By Alicia Dean
Sebastian Cordell left his dark, empty home and headed deep into the woods. As usual, he was restless, filled with too many memories and no longer able to stand his own company. The nighttime suited him. The darkness and density of the woods helped hide his disfigured face…his evil soul.
Light from a full moon sifted through spidery branches of the winter trees. In the distance, the howl of a werewolf filtered to him. He’d learned to recognize the difference between a true wolf and a Lycan. The sound of a Lycan was much more eerie… more haunted.
Frigid wind bit through his coat, but he welcomed the pain. Pain made him aware he was still human, that his heinous act from a year ago today hadn’t rendered him the demon he knew himself to be. The soft ground gave beneath his feet. Tree limbs whipped against him as he plodded through the thickets, scratching his exposed flesh. Again, welcome sensations. He was alive, although he had no right to be.
The sound of music and cheerful voices interrupted his self-recrimination. He peered between the trees where a faint light shone. As if he had no control of his own body, his feet took him toward the light…toward the sound. From the edge of the woods, he stood, staring at Dracula’s mansion. The vampire was apparently hosting a party tonight. Guests in colorful finery exited vehicles and made their way up the path to the door.
Sebastian was about the step back, to fade into obscurity when a particular guest caught his attention. His heartbeat sped up, and he nearly called out her name…but she wasn’t Jessica. She only looked like his former fiancée. Dark hair framed her pale face, a face that was eerily similar to Jessica’s. She wore a black cloak and beneath it, the skirt of an emerald green gown floated around her. The woman paused for a moment and glanced in his direction. He slunk back behind a tree, pulse pounding. Had she seen him? He didn’t know, but he knew one thing, he had to see her. Had to get a closer look at the woman who resembled the she-devil who destroyed his life.
Natalie caught her breath and whirled toward the copse of trees at the edge of the property. Some…force compelled her to turn, though she hadn’t actually seen or heard anything. Her gaze sought out the source of the odd feeling. She squinted against the snow that drifted down and nearly obscured her vision. Nothing. She chuckled and shook her head. Just an overactive imagination. The search for her missing sister had made Natalie hyper-sensitive. She’d conjured up a multitude of dire scenarios; Jessica had been involved in a horrible accident and had amnesia. Or, she’d been murdered, her body buried so deep, she would never be found. But the idea vying for first place in Natalie’s dire picture of her sister’s fate; Jessica’s cheating ways had caught up to her and some enraged, scorned man was keeping her hostage, torturing her little by little each day until she finally learned her lesson.
The truth was most likely something much simpler. Jessica, who had never been exactly loyal to her family, had decided to shut them out. Her refusal to answer Natalie’s calls and emails was just one of the self-centered ploys she used to punish her loved ones for some imaginary wrong. Whether or not Jessica’s disappearance was voluntary, Natalie was determined to get answers. A year with no contact from her sister was not so unusual, but something about this time felt…different…unsettling.
Taking a deep breath, Natalie turned away from the woods and back to the mansion. The home was a three-story monstrosity—she giggled, monstrosity was accurate since it belonged to Dracula, a real live—correction, not so ‘live’—vampire. She’d learned of the ball when she’d taken the key from the hotel clerk and touched the man’s hand. He hadn’t told her about the party, but thanks to her gift-slash-curse, she’d read his thoughts upon contact with him. A party such as this one was the perfect place to find her wayward sister. A hand shake here, a drink there, perhaps even a dance or two would be enough interaction to learn something. If not, she’d traveled thousands of miles for nothing.
No...that wasn't going to happen. She refused to believe this trip was fruitless. She would not leave until she learned Jessica’s fate.
Natalie headed up the walk, casting one last glance over her shoulder to the woods. A shudder ran through her she couldn’t explain, any more than she could explain why she felt like she was on the brink of a precipice, one that would change her life forever.
