Prince of Blood – Capter I

Loves, as you know, I’m constantly working on a new book, and right now I’m deep into the one for February–book 3 of the Dracula’s Bloodline series, Prince of Blood. I’m very excited about this book, and I thought I’d share the cover and the first chapter with you guys. Let me know what you think. First, here’s what the book is about:

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Dracula exists.

For centuries he’s been lurking in the underworld, searching for the one woman whose blood can make him invincible—Dracula’s Grail.

Bad things happen to the men who date librarian Ruxandra Len, as if she’s cursed. If she’s ever to at least lose her virginity, she needs to find out why. Through a scholar interested in her curse, she learns that her bloodline connects to the legend of Dracula. Intrigued, she travels to the Carpathians to learn more about him. But what she finds is a truth darker than legend.

The Prince of Blood fascinates Rux. His dark energy weaves a web of enchantment around her, making her crave him like a drug. But just as the Dark Lord thinks she’s ready to surrender her blood, the deepest shadow of her past emerges. Can Vlad Dracula defeat an even older, darker legend, and protect the woman who means the world to him in more ways than he likes to admit?

 

CHAPTER I

Rux

 

I have a stalker. Not the kind to send flowers, chocolate, or even dick pics. No, he sends my dates skidding under speeding buses, or slipping on tiles and cracking their skulls in the men’s room. Wanna date me? Might as well watch Final Destination just to warm up.

He’s a shadow. A curse. Kept me a hormone-raging virgin to date—I’m twenty-three. But, no matter how many men this curse puts in the hospital, there’s always a new guy eager to dare the fates. Today, as I do my hair and prepare for work, one of them goes wild.

‘I can meet you anywhere.’

Bling.

‘Shall I pick you up from work?’

Bling.

‘Or we can meet for lunch at the cafeteria.’

Bling.

‘Why don’t you text me back?’

Bling-bling-bling as his texts hit my cell, the display flashing on the bed until I pick it up. A glance at the guy’s profile pic that appears along with the text shows a long face, baldhead, big nerd glasses. He looks like a middle-aged science freak with mental issues. Half as bad as the leather jackets and tattoos, but I still block him.

I swing my purse on my shoulder and close the door behind me.

Half an hour later, on campus, the elevator opens at the library level, leaving me a corridor away from my workplace. A smile along with the occasional nod is my default response to greetings—most students know Miss Len from the library, and they think I must have taken special notice of them, too. I didn’t. No, believe me, I do like people, and I love the vibe of campus life, but I try to avoid close contact. It drains me.

Carrying a mocha to go in one hand, I’m groping in my purse for my staff card when I see him. The guy from the profile picture is standing right in front of the library doors where I can’t avoid him. I stop in my tracks, my jaw clenching.

Tall and willowy, he looks nervously left and right, pushing his thick-framed glasses up his nose. When he spots me he stiffens and clutches his briefcase like a shield to his chest, sweat glistening on his baldhead.

“Good morning, Miss Len,” he says in a rickety voice as I approach. His upper lip twitches over mousey front teeth.

I try to walk past him. He grabs my elbow, and my heart beats harder, but it’s more with rage than anything else. I’ve had so many daredevils pushing for a date that it’s not even funny anymore, it’s fucking annoying.

“Please, Miss Len, just listen.”

“No, you listen.” I take a step closer, not even bothering to struggle from his grip. “If you insist, bad things are going to happen, okay? This isn’t a fucking game.”

He swallows hard, and I pull my arm out of his grip. He lets me walk by him to the library entrance, but then he calls after me.

“I think I can help you get rid of the curse, Miss Len.”

I stop with my staff card in my hand, looking over my shoulder. That’s a first, nobody offered ‘help’ before.

“Aren’t you the one who’s been messaging me like crazy since five in the morning?”

“I am. But I wasn’t writing because I wanted to dare the fates and ask you out. But because I think I know why this is happening to you.”

I turn to him, giving him a once over. I have to admit, he doesn’t fit the pattern of the daredevil. He seems terrified to be even talking to me, clutching that briefcase like his life depends on it, sweating everywhere, eyes wide behind the glasses, upper lip trembling over his front teeth.

He’s probably never been on a date in his life, much less with a notorious cursed woman. The other guys were the leather-wearing, Harley-revving kind of bad boys, race pilots, even high-profile gamblers that would have made hundreds of thousands if they got into my pants without breaking a bone.

“Don’t take this wrong,” I begin, my tone softer. “You seem like a decent person. But don’t you think I already tried everything?” I motion to the elegant library doors behind me. “I’m a librarian. I know how to do research, and research I did to exhaustion.”

“But did you look down your own bloodline?”

My silence encourages him to walk over.

“You probably went the classic way,” he says, talking too fast to still hide his lisp. “You’ve probably been looking for similar cases in history, researching the kind of stalkers who created the illusion that supernatural things were happening, you probably even looked into myths and legends. But you never stopped to wonder why it’s happening to you of all people, have you?”

“I did, but I never used it as a research angle. The other similar cases in history didn’t seem to be related by blood. I feared researching my bloodline would be a waste of time, unnecessary effort—because it would be an effort. I’m adopted, with no ties to my biological parents.”

