admiring to actually listen to her lectures, let alone notice that there was something strange about their professor.

Tall and lean, with dark, glossy, short hair, deep blue eyes, and full, sensuous lips that were red without the benefit of a lipstick, Amanda’s beauty bordered on the surreal. It was mesmerizing. Movie stars and models paled in comparison.

Distracted by her looks, most people could see nothing beyond it. At first, Syssi had been no different, but after the initial shock had worn off, she’d made a conscious effort to see the person inside and not just the stunning cover.

They’d met a couple of months ago.

Upon discovering that Professor Amanda Dokani was conducting experiments on extrasensory perception, Syssi had volunteered as a test subject at her neuroscience lab. What better way to explore her disturbing ability to foresee the future than having a neuroscientist examine it?

Her results had been so exceptional that even though neuroscience hadn’t been her field of study, Amanda had pestered her to join the research team.

Syssi had politely declined.

She had an internship lined up with a wonderful architect. Tragically, the poor man ended up dying of a heart attack. So here she was, working at the lab and getting valuable insight into an ability that had haunted her, her entire life.

At least until she could find another architect to intern with.

“It was vague, as they all are, so I didn’t want to worry you for nothing, but I sensed that something major was going to happen to you—not life threatening, but life changing.”

Amanda smirked. “Hey, maybe the paper we are working on will get published? That would be major and life changing.”

Syssi shook her head. “The premonition wasn’t bleak but it wasn’t sunny either.”

Tapping a long-nailed finger on the steering wheel, Amanda frowned. “Are you still getting those nightmares? The ones with the wolves?”

Syssi winced. “Yeah, almost every night.”

“That would explain why you see trouble lurking in every corner. I think you are mixing up real premonitions with a bad mood.”

“Not likely. I know the difference. A premonition has a very distinct feel to it.” Syssi sighed. “But you’re right about the mood. I’m tired. All I need is one dreamless good night’s sleep to regain my sunny predisposition.”

“What you need is to get laid. One good tumble in bed and the nightmares will go poof. Isn’t a dark, handsome stranger part of the dream? You need to catch up to him and turn that nightmare into something else; something fun like several screaming orgasms.”

Amanda and her oversexed one-track mind.

Syssi rolled her eyes. “I don’t know if he is handsome or not because I never get close enough to see him. It’s not that kind of dream.”

Liar, liar, panties on fire.

It wasn’t as if it hadn’t crossed her mind that there might be a connection between the dreams and her extended dry spell. Except, she wasn’t looking for love. She was far too busy. Besides, the selection of available guys wasn’t all that inspiring. But perhaps her subconscious was trying to tell her that it was time to stop finding excuses and shying away from taking chances.

 

CHAPTER 2: AMANDA

 

“Where the hell is he?” Amanda murmured and took another quick glance at the time before fixing her gaze back on the lecture hall’s door.

From her elevated vantage point on the podium, there was little chance she could miss Kian. At six foot four and with two distinctive bodyguards at his side, he wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, or easily overlooked.

She was just anxious for him to show up.

At last, after endless nagging and cajoling, her brother—the all-important Regent and head of her clan on the American continent—was making the time to come see her teach.

He should be here already. Kian was punctual to a fault. Unless, he isn’t coming after all.

Snatching her phone out of her purse, Amanda turned her back to the class.

Where are you? I have to start in a few minutes, Amanda texted, then waited, tapping her heeled shoe on the podium’s hardwood floor.

Don’t get your knickers in a twist. Parking the car. Be there in two.

Letting out a relieved breath, she smiled and texted back. Knickers? Really? What century are you stuck in? It’s a thong now. Get with the times, old man. And unless you can fly, you won’t make it in two.

Old man walking as fast as he can while texting. Stop bugging me.

Amanda chuckled, but as she shifted her attention back to the rapidly filling classroom, her eyebrows dipped with worry. At this rate, Kian might not find an empty seat, let alone three, which might provide him with a perfect excuse to leave.

“Professor Dokani, I just wanted to tell you that I love your lectures,” called out a brave soul sitting in the first row.

Gutsy boy.

She smiled and gave him the thumbs up.

The room, already one of the largest in the department at one hundred and fifty seats, was nearing full capacity. Amanda’s class, ‘Mind: The Final Frontier’, was quickly becoming a favorite of the student body. Not that she had any illusions as to why her class was so popular.

It wasn’t due to a sudden interest in the philosophy of neuroscience, or appreciation for the title’s reference to Star Trek. And sadly, it wasn’t due to her fascinating lectures or her amazing teaching skills either. No, the course’s popularity had mainly to do with her looks.

Owing to her exceptional hearing, Amanda couldn’t help but overhear her students’ murmurs; most of which were flattering, though some were not just rude but outright derogatory. She would’ve loved nothing more than to slap those boys around for talking like that about a woman, any woman. Unfortunately, she couldn’t. Not only would it get her fired from the university, but it would expose her supernatural hearing and uncommon strength.

Amanda sighed. Beauty wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. What most people didn’t realize was that it was both a gift and a curse. No one bothered to look past the cover to see what was on the inside.

Even Amanda herself hadn’t been immune. For most of her life she’d let this exquisite exterior define her, but lately it just wasn’t enough. She wished to be admired for her skill as a teacher, and not the looks her unique genetic heritage had bestowed upon her.

“Just look at her,” she heard one of the boys whisper. “She looks like something straight out of an anime illustrator’s fantasy.”

Nice. But although what he’d said was flattering, and not vulgar like some of the other comments she’d heard, Amanda had to disagree. Unlike the nearly naked anime beauties, she was dressed, modestly and impeccably.

