A Curse Awakened - Chapter One
A Curse Awakened
There are many reasons a gal can expect a call from an ex-boyfriend―he misses said gal, still loves her, wants her back, can’t live without her.
I heard: “Celia, you have to help me. Vampires want to eat me and my dad.”
Welcome to my world.
I held the phone away from me for a second and stared at it like it was a killer bee about to sting, then returned the antiquated piece of black plastic to my ear. “Ah, Danny?”
It wasn’t like I didn’t know it was him. Even without my supernatural hearing, his shaky, terrified voice was as recognizable as his crazy steel-wool hair my sisters used to gape at. I debated whether to hang up. We were moving in a few days, leaving Jersey and all its memories behind to start new lives. Too much bad had happened to us here. It was time for something good. But I couldn’t bring myself to hang up and disconnect him from my life. This was Danny. Without his academic help, I’d have flunked out of nursing school and my sisters would have ended up back in foster care.
“Celia, please help me.”
I grimaced, knowing this would only lead to pain and torture, mainly mine. “Where are you?”
“In Warren, at my dad’s. But it’s not safe. Can I meet you somewhere near your place?”
My claws protruded as I tapped the old battered Formica counter. I withdrew them with a great deal of effort. “How long will it take you to get to that old soccer field three blocks from me?” I whispered.
“I can meet you there in twenty.” He let out a breath. “Thanks, Celia.”
I leaned on the doorframe separating the kitchen from our tiny family room. My younger sisters were rushing around the small space, boxing up everything we’d planned to donate to charity and oblivious to my conversation. “Don’t thank me yet. I’m not making any promises.” I returned the phone to the charger, keeping my sisters in my sights. Agreeing to meet him was my second mistake; the first was answering the damn phone.
Shayna scrunched her pixie face when she caught my hardening expression. She abandoned the box she was loading with old clothes and adjusted her sleek black ponytail. “Who was that? And why do you look so down, dude?”
“It was Danny.”
Her grin lit up the dim room. “Danny Matagrano?” I nodded. “How’s he doing?”
“Lousy. Vampires are trying to eat him.”
Emme paused from folding a pair of old sheets, her hands lowering along with her slacking jaw. “How did he . . .” She swallowed hard and tried to speak clearly. “I-I thought those things mostly hung out in the bigger cities. Like New York.”
I shrugged. “I guess they decided to check out Jersey. Either that or they came here specifically for him and his father. He wasn’t clear. All he said was that he needed help.”
Taran continued wrapping knickknacks in newspaper as if I hadn’t spoken. Too bad her swearing under her breath gave away her exact thoughts. “Well, sucks to be him―literally. Send him some garlic, say a couple of Hail Marys on his behalf, and wish him well. This is so not our business. Vampires. Freaking vampires. This goddamn world is so messed up.”
I tucked a strand of my long wavy hair behind my ear. “I told him I’d meet him at the old soccer field in twenty minutes. I can’t just―”
Taran threw her box on the floor with enough force to crack the ceramic trinkets she’d wrapped. She stormed up to me and shoved her face in mine, her blue eyes ablaze with her hidden fire. If I were anyone else, she would have throat punched me. “Four days, Celia!” she yelled. “That’s the time we have left in this state. Four days and we’re outta here―new life, new jobs, new home. This is not the time to go looking for trouble!”
“I’m not looking for trouble!” I growled.
My tigress’s eyes replaced my own. My vision sharpened―making everything and everyone clearer―an asset every predator needs to hunt its prey. Taran cringed, edging away from me, and so did my sisters. I lowered my gaze and breathed slowly, withdrawing my inner beast and soothing her as best I could. She didn’t want to hurt my sisters, and neither did I. But my anger was often the whip that riled her―and me―into a manic phase that searched for blood.
And the last time I let her loose, she got that chance to bite.
I opened my eyes when my breathing slowed and the blood racing through my veins ceased pounding against my eardrums. Embarrassed by my lack of control, I walked into the kitchen and stood near the glass door leading out to the large yard. My eyes scanned the well-groomed grass. I’d mowed it that morning while Emme saw to the pretty flower beds where we’d finally scattered our foster mother’s ashes. Ana Lisa had loved her tiny house, and would’ve wanted us to stay. But Taran was right, it had been years since Ana Lisa lost her battle with cancer and now, it was time for us to move on.