Just over an hour later, Sebastian strode to the door of Dracula’s opulent manor wearing a black tux and pale blue shirt. His strategic black mask hid the top three quarters of his face. The event was not a costume party, but he’d be damned if he would show himself—his true self—in public. Which begged the question, what the hell was he doing here? He had called himself all kinds of a fool for coming tonight, but no matter how much he’d argued, his heart had won, and here he was.
When the door opened, Sebastian gave the butler a curt nod, then strode through the foyer into the ballroom. He scanned the crowd. Igor moved amongst the guests, holding a tray of champagne. Sebastian was surprised Dracula allowed the sadly repellent creature to be seen by his guests, but silently applauded the vampire. Perhaps Dracula saw past a person’s outer self. Although in Sebastian’s case, the inner self wasn’t any more appealing. He scowled away the thought
Weaving through the crowd, he ignored the curious glances cast at him. He rounded the room twice, but his mystery woman was nowhere to be seen. Debating whether to leave or give it a few minutes, Sebastian made his way toward the balcony for badly needed fresh air. He had been a recluse this past year and being around so many people stole his ability to draw a breath. He eagerly swept open the balcony doors and stepped out—and saw her. Her profile faced him. The full moon wrapped her in its glow, her features clearly defined. Smooth, pale skin and red, kissable lips.
He almost called out Jessica’s name, but stopped himself in time. He must have made a sound, though, because she turned an alarmed gaze on him. Her hand flew to her chest, and she gave a self-conscious laugh. “Oh my, you startled me.”
Her beauty stole his breath as effectively as the crowd had, and it took a few moments before he could speak. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“You didn’t frighten me. I just thought I was alone.” She gestured to the opaque glass door that separated them from the partygoers. “I was feeling claustrophobic, so I came out here, relieved to find the balcony empty.”
He smiled. “It’s not all that surprising no one else is out here, considering the temperature is barely above zero.”
She laughed again—a dazzling sound that had his knees threatening to buckle. Her blue eyes sparkled, and her features alit with delight. She was a sight to behold. He experienced a brief, insane moment of wishing he could spend the rest of his life making her laugh, putting that glow on her face.
She did resemble Jessica but not as much as he’d first thought. She had Jessica’s coloring and her figure—without the cloak, every perfect curve was revealed—but in her face he saw kindness and intelligence that had been absent in Jessica. Funny how he just now realized it. He’d been so blinded by love for his fiancée it had taken seeing this woman—a version of what Jessica could have been, what he’d thought she was—for him to realize she hadn’t been worth the trouble. Hadn’t been worth carrying the guilt of murder around with him all these months.
Sebastian took off his coat and stepped toward the woman. The scent of vanilla and lilacs rose to his nostrils, sending heat rushing through his blood. He pushed back an urge to step closer, to sweep her up in his arms, taste those delectable lips. Instead, he draped the coat over her shoulders. “Here. Do you wish to freeze to death? I’m Sebastian, by the way.”
“Natalie,” she said, accepting the coat. “Thank you.” She glanced to the doors. “I suppose I should go back inside.”
He bit his tongue to keep from begging her to stay. What in God’s name was happening?
In spite of her intent to go inside, Natalie remained rooted in place. There was something intriguing about this man. She wanted to know why he wore a mask, who he was, what would it feel like to touch him…
She shook her head. What an insanely inappropriate direction her mind had taken. This man was a stranger…a masked stranger. She should be afraid…or at least wary. But found she was neither.
“Music is playing.” His voice was deep, raspy. “No sense letting it go to waste.” He held out a hand. “Perhaps a dance will warm you?”
As if her heart tugged her forward, she was powerless to resist. Something unexpected and magical was taking place, and she had no idea why or what. But she wanted to explore it, to see what developed, hold onto the sensation as long as she could.
Sebastian took her hand and placed his on the small of her back. She moved across the snow-dusted balcony in his arms, lost in the strains of “Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz,” lost in the dark eyes behind the mask.