Still, at the back of her mind, shoved into a hidden corner she managed to ignore most of the time, Amanda often felt like an anime character: an exaggerated exterior masking a hollow interior. But then she covered it up well, projecting a confident attitude and dressing the part.

This morning she’d taken particular care, choosing an outfit to best fit the role she was playing: a distinguished and respected professor, yet a hot one. The slim-fitting black trousers and blue silk blouse revealed very little skin, leaving the job of accentuating her figure to the exquisite cut of the luxurious fabrics.

Amanda didn’t own a single article of clothing that wasn’t a top designer label or cost less than most folks’ monthly mortgage payments. Not that she could afford that kind of stuff on a professor’s pay; that wouldn’t have covered her shoe budget alone. But her shares in the clan’s extensive holdings ensured she could buy whatever struck her fancy without ever needing to work for it.

The research she was conducting had a higher purpose than earning her income or even prestige.

Still, she liked feeling important for a change. And besides delighting in her students’ reactions—amusing and thrilling as they were—she had to admit that she truly enjoyed teaching and was surprisingly good at it.

With a thinly veiled smirk, Amanda watched the young men—some freezing in place, awestruck as they stared at her, others tripping over their own feet as they tried to find a seat without taking their eyes off her.

Some tall, some short, some pale, some dark. Most were average looking. A few were worth a second glance.

Yummy, so many to choose from.

She loved their attention, their lust. Drinking it in, Amanda was in her element: the hunter in a field of ogling prey.

Mortals, with their weak, malleable minds, were easily snared, their memories of the hook-ups easily erased, and the men themselves just as easily forgotten.

Regrettably, it was a modus operandi for her kind.

Repeatedly thralling partners messed with their brains, while hiding her true nature for extended periods of time was tiresome and carried the risk of exposure.

Long-term relationships were simply impossible.

Those of her kin who’d tried had gotten burned; most figuratively, some literally.

Case in point; the witch-hunts.

In days past, a woman like her might have been called a femme fatale, a succubus, or even a vamp. Nowadays, there was a new term, cougar, which she liked better. It didn’t carry such negative connotation and was, in fact, closer to the truth.

Not that anyone would dare think of her as an older woman. Amanda shuddered at the thought.

She was a beautiful, young female.

Her fake birth certificate stated that she was born on the sixth of May, 1984. It got the sixth of May right, but the actual year of her birth was 1773.

Amanda was over two hundred years old.

The funny thing was, for a near-immortal she truly was young. Kian was four years shy of two thousand—the old goat. Compared to the lifespans of mortals, though…

Well, what they didn’t know didn’t hurt them. She was what she was—what biology and her kin’s traditions made her—a lustful, hedonistic, near-immortal.

Amanda liked who she was, and she loved her life. Most of it anyway.

At last, as the classroom began to settle down, she spotted Kian, flanked by his trusted sidekicks—number one and number two as she nicknamed Brundar and Anandur. The three headed for the back row, where seats immediately became available, vacated by their occupants who scurried to find a place elsewhere.

Good.

Amanda would never admit it, but Kian’s approval meant a lot to her. Being that much older, he fulfilled both the roles of the father she’d never had and a big brother.

Lately, the clan’s holdings were increasing at a staggering pace, and managing their family’s extensive affairs was taking up most of Kian’s waking time. It had taken relentless nagging to pry him away for a couple of hours to come see his baby sister teach.

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3: KIAN

 

Kian was taken by surprise when the lecture reached its end with a lively discussion concerning free will. Enchanted by Amanda’s rendition of the mysterious nature of consciousness and the brain’s uncharted neural pathways, he had lost track of time just like the rest of her students. Even Brundar and Anandur, who’d expected to be bored out of their minds, had been listening—riveted throughout the entire class.

“It’s time to go,” Kian whispered, motioning for them to follow as he pushed to his feet. Leaving Amanda’s mesmerized audience behind, they sneaked out of the lecture hall unnoticed, which in itself served as another testament to her skill. More often than not, the three of them attracted a lot of unwanted attention; be it admiration from females, or apprehension from males.

Then again, establishing their headquarters in a big city that was home to the film and music industry had its perks. On the streets of Los Angeles—with all of its actors, musicians, and wannabes of the same—a bunch of tall, good-looking men wasn’t an unusual sight.

Once outside, Kian squinted at the glaring sun and pulled on his custom-made, heavy-duty sunglasses. Unlike his native Scotland, it rarely got cloudy enough here for him to forgo the shades. And at this time of year in particular, the bright orb’s glare was brutal on his over-sensitive eyes.

Not that it got significantly better during what passed for winter in Southern California.

Pulling up to the curb, his black SUV with its dark-tinted windows attracted the interest of the few people on the street. Thankfully, no one lingered to gawk.

“She’s really good. Even I got it,” Anandur remarked as he opened the passenger door for Kian.

With a slight nod, Brundar seconded his brother’s opinion.

“I still hate the idea of her being so publicly exposed. It’s risky. All it will take is for some nosy reporter to go digging into her fake dossier, and all hell will break loose.” His temper on the rise, Kian slammed the SUV’s door.

He had to admit, though, Amanda had had her students spellbound. Some of it was no doubt due to her beauty, and some due to her special ability to influence. But as he was immune to both and had still found the lecture fascinating, he had to give her the credit she was due.

“Where to, Master?” his driver asked, easing into traffic.

“We are having lunch at Gino’s.”

Mindful of the amount of work still waiting for him, Kian pulled out his phone and began scrolling through the avalanche of emails and texts that had managed to accumulate during the two-hour class. He’d barely gotten through a fraction of them when his driver parked the SUV in front of Amanda’s favorite place for lunch.