Long skinny arms wrapped around my waist. Shayna was braver than her perky demeanor would ever reveal, but she also recognized that I’d reined in my beast. At five foot five she was two inches taller than both me and Taran, and exactly five inches taller than our Emme. She placed her chin on my shoulder. “You’re getting stronger, Ceel,” she whispered. “It didn’t take you long to tame that kitty cat of yours.”
Shayna meant well. But her optimistic attitude didn’t adequately describe my state of being. “If that were true, she’d never come out to play without my permission.” I turned to face them. “I―we—could never hurt you. I hope you know that. But sometimes, when she wants to break free, it is to do harm. Except there’s no one around to send her after . . . at least not anymore.” Not since I killed the men who’d killed our parents. We hadn’t had much, but the gang members who’d broken into our home robbed us of our most precious asset—our beloved mother and father.
Taran huffed and squared her shoulders when my voice trailed and she caught traces of my guilt. “You need to get over that, Ceel. Those bastards deserved everything that beast of yours unleashed.”
It was easy for Taran to say. She hadn’t heard the men begging for their lives. She hadn’t slashed their throats or watched them bleed, listening for their hearts to stop beating so she could finally walk away. Their voices stayed with me, screaming for mercy during my worst nightmares. And those nightmares were brought on by stress. So, between the strain of selling the house and our decision to become traveling nurses, my prey had visited me every night that month.
I shoved my feet into an old pair of sneakers by the sliding glass door, not wanting to dwell on those I couldn’t bring back. “I’d better go meet Danny. He should be at the field soon.”
Taran rolled her eyes and adjusted her tiny cropped shirt. “Fine, but not without us. The last thing I want is you straddling his skinny ass and making skinny-ass babies.” She swore again since, well, that’s how she rolled.
“I’m not straddling Danny,” I insisted. “What we had was sweet, but it’s very over.” I grabbed the house keys and marched out with my sisters behind me. I held open the door, waiting for everyone to scamper out. As I jiggled the old lock to the door, Emme tugged on the edge of my wolf T-shirt I’d purchased on a recent trip to the Bronx Zoo. I had a soft spot for wolves.
“Um, Celia, you said what you and Danny had was ‘sweet.’”
I continued to fiddle with the sticky lock, trying to pull the key out without breaking it. “That’s right.”
“Well, forgive me for being nosy, but didn’t you and he . . .”
I withdrew the key, blushing a little, though it was probably hard for others to tell given my olive skin tone. Sex with Danny had consisted of awkward hand movements and one or two thrusts. Not exactly the stuff of bedroom legend. In all fairness, that was almost seven years ago, back when I was seventeen, he was nineteen, and neither of us had any experience. “We did, but it’s not like it was love or anything.”
Emme didn’t seem to understand, mostly because she still had her heart set on happily-ever-afters. “Then why did you do it?”
“I thought it was time.” I walked down the two little wooden steps. “It was a stupid reason, but I’m glad it was him. He was good to me. He was good to all of us.”
I must have spoken loud enough for Taran and Shayna to hear. Taran knitted her dark brows, drawing attention to her startling blue eyes. “He was, until he dumped you when he left for Stanford. Damn it, Ceel. I’m still pissed at him for that. I mean, you were totally Bambi. Danny? Hell, he was a walking Bullwinkle at best.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but Taran was sort of right. Danny was a lot of things: adorable, kind, and smart enough to get into Stanford for biochemistry. And it still hadn’t been enough. He wasn’t strong, physically or emotionally, not really. My weight topped out at a little over a hundred pounds, yet I could knock his lanky frame and a few linebackers on their asses. In Danny’s defense, he didn’t possess the inner beast I did. But maybe that was my problem. I was too “Hulk” and he was too human.
We crossed the street and walked into the small alleyway separating the neighborhoods. “I don’t want you to be mad at him, Taran. He didn’t break my heart,” I said quietly. “He hurt my pride, but that’s about it.” I rubbed my arms, remembering the day we broke up. He cried while I stood there listening and trying to make sense of his actions. I’d thought he really liked me . . . and maybe that was the cause of his tears. “He was right, you know―about not being the guy I needed. I didn’t understand then, but I do now.”
“Then what kind of man do you think you’ll end up with?” Emme asked softly.
