After one thousand years of listless eternity, Oskar is used to his particular brand of loneliness. But a long walk through Middle America and a few chance encounters will lead him straight to a man he’d known to be long since dead―his childhood best friend, Aranck.
Being undead hasn’t stopped Aran from living life to the fullest. He has all the money and power his charm and business savvy could earn him, and plenty of friends. Lately, though, something seems to be missing. After a millennium, perhaps the world’s shine has worn off—and that’s when Oskar stumbles back into his life, reminding him of who he used to be.
Together the two vampires remember what it felt like to live, all the while navigating a conflict with the local pack of werewolves. A lot has changed in a thousand years, and only time will tell if those changes will bring Oskar and Aranck closer together, or ensure they remain apart.
|Publisher:||Ninestar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)|
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OSKAR HAD HIS hands deep in his pockets as he walked. Gravel crunched beneath his feet, announcing every heavy step he took. It felt as if he'd been in this district for ages, and yet he'd seen a handful of vampires at most. Perhaps that was the nature of a place so rural.
A few cars passed him, high-beams lighting up the wall of corn at his side. None stopped, which was fine; Oskar wasn't much for people or conversation, and him passing through this district unnoticed was more than welcome. Custom dictated he check in with the district leader — announce there was another vampire roaming through town and all that — but what was the point, if he'd just be gone the next evening.
Maybe aimless traveling wasn't how he should be spending eternity. Settling somewhere had never been a real option for Oskar, but perhaps he could make it work. Somehow, somewhere ...
He enjoyed time with his thoughts, but centuries of bad memories and bad decisions grated against his sanity after spending days walking through cornfields.
Oskar pulled his phone out of his pocket and gave it a vague look. Should he Google it? The district leader? Being around other vampires might quell the apprehension at the back of his skull.
He put it back in his pocket. Forever uncommitted, even to himself.
A sign on the edge of the road hailed an upoming inn. Next to its name was a tiny symbol — a coffin. That meant they had light-tight rooms available; Oskar could stay there during the daylight hours. He tipped his head up and looked at the stars. The corn wasn't interesting, but the stars above the countryside made up for it. It was difficult to describe the expansive black of the sky?the way it wrapped around him, the way it made him feel like he could sense the curvature of the earth.
For this century, the view was beautiful. Oskar couldn't help but think of him though, the way he always thought of him when he looked at the stars. A lot of people sought immortality, but Oskar had chased the memories of being human since the day he died.
In the scheme of Oskar's long life, they'd spent such little time together. And yet he was left feeling that the time they'd spent together had been the most full, the most important, and the most impossible to replicate. Perhaps it was because the end of their time had been punctuated by Oskar's death — having Aranck was the same as having a heartbeat.
Oskar threw the negative thoughts away. Instead, he tried to remember Aranck's face?the way he'd stared up at the sky and pointed out the constellations, naming them in Algonquin. His hair had draped over his shoulders, a dark veil guarding his neck. Well, mostly dark. There was a single strand of white that grew from behind Aranck's ear, and in the dark it appeared to glow. When he'd turned to look at Oskar, it had been with expectant almond eyes, every spark of the night sky reflected in the dark of his irises.
Oskar had turned to the stars with reluctance in his sigh, but a smile on his lips. He pointed, instructing Aranck on the names of the constellations in Old Norse. Aranck repeated the words — sometimes beautifully, sometimes hideously, but always confidently — and Oskar couldn't help but let his eyes pinch with laughter. Aranck was smart, quicker than Oskar when it came to learning the other's language, and in disturbingly perfect Old Norse he'd said, "Want to go to the river?"
Oskar had nodded, wiping his trousers as he stood. Aranck led the way, as he always did, and the ribbons of light in the sky illuminated his lithe body. The bands of clouded stars and sky weren't visible much anymore, but they had been back then. Their colors shone over sharp tops of pine trees and sparkled in the reflections of calm water. In their light, Aranck's skin had been a warm silver or cobalt. Oskar had always been envious of how his bronze skin could hold sunlight in the day and starlight in the night.