The nerd looks left and right to ensure privacy, then he leans down to me and whispers.

“Miss Len, forgive me for being so direct, but I think your bloodline leads back to Vlad the Impaler, the Prince of Blood. And I think he is related to your curse.”

It takes a moment until I realize—he’s making fun of me. A feeling of betrayal and anger engulfs me. For a moment there he had me fooled, thinking he was a decent guy.

“You think this is funny?” I say between my teeth.

“I know it sounds crazy.” He gropes in his pocket until he finds a handkerchief, and wipes the sweat off his baldhead. The smell of perspiration wafts over. “But let me tell you how I came to this conclusion.”

“Stun me.”

He looks around again, as if watching for spies.

“Not here. Please, meet me for lunch. I promise this isn’t a date, and I will explain everything, but we need complete privacy. Trust me, Miss Len, this will be worth it.”

He looks into my eyes full of hope.

I let the entire thing go through my head. What do I have to lose? I tried all the logical ways, I might as well give the impossible a chance.

“All right. But you better have convincing arguments.”

“I do, Miss Len. Thank you for your trust.”

“No, no trust yet.” My tone goes softer. “But hope. It’s been years, and I’m getting tired of this whole curse business.” Not to mention I’m yearning to feel a hot male body pressing on mine at least once in this lifetime, which won’t happen unless I finally lose the curse that’s been stalking me for years. I look the nerd up and down again. “Where?”

We agree on a pub downtown. We have to avoid running into people who know me, simply because they would stare and eavesdrop, so he says he’d reserve a booth.

When I ask him the obvious—isn’t he afraid of the curse?—the nerd says he isn’t; he’s certain it applies only to men who have certain intentions with me, and who actually make a move.

He finally leaves, his step quick and jerky, betraying he’s excited. I turn around, sliding my staff card through the device to get inside the library, wondering if a Dracula enthusiast could really hold the answer to my problem.

***

“I’m Dalton, by the way,” the freaky nerd says as we sit awkwardly across from each other at the pub. We’re in a booth by a crown glass window, everything around smelling old and moldy.

“Nice to meet you, Dalton.”

Awkward silence.

“So,” I break the ice. “You a Dracula fan?”

“Dracula is an interest of mine, yes.” He pauses, and looks back down into his cappuccino. I roll my eyes, my shoulders sagging.

“Okay, listen. I’m not a people person. I became a librarian because I preferred books to people, so please don’t put strain on my very poor socializing skills. You wanted to share your theory with me, but now you’re having me work for it. So please, if you have something to say, just say it, or give me something to read and extract the information myself. Like I said, I’m more comfortable with that than with conversation anyway.”

He blinks behind those big glasses.

“As a matter of fact, I did bring reading material,” he says, and bends to the side to pick up his briefcase from the floor. He opens it, and uses both hands to take out a big, medieval book with a beautifully carved silver cover that catches the light filtering through the crown glass.

My jaw drops.

“Where in the world did you get this?” I whisper, touching the book with the reverence I would touch a shrine, my eyes drinking it in.

“You know what it is?”

“I know it’s a highly valuable medieval artifact, worth hundreds of thousands,” I whisper.

“So you’re certain it isn’t a fake.”

“No, it’s real.” I hesitate, but then I tell him how I know. “My entire family deals in rare artifacts and books. Hundreds of originals and fakes have passed through my hands, all I need is a glance to tell.”

So much silver in my hands at once makes my scalp prickle. Great joy begins to build inside my lower belly, rising to my stomach—that same feeling I got every time I touched the rare books dad examined. It’s all I can do to keep myself from going high with the feeling, my eyelids fluttering as I drink in the beautiful carvings of what looks like gargoyles with tongues sticking out of their mouths.

“Well then, read the title,” Dalton encourages.

Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Blood.

And, under it, also carved into the cover, Year of our Lord 1449.

“Why would they put the year on the cover?” I whisper.

“Because this isn’t a book, Miss Len. It’s a chronicle.”

“Please, call me Ruxandra. Or Rux—easier to pronounce.” I touch the book tentatively again, opening it with reverence.

“Ruxandra—a Romanian name. It’s your name that drew my attention in particular when I heard about your curse.” He stands and moves over to my side, so that we can look into the book from the same angle. “May I?”

He starts turning pages. The gentle but expert way in which his fingers move, turning fragile yellowed page after page, the writing faded but coiling beautifully fascinates me. All chapters seem to have a date instead of a title. He stops at July 5th, 1450.

“These chronicles have been recorded at a medieval monks’ monastery,” he says, but then loses his battle with shyness again. It seems talking to me is a continuous struggle for him.

He’s now too close to me, the smell of perspiration and dank old suit wiping away my book-and-silver induced feeling of euphoria. His upper lip trembles over his teeth, and the page quivers between his fingers.

“The language,” I begin in a soft voice, trying to make this easier on him. “It doesn’t look Romanian, it looks German. Old German.”