Gino’s was a short drive away from campus, close enough for her to grab a quick bite to eat during her lunch break, but too far for her students to get there on foot. Which meant the risk of her bumping into one of them was low. She’d discovered it two years ago when she’d gotten her first job at the university.

A generous grant provided by one of the clan’s subsidiary corporations ensured Amanda had free rein to test her ideas. But even though Kian was funding her research, he didn’t put much stock in her achieving her main objective. His reasoning was that even if Amanda failed to find anything useful for the clan, her research could potentially benefit humanity, which, of course, was the ultimate goal and justified the substantial monetary investment.

“Is it we, as in you and Amanda, or are we invited as well?” Anandur asked as they stepped out of the vehicle.

“No. I will have you guys stand sentry, salivating while Amanda and I eat. This is not the Middle Ages, and I didn’t do so even then. Really, Andu, sometimes I wonder if it’s part of your act or are you really that thick.”

Brundar chuckled, a jab directed at his obnoxious brother never failing to bring a rare smile to his austere face.

“What I mean, ladies… are we all sitting together as one big happy family, auntie and uncle with their beloved nephews? Or Amanda and you upstairs, while we guard from a safe distance—out of hearing range—downstairs?” Anandur arched both of his bushy red brows.

“I don’t know. It’s up to Amanda. I’m not sure what she has in mind.” Kian frowned, remembering she’d mentioned that there was something she wanted to talk to him about.

“Aha, you don’t know. So I’m not so thick, am I?” Anandur smirked.

Kian shook his head but smiled despite himself. Anandur liked to act the big brainless oaf. At almost six and a half feet tall and about two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle, he looked like a pro wrestler. Add to that a head full of crinkly red hair, a bushy red beard and mustache, and he could play an extra in a Viking movie.

In contrast, Brundar looked almost feminine. A little over six feet, he wasn’t short, but his lean build, pretty angelic face, and his choice of hairstyle—keeping his pale blond stick-straight mane so long it reached the small of his back even when bound with twine—made him look delicate. Metrosexual.

Their appearances couldn’t have been more misleading. Of the two, Brundar was the deadlier force—cold, calculated, and skilled. A true master.

Anandur’s reliance on his brute strength, though, didn’t mean that he could be easily fooled or manipulated. He was a keen observer, capable of quick and accurate assessments of sticky situations, never acting on impulse. The big oaf act fooled his opponents into underestimating him, which naturally was the whole point.

Together the brothers, who’d been serving as his bodyguards for centuries, were deadly to anyone posing a threat to Kian or the clan.

As expected, Gino’s was packed with customers waiting in line on the sidewalk to be seated. The few round bistro tables on its narrow veranda were all taken; some by young mothers with their strollers blocking whatever little space remained, and others by business types from the nearby offices.

Bypassing the crowd, Kian took the worn stairs leading directly from the back entrance up to what Gino called his VIP section. It was a small room on the second floor reserved for his special guests—those who for various reasons didn’t want to mingle with the rest of the clientele, or members of his large, extended family.

The room looked like an old lady’s parlor. Old-fashioned wallpaper in green and yellow hues covered walls which were decorated with the fading portraits of stern matriarchs and patriarchs posing in their Sunday best—their disapproving expressions staring from their frames. Six upholstered chairs surrounded a round dining table in the center, and the serve ware came from a peeling sideboard laboring under the weight of piles of china.

Looking at it, Kian imagined that one of these days the thing would collapse, and Gino’s heirloom collection would be history. But each time he’d mentioned it, Gino had just smiled, saying not to worry; his grandmother’s sideboard had held for the past fifty years and would keep on holding for at least that many more.

With another glance at the wood’s widening cracks, Kian shrugged and sat down. He would hate to tell the guy; I told you so, when it eventually fell apart.

As he peered at the street through the open French doors that led to the tiny balcony overlooking the front, the lacy curtains fluttered in the light, warm breeze.

Feeling his tension ease, Kian realized he liked it here. It was cozy and intimate, despite the tacky decor, or perhaps owing to it.

 

CHAPTER 4: ANANDUR

 

“Hey, Gino!” Anandur waved the proprietor over. “How are you doing, buddy? Life treating you well?”

“Can’t complain. Business is doing good, the family is good, so I’m good. Eh? What can I do for you, gentlemen?”

For some reason, Gino was always nervous around them, despite the fact that since Amanda had gotten the job at the university, they were eating here at least twice a month and leaving extravagant tips. Anandur had often wondered if it was the small guy’s instinctive wariness of men their size, or Gino suspecting them of being Mafia goons.

Calling Kian boss certainly didn’t help matters. But what the heck, Anandur liked messing with the old man.

“The boss is upstairs. Could you please set us a table down here next to the stairs?” Anandur leaned down to Gino’s ear. “We need to watch both entrances. If you know what I mean,” he whispered, pausing for effect. “Oh, and the lady is going to join him shortly, so it will be two upstairs and two downstairs for lunch today.”

“The lovely Ms. Amanda?” the small man breathed, wiping his spotless hands on his pristine apron, his mostly bald head glistening with perspiration.

“The one and only.” Anandur chuckled. “And speaking of the devil, here she is in person, the beautiful Dr. Amanda Dokani.” He pointed at the front door.

“Hi, boys!” Amanda sauntered into the restaurant, causing a momentary halt in the chatter. She hugged Brundar, then stretching to reach, kissed Anandur’s cheek. “Kian is upstairs?”

“Yep, he is waiting for you. But before you go, I just wanted to say, you totally rocked today!” Anandur high-fived her. “I didn’t snooze even once.” He pulled her into a hug.

“Congratulations on the promotion,” Brundar added, for once not skimping on words.

Gino was still wiping his hands, waiting for her to acknowledge him.

