Taken by the Vampire King(4)

By: Laura Kaye

She crossed the room to the bar. “There’s no cancer in Tromsø, Kai. Live a little, will ya?” She ordered some sparkling water with lime and silently repeated the pep talk.

Over the course of the evening, she met the rest of the judges and all the contestants, too. The photographs were universally breathtaking, and Kaira knew she had her work cut out for her. But whether she placed in the competition or not, being here was a great networking opportunity she had no intention of wasting.

Not to mention, all the photographs were for sale. After the judging announcement three nights from now, purchasers were free to pick up whatever they’d bought. The thought that someone would pay money to buy one of her photographs, that it might hang in a place of prominence in their home or office, that people might ask who the photographer was... It was all such a thrill. No matter how long she got to do this work, she didn’t think she’d ever get used to it.

Kaira returned to her series of images and found a man admiring them intently. Tall and broad-shouldered, he wore a black knit cap over white hair that hung past his shoulders. His long leather coat appeared soft and worn with age. Gray-brown fur surrounded his collar. She approached him from the side and something about him sent a tingle down her spine when she got a good look at his face. His size, posture and bearing had made him seem younger, but the white hair and drawn appearance of his pale face, almost gaunt, gave the exact opposite impression. Not old, really, but older.

Eyes the color of icy blue topaz cut toward her and narrowed. His gaze was penetrating in its intensity. His head tilted and his brow furrowed as he studied her, as if puzzled by her appearance.

For a moment, her greeting stuck in her throat. She cleared it and offered a soft, “Hallo,” in Norwegian, in which she was fluent. The Scandinavian languages were largely mutually understandable.

His expression cleared and he nodded. He glanced to the contestant ribbon pinned above her breast. “Are these yours?” he asked, gesturing to the wall. His accent marked him as a native and his voice was like melted chocolate, unexpectedly warm and smooth, deliciously appealing.

“Ja,” she managed, stepping closer. Despite his age, something about him attracted and intrigued her.

“Truly remarkable shots. I’ve always been fascinated by the lights. These photographs capture the majesty and wonder of them as well as any I’ve seen.”

Excitement and pride welled up within her. “And that is one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. Thank you.” Awkwardness threatened, so Kaira plunged on. “Have you been to the festival before?”

“Many times,” he said, dragging an appreciative glance over her gown. “You?”

She fought back a blush. “This is my first time.”

“Well, I welcome you to my hometown, then,” he said with a small bow and a smile that charmed. The expression made him appear younger, less troubled. He turned toward her and Kaira was struck by his size. A good eight inches taller than her, despite her heels. If he’d been more muscular, he would’ve been downright imposing. Instead, hollows carved shadows into his face and the bones of his long-fingered hands protruded.

With all the time Kaira had spent around other cancer patients, she couldn’t help but wonder if he was sick. The speculation made her feel some small affinity with him and she smiled back. “Besides the gallery owner, I think you might be the first person I’ve met who’s actually from here.”

“Truly? My family has lived here for centuries.”

Her heart gave a little squeeze. To know that kind of history about your family, to have such deep roots. So foreign to her, and yet the thought was able to set off a deep longing within her. What she wouldn’t give to have a family of her own. Old emotions caught her off guard, and she turned to the photographs hanging on the wall so she had a modicum of privacy to blink away the blindsiding sadness. “The lights must feel like old friends to you, then,” she finally said. Tromsø’s position in the middle of the auroral zone made it one of the best places in the world to witness them.

When he didn’t respond, she looked back to him.

The man stood right behind her. She hadn’t heard him move or felt his nearness. He stared at her, hard and unapologetically, his gaze focused somewhere just below her face. His nostrils flared and his tongue dragged over his lip.

Kaira’s pulse raced, her heart tripping into a sprint. Gasping, she inhaled a spicy-sweet scent, warmed cinnamon with just a hint of cayenne. Heat flashed through her, as if her fever had suddenly spiked. Before her very eyes, the man’s face changed, the angles of his jaw and cheek sharpening, his pale eyes dilating, his mouth opening.