Starvation drove Dr. Lara West from the comfortable brownstone and flung her into the dank Georgetown night. She shivered. Once she’d been a surgeon who saved lives; now hunger compelled her to think of blood in a different way. Three weeks since the transition—three weeks with no nourishment. She didn’t want to be a predator.
Hunger caused her to salivate. Vampire spasms retched from stomach to throat, then roiled around her brain. Repugnance warred with unfathomable craving.
Peripheral movement captured her attention. A boy on a skateboard. Wheels grated on cement and clicked on cracks, then an unexpected tumble and a scraped knee. Lara sniffed. Her thoughts failed to walk a straight line, drunk on the sudden scent of blood. A stiff breeze captured the early autumn chill and wrapped the aroma around her. Inconceivable instinct—and the voice of an inner demon—urged her to attack this child and sate her thirst.
Lara cringed. But if she didn’t feed, her blood hunger would incite frenzy. Frenzy, Bobby told her often, overwhelmed all other emotions and would introduce Lara’s human persona to the savagery of vampire culture.
Bobby Eyre had turned her because death was the only other option—doomed by another vampire. But Bobby wanted a self-reliant partner. Hell, starvation threatened to end her existence unless she allowed the inner beast to control her consciousness. What if her beast killed? What if she failed to wrest back control, her humanity overwhelmed by a bloodthirsty demon?
A headache tightened its grip. Muscles knotted in her shoulders. Massaging didn’t help. Short bristles on the back of her neck dredged up dark memories. Her brother. The Witness Protection Agency–Vampire Unit. The WPA first buzzed her hair six months ago to disguise her as nurse Meridian Jones, then had manipulated Meridian to hunt vampires as repayment for protection. She’d discovered a vampire—Bobby—also masquerading as a nurse, but instead of revealing his true identity, she’d fallen in love, and love propelled her human soul.
She clutched Bobby’s note. Feed, or lose everything. Only one interpretation.
Lara stalked the boy. She was cloaked in shadows, wrestling with deprivation. Could she . . .? Blood, demanded the inner voice. The wind riffled through her hair. Human Lara teetered on the edge of uncertainty. The only path to survival was unfathomable. The boy remounted the skateboard with one foot and pushed off with the other, escaping into the night. Lara sighed.
The demon remounted her soul and crushed the human will beneath its heel.
Feed, or lose everything.
She chased the child, who was a year or two younger than her brother had been at his unexpected death. Lara had cherished her brother. They had hidden together from basement monsters and rejoiced together in their triumphs as children and young adults. He’d clenched the nape of her neck in the final moments, clinging to an impossible life. Tears welled, and anguish forced her back into this moment. Without sustenance now, her existence was doomed.
Blood dribbled down the boy’s leg.
Lara had struggled with emotional demons for ten years as they’d torn at her soul with guilt-ridden nightmares. Her salvation had finally been in her grasp until the WPA ripped away her life—nightmares extended indefinitely. Worse—this vampire demon raged beyond psychological issues: she had substance, a body, only that body already belonged to Lara, and Bobby assured her vampire demons didn’t share.
Cramps twisted her stomach. She grabbed her abdomen and gritted her teeth. Every nerve receptor pounded and hammered Lara to her knees. Blood defined survival. Drink blood? An innocent lined up in the crosshairs of hunger, and Lara recoiled.
Lara West—physician—refused to hijack the essence of life, but Lara West, consumed by a demon, Lara West—vampire—ached for blood.
Cell phone vibration intruded, and she laughed at the irony. Dr. Surinder Byra texted her to work an extra shift in the Jefferson Memorial Hospital ER. She refused her boss nothing. Dr. Byra hovered on the edge of retirement from chief of emergency medicine, and for three years Lara had strived for the status of heir apparent, the sole survivor in a fierce competition. In her third year of med school, babysitting, parents out of town, Lara had rushed her brother to the neighborhood ER—Jefferson Memorial—for help. Neither gunshot casualty nor knife victim, he presented only a severe headache, so he was ignored in the lobby for hours, then died of spinal meningitis. Lara hugged her arms.
Guilt pierced perception, like a stake sinking into a vampire. Her brother’s death was her fault, her failure. She should have recognized the seriousness of his presentation and insisted on immediate attention. Incessant nightmares fed guilt. Guilt rearranged her life.
Her eyes widened and her nostrils flared. The bouquet of blood guaranteed yet another arrangement: a sanguine soul interlaced hunger into every aspect of being. Her muscles settled into a bizarre relaxed tension, and she pursued the bleeding child. What the hell was she doing? She mopped perspiration from her forehead. Two minds in conflict campaigning for control of consciousness. The wrong mind guided her toward a horrific goal. Whose brother was this little boy?