“It is. The scholars leading the monastery were from Nürnberg—you must have heard about the Nürnberg Chronicles that documented the life and actions of Vlad the Impaler.” He looks at me when I don’t reply. “Sorry, I don’t know where to start, because I don’t know how much of the Impaler’s history you’re familiar with.”

“Honestly, not much more than what I saw in Dracula movies. But—” I narrow my eyes, going through my memories. “My mum is some sort of Dracula scholar, a fact that I never really took seriously.”

“So your mother might be aware of your family ties with the Impaler,” he says, his voice jumping with hope.

“Rather my dad. He’s… Well, his ancestors come from the Carpathians. But he doesn’t talk about it much. He never did while he was still here, in Britain.”

Dalton nods, his lips pursing.

“I heard about your dad in aristocrat circles. He’s a character that intrigues me—Radek Len, the dealer in rare books and artifacts.”

“My dad is a very private man. He’d hate to know he drew attention. But we didn’t come here to talk about him and his dealings, did we?”

“We might have to talk about them, in order to clarify your connection to the Impaler. Just look at the big picture: Your father, Radek Len, coming from the Carpathians, dealing in rare books and artifacts. Through him, you had enough experience with rare books in order to recognize a medieval original at once. And your mother is a Dracula enthusiast.” He looks at me as if from here the conclusion is obvious.

“But all this is irrelevant, Dalton, because I’m adopted. Wouldn’t it make more sense that we focus on my biological family, if it’s my bloodline that matters?”

“Depends. Your adoptive family seems related to the legend, too. And then there’s your name.”

I frown. “You mentioned that. What does my name have to do with it?”

He turns his attention to the book and puts a finger on a certain word.

I look down at the medieval page, my eyes fixing on the word right above Dalton’s finger. I don’t need to know the language in order to understand what it says.

Ruxandra.

I glance at word in front of it, and the one after.

Lady. Basarab.

“You see, there has been a lot of speculation regarding Vlad Dracula’s first wife,” Dalton begins. “Most sources refer to her as Elizabetta, some as Anastasia, some blatantly wrongly as Cneajna, who was actually his mother. But the noblewoman Vlad married in his youth, soon after he came back from his soldier’s training at the Sultan’s court, was Ruxandra. She was only seventeen at the time, he wasn’t much older either. They fell in love like only heart-driven teenagers can fall in love.

“But their romance was short-lived. Upon the Turks’ first attack on Dracula’s castle, Ruxandra threw herself from the window of their marital chamber, and perished into the river flowing at the bottom of the castle’s rocky base. To this day, the river carries the name of Lady’s River. Before she jumped, she told the servants who struggled to keep her back that she’d rather die than become a slave to the Turks.

“Days later, when Vlad returned from battle, Ruxandra’s lifeless body was lying inside the castle chapel. The priests damned her, telling Vlad that her soul was forever lost; suicides would never be allowed into the kingdom of God. It is said that was the day Vlad lost his soul. The day when he started on a blood-shedding frenzy, impaling every one of his boyars that he thought might have betrayed him and driven his wife to kill herself, and hating the Turks with a passion.”

He turns the page, magic filling the booth at the rustle of old paper and his voice. I don’t think I’ve been so taken with a story since grandma Magda used to tuck me in.

“This chapter was written in 1449, while Ruxandra was still alive. But it tells a slightly different story than the official one I just recounted for you.” He pauses for the effect of his words, drinking in the fascination in my face.

“Well,” I invite.

“Seems Lady Ruxandra Basarab held a secret hidden within the walls of this monastery, where this chronicle was written. In later chapters, this book reveals that her suicide didn’t have to do with the Turks, but with this secret. She killed herself before the Turks could torture the truth out of her.”

“And what was the truth?” I push, looking at the beautiful writing again. The monks’ hands had moved with care and reverence—writing itself was an art back then.

Dalton lowers his voice, filling with gravity and magic. “Seems Ruxandra had pledged herself to a demon, performing a ritual at this specific monastery. It was a very special demon, that could only be summoned and bound on Holy ground. Must have been a fallen angel or a very ancient spirit, because it is said only those have access on holy ground.” He looks me gravely in the face, turning pages. “The next chapter tells of people in the village mysteriously dying if they said the slightest bad thing about Lady Ruxandra. Once, a boyar expressed his dislike of the Lady, and Vlad wasn’t there to defend her honor. She just looked at him with her—” He looks into the book, quoting. “Deeply black eyes, the black of the demon. The man fell to the ground, taken by violent convulsions that killed him.” He looks at me again. “There are mentions of Ruxandra’s demonic spells over the boyars in later chapters as well, many cases in which people died after she’d given them the ‘black in her eyes’. Now, returning to what is happening with you, six centuries later….”

I wait for him to continue, but he keeps staring at me as if I should have already understood, and now he expects a reaction. I shake my head, frowning.

“I’m sorry, I still don’t see how this whole thing led you to me, or determined you to link my case to this—” I gesture towards the book, looking for the word. “Story.”

“Can it get any clearer than this? Lady Ruxandra’s name, her eyes.” Again that pause and expectant look—after all, it’s so obvious, isn’t it? Because of my ink black eyes I must be as evil as a woman who’d pledged her soul to the devil.