In the present, Oskar tried to bury his hands deeper in his pockets. He wondered what Aranck would think of him now — a dead man walking on paved roads through a country they'd vowed to explore together.
He'd probably make fun of him. Aranck would be better at this, the whole eternal life thing. Oskar lifted his hand and ran it through the mess of hair at the top of his scalp. Aranck had always been better at living.CHAPTER 2
ARAN STARED DOWN at the two squabbling vampires before him.
"So she was trying to court my human —"
"Your human? No one ever made her your human —"
"I CLAIMED her!"
"'Claim'? What is this, the 1800s?"
"If only this time had the decency of —"
"Stop," Aran said shortly, not bothering to raise his head from where it rested on his fist.
They both ceased in their noise, mouths pausing mid-insult.
Aran blinked at them. "Are either of you going to kill the other?" he asked.
They looked at each other. "Well ... n —"
"Are you going to kill the human in a selfish fit of rage?" he followed up.
"I would never!" the woman answered, pressing pale fingers to her chest.
"No one will hurt my lady," the man answered. "Least of all me."
Aran narrowed his eyes at them. "Then why the fuck are you here?"
The room was poignantly silent.
Aran leaned forward, long tendrils of black hair sliding over his shoulders. He gazed at the vampires, his voice low and level. "Did you truly believe it wise to schedule a dispute with me, your district leader, over a high school love triangle?"
"How old are you people?" Aran groaned, leaning back in his chair (throne, actually; the monstrosity was a throne, and he loved it).
"One hundred and —"
"Not a real question," Aran interrupted, holding up his hand. "Now get out of my sight, out of my bar, and I swear to undead Christ if any one of you turns up dead I will kill the other two."
The two vampires scurried away, metaphoric tails between their legs. Aran rested his forehead in his palm. Becoming a district leader in small-town America seemed like a good idea at the time of its offering — he got more power, more opportunities to climb the ladder, a throne — and while he earned quite a bit of reverence from his title, he also apparently took on the role of supernatural Jerry Springer.
"I hate reality TV," he muttered.
"Another rough day at the office?"
Aran lifted his eyes. "Ryan."
"I saw the others flee." Ryan thrust his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the door. "Figured you were done."
Ryan had light curly hair and a splash of freckles over his nose. There were also a few on the edges of his lips, which Aran found especially endearing. "They wasted my precious time," Aran told him, melting against the frame of his throne.
"Precious and most plentiful," Ryan retorted, striding up to him. Aran fixed him with unamused eyes. "Want a drink?" Ryan's smile was resolute against Aran's glare.
"Sounds good," he said, finally taking it upon himself to stand upright.
"Blood bank just delivered; I'll get you something fresh." He shrugged and then added, "ish."
Aran's lips tilted into a smile. "Thanks."
The bar had belonged to the last district leader; it was custom for the leader to set up camp somewhere accessible to the masses. And while Aran enjoyed buying and collecting properties like they were baseball cards, he wasn't much into doing beer inventories or talking with truck drivers. He gave the bar to Ryan and allowed him to do with it what he pleased, and Aran kept his throne and his presence. It was a bonus that Ryan also held the most humanity in him of any vampire Aran had ever seen; he was a good fit for dealing with humans.
They traversed the hallway connecting Aran's Summons Room to the main portion of the bar. It was always a bit shocking, that first clash of sound and color. The gray of the cement gave way to the bright warmth of the bar, becoming golden-soaked and sparkling. Light hardwood floors and a matching polished bar reflected the atmosphere from every angle.
"Business looks good tonight," Aran commented. The rock-country mashup that Ryan was so fond of washed over them. Acoustic guitar plucked along in an upbeat rhythm and patrons laughed and chattered as if they hadn't a care in the world.
