Well, hell. He'd thought he'd found a retreat here in Llandudno--a pretty, though unremarkable, Welsh seaside town, a place he'd known all his life. The perfect place for some rest and recuperation. But even here Rhodri Tryfanwy could sense the presence of evil. Perhaps he'd been at this game too long, and he was imagining the pervasive odor of bad guy. But the day he doubted his instincts was the day he resigned from Department 57--and maybe the day he decided to go back to being unobserved and unobtrusive, a vampire living in a world of mortals, just trying to keep anyone from noticing him.
Fuck that. Although exhausted, he could still smell fresh trouble. It lingered in the air of this place--a restaurant by day, a bar by night, set up in what had once been the town's main cinema. He could still remember those days, which was why he liked it here. They hadn't changed much of the interior, apart from ripping out the rows of plush seats, replacing them with tables and chairs, and putting a bar down the long side of the room. He liked the way the designers had left the original structure, reminding him of its original purpose. The smell of cigarette smoke, pease pudding, and popcorn--enough to turn anyone's stomach--wreathed around his senses, tempting him to close his eyes and just relax, because it was here that had that unique combination. He'd grown up with that smell, and nothing else reminded him of his childhood so vividly. That was what he'd come here for, after all.
But now the sharper tang of something wicked had spoiled his gentle, reminiscent dream. He glanced around. He'd chosen his seat with care, in a corner of the room below the raised dais that used to be the stage. A large poster of Llandudno replaced much of the space where the screen used to be, and he sat below that, watching the clientele and their patterns. He didn't need to take blood yet, but he would soon, and already his sixth sense was selecting potential prey. Someone fit and healthy, someone suggestible.
He smiled, and toyed with the pint glass in front of him, turning it on the coaster. He couldn't drink any of it now, but he'd downed half of it fifteen minutes ago, before the sun went down. Like other vampires, he could tell to the second when the sun dipped below the horizon, because he ceased to be a mortal at that moment and came into his true nature. He didn't live totally by night; he was a powerful man, strong enough to cope with daylight and the threats it brought.
That scent, that sense prevailed. Evil, tingeing his thoughts, edging his mind in black. He growled low in his throat when he realized he couldn't locate it. Too vague, too shimmery. He needed Esti now. The perfect everything. Woman, Sorcerer, ice queen... He couldn't think of anything Esti wasn't perfect at. Tall, blonde, impeccably dressed, and someone who could take a man's mind apart faster and with more efficiency than anyone else he'd ever met. He'd spent the last year obsessed with her, and he probed the memory now, like prodding a sore tooth with his tongue. Esti, beautiful in a silk gown. Esti, eyes gleaming with power. Esti, forcing a smile.
Esti, with a soul as icy as her eyes.
It didn't hurt as much. It really didn't. He'd done the right thing, coming here, forcing a separation from Team Crystal. They were on hiatus anyway, having lost track of their quarry--the rare creature known as a metamorph that they knew as Geoffrey Wilkinson--and trying a long-shot plan. No doubt they'd call him when they needed him, but for now he was under orders to rest. Thank Christ.
He didn't feel rested. First his totally unwanted obsession with Esti Hart. Then his pursuit of Wilkinson that had brought him to the point of exhaustion. Then the news from Llandudno, that he had family business to see to--he could really do with an island in the middle of nowhere without Internet or telepathic access. That was about the only way he'd get any peace for any length of time.
He sighed and stared at his beer. If he drank it, he'd get deathly sick. A shame, because he could do with a drink right now.
A breath skimmed his mind, dissipating the touch of evil he was trying to trace. That was the nearest he could come to describing it.
He looked up and saw a vision approaching him. Or, no, approaching the increasingly rowdy crowd of men at the next table. They'd been here for a while now, drinking solidly, getting louder as the hours went by. They'd never make midnight. It was barely eight now. He hadn't seen this waitress before. Perhaps she'd just come on duty. He let his mind drift, touching hers without seeming to do it deliberately, much as a person would gaze with seeming aimlessness. Then he sharpened and did a mental double take.