In moments like this I remember why I resent human contact.

“You know a lot about Lady Ruxandra,” I say, a long-forgotten meanness seeping into my voice. “But I must wonder—how much do you know about me?”

“I knew that you were adopted by two high-profile traders in rare artifacts and books before you told me,” he says eagerly. “Both people of powerful secrets. You, their daughter, are haunted by a curse that puts your suitors in hospital. The papers flared with stories about you, but your father soon managed an injunction. Still, the articles were enough for me.” He looks at me with the pride of someone who thinks they know everything, and that they know you better than you know yourself. God, how I want to slap it off his face, but I refrain, speaking slowly, clearly, but through my teeth.

“Well, I see that you already know enough to understand me and my story fully. I only have a few details to add, not much, really. My adoptive parents were very loving, and for a few years things were amazing. But then they disappeared, leaving me with my grandmother, Magda—a former librarian who taught me the craft. I haven’t seen them in many years, not even when my father managed the injunction. He did it from a distance.” The meanness swells in my heart, and I snort bitterly. I can feel the blackness in my eyes deepening, and Dalton leans back, obviously growing scared.

“I know that look in your eyes, Dalton. It’s how people used to look at me in school—fear and suspicion. All because of the way I looked. The starkly white skin, the eyes ink black. You know what they called me? Samara. It didn’t sound so bad at first, because I didn’t know who Samara was. I Googled her, though, and found out soon enough. Watched The Ring, and realized I wanted to scare the shit out of the bullies, just like Samara did. Especially those always hanging by the lockers, laughing and pushing me around. One even hauled me against a locker and lifted my skirt, pretending to fuck me from behind and daring all the others to laugh.” The meanness turns to satisfaction, which surely shows in my grin. I can feel my eyes become even more intense, and Dalton pushes himself against the back of his chair.

“That’s when it first happened,” I say darkly. “One of his friends had a sudden change of heart. The smile suddenly wiped off his face, and he decided to attack the guy molesting me, punching him hard in the face and breaking his nose. So it was a man made of flesh of blood who stepped in, not some supernatural power that made him convulse and die. Soon though, people forgot, and a new kind of bullying began.

“The guys started betting on who would relieve ‘Samara’ of her virginity. So one of the school heartthrobs, one I had a crush on, asked me out. I accepted, eager to be kissed by him—unaware of the bet. But before he touched my lips after the movie’s, some stranger stepped in and beat him to a pulp. It was a while until things became more refined, with the ‘saviors’ no longer appearing and beating my dates, but acting from a distance, orchestrating accidents in men’s rooms and involving even crane hooks. Now, you’ll understand if I’m firmly convinced whoever is behind all this is a man of flesh of blood, not some demon. A man who’s been watching me for many, many years. And you know what? For a long time I was grateful for this stalker. Because, deranged or not, he loved me.”

I lean even closer, forcing Dalton to lean his head back, the skin folding under his chin as he tries to put distance between his face and mine.

“And love was something I craved like a starving dog. I’d never been so precious to anyone before, I’d never felt so worthy. Even my parents,” I continue, forcing the information into his head. “They tried to love me, but they failed. Sure, they left me with a caring grandma and kept sending money, but still—they weren’t there. They couldn’t find a good reason to keep me by their side. I wasn’t enough. But this stalker….” I lean back again, relishing the story in my head. “He loved me, and I didn’t want him to go away. I wanted him to show himself. At first, I didn’t research in order to get him off my case, but to bring him closer. It never worked, for some reason. He must enjoy just meddling with my life from a distance, never involving himself physically, it must be some kind of fetish for him. But I want to have a real relationship, so I grew tired of his games. Now tell me, Dalton, how could this be related to Dracula?”

He swallows, his Adam’s apple moving up and down. I wait for an answer, eyes fixed on his without blinking. He glances at the book and points shyly to it.

“May I?” he whispers gutturally.

“Please.”

Slowly, he turns a chunk of pages, then again a few of them one by one until he reaches chapter 31st of October 1460. He waits again as if he expects me to feel enlightened only by looking at it.

“I must remind you, Dalton, I don’t understand German, much less the medieval version.”

“Sorry, I forgot,” he says quietly. Sure, he’s been too taken with my intensity. “This chapter talks about one thing that always puzzled historians—how did Vlad the Impaler win battles with an Ottoman army that outnumbered his by thousands?” He taps the page with his finger. “This account says that Ottoman turned on Ottoman as if some demon possessed them to turn on their own—just like the first guy who punched the bully in the face. Imagine a battlefield, it says, one army red, one silver. The red one is a bundle of crazed animals tearing at each other, while the silver one simply forms the shape of a five-pointed star in front of their opponents. In the end, they finished the survivors, and impaled them.”

I don’t understand why he’s telling me this at first. But then my synapses start firing again.

“I understand where you’re going. The same demon, the one that Lady Ruxandra pledged herself to, probably in exchange for the demon helping her husband in battle, must have influenced my protectors as well. But I never had anything to do with pentagrams, demons, and I don’t take soul pledging very seriously.”