He put his lips to her ear. “You feel like Heaven and smell like a floral garden.”
Goosebumps pricked her skin that had nothing to do with the cold. Her breath stalled in her chest. “Thank you,” she managed through a dry throat.
He didn’t move away. His face was so close that if she turned, ever so slightly… Before she could stop herself, her head tilted so that their eyes met and their lips were almost touching. His hold on her tightened, his ebony eyes glittered, and then he dipped his head, and his lips fused to hers with an explosion of desire that had her clinging to his broad shoulders. His mouth was firm and warm, and she moved closer to him, seeking a deeper connection, wanting more of this crazy beautiful feeling.
“Let me see your face,” she whispered against his mouth.
His muscles tensed beneath her hand and he drew back, shaking his head. “No, please don’t ask that of me.” His raspy tone took on a note of desperation. “Let me have this night. I’m certain there will never be another. I’ll never again feel the way I feel now.”
She studied the entreaty in his gaze, then nodded and rested her head on his chest, listened to his heartbeat. Seconds ticked by in their wintery cocoon. Natalie was so consumed by the strange and wonderful joy coursing through her, it took a moment to register what her gift was relaying. Then the images assaulted her…Jessica. This man knew Jessica…had been intimate with her… She felt his rage…felt his blind fury as his hands closed around the fragile neck…
With a cry, Natalie wrenched away, backing until she bumped the balcony railing.
Sebastian’s mouth turned down in a frown. “Natalie? What is it? What’s the matter?”
“You!” Grief and anger strangled her voice. Her heart plummeted into her stomach. She nearly went to her knees with the weight of her sorrow. “You killed her. Oh my God…Jessica.”
He’d been heading toward her, but he halted. “How do you know Jessica?”
She snorted a humorless laugh. “Because, she’s my sister.” Agony squeezed her chest. “You monster! You murdered my sister.”
“You—you’re Jessica’s sister?” He stepped back and shook his head. “I should have known this was too—” He cut off in mid-sentence and stared at her, his eyes bleak. “I didn’t kill Jessica. She is very much alive, but regardless, you have a right to hate me. I am an evil man.”
A desire to believe him warred with the knowledge that her visions had never been wrong. ”What happened to Jessica?”
After a brief hesitation, he said, “We were to be married. But she fell in love with another man and left me. Left the country.”
“I don’t believe you.”
The corner of his mouth quirked. “Apparently, you do not know your sister very well.”
Ignoring his sarcastic—yet accurate—statement, Natalie lifted her chin. “I’m calling the police.”
He gave a wry grin and reached inside the jacket of his tux, pulling out a cell phone. “Would you like me to dial for you?”
“Go to hell,” she bit out. She swept past him, trying to stem the flood of tears.
Just before she reached the door, a surge of anguish—of someone else’s anguish—washed over her. It was as if she’d touched someone, although she and Sebastian were the only ones on the terrace. “Who’s there?” The words trembled out of her.
“You can see me?” a man’s voice responded.
She looked around. No one. “No, I can feel you. Your pain. What’s the matter? Who are you?” She shook her head in disbelief. “You’re…invisible?”
“Natalie?” Sebastian spoke behind her. “What’s happening?”
Ignoring Sebastian, she searched the night for the source of the voice.
A deep, tortured chuckle carried to her. “My name is Rengal Fisher. I lost the love of my life a decade ago. She’s here tonight. It is our one last chance to be together. But if she can’t see me, we shall never connect.”
In spite of her own grief, sympathy for this poor soul gripped her. “I’m sorry. I wish I could help. I can talk to her. Let her know you’re here.”
“No, I’m afraid she still has to be able to see me. She’s a witch, and she can cast a spell, but in order to do so, she must see me.”
“What about this coat?” She realized she still wore Sebastian’s coat and she shrugged it from her shoulders. Sebastian had grown silent behind her, which suited her fine. “Wear this and she can locate you.”