Shayna and Taran slowed their steps, knowing Emme had hit a raw nerve. They all dated. Men rarely glanced in my direction. And if one did, he instinctively took several long steps back. Humans couldn’t see my tigress, but they knew something dangerous lurked within me.
And they were right.
“I don’t know if I’m meant for anyone, Emme.”
Her fair and freckled face heated, despite the cooling air. “I think you are. But I also think you need to believe it’s possible.”
We crossed the next street, where a few kids played Wiffle ball. “Freaks,” one of the more daring boys shouted, before running off at the sight of my glare.
“Eat shit, you little bastard!” Taran called after him. Her stare drifted to each of us. “I’m so tired of these punks and this damn state. I can’t wait to get the hell out of here.”
No kidding. As nurses we should’ve been in high demand, but children weren’t the only ones who sensed we were different. If it hadn’t been for our foster mother begging the director of the nursing department to let me into the program at the tender age of sixteen―and then practically blackmailing her former manager to hire me after I graduated two years later―I wouldn’t have landed a decent job. Taran, Shayna, and Emme had an easier time because of their beauty and ability to portray gentler, more trusting sides. No matter how soft I tried to make my husky voice, or how professional I came across, humans could sense my inner monster, waiting for the chance to claw and nibble. Thankfully, our traveling-nurse jobs had only required phone interviews.
We crossed onto the small path that led into the old soccer field as swirls of orange and red painted the sky. Dusk at the end of September brought an almost immediate chill. My tigress kept me warm enough, but my sisters needed to button their sweaters.
My old canvas sneakers crunched the dry grass of the overgrown lot. This was once a well-kept soccer field, until the county could no longer afford to maintain it. A sign near the edge proclaimed the land sold. In another month, construction on a new townhouse complex would begin. Just what Jersey needed, more homes erupting over a tiny plot of land.
On the opposite side, a white Ford F-150 rolled to a stop over the cracked asphalt.
Danny cut the lights and motor. The encroaching darkness shadowed his face inside the truck’s cab, but I still caught his lanky shoulders slumping with relief when saw me. Poor guy probably couldn’t put on muscle if he tried. I smiled. I couldn’t help it. Scrawny, awkward, or not, it was great to see the guy who’d been more than a boyfriend. He’d been an actual friend.
My grin widened. That’s probably why I didn’t nut-punch him when he dumped me.
We walked slowly toward him, until Danny threw open the driver’s door and stumbled to the ground.
From one blink to the next, I was kneeling beside him and pulling him into a sitting position. Blood dripped from a makeshift bandage wrapped around his knee.
“I’m okay,” he choked out.
“No, you’re not, Danny.” My small fingers reached to gently touch the skin beneath the black frames of his thick glasses. I bit back a swear. Swollen purple skin reduced Danny’s right eye to a mere slit and the scent of dried blood seeped from his nostrils. “Vampires?”
“Yeah. They weren’t nice.”
My sisters sprinted toward us. Emme and Shayna screamed over Taran’s barrage of cursing, this time in Spanish. Taran pointed as more blood oozed from his leg. “Son of a bitch. Were you knifed?”
“No. They had claws.” He looked at me. “Sort of like Celia’s, only straighter. They could elongate them like their fangs.”
Emme gasped. “Fangs?”
Shayna pried her eyes from Danny’s injuries long enough to answer Emme. “Well, they are vampires, Em.”
“Their fangs seem to be pointier,” Danny added, putting pressure on his wound. “No offense, Celia.”
“None taken.” I motioned Emme closer when blood seeped between Danny’s fingers. “Try to seal the wound.”
She nodded and reached to hold his hand. “I won’t be able to mend it completely, but I can try to stop the bleeding, okay?”
He nodded. With her small hand carefully covering his, her soft yellow light spread from her fingertips until it enclosed them both. Danny scrunched his face in agony, sweat dripping down his forehead.
“Does it hurt?” Emme asked.
“It burns . . . a little.”
No, it burned a lot. Emme had tried to heal me once. Once. I’d cut my finger chopping lettuce and I could swear she was pouring acid on my hand. If not for my obvious need for stitches, I’d have taken my chances. She’d gained her power to heal and move objects when she reached puberty―the same time Taran and Shayna had acquired their powers. Cuts and bruises faded easily from Emme’s skin pretty much from the moment she sustained them. All it took was a little concentration. It didn’t hurt her to tend to her own injuries. But us? Let’s just say she hadn’t quite mastered her touch.