Amanda turned, flashing him her megawatt smile. “Gino! Sweetheart!” She leaned to give him a hug.

Bellissima!” He blushed the color of beets, returning the hug and planting a kiss on each of her cheeks. “So happy to see you again.”

“You always brighten my day, Gino. The way you say bellissima… Makes a girl swoon. Be a darling and bring me my wine upstairs? I’m in the mood to celebrate. You still stock it, I hope?”

“I keep it just for you, bellissima!” He beamed.

Amanda’s favorite wine, a 2005 Angelus, was too rich for Gino’s regulars, but he always kept a bottle just for her. Excusing himself, Gino scurried to the kitchen to fish out the bottle he was hiding behind the onions in the pantry. The unmistakable scent always clung to the bottle, and Anandur wondered if Amanda could smell it as well. Female immortals’ sense of smell wasn’t as acute as that of the males, but still, this one was quite pungent.

Starting up, Amanda paused mid-stair. “Aren’t you coming?” She arched her brows.

“Sorry, princess, we are on guard duty, keeping an eye out from down here. The two of you together in public always makes me twitchy.” Anandur waved her off and dragged a chair to the small table the waiter had placed near the stairs.

“As you wish.” Amanda shrugged and kept climbing.

 

CHAPTER 5: AMANDA

 

Amanda wasn’t about to argue. The conversation she was planning to have with her brother required privacy.

Argh, he is going to fume and rant, she cringed.

For a good guy, he sure had a very short fuse. But this needed to be done, and giving up was not an option.

The future of their clan depended on it.

“I’m so proud of you!” Kian got up and pulled her into a hug.

“It’s about time someone was!” Lingering in the comfort of Kian’s warm embrace, Amanda sniffled, blinking back the tears that were threatening to ruin her carefully applied makeup. “The naughty party girl is finally making a contribution.” She chuckled.

Nine years ago, Amanda had decided to enroll in college, surprising everyone, most of all herself, with how brilliant she’d turned out to be. In just seven years, she’d earned a Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Neuroscience, and was now hailed as a new and fresh thinker, a leader in her field. Her papers were published in the most respected scientific journals.

“Oh, sweetheart, when you look ahead to a lifespan of thousands of years, two centuries of partying seem like nothing at all. And after the sorrow you had endured, you deserved all the joy you could find.”

Why the hell did Kian have to bring it up?

Her day had been going so well until he opened the trapdoor on the old pain she’d buried deep down behind thick walls and a moat. Surfacing, it dragged its serrated edge through her insides. “You know I don’t talk about it!” She pushed away from him, wiping the few tears that found their way out despite her best efforts.

In the silence that followed, the sound of Gino’s light footfalls echoing from the stairwell announced his arrival. A moment later, he rushed in with a loaded tray in one hand and a folded stand in the other. Setting it up by the table, he proceeded to pull out a chair for Amanda. “My lady?” He gestured for her to take a seat.

Donning her well-practiced cheerful mask, Amanda did was she’d always done when unpleasant thoughts intruded. She pushed them back into their little jail, redirecting her train of thought to a happier place; like whether Gino insisted on always serving them himself because he coveted their generous tips, or because he believed they were celebrities. “Thank you, Gino.” She sat down, sneaking another discreet swipe at her eyes before offering him a bright smile.

Gino removed the red-checkered napkin from the basket of freshly baked rolls, letting the steam out, then fussed with the placement of the wine glasses. Once he was satisfied with how everything looked, he proceeded to make a big production out of opening the bottle and pouring Amanda’s wine.

As he pulled out two menus from his apron pocket and was about to hand them out, Kian stopped him with a chuckle. “Please, we have no need for these. Unless new items have been added since our last time here, I can recite your menu verbatim. I’ll have a Caesar salad and the vegetable lasagna, please.”

“The garden delight fettuccine and your delicious house salad, per favore.” Amanda smiled at Gino and reached for one of the fragrant rolls.

“Very well!” His face beaming with satisfaction, Gino puffed out his chest and stuffed the menus back in his apron pocket. “I’ll be back with your salads momentarily.”

Sipping her wine, Amanda stole a furtive glance at Kian to assess his mood as she thought of a way to broach the delicate subject she needed to discuss with him.

“You’re plotting something.” Kian narrowed his eyes. “I know that contemplating look, the one you have when you want to tell me something you know I’m not going to like. Let’s hear it then and get it over with so I can bite your head off, and we can eat in peace.”

Amanda pouted. “You could be nice and agreeable for a change.”

“Spill!”

“I want you to meet Syssi,” she blurted in a hurry, cringing in preparation for his retort.

“Syssi?” He arched a brow.

“Yes, Syssi, my research assistant, remember? I mentioned her before.” Amanda looked hopefully at Kian. He didn’t seem angry. Yet. Maybe this would go easier than she had expected.

“Last I heard you mention that girl, you were blabbering about an architecture graduate who excelled at predicting coin tosses.”

“I hired her,” Amanda said while trying to look remorseful.

“And what credentials did she bring to the job? Arranging the Functional MRI machines in an aesthetically pleasing manner? Painting the lab in designer colors? I understand you wanted to test her, but why hire the girl?”

Kian’s level of aggravation was rising with each sentence. He had this tendency to fuel his own temper over minor issues. And yet, when things hit critical mass he somehow managed to be as cool as a cucumber.

“Syssi is an amazing person; smart, dedicated, and hard working. The internship she had lined up bummed. The poor shmuck died of a heart attack on a fishing trip of all places. I needed a research assistant, and she was both available and the best test subject I had to date. She is off the charts, Kian. And it’s not only the coin tosses, which in itself is beyond impressive; she guesses with eighty-seven percent accuracy. The random-computer-selected-images test? You know which one I’m talking about?”