Aran buried his hands in the pockets of his suit pants and surveyed the crowd?a handful of vampires, a decent number of humans, and one lone wolf. His eyebrow quirked upward. Strange to see only one of them. He took it as a compliment of trust.
"Ryan." Isabela approached them, magenta hair brushing the tops of bare sepia shoulders. "The new girl wants to speak to you about the drafts she's setting up."
Ryan grinned. "Thank you, my dear." As he walked past her, he placed a quick kiss to the top of her head. "And her name is Shana," he spoke into her hair.
Isabela didn't turn to acknowledge him. She regarded Aran flatly. "The manager of Asholme Properties called. He's expecting a callback."
"Thank you. I'll go see him tonight or tomorrow."
"I'm sure he'll love that," she said, her usual monotone barely tinged with sarcasm.
Aran smiled. The man worked for him, but he was terrified of Aran on principle. Aran allowed his fangs to slide from his gums, pointed and long. "I'll keep them out just for him."
"You're awful," Isabela decided. She turned to leave.
"Oh, Isabela." She turned back to him wordlessly. Aran retrieved a hair tie from the depths of his pocket and extended it to her. "Will you tie this back for me?"
She took the band and stepped around him, careful not to touch his shoulders as she gathered all the hair together. She tucked the strand of white away last, making sure it was visible among the rest. Then she tied the band down low, just the way Aran preferred it. Only a few inches of hair hung below the elastic.
"You're wearing a full Armani suit and using elastic hair ties from Wal- Mart." She finished her work and stepped back beside him. "It's ridiculous."
Aran raised his eyebrows. "Please by all means impart on me your knowledge of designer hair ties."
Her mouth moved around a bit, unruffled. "I'll find you some nice clips or something."
He smiled. "You don't have to."
She cast him an irritated look. I don't have to do anything, it said in a perfect scrunching of forehead. She turned and walked back toward their usual table.
Aran's eyes slid after her, watching as she weaved through the other patrons. Most vampires were graceful, but Isabela had something else. She looked unshakable, incapable of nervousness. There was a slow drag to her motions?an understated tilt to her head and shoulders. It suffused the air around her with "Fuck You."
It was very Isabela.
Aran cracked his neck and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He took a few long strides forward, purposefully not making eye contact with the stares he felt against his face. Isabela had paused next to their usual booth to administer a deep frown. Aran's gaze flittered to the side, taking in the figure already seated there.
He was dead-pale and smirking. Aran stared down his nose and past the upward tilt of his chin. "Collin, why on Earth are you at my table?"
Collin's responding smile made Aran feel greasy. "Is it so wrong for me to want to bask in my leader's glory?" he asked.
Aran blinked. "Yes."
Collin rocked his head back and laughed. Isabela took a reluctant seat across from him, distaste plain on her face. The common analogy for a man like Collin would be a snake, but Aran had grown to enjoy snakes. Perhaps ... a centipede.
Aran settled down beside Isabela in the booth, lacing his fingers together atop the table. When Collin finished his bout of laughter, he leveled his gaze with Aran. "So I heard you bought the old strip mall and are fixin' it up."
Aran didn't say anything. Of course; Collin was always trying to stick his useless fangs into Aran's money.
Ryan interrupted their silence by setting a wineglass down in front of Aran. "Brought you some A Negative, Mr. District Leader. And some O Positive for the lady." He slid a martini glass toward Isabela, his motion so smooth the blood didn't even rock within the glass.
"Aww, where's mine?" Collin asked.
Ryan clasped his hands in front of himself and smiled. "I didn't know you were here. What would you like?"
"Whatever he gets?" Aran said, pointing at a small empty table in the center of the bar "?you can deliver it to that table over there."
Collin's mouth went tense. "A Neg is fine," he responded shortly.