“It doesn’t work that way. There needs to be at least a hint of magic to the object. Otherwise, it will disappear along with me.”
Impossible…his plight was impossible. “I wish there was something I could do.”
“I realize it’s quite hopeless,” he replied forlornly. “Thank you for your concern.”
With a quick nod, Natalie whispered, “Good luck,” then rushed through the balcony doors.
Sebastian’s contact with vampires and werewolves had made him immune to surprise at the existence of the unknown. Apparently, Natalie had encountered an invisible man. A man badly in need of assistance.
”I can help you,” Sebastian said. “I can’t see you, but I know a way for you to be seen.”
Summoning his courage, Sebastian gripped the edge of his mask. A gypsy had cursed it after the accident. She’d warned him he’d always remember his evil deed, always feel the effects of his horrendous act. For the remainder of his days, the spell she cast on the mask would fill his dreams with images of the life he’d stolen. It worked exceedingly well.
“This has a touch of magic,” he said, then chuckled. “Not exactly good magic, but magic is magic, right?”
The thought of parting with his crutch was as torturous as his dreams. He should have rid himself of the mask long ago, but he deserved its curse….and she deserved to be remembered.
His grip grew clammy. Could he really give up its protection? There was only one way out, and that was through the ballroom. People would see his repulsive countenance. But he’d done enough bad in his life. Perhaps it was time he did something good. He jerked the mask from his face and extended it outward. “Here, take this, let her find you.”
Sebastian waited a beat, thankful he couldn’t see the man’s expression of revulsion. His pulse rate accelerated when the mask was tugged from his hand, then rose in the air.
“Thank you,” the voice said.
Sebastian nodded. “Don’t screw this up. Sometimes one shot is all we get at love. You were lucky enough to be granted a second chance.”
Inhaling a deep breath, Sebastian stepped into the ballroom. Ignoring the stares, the gasps, the murmurs, he forged through bodies toward the exit.
He was unable to draw a full breath until he reached the night air. Was Natalie part of the crowd? Had she seen him? Was she now more disgusted, or had she already fled after a glimpse at his hideous soul? It didn’t matter. It was done. He would never see her again.
His heart hammered. At first, hope soared, but when he recognized the speaker, the weight of sorrow settled in his gut.
“Candi,” he said softly to her ghost. He’d robbed Candace Cupardé—Cupid—of her life. Since he’d been the one to kill her, he was the only human who could see her, hear her. And he’d done so daily in his dreams. “I’m so sorry. If I could switch places with you…”
The blonde pixie shocked him by smiling. “You were hurt, enraged, not in your right mind.” Her voice lowered. “You’re a good man, Sebastian. You deserve love.” She lifted her bow and nocked an arrow.
He held up a hand. “No need for that, but thank you. I’ve fallen deeply and irrevocably in love already. But I am afraid it is hopeless. She despises me.” He gave a self-deprecating grin. “And that’s without seeing what I really look like. Can you imagine her horror if she did?”
A soft grin touched her pink lips. “If she is worthy of your love, she won’t be horrified.”
“Well, I suppose we’ll never know.” He winked. “Thank you, Candi. And if it’s possible in your…realm…I hope you find the love you deserve.” He executed a slight bow. “Goodnight.” He turned and strode over the snow-covered lawn. As much of a prison as his home had become, he couldn’t wait to be back inside its four walls. Sometimes, a prison was also one’s sanctuary.
Natalie pressed against the wall of the alcove and sobbed. Her sister was dead. How could Natalie be romantically drawn to the man who murdered her? Now she must find Jessica’s body so she could take her home to her final resting place. But that fiend wouldn’t admit to his crime, so how was she to prove it? Tell the police she ‘sensed’ he’d committed murder? They would laugh her out of the country.