“For a woman with the word ‘curse’ attached to her you sure are very skeptical.”

“I’m just realistic, Dalton,” I conclude, hands on the table as I decide I’ve heard enough, and make to stand up. “There are no such things as curses, stalking demons, or reincarnations for that matter.”

“No? Then how do you explain this?”

He moves on to the last page. My brain freezes.

I’ll be damned…. I drop back into the chair.

***

 

Enjoyed this? Let me know what you think in a comment, I’m always happy to hear from you 🙂

Yours,

Ana

 

Prince of Midnight is live!

It’s the 20th of December and, as promised, Prince of Midnight just went live! It’s there for you to grab it, if you like, plus!–You won’t have to wait long for the sequel, Prince of Obsession. It will hit the Zon as soon as the 18th of January, and you know what? Get used to it. I have a new book planned for every month of 2019, so there will be a lot of fun! (And a lot of interesting stuff about vampires, shifters and other supernatural creatures)

The plot takes place in the Carpathians, is related to Dracula and Dracula’s castle, and the book is similar to the work of Christine Feehan. So, if you enjoy Christine Feehan books, you might love this one, too : )

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Prince of Midnight – Chapter II (Book 1 of the Dark and Dangerous Series)

As promised, here’s more of my new paranormal romance with sci-fi icing, folks.

So what’s the story about?

Reporter Juliet Jochs travels to the Carpathians. Her job—investigating a mysterious and unnaturally beautiful Carpathian prince. Pretending to work a public profile for him, she actually wants to uncover his shady dealings and later expose them in the international press. If the prince discovers Juliet’s hidden agenda, she knows it may cost her life. But as she finds herself trapped in his fortress and his masks begin to peel off, she fears she may lose her sanity.

Prince Radek Matthayus has dark powers that suck Juliet into a whirl of hypnotic desire. He attracts her from the shadow, but he never seems to put his body on hers. She comes to crave his touch more than air, falling under his spell like in a dark dungeon. She must keep her head above the water if she is to save herself, run away and not look back. But can she resist opening the last door to his most terrible secret?

 

Read chapter I here.

CHAPTER II

Juliet

 

Two days later, Herald invites me into his office. I’m nervous as I close the door behind me, ruffling the curls that make a yellow halo around my head. I cross my legs awkwardly on the chair, pulling at the rim of my skirt to cover my knees—I wouldn’t want him to think that I’m trying to seduce him in some cheap way, right?

“One moment, Juliet.” He holds up a finger without looking up from the paper he’s reviewing with a frown before signing. It takes a while until he acknowledges me again. This might seem condescending to others, but look at it this way: Herald Gruff is the boss at a highly reputable magazine, one could go deaf on the bustling in the cubicles room just outside his office alone. That’s a lot of responsibility, not to mention it requires a fuckload of authority, sure he seems an asshole.

“So,” he says, pulling out a drawer and pushing a file under my nose. “Because technology isn’t to be trusted nowadays, I’ll approach this sensitive subject in paper form.”

I glance from the file to him, trying to process “don’t trust technology” and “approach subject in paper form.”

“But our work is entirely technology-based. We’re an e-zine, we don’t even sell printed issues. Actually, we loathe all things ‘printed’, don’t we?”

“Just open it,” he prompts, his greying hair quivering at the sudden jerk of his hand towards the file. He’s a bit older than me—okay, a whole chunk older—but he’s got a good body, since he swims daily, and intelligent if not pretty eyes. There’s something of a skinny bulldog to his face, but he was once obviously attractive. Not that it matters. Nothing is more attractive than a man who exudes self-control, power and authority.

As I leaf through the file, he says, “Radek Matthayus, the prince you picked on a few days ago at the press conference.”

“This isn’t much more than what I’ve covered on him,” I note as I go through the file rapidly. “It doesn’t say a whole lot, either, the guy is very private about everything.”

Herald leans back, pushing his hands through his ashen hair. It’s good to see him a little relaxed.

“I believe this guy is blocking foreign investment in infrastructure in his country from the shadow. He’s influential enough to do that and more. I want you to discover his reasons and then help me expose them.”

I blink at him like an idiot. This opportunity isn’t only huge, it’s a career-making turning point. A you-almost-got-me smile stretches on my face, while I wave a finger at him.

“Come on, what’s the catch?”

He looks at me sternly. “Catch?”

“You’re not offering me this job just like this, are you? I mean, this is huge, and probably for someone with far more experience. Why me?”

There’s a pause and steady eye contact before Herald replies. “Because you’re the only person the dark prince has shown interest in in a very long time.”

There’s a zinging in my ears, and my stomach twists. Shown interest. This feels surreal.

“What did you just say?” I whisper.

“We don’t have time for stupid dialogue, Juliet, I’m sure you heard me the first time.” Herald points to the file like an unhappy teacher at sloppy homework. “Everything here is merely a tenth of what we need to discover about this dark prince.” He leans in, gaze pointed like a gun to the center of my forehead. “Read it, and you’ll understand why I say ‘dark.’”