When he nodded, she continued. “She was spot on, or close to the correct image in ninety-two out of a hundred pictures. She has the strongest precognition ability of any mortal I’ve ever tested. I’m telling you, Syssi is a Dormant, Kian. I just know it.” Amanda could barely contain her excitement.

Kian ran both hands through his hair. “I can’t do it, Amanda. It’s just wrong. Pick another male. It doesn’t have to be me.”

“I don’t know what your problem is, Kian. You bang random women you pick up at clubs and bars, and I know for a fact that you’ve even paid for it on occasion. So why not Syssi? Why not someone who has the potential to change your life and give hope to the rest of us? We know there must be Dormants out there; carriers of our unrealized genes who can be turned into near-immortals like us. Potential mates we could bond with for life. And I think I finally found a way to identify them. You know why I started this research in the first place, searching for anomalies, paranormal abilities. Once we’ve realized DNA testing was useless, instead of giving up, I took a different approach. Don’t you want children, Kian? Immortal children? Don’t you want a life-mate?” Amanda was exasperated. If it were up to her, she wouldn’t even pause to think. But only males possessed the venom necessary to activate the dormant DNA.

It was a cruel twist of fate, or as Kian believed, the work of a crazy geneticist. Only the immortal females contributed the special genetic material to their offspring. And only males could activate it in a Dormant.

An immortal mother and a mortal father produced mortal offspring who possessed the dormant immortal genes and could be activated by venom. If not activated, the dormant genetic material would remain inert but still pass from mother to daughter, and so on. It wouldn’t pass to the sons, though.

The immortal heredity was matrilineal.

To facilitate the activation of a Dormant, an immortal male would have to inject the latent with his venom. When sexually aroused, the male’s fangs elongated and venom was produced in specialized glands; the need to bite and release it into the female’s system congruent with the need to ejaculate.

Aggression toward other males triggered a similar reaction. Though the venom produced for the purpose of immobilizing or even killing an opponent was obviously more potent and carried a different mix of chemicals. A large amount of it, pumped into the victim’s system, paralyzed the body and stopped the heart. Even in immortals.

Kian just stared at her, looking stunned by her audacity. But she did not back down. Holding his stare, she challenged him to pick up the gauntlet.

“You really want to know what the big deal is? I’ll tell you. I hate it! I hate what I have to do. I feel like a drug addict; needing, craving the release sex provides and despising the need. I wish I could abstain, or at least have the luxury human males have of taking matters into their own hands, so to speak. But I can’t bite myself, can I? If I could put my hands on the sick fuck who designed us this way, I would kill the fucker… slowly.” Kian took a fortifying breath in an obvious attempt to calm down, then continued in a quieter voice.

“I use these women. I don’t remember their faces or their names. They are all interchangeable in my mind. Not to feel like a jerk, I try not to objectify them, giving them as much pleasure as I can, and when tampering with their brain I leave the memory of pleasure intact, erasing only the biting part and replacing my features with those of another. That’s all I can do to ease my conscience. But there is nothing I can do for myself, for the way I feel, as if I’m a goddamned animal with no control over my baser needs.”

Reading over and taking Kian’s hand, Amanda purposely kept pity out of her expression. “I had no idea it got so bad for you.”

She did not understand his misery. She loved sex. Loved the variety of partners. Perhaps it was different for the females of the clan because supposedly, there was a purpose to their sexual appetite. Conception was extremely rare for her people, and pregnancy was hailed a miracle. With the females of the clan holding the key to its continuity, as only their progeny could turn immortal, they were encouraged to seek a variety of human partners in the hopes of conceiving.

Their plight was not as bad as that of the males. The possibility of having a child to share their long life with, to bear witness to their journey, made the lack of a life-mate tolerable. But for the males there was no such solace. If their dalliance with a human resulted in a child, that child was mortal, with a mortal’s short lifespan and vulnerability. But wasn’t that exactly what she was trying to rectify? Find Dormants that were descendent from other matrilineal lines?

As all members of her clan were the progeny of one immortal female, they were forbidden to one another.

A big time taboo.

Kian took her hand. “You’re still young, Amanda, so it’s still fun for you. But I bet it will get old by the time you reach my age.”

Amanda looked into his eyes and spoke softly. “Forgive me for pushing. But I still don’t get what all of that has to do with you attempting to activate Syssi. If she turns out to be a dud, all you did was have sex with another faceless, nameless female. But if she is the real deal, isn’t it worth a try?”

As his handsome face hardened, Kian pulled his hand away, leaned back in his chair, and crossed his arms over his chest. “Here is the thing, sister of mine. She will not be another faceless, nameless girl. We don’t know how long it takes to turn an adult woman. Don’t pimp me out like I’m some man-whore.” He uttered that last bit acidly, his expression turning to menacing.

She had known her holier-than-thou brother would find her request objectionable, but she hadn’t expected him to be that adamant about it. Nevertheless, she had to give it another go. Tempt him. Too much was at stake. Shaking off her despairing mood, Amanda straightened her back and leaned forward. “Syssi is beautiful, Kian, and smart. You’re going to love her…” She paused, realizing that the word love did her a disservice in the context of this conversation. “I mean, it’s not like you’ll be suffering. She is exactly your type. She is blond, very pretty, with a deliciously curvy figure. I’m sure you’ll find her attractive. And engaging. Did I mention already how smart she is? And nice?”

“I’ll take your word for it, but I’ll pass. Ask someone else. If she is so wonderful, I’m sure you’ll have no shortage of volunteers.” There was a finality to his tone that would have deterred a lesser opponent. But Amanda remained adamant.

