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Nicholas continued staring at her retreating back long after she'd walked out of sight. He didn't think he'd ever see her again. God, she's still so beautiful, after seven long years and two months--
But the hatred blazing from those mesmerizing violet eyes had stopped him cold. She was right to hate him. After all, he'd left her all those years ago without a word of good-bye or explanation.
The past crashed down on him in one single wave.
Leaving her had been the kindest thing he could have done for her then, and he hadn't planned on seeing her again in his lifetime. In the few minutes he'd been in the room with her, his sharp hearing had heard the sweet rush of her blood through her body, and he'd been hard pressed to control his canines from burying themselves into the fat vein at the base of her neck. His acute nose had picked up the floral fragrance of her skin, which brought to mind images of her sprawled naked beneath him on his bed, her long, honey-brown hair spread across his white cotton bed sheet, her eyes inviting, her smile a seductive promise...
He'd thought seven years had purged whatever feelings he might still have for her, but he was wrong. Being a vampire had only intensified the desire he'd felt for her so long ago, and his cold heart suffered a jagged cut from an invisible knife.
And she had a son.
The serrated knife twisted deeply. Of course she'd be married. Beautiful and loyal and smart, some guy must have snapped her up within minutes of his disappearance. He pushed the bitterness aside and admitted he couldn't blame her. After all, a lifetime was too long to live by one's self.
He should know.
Trying to hide hispain, he'd pulled his lips up in what must have been a parody of a smile, but she'd shot him down with that regal look that told him she couldn't be bothered with him.
It was time to get to the bottom of things. He turned to the Collector, who was sitting behind his desk with a smug smile playing around his lips. That infuriated the younger man, and with lightning speed, he'd crossed the distance and planted his palms on the desk. He loomed over his friend in a threatening stance. "What game are you playing, you stupid old man?"
"Stupid old man?" An eyebrow quirked. Nicholas had the distinct feeling the Collector was laughing at him. "This is my thanks after taking care of you all those years ago? How long has it been? Five? Six?"
"Seven," Nicholas answered grudgingly. He was a little bit ashamed of his outburst, but frustration ate at his soul. Marianne married ... with a kid ... "I still don't know whether I should thank you or hate you for looking after my needs. You know how I feel about being a vamp."
The Collector chuckled. "I only nursed you back to health. I hadn't anything to do with your being turned. You should take the matter up with Uriel."
Nicholas first met the Collector seven years ago on the night his life had ended. He'd always wondered how different things would have been had he driven his car that night. But something had gone wrong with the engine the previous day and he'd sent it to the garage for repair. After sending Marianne home in a cab, he'd decided to take the bus. On the way to the bus stop, he was struck down by a speeding driver, who didn't even stop to check on him. The impact had thrown him, and he landed on the concrete sidewalk several feet away, bones broken and his head a bloody mess. He had died on the spot...
...and was given a second chance at life by a master vampire who hated needless deaths and happened to be passing by on his way to a vampire convention. After rescuing Nicholas, master vampire Uriel had left the fledgling vamp at the house of his friend, the Collector.
Nicholas's eyes narrowed speculatively on the gray-haired man he still only knew as the Collector. "You never did tell me exactly how you knew the master."
The Collector shook his head. "Allow an old man his secrets. Suffice it to say, I met him--"
"On one of your digs," Nicholas said in unison with him. A wry smile stretched his lips, and he dropped onto one of the chairs in front of the desk. "So you tell me. And I'm sure he doesn't call you 'Collector' or 'sir.'"
The Collector laughed. "Can you imagine Uriel calling me 'sir'? Honestly?"
An image of the tall, dark-haired vampire with his stern face and commanding presence came to mind. And, no, Nicholas couldn't envision him bowing down to the Collector, and yet, he knew that his master would show profound respect to the Collector, who possessed an authority all his own.
"All right, keep your secrets, old man. But you're wrong. I may not have a choice during my turning, but I have a choice now." Nicholas leaned forward in his chair. "I repeat, what game are you playing?"
The Collector made a tsking sound. "What makes you think you have a choice now, Nicholas? In case you weren't listening earlier, you owe me a debt for nursing you to vampire health and I'm collecting. We did agree that the time and manner of collection would be up to me." A fond smile reached his eyes. "Phelan would be of the opinion that you made the worst patient, even more than I, and such payment is only right."
"I remember." Nicholas gritted his teeth. It galled him that he'd been so grateful to be alive and functioning that he'd rashly offered to pay the old man anything for not throwing him out into the street where he would have created more havoc than he could possibly repair. It was only later that the ramifications of being a vampire dawned on him, and he'd wished instead he'd been left for dead. "I stand by my word. I'll go, but you have to tell me everything."
A crafty look crept into the old man's eyes, and Nicholas repeated for emphasis, "Everything."
The Collector sighed. "Very well. What do you wish to know?"
Lots of questions vied for space on his tongue, but one nudged out all the others for priority. The question had been burning in him since ... "Marianne ... she has a son?"
If the Collector had laughed at him, Nicholas would have slugged him, despite his frail appearance. But the old man just nodded. "Bryan."
"Husband?" He didn't want to know. He had to know.
The Collector looked at him for some time before saying, "You'd have to ask her."