“But, Herald.” My voice cracks on his name, and I clear my throat. “In wha, er, in what way did he show interest in me?”

He smirks, giving me a once over. “I was surprised at first, too.” He leans back in his chair, more relaxed this way, motioning with a hand towards me from head to toe. “I mean, it’s not like you’re not cute and all, but compared to the kind of women who must surround him….” He purses his lips and whistles, waving his hand like he just touched something hot—which he obviously doesn’t consider me to be. It’s as if he’d forgotten all about the night two weeks ago, the office party, when he crammed me in a corner of this very office and kissed me, confessing under his breath that he secretly wanted me.

I still vividly remember his eager tongue, tasting of vinegar from the wine he’d been drinking. Even though I wanted him, I wanted him sober, smelling and tasting nicely. I felt his desire rock hard pressing urgently against my mound, and pushed him away on an impulse, saying, “Not like this.”

“You have nice natural blond hair, curly and all, but face it—it’s too short, barely even reaching your shoulders, it’s a mess on top of your head. With your pale eyebrows and eyelashes and snow-white skin, you look like a pretty corpse,” Herald continues cruelly, analyzing me with sharp eyes. “You could use some contrast, like dye your hair and your eyebrows or something.”

Jesus, what comes next, pump up your lips, get a nose job—God knows I could use one? I push myself off the chair, swiping the file off his table.

“Why are you doing this, Herald?” I demand, pacing slowly around and pretending to leaf through the file. It’s easier for me to stand up for myself when I’m not looking at him, he’s too intimidating and easily angered. “Is it because I ran out of here two weeks ago? Because, if that’s the case, you could make a move on me now, sober, and I wouldn’t say no.” I glance at him. He’s smirking, dark eyes glinting at me from under ashen eyebrows, the corners of his mouth pushing his cheeks aside into a wrinkly smile that speaks of experience, resilience and authority.

“Get this job done properly, and you’ll have that and more, Juliet.”

My heart gives me a pang of outrage. Is he offering himself as a prize? No offense, I might not be the prettiest, or the smartest, but I am like a lifetime younger… Then I want to slap myself. How can I be so conceited? He’s far more valuable than me in so many ways. If I can prove myself to him, then I might assume some of all that value for myself. I raise my chin, closing the file and holding it against my chest. I’m looking at him from higher ground, since I’m standing up, feeling grand, even if for only a moment.

“You can rely on me for this job.”

“I hope you appreciate that I trust you with it, considering your lack of experience and your young age overall. You are only twenty-two, in the end.”

I squint at him. “There’s a reason why you trust me with it, which reminds me. In what way has the prince shown interest?”

Herald purses his lips, pondering before he answers. “His people called the e-zine to inquire about you. They wanted to hire you, and offered to purchase you from us if it must be. I figured his interest must be serious, since he can have anyone he wants, you know.”

My ears start buzzing.

“Purchase,” I repeat quietly. “But what could he possibly use me for?”

“You’ll find out.” He gets up from his chair, pacing to me. I barely register the time lapsing until he reaches me, placing a hand on my shoulder. I tilt a bit under it. Looking straight into my eyes, he says, “I agreed, Juliet. I agreed to trade you, but I have my own agenda.”

“You traded me like I’m a thing?”

“No. I traded you like you’re Ronaldo.”

I have this overwhelming urge of hurting him. As I begin to realize what’s happening here, rage heats up my face. “How can you be sure I won’t betray your agenda to the prince?”

He smiles, which makes his cheeks look like a wrinkly bulldog’s again. “I’m sure, because the prince can’t offer you what I can. You see, while he can pay a thousand times better, his headquarters is deep in some obscure, impossible to penetrate mountain forest. Money won’t be of much use there, not to mention that the social environment… Well, I imagine it’s not what your half German half American upbringing has taught you to strive for and adjust to. I, on the other hand, offer you money and position when you’re back here in Berlin.” He brings his face closer to mine to look even deeper into my eyes, and I realize I’m pushed against the wall, clutching the file as the only shield between me and the intimidating power house that’s Herald Gruff. “Because I will have you back. And when that happens, with what you gather on the prince, we’ll go huge. You’ll have fame in the entire national press, all doors will be open for you, and you’ll be made editor-in-chief immediately.” He shrugs, taking distance and letting his hand drop off my shoulder. “Many will offer you career choices, though. If you’ll want to go for a position at one of the 5 best journals in the country, you’ll be free to do so. We can set that in stone through contract right now, if you like.”

I must admit, career advancement baits me. It makes me salivate. When I’m alone I fantasize about power—me in a black Armani suit to starkly contrast with my blond hair, pale face and pale eyes, looking striking if not attractive to whoever walks into my sky rise office.

Soon I’ve signed two contracts—one that transfers me to the prince’s company, and one stating my liberty of choice when I’m back with Herald. The job description I have with the prince’s firm is still drawn in general lines, but it includes my writing reports on what he intends to do with the real estate he keeps acquiring all over Europe, and about the work he does back home. Pretty much creating a better defined public persona that he can then display for himself outside his country of origin.