“I’m not going to choose someone else,” Amanda hissed, then hushed as she heard Gino climbing the stairs.

Sensing the heavy tension in the room, Gino’s smile faded. “Here are your salads, and more rolls. Enjoy!” He turned and beat a hasty retreat.

Amanda waited till Gino was out of earshot before resuming her offense. “You are my only brother, and what’s more, you’re our mother’s only living son. You’re the closest to a pureblood male the clan has. Your venom’s potency is Syssi’s best chance of turning. And when she turns, she will have the potential to create a new matrilineal line. Don’t you want to be the one who creates it with her? Who knows if I will ever find another one? Maybe she is the one lucky shot? Are you willing to bet on it? To forfeit your one chance because of pride and arrogance?” Amanda was practically huffing with righteous indignation.

Kian regarded her coolly, still leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest. “Nice speech, Amanda. One problem, though. The ‘when’, is an ‘if’. If she turns and if I were a betting man, I would not put my money on this one. And the answer is still no.”

Amanda set her elbows onto the table, dropping her forehead on her hands. “You are such a stu… stubborn old goat. Just sleep on it. Don’t decide anything yet. Maybe when you meet her, you’ll change your mind.”

“I don’t think so, princess.” Kian’s tone got a shade warmer as he leaned in and patted her cheek as if she was a petulant child. “Look, you will have similar chances of success using another male. The only thing I’m spoiling for you is your romantic fantasy. It’s not a big disaster. Put on your big-girl panties and deal!”

Amanda smiled at his feeble attempt at levity. Despite his stubbornness and gruffness and bad temper, she knew that he loved her. “If I were leaning that way, I would have snatched Syssi for myself in a heartbeat. I like her that much.” She pouted.

Kian rolled his eyes and dug into his salad, letting her know that as far as he was concerned, this discussion was over.

 

CHAPTER 6: SYSSI

 

“Why Amanda thought I could do this is beyond me,” Syssi muttered as she stared at yet another printout. The freaking computer had been spouting nonsensical results all morning, and she was no closer to finding the error than she’d been five hours ago.

Taking a hammer to the thing was looking more and more enticing.

Heaving a sigh, she ran her fingers through her hair. Again. Sticking out in all directions, it was tangled and knotted from the number of times she’d pushed her fingers through it.

I probably look like Einstein, and not because of what’s under my cranium.

It was time for a break, the hollow feeling in her belly reminding her she hadn’t eaten yet.

The two espressos, one cappuccino, and eight cups of coffee she’d consumed before lunch—which was excessive even for a caffeine addict like her—didn’t qualify as nutrition.

It crossed her mind that she reached for coffee the way other people reached for alcohol. When agitated or worried, or just in need of a break, the ritual of making it, pouring it, and stirring in the precise amount of sweetener relaxed her.

Drinking a truly good cup of coffee was her idea of bliss.

Pushing up from her chair, she stretched her back, listening for the familiar popping sound. A stretch wasn’t as satisfying without it. When it came, she did a couple of side to side twists and then turned toward the two postdocs. “I’m going to grab a sandwich. You guys want anything?”

Hannah shook her head, pointing to the empty protein shake container on her desk. Her latest diet craze consisted of protein shakes, protein bars, and water. Nothing else.

David, the other postdoc, smiled his creepy smile and took a big bite of his salami sandwich.

Ugh, she must have been really engrossed in her work not to notice the nauseating stench.

“I can bring cookies.”

Hannah made a sad face. “Rub it in, why don’t you. Waving sweet, delicious carbs in front of the fat girl. Meanie!”

“Fine, so no cookies.”

“Hey, what about me? I want something sweet...” David leered.

“In solidarity with Hannah, no dessert.” Syssi pretended not to get it—her usual line of defense against unwanted advances.

David was a jerk. He didn’t flirt or tell jokes, or any of the other things guys usually did to get Syssi’s attention. He ogled, made inappropriate comments, and habitually invaded her personal space, believing for some inexplicable reason that he was God’s gift to women everywhere. His delusional beliefs aside, his problem wasn’t that his features were unappealing, David was an average looking guy, but that he was schlumpy and unkempt. More than his personal hygiene or taste in clothes, it was his personality that needed a major makeover.

In the lab’s kitchenette, Syssi slapped together her favorite sandwich of goat cheese, tomatoes, and basil on whole wheat, then ate it leaning against the counter.

She wasn’t ready to go back yet.

Out there, she would have to deal with David. And unfortunately, as she’d learned from experience, he wasn’t done. Once David started with his idiotic comments, he’d be on a roll for the rest of the day.

Oh, the joy...

“Good afternoon, darlings!” Syssi heard Amanda make her grand entrance. “Missed me terribly, I hope? And where is my girl Syssi?”

“Over here!” Syssi called over a mouthful.

Amanda poked her head into the kitchenette, then stepped in and leaned against the counter next to Syssi. “What’s up? You look troubled.”

“I’m dying out there. I can’t find what’s wrong with my programming. The computer has been spouting nonsense all morning, and I’m ready to go at the thing with a sledgehammer.”

“Why didn’t you ask David for help?” Amanda crossed her legs at her ankles and her arms over her chest.

Syssi cast her boss a sidelong glance. “Are you serious? He will never let me live it down, probably demand a hook-up as payment. The creep.”

Amanda’s expression turned serious. “I know you don’t like David, heck, I don’t like him either. But he is very good at what he does, and you need to use him. There will always be people like him trying to mess with you, but if you let them, you’ll find it damn hard to accomplish anything. You need to be forceful and refuse to take shit from anyone. Sometimes a girl needs to be a bitch not to get pushed around. Be a bitch, Syssi! You might even enjoy it.” Amanda winked, her gorgeous face returning to its usual brightness.