Natalie stopped, sucked in several breaths to calm herself. She needed to think. Sebastian claimed Jessica ran off with another man. Could that be true? Knowing Jessica as she did, it was a definite possibility. Natalie should have kept her touch on him a moment longer, rather than panicking. She should have looked at the full picture. He’d admitted to something horrible, but maybe his crime was not killing her sister…
Without warning, a jolt pinged her chest. A delicious ache, an undeniable, uncontrollable urge to find Sebastian enveloped her.
Natalie rushed to the front door and jerked it open. Dracula’s party lights illuminated the large yard. She peered through the falling snow and spotted Sebastian, striding across the lawn toward the woods. She lifted her skirts and flew down the steps.
Mindless of the deepening snow, she reached him and latched onto his arm. “Sebastian!”
He stopped but didn’t face her. She kept hold of him, and images once more assailed her. This time, she saw a blond, angelic female, adorned with wings and a bow shaped like a heart. Her throat was captured in Sebastian’s large hands.
A stone of sadness settled in Natalie’s stomach. “Cupid? You killed Cupid.”
Without turning, he said, “How did you find out?”
“I have a—gift. I see pictures, sense things when I touch someone.”
He inclined his head forward. “Then you know how evil I am. Release my arm and leave me be. You’ll never have to see me again.”
“Look at me, Sebastian.”
He whirled to face her, and she gasped as the depth of his pain seared her.
His dark eyes blazed with anguish. “Perhaps your vision did not give you the entire story. Let me fill in the blanks. Cupid’s arrow pierced Jessica’s heart. My fiancée fell in love with another man.” A grim smile touched his firm lips. “Although Jessica likely would have done the same without Cupid’s help, I was out of my mind with pain, I acted without thought. I killed Candi…choked the life from her.” Tears strangled his voice. “Once I realized what I’d done, I was tormented by grief and guilt. I jumped into my car and sped away, over icy roads towards the cliff. My car plunged over. Unfortunately, it didn’t kill me. Instead, it made me what I am now.” He barked a sardonic laugh. “Although I am aware I deserve much, much worse.”
Sympathy and…love?...washed through her. His suffering tugged at her soul. “Everyone does things they’re not proud of. I know you’re sorry for what you did.”
His jaw clenched. “That doesn’t exactly erase it, though, does it?”
Her gaze roamed his face. Jagged white scars ran from the corner of his right eye, over his cheek bone to his jaw line. Puckered pink scars marred the flesh on his forehead. The left side of his face was oddly untouched…perfectly handsome. “What happened to your mask?”
He turned away. “Don’t look at me.”
She moved around to face him. ”Tell me what happened to your mask.”
He let out a heavy breath. “I…lost it.”
Natalie gripped his arm. He tugged but she didn’t let go. Her mind flooded with images of his encounter on the balcony after she left. “No, you didn’t lose it. You gave it to Rengal so his true love could find him.”
She released him and lifted her chin. “Your face is not nearly as scarred as your soul. You need to forgive yourself. To find happiness…love.”
“Is that so?” A bitter laugh burst from him. He took hold of her shoulders and yanked her close to him, close to his damaged face. His dark eyes were tormented, his voice hoarse. “What if I told you that I love you? That the only way I can find happiness is in your arms? Preposterous, right? Someone as hideous as I with a beauty like you? So do me, and yourself, a favor. Just let me be.” He shoved her away and turned, but she grabbed his arm and tugged him back, making him look at her.
She slid her fingers over the scarred side of his face. He flinched beneath her touch but didn’t pull away. “You’re beautiful,” she whispered. “And, I know it sounds crazy, since I met you no more than an hour ago, but I love you, too.”
He frowned at her for a moment, his disbelief apparent. Then a smile lifted the corners of his mouth, and he shook his head. “How could someone like you ever love someone like me?”
She gave him a saucy grin. “I’m just lucky I guess.”
Thank you for visiting the OKRWA Halloween blog. We hope you enjoy the stories. For more information on me, visit my website at: AliciaDean.com You can follow me on twitter at: @Alicia_Dean_