***

The whole contract thing has kept me at the office for two straight days. Been going through papers all night and all of today with Herald and the company lawyer. The train now lulls me to sleep with its swaying as it takes me to the periphery of Berlin, where I’ve lived with my sister Runia since the pictures business—told myself all those reasonable things about the hacker and all, but I still can’t be alone at night.

Runia is a caregiver for the elderly and people with disabilities, so she has a keen eye for signs of sickness and the like, which means she’s on my case as soon as I kick off my shoes.

“Jesus, Juliet, you look like you just broke out from the morgue.”

“Just another day in Paradise.”

On my way to the only bedroom I pass by a blur of her lean shape that resembles mine—basically a stripe in the landscape, firm bumps at the level of the breasts and butt. Her hair is much longer though, so it flows down her body in bouncy waves that are as beautiful as a doll’s. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to secure her a guy’s long-term attention in cold Berlin.

I hit the bed face down and only open my eyes again twenty-four hours later, when I’m left with five more hours until I’m to embark on a plane that’ll take me from the Berlin airport down to what I’ve heard is no man’s land. Runia has swapped her usual night shift with a colleague in order to assist me with my luggage and ask me a ton of questions, making me face stuff I really don’t want to deal with right now. Stuff I’d rather stay blind to.

“Have you considered that Herald could have dark reasons to put all of this on your shoulders? I mean, come on, it’s a huge deal, top secret, and if you screw up it can mean serious trouble,” she says while she stuffs thick sweaters over my rather flimsy stuff. I told her as much as I could tell her because, indeed, if something happens to me Herald would probably try to bury the whole thing, so someone should know where to have the Interpol start looking.

“I hear the Balkans are warmer than Germany, Runia, you can go easy on the winter stuff.”

“It’s autumn, and I’ve heard their winters are even more vicious than ours. I mean, have you read Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’? They have serious blizzards. Anyways, what if Herald has—”

“Listen, Runia,” I interrupt, holding up my hand. “This is a huge opportunity for me, all right? I don’t know who else would have trusted me with it at my age, and especially after less than six months experience in the media.”

“But that’s exactly my point. I know you’re ambitious Juliet, I admire that about you and I wish I was made of the same stuff, but don’t let the rush of a fast career blind you to—”

“Honey.” I walk around the bed and take her pretty face between my hands. “If I get what Herald needs on the prince, I’ll have all doors open. This will be the hardest, most vicious, most dangerous fight of my life, but it will also be the last, Runia.” I square my shoulders, reassessing my situation and feeling good about it. “And I’m ready for it.”

She looks at me, pressing her lips together, unwillingly accepting that I’m doing this. “What about your feelings for Herald? Are you sure they aren’t playing a role in this decision? The main role?”

“Of course they play a role. He wants me, Runia, he’s shown me that more than once. The way he looks at me and the way he came on to me that night…” I’m sure that stuff will feel a lot better when he’s sober. “But I have to prove myself to him. He’s not some desperate sugar daddy who’ll take the first model who’ll call him ‘lover,’ he wants substance, he wants a woman with real power to her.”

Runia shakes her head slightly. “As I said, I always admired your ambition and your brains, big sister, but when you’re in love, you’re downright stupid.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

But Runia has already pushed my hands down from her face and gone on to pick more clothes from the wardrobe.

“Tell me more about the prince. What’s in the file you brought the other night? You fell asleep on it,” she explains, sorting clothes. “I would have looked inside if you hadn’t been sprawled all over it.”

“A good thing you didn’t.” I check my briefcase for the file. It’s there, tucked safely between other papers I’ll need. “This is literally the kind of business you don’t want to know too much about.”

“Uuuuuu, I’m scared.” She pretends to be bracing herself and tremble. “You sound like Corleone.”

“I’m not joking, Runia.”

“At least do this for me.” She walks over, holding out her hand with a small gadget that I have to frown at to identify. “I know Herald said no technology because it’s easily hacked, especially by people as powerful as the prince.” She glances down to the small gadget. “But I’m pretty sure no one will take this seriously. Keep in touch.”

I take it and turn it in my hand, amused. “How did you even get the idea?”

She shrugs with a clever smile on her face. “There’s this thing about people with disabilities, especially the mentally challenged ones, that no one considers—They think outside the box by default, and disregard all rules. They have the most innovative minds.”

I’m deliciously surprised. This is one of those moments when I wish I were a selfless, people-loving caregiver like Runia, and marvel at the human genius where the entire world least expects it.

***

Turbulence has shaken the plane often enough to make me pray for my life. I haven’t prayed since I was six. Just as I thought the worst part was over, dragging my luggage from luggage claim, I bumped into a boisterous family of gypsies that tried to steal my purse. Hadn’t the cab driver the prince had sent for me intervened, I’d be stranded in No Man’s Land Romania without papers or money.

“Better watch it, miss,” he says in a thick accent as he picks up my luggage and leads me to the car. He’s a middle-aged man with a big gut, dark eyes, and a very friendly attitude. “You have better chance of surviving here without papers than without cash.”