“Thank you for the advice, Mommy.”

Joking aside, Amanda was right. Syssi needed to deal with David, or working in the lab would become intolerable.

What puzzled her, however, was Amanda’s admission that she didn’t like David either. She was the boss and no one dictated to her who she should employ and who she should not. With a frown, Syssi asked, “What I don’t understand, though, is why you hired him if you don’t like him?”

“He was the best applicant for the job. And besides, I hired him because I don’t like him.”

“So am I to assume that you don’t like me either? Since you hired me...” Syssi pretended offense.

“No, my dear, sweet Syssi, I adore you. You know that!” Amanda slapped her cheek playfully, then kissed it. “I hire females I like and males I don’t.”

Searching her face, Syssi realized Amanda wasn’t joking. Her boss seemed sincere. “I don’t understand.”

“Better shun the bait, than struggle in the snare,” Amanda quoted, looking down at her stiletto-clad feet.

“Oh, Amanda, you’re not that bad. I don’t buy the whole femme fatale act.”

“Who said it’s an act? I am bad. You have no idea how bad!” Amanda made a wicked face.

“You witch!” Syssi laughed, mock-punching Amanda’s shoulder.

Amanda shrugged, pushed away from the counter, and headed for her desk with the sensual saunter of a practiced temptress.

Syssi didn’t buy Amanda’s sex-on-a-stick act. It was nothing more than the theatrics of a drama queen. Being so strikingly beautiful, her boss naturally expected to be the center of attention wherever she showed her face.

Except, was it possible that she really was as sexually active as she pretended to be? Maybe.

And why not? Amanda wasn’t married—didn’t even have a boyfriend—she could and did as she pleased.

Good for her!

Reflecting on her own nonexistent love life, Syssi cringed. She hadn’t been on a single date since things had finally fallen apart with Gregg. For two lonely years, she’d mourned a relationship that had been dying a slow death long before it had ended. Though, in retrospect, she realized it was the sense of failure more than any lingering tender feelings that had her stuck on the sidelines while everyone around her was having the time of their lives, or at least pretending to.

Syssi had met Gregg her first week of college, and they’d stayed together until his graduation four years later. Being her first serious boyfriend, and her first and only lover, there had been this expectation that their relationship would lead to marriage. Except, when he had moved to Sacramento for a job, it had been a relief for both of them.

So why was she still alone? Syssi had no good answer for that. Men found her attractive, and she didn’t lack propositions. Except there was no one she found even remotely enticing.

Her relationship with Gregg had left her wary of starting a new one. For some reason, being with him had dimmed her spirit, and two years later it hadn’t bounced back yet.

Most of the time he probably hadn’t been aware of acting like a jerk, never actually saying or doing anything that could have been perceived as outright derogatory.

Instead, he’d just always managed to twist things around and blame her for everything that hadn’t been working to his satisfaction. His grades falling short of spectacular had been her fault because she had taken too much of his time. They hadn’t gone out enough because she hadn’t scheduled and planned it. They hadn’t had enough friends because she hadn’t been outgoing enough… and so it went.

But the worst part had been the sex. There had been no intensity to it, no excitement, it’d felt like a chore. Was it a wonder then, that she hadn’t been looking forward to it? And of course, it had been all her fault. She hadn’t initiated enough, she hadn’t excited him enough. She hadn’t been hot enough.

Blah, blah, blah...

Logically, she knew he had been full of shit. Where had been his contribution? Had he been just a bystander in their life together, waiting for her to do everything? But on the inside, in that irrational place where her fears and insecurities hid, she sometimes thought that maybe he had been right. Maybe she really wasn’t assertive enough, outgoing enough, sexy enough...

Lacking... She felt lacking.

Syssi shook herself. That’s definitely enough self-pity for one day.

And besides, not all of it had been bad. Gregg had stood by her side in her time of need. He had been loyal, and apart from the never-ending complaining, a pleasure to talk to.

But when a relationship ended, there was a tendency to focus on the negatives. The bad parts were vividly remembered and endlessly re-examined, while the good parts were marginalized, forgotten.

It was time to move on, though. Maybe she should go on some of the blind dates her friends were trying to set her up on. Or even look into those dating sites Hannah had suggested. But although Syssi had promised herself she would do it, she still hadn’t taken a single step in this direction. Tomorrow, next week…

“Yo! Syssi! Your cellphone is ringing!” Hannah called from the other room.

“Coming!” Syssi hurried to retrieve her phone from her purse. But by the time she fished it out, her brother’s call had already gone to voice mail. And if that wasn’t frustrating enough, David’s salami breath assaulted her as he bent over her shoulder to look at her screen, invading her personal space.

“Amanda said you needed my help,” he breathed into her ear. “For a kiss, I’m willing to do you a favor,” he added with a smirk, amused by his own wit.

“Cut it out, David, and please move your salami breath away from me. You know I can’t stand the smell of meat,” Syssi snapped. Pushing to her feet, she almost toppled her chair backward, forcing David to back up.

His eyes widened. “That was such a bitchy retort, so unlike our polite, proper Syssi. It was hot!” He leered before taking the seat she’d vacated.

“You want me. I know you do. That’s why you’re so flustered.” He winked and started scrolling through the program. “Don’t worry, sweetheart. I’ll take good care of you.” His hands flew over her keyboard, his concentration not at all affected by his sorry attempts at flirting.

She had to hand it to him. David had a way with computers that he definitely lacked with women.

With his face almost touching the screen, he kept going, “Nothing turns me on like a strong, assertive woman. I’ll scrub my mouth with thorny roses for a kiss from you.” Riding on a wave of his fetid breath, David’s whispered poetic attempt did nothing but trigger Syssi’s gag reflex.