Ryan was just turning to make his way back to the bar when someone burst through the front doors with enough force to make them bounce against their hinges. He scampered over the floor, sweat beading across his forehead, and finally the smell hit: wolf.
It was carried into the bar as if on a wave — all the vampires turned to watch it crash against the shore.
The wolf almost slid up to their table. "District Leader, sir," he stammered.
Collin sneered, side-eyeing the new visitor. "Smells like wet dog."
Aran turned his gaze on Collin, eyes hard. "Get out of my sight."
Collin shot him an irritated glance before standing in a huff, shouldering past Ryan. Aran turned back to the wolf, jaw tight. "Where's Ana?"
The wolf swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing. "There's been an attack. Within your district. Five werewolves were taken down by vampires, and Ana was one of them."
Anger painted Aran's face hot. "Define 'taken down'."
"Drank from, almost drained," he breathed. "No deaths, but ... one is nonresponsive. They're taking him to the hospital now."
"Doesn't make sense," Isabela said in a voice so low Aran could scarcely hear her. He agreed.
"Where's Jackson?" Aran asked. The local pack leader was a good man, and sometimes a good friend.
The wolf averted his gaze. "He's begun his own investigation."
Aran stood, quick enough to make the wolf lurch back in surprise. "Tell me where you need me."
"That's — I —" He chewed his cheek. "I can't."
Aran's gaze narrowed. "Why?"
"Our best tracker was among the ones attacked ... we can't have anyone disturb the scent before he's recovered ..."
The wolf's heartbeat was fear-quick, but not erratic. His reasoning was the truth.
That didn't make it less irritating.
Aran sat. "How many vampires? Did they identify any of them?"
"Three vampires, but they couldn't properly make them out."
Aran tapped his fingers. "When can I meet with the victims? I want to begin my search."
"As soon as possible. They said tomorrow night would do, sir."
Aran squinted. "That's nowhere near 'as soon as possible'. I could meet you all at first light if you wished." He clicked his fangs against his bottom teeth.
Comprehension of the sentence made the wolf pale. He opened and closed his mouth, but no words came.
So many of the wolves were faint of heart and stomach around vampires. Aran already missed Ana and Jackson, who gave his age reverence while also giving no shits.
"Tell the pack I'll meet them whenever they deem fit," Aran finally said. "Just have Jackson send me the details."
"Yessir," the wolf squeaked out. He sputtered a few steps backward, attempted a couple of spastic bows, and turned on his heel to run out of the bar.
Aran felt Ryan raising his eyebrows at him.
"What?" Aran breathed without looking at him.
"Do you really have to flaunt your age at those wolves every chance you get?" Ryan finally sat, sliding into the booth across from him and Bela. "I know you have an official alliance with the pack, but you know most of them still think us monsters."
"We're all monsters," Aran said. "It's best they remember." He closed his eyes. "Five wolves taken down by three vampires. No one saw them, no one died." He opened his eyes and picked up his wineglass.
"Certainly not your standard hate crime," Ryan said. "What kind of vampire attacks five wolves and doesn't kill them?"
Aran swirled the crimson around the basin, watching the color rise and recede. He looked at Ryan over the rim of his glass. "Someone trying to undermine my diplomacy."CHAPTER 3
Ana traversed the corridor with long strides, her steps echoing off white tile and teal walls. Sunlight filtered through open windows and vacant rooms. With the breeze, it felt more like springtime than summer.
A sign beside a door hailed room 209, and Ana's feet came to a stop. The door was cracked, but inside was quiet. She pushed it open, immediately recognizing Chase's bent back over the hospital bed. He turned to look at her.
Morgan was in front of him, eyes closed and chest moving with steady breaths.
She rounded the bed without saying anything, perching against the windowsill. Chase was still in a dirtied cut-off shirt and dirtier work boots. Judging by the dried sweat on his brow and the granola bar by his feet, he'd come during his lunch break.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Echoes"
Copyright © 2019 L.A. Ashton.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
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