This is another world, that much is certain. Everything seems old, the buildings withered and erratic, the people tired and angry, and the roads—don’t get me started on the roads. My organs shake inside of me from all the holes and ditches in the ground. After driving in a busy, emissions-smothered ring around Bucharest, we emerge into the plains, the road a meager streak cutting through, industry buildings on each side.

“It looks like business is picking up in your country,” I say, watching the halls glide by through the window.

“Picks up, yes, but not in interest of the common man,” the driver says, and continues praising his country’s natural resources and beauties, which he’s been doing continuously since we left the airport. He keeps checking the expression on my face in the rear-view mirror, so I have a causal smile in place at all times, though he doesn’t persuade me. This place is exotic, yes, but in that way.

I feel my jaw drop as we first pass a rickety cart trailing in the cloud of dust left behind by a racing Porsche. It’s almost disintegrating under a load of hay and wood, pulled by two runt horses and a drunken peasant with a lopsided hat and a long mustache.

“What in the world is this?”

“Get used to it, miss. Plenty more picturesque items where this came from.” The driver laughs hard.

The next thing I know, we come to a stop, waiting for a shepherd as drunk as the man in the cart to steer his herd of sheep across the road. They’re slow and curious, some of them stopping and watching us leisurely with grass between their teeth, chewing slowly.

I’m shocked and thinking about Herald’s words—for all the money in the world that the prince would pay me, staying here isn’t an option. When I think that we’re still inside the European Union, I could burst into laughter, but I refrain, especially because I find the context to ask the driver about Prince Radek.

“You say the prince sent you for me. Do you know him personally?”

“Prince Radek is a very private person. Very few people in town know him personally, but we all saw him on occasion.”

I tilt my head to the side, meeting his eyes in the rear-view mirror. “You’re a local from the prince’s town?”

“I live in Bran, the resort at the foot of his castle.”

My brain swells as it wraps around the information. I grab his seat. “You mean to tell me we’re going to the Bran castle? Like the one from Bram Stoker’s novel? Like the one from the Dracula movies?”

“Yes, yes,” the driver confirms, his big gut jumping up and down as he laughs hard. “Excuse my amusement, miss, but you’re sweet.”

“But he can’t be living there, that’s one of your major tourist attractions?”

“That’s right, but there are deeper layers to that story, miss. The prince has secretly bought the castle from the government years ago, yet has agreed to keep it as a tourist attraction and let the government cash in the proceeds.”

“So hand in hand with the government indeed,” I whisper, eyes darting left and right as I make connections in my head. Sure he manipulates the right people in the right places, he probably also bribes them with money from all the prosperous business around Dracula’s castle. The driver doesn’t dispute the theory either.

“It’s not impossible, miss. The prince’s family has always been well connected.”

In my enthusiasm I grab even tighter to his seat, pressing myself to it. I’m greedy for information, and this opportunity is gold. “What else can you tell me about him? I mean, I’m sure there’s a lot to say, but—”

“You have a crush on him, miss?”

The blood rushes to my cheeks. “Where would you get that idea?” I squeak.

He shrugs. “Everyone who meets him in person falls for him. It’s almost like a curse. All the girls in town, maybe some of the men, too.”

I remember the prince’s exceedingly attractive face, then the moving pictures of him as a ghost that he’s had the hacker manipulate into my phone.

“To be honest, I think he’s a terrible person.” I lean back and cross my arms, looking outside. It’s almost evening and we’ve reached the hills, the higher mountains shrouded in fog in the distance.

“This is indeed breathtaking.” I gawk at the sight.

“Wait until we’re reach the Carpathian heart,” the driver says like an eager accomplice. “It’s out of this world.”

“Out of this world is pretty much everything I’ve seen so far,” I mutter, but when he throws a, “What?” over his shoulder, I’m grateful he didn’t catch it.

What I get to see of the forests until the night falls is dense and uniquely wild. So much unlike the woods with man-made feel from my travels. I let down the window and peer into what turns out to be a precipice so deep that I can’t see the bottom, all black and hollow, draught messing up my hair.

“Pull back,” the driver calls. Startled, I draw my head back into the car.

“Why? It’s not like—”

“Don’t put parts of your body out there, miss,” he admonishes. “You don’t expose yourself to the Carpathians like that at night. They’re ancient and dangerous.”

I can’t hold back a laugh. “Oh, come on. We’re not in some Dracula movie.”

His gaze stays fixed on me in the mirror, and I wonder if he shouldn’t be watching the darkening road instead. My heart shrinks in my chest, I feel uneasy. Some strange power seems to have taken over, the car seemingly driving itself and floating as if the holes in the ground have disappeared miraculously, replaced by the smoothest asphalt.

“You’re not here as a tourist, miss. If you were, you’d be seeing a backward region with nothing to hold your modern interests, and none of this would be happening. But you’re here as a guest of Prince Radek.”

None of this would be happening echoes in my head as the car slams into something front-on, the impact throwing me between the front seats. I manage to catch myself with hands against the dashboard and keep my head safe, so there’s no reason to doubt what I’m seeing through the slowly cracking windshield as I raise my eyes. I feel them widen in dread, my fingers gripping to the dashboard.

***

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