She couldn’t believe it. Instead of discouraged, he seemed even more determined.

“Look, David, I’m going to return this call, and you are going to find out what’s wrong with my program. Not as a favor, but because it’s your job. Amanda hired you for your programming skills. It sure as hell wasn’t for your charming personality!”

“Oh, baby, you have no idea how hot you look when you’re angry.”

“Ugh! I’m going to strangle him!” Syssi kicked the leg of the chair he was sitting in.

Snorting, Hannah shook her head.

“It’s not funny!” Syssi barked and walked out the door.

She hated confrontations. Especially futile ones like this. But at least David was going to fix her programming. Except, what would it take to fix him? For some reason, a vet with a scalpel came to mind.

Leaning against the wall, she banged her head. Today was such a shitty day, with her shortcomings and insecurities popping up like teenage zits. Just when she thought she was rid of them for good, they returned sprouting white heads. More than the confrontations themselves, she hated how ill-equipped she was to deal with them. Why the hell was it so hard for her to assert herself or show her temper?

Even now, her hands were still shaking, and she had to take a long calming breath before returning her brother’s call. If Andrew detected her agitation, he would start a full-blown interrogation. And she was so not in the mood for that.

He answered on the first ring. “Hi, Syssi, how’s the new job?”

“It’s okay. Though I really suck at programming. Other than that, Amanda is a great boss and the work is interesting.” Syssi paused before plunging. “You really should come visit. The woman is a stunner, and I would pay good money to see your jaw drop when you see her. The great Andrew Spivak will be speechless!”

Syssi was joking. Nothing ever fazed Andrew. But he was single and so was Amanda. Who knew what might happen if the two got together...

“You have piqued my curiosity. Though I doubt she’s all that. Anyway, I spoke with Dad today.”

“Yeah? How are they? What are they up to?”

Their parents were volunteering in Africa. Her mother, Dr. Anita Spivak, a retired sixty-six-year-old pediatrician, was working twelve-hour shifts in the harsh conditions of the ravaged region, providing much needed medical care to its children. Syssi’s father, who had spent his professional career as a pharmaceutical sales rep and later as an executive, was enjoying his retirement; photographing nature and wildlife while helping his wife.

They rarely called.

Syssi wished she could blame Africa for that, but it was nothing new. Her parents had always been too busy with their careers, their social life... each other.

Andrew had been the responsible adult in their household, practically raising Syssi and their younger brother, Jacob.

Their mother had had Andrew at twenty-eight, and had given up on conceiving again when long years had gone by and nothing had happened. It hadn’t been a big heartbreak. With her workload, raising even one child had been difficult. Lucky for Andrew, their grandparents had stepped in, providing the care he had needed. Syssi’s arrival had been a miracle, the pregnancy taking Anita by surprise at the age of forty-two. A year later, she had been blessed again with another miracle. Jacob.

The two babies had been welcomed and loved but left mostly to the care of nannies. By the time they had arrived, their parents had been too established in their routines to make any changes for their sake.

“Dad sends their love. He says he has enough material to publish his first book, and he promises to send us the files to look through and choose the pictures we like most.”

“I wonder when that will happen. You know him; lots of promises and little delivery.” Syssi could not help sounding bitter. Their dad had been promising to drag their mother away from her work for a few days back home. Syssi was still waiting... two years later. She had hoped they would at least show up for her graduation, wishing they’d surprise her at the last minute. How naive of her. They never had.

“How are you doing, Andrew? Still bored at your desk job?”

It had been a while since he’d been sent away on one of his assignments abroad, and being stuck in the office usually made him restless.

Syssi had often wondered about Andrew’s frequent trips. After retiring from a hush-hush Special Ops unit, he had joined The Internal Anti-Terrorism Department—supposedly as an analyst. Why then, had he been spending months at a time abroad? Doing what? Research?

“Actually, I’m swamped with work here, and truth be told, I’m tired of living out of a suitcase. I think you’ll have to tolerate my annoying presence in your life for a little longer this time.”

Andrew sounded happy to stay home... Intriguing... Was it possible he’d finally met someone?

“There must be a woman involved. I can think of no other reason for you to sound so cheerful about staying put. So tell me, who is she? Did you find someone special?” Syssi asked hopefully.

Andrew chuckled. “No, there is no one special. Who’s crazy enough to stick around me?”

“You’re a great guy, Andrew. Someday, you’ll make some lucky girl very happy.”

“I doubt it.”

“You’ll see. I have a feeling... Soon.”

When Syssi had a feeling, those who knew her listened. Her premonitions had a freakish tendency to come to pass.

“I hope you’re kidding because if you’re not, you are scaring the shit out of me. You know I’m not built for anything serious!”

It was funny how scared he sounded. The brave warrior afraid of being snared by some mystery woman. “Nah, just messing with you,” she lied.

“Wow! You had me there for a moment.” Andrew took a deep breath and exhaled it forcefully, exaggerating his relief... Or maybe not.

“I have to let you go. I have to get back to work and deal with a pesky problem.” Syssi sighed.

“Need me to come beat that problem up? I will, you know...”

“I just might take you up on that offer,” Syssi answered, not sure she meant it as a joke. “Goodbye, Andrew, I’ll talk to you soon.”

 

Andrew leaned back in the swivel chair and laced his fingers behind his head. He wondered what Syssi wasn’t telling him. The pesky problem was probably a guy, he smiled knowingly.

Nothing new there.

Syssi was so lovely, there would always be some poor schmuck making a pest of himself over her.

Maybe he should visit that lab after all, and not just to admire the infamous Dr. Amanda Dokani.

 

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