After her brother’s death, Lara had focused with single-minded intention: ascend to top surgeon, then run the ER with the concern the job demanded. No one will die from carelessness on my watch. The Jefferson Memorial ER, run with compassion, remained her only chance for life without remorse in perpetuity. Her only chance to erase the self-reproach.
Turning had magnified the problem. At least as a human, if she never achieved her goal, agonizing nightmares resolved with death. Drinking blood amplified emotions. Unresolved day-mares were eternal for a vampire, and incredibly more vivid. She’d endured the results once, the night Bobby had transformed her and squeezed two liters down her throat. She hadn’t had any blood since.
She retched with the memory, air only. Consequences rushed at her with inhuman speed. Survival demanded human blood tonight. Blood inflated shame. But she needed to be clearheaded and pain-free to function in the desired role as a physician.
What about the needs of her victims?
Lara licked her lips and fixed on the prepubescent meal. Migraine-level pain combined with emotional anguish, and she snarled, on the verge of attack. But the vision of her lifeless brother in the morgue and the grief-stricken faces of their parents played against reality. She swiped a tear from the corner of her eye.
I will not kill a child.
No blood from young boys. What, then?
A grimace pushed all but one goal aside. Bobby warned her that without blood, agony expanded daily. Without blood, the beast with whom she shared her body would wrest away control and ravage the human landscape. She groaned. Instinct dragged her to the precipice—surrender her dream and yield to the demon within. And live with the guilt, faced with day-mares and amped migraines for eternity?
Lara needed Dr. Byra’s job now. The life she wanted and working for the WPA were mutually exclusive. Administration had thought her dead—courtesy of the government—during her six-month absence from the hospital. What if administration had already decided on a different successor? Jefferson always promoted young doctors to chief roles and kept them in place for twenty or thirty years—a successful business strategy, confirmed by their balance sheet.
If another surgeon succeeded Dr. Byra, Lara’s goal would be postponed for decades. Doable for a vampire but unbearable for her human conscience. Remorse demanded immediate attention.
The demon whispered in conflict. Existence commands a single goal.
Two aspects of being coexisting in one body—Lara shook her head. Such a bizarre concept—battling for control of consciousness—and no way to expunge the demon.
“Civilization defines us by those demons,” Bobby told her. “All vampires are judged evil. We’re bloodthirsty, but if we control our beasts, we can survive without killing. Once the demons control our personas, hope for our humanity is lost.”
Drink blood or a human Lara West won’t exist come sunrise.
Her fangs erupted. She needed to find a host for a meal. A victimless human meal.
She stumbled across the blacktop and fell against a car. The alarm blared. Adrenaline rushed through her, and she raced around a corner, two blocks away in seconds. The agony eased, but for how long? Did all vampires suffer so? Bobby said beasts dominated most vampire personas, but Bobby’s human side maintained control. Did she have his strength?
Not if she refused the nectar of inevitability. “Immortality is dependent on human blood,” Bobby said. “And vampires have the same right to exist as humans, but without killing.”
She repeated Bobby’s maxims. Don’t allow anyone to see you. Feed—no more than a liter—then wipe your victim’s memory. In this neighborhood of Washington DC, a discreet dinner required a home with a lone occupant. Lara clutched her stomach, gasped, and doubled over until the pain eased.
A car glided into a nearby parking spot. A heavyset man wriggled out and tucked a hoagie under each arm. Dinner for two. Onions and oregano laced the air.
He’s big enough to down both hoagies.
The man plodded up brick steps, her possible dining partner tonight. A vestibule light flashed on. Lara strummed her thigh with the agile fingers of her profession. Everything human Lara wanted to be was crammed into well-honed hands. She bit her tongue to the edge of piercing skin and pain screamed Enough. Finally, a glow in the bay window next to the entrance, and then, what she hoped for: an upstairs light. Opportunity to enter unseen and discover if the man lived alone.
She cut across the pavement. Every stride magnified hunger, urged her to actions she didn’t comprehend, certain of one thing: drink human blood or perish. Who’d started the animal blood rumor? She’d insisted on trying, and Bobby had humored her. She’d vomited the first swallow.
I can’t believe I’m hunting humans. She gripped the knob. Unlocked.
The transition from mortal to vampire crowded into this moment. Thrust upon her, never a desire, never a consideration, just the sudden realization of inhumanity: could she deal with the overwhelming urge to drink blood until her thirst was sated and her victim drained? A chill slithered around her torso, and Lara shuddered. She had to consume enough blood to survive yet stop before harming her prey.
Lara slipped inside the stranger’s home.