She kept her eyes closed as Danny squirmed beneath her. “Just a little more. I’m right at the bone.”
Danny jumped so hard I practically caught him in my arms. Something snapped. “Oh, shit,” Taran gasped. “Did she break his bone?”
Emme whipped back her hand, her skin blanching with fear. “Did I?”
I pulled the dressing off his leg. “No. The bandage ripped when he jerked.” I used the clean side to wipe his thigh. Emme had sealed the wound. The skin appeared mangled but the bleeding had stopped. With time, hopefully the skin would smooth out. Hopefully.
I took in his state. Emme’s efforts had also diminished the swelling to his eye. His injuries were barely noticeable now, but it didn’t erase the fact that those vamps had pounded my poor defenseless friend. “Where’s your dad?”
Danny bowed his head. “They took him―the vampires. He’d been acting funny on the phone over the last few months, but he’d grown worse. When he didn’t return my calls last week, I thought maybe he was sick and not telling me, so I flew out from California.” He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes as if too tired to continue. “That was two nights ago. I found him pale, distraught, and acting bizarre. He kept saying the Mafia was after him and we needed to run.”
“Son of a bitch.” Taran stopped her agitated pacing. “The Mafia?”
Danny shook his head. “No. He mistook them for Mafia, but I think at best they’re vamps with Mafia ties. There’s this female among them that seems fixated on my father. I think she’s been drinking from him. It’s odd. She’s odd. The whole thing is . . . odd.”
Shayna grimaced. “You mean aside from her drinking blood?”
Danny tried to stand. “Yeah. I don’t know if vampires can be mentally ill. From what I’ve researched so far, they’re immune to diseases. But nothing I’ve read mentions anything about being immune to insanity.”
I steadied him with my hand. “Why have you been reading up on vamps? I mean, I know since you’ve learned about us, you’ve been curious, but . . . I’m not a vampire.”
He sighed, watching me with his dark sad eyes. “Believe it or not, I thought I could help you. You and your sisters have something special.”
“Ah, no, we don’t.” Taran glared his way. “At best we’re atom bombs ready to detonate.” As if to make a point, a puff of blue and white smoke from her fire popped and sizzled above her head.
Danny returned the glasses to his face. “I don’t agree. There’re not a lot of books available here in the U.S. about the supernatural―the real kind, I mean―weres, witches, vamps, those types of beings. But I’ve purchased a few ancient volumes from old libraries in Europe, where most legends stem from actual truths. I haven’t been able to find much about what you are or what you could be. In fact, I’m positive you’re different from any race of humans or preternaturals on earth.”
“Yay for us,” Taran muttered.
Danny offered a sympathetic smile. “One thing I have learned a great deal about are curses and magic in general.” His gaze skipped to each one of us. “I think you’re all in a bind.”
“No shit,” Taran snapped. “I’m surprised we haven’t killed each other.”
Danny held out a hand. “No, that’s not what I mean. I think you’ve been bound―in the magical sense. Sort of like a noose or tie that holds your powers back, and therefore your control.” He focused on me. “Celia, I think you can manage your powers best because your tigress gives you added strength. Picture a pit bull on a leash. You’re going to pull harder against it than another, smaller breed, making it harder to hold you back.”
Shayna inched forward. “Um, Danny, maybe you should watch the dog references. I understand what you’re trying to say, but Taran’s a little touchier.” She motioned to Taran with a jerk of her head. “Know what I mean, little guy?”
Taran narrowed her eyes, proving Shayna’s point.
Danny’s mouth popped open. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to insult you, ladies.”
I barely heard his apologies, my ears honing in on the rumble of two motors. Two cars entered the dead-end street leading to the field and to us. The roar of their engines didn’t sound familiar or appropriate for the area. We were in blue-collar territory and these vehicles were definitely not your standard beaters. And instead of slowing down when they entered the narrow street, they sped faster, like cheetahs who’d found a herd of wounded gazelles.
My tigress growled a warning. Taran’s blue eyes blanched to white, her magic sensing another’s approach.
Danny jerked around upon seeing the first car barrel up the small incline. “It’s the vampires. Run!”
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