Surely not her. There was a Talent nearby, a well-disguised one. Someone with their mind firmly closed to contact. He couldn't tell if he was in the presence of a shape-shifter, a vampire, or whatever fucking Talent sat out there. Waiting for him.
He huffed a mirthless laugh. This job was making him paranoid. Maybe the Talent preferred not to be known, simple as that. Some people tried to ignore what they were, others refused to accept it, and yet more preferred a quiet life. It could be one of those or a number of any reasons. His training had made him hyperaware of people around him, but that didn't mean they were after him. And he kept his inner thoughts well hidden, his outer layer open to anyone who asked, but otherwise silent. He had a "let me alone" aura set around him. He should just leave well alone.
Too late. He could no more do that than he could fly. He watched her from under half-closed eyelids. Like a fairy in this place, tiny, barely five feet, her form as ethereal as he'd ever seen, and when she glanced nervously at him, he got a flash of her blue eyes. Heavenly blue. Jesus, what was she doing here, around those bastards? They'd eat her alive.
But she skipped around them, brandishing the small circular tray that seemed to be her only weapon. Except for him. He tried to tell himself he'd watch out for any woman around a bunch of men in this state. Well, sure he would, but maybe not with as much attention. Or as much interest.
One of the men lifted his hand and swung it at her as if to swat her backside, but skimmed past, raising a breeze and making her knee-length skirt flutter. She wore a summer skirt in some pale color, but since the lights here were biased toward the warmer end of the spectrum, he couldn't tell the precise hue. She'd teamed it with a pale shirt. Nothing too overt, but on her it looked sexy as fuck.
All the men laughed, and she smiled, but it was tight-lipped and wary. She grabbed a pencil and pad from her skirt pocket and waited. "You want anything to eat? It's snacks only now, guys."
"Yeah, we know. Another round will do." While the men outlined what they wanted, Rhodri watched her. More than pretty, she stood poised with an unconscious grace that called to him. She'd tied her hair back in a messy ponytail. Strands of it haloed her face. She wore a little makeup. He discerned the sheen of lip gloss and a dark gleam of eye shadow, but her skin glowed with health. Midtwenties, maybe. He felt so old.
But he watched her. Her spine tensed as one of the men pushed his chair back and gave her a visual once-over. "Very nice," he drawled. "Would you call me a chauvinist if I asked you if I could buy you a drink after work?"
"No, but you'd have to wait awhile."
"For you I'll wait." He grinned.
Rhodri grated his teeth, but he couldn't say anything. So far it was all harmless flirting. But this guy was only after what he could get. So who was he, Rhodri Tryfanwy, to say that? Who was the last woman he'd stuck with?
It was like watching himself a hundred years ago. Oh, the language was a bit different, and the approach too, but he'd had his share of women in his time. Had them and moved on. Maybe that was what annoyed him. He knew better now and only went with women not looking for anything other than a transitory good time. But he'd tired of that too, and he had to make an effort to remember the last time he'd had sex. Must have been--five years.
A chill went through him. How had it gone that long? Everyone knew vampires were hot-blooded, passionate creatures. Yes, that was true. He was, but he'd channeled all his passion into his job recently.
He'd lost the urge. He didn't have a private life these days. He lived in hotels, dressed in clothes he didn't care about, dumped them without a second thought, rented cars. Nothing permanent, not anymore. Maybe that was why he found his visit to his old stomping ground so dispiriting. He should move on once he'd taken care of business.
His attention wandered back to the woman. She left, walked to the bar. He breathed a sigh of relief and stared morosely at his beer. He should leave. And then what? Maybe he could choose one of the jerks at the next table. He could give whoever he chose a high when he fed, leave his victim with a vague memory of kissing a man. That would unnerve the bastard. Yeah, he should really feed. He'd wait until they left, follow, and pick one off.
But that edge of evil still remained. He couldn't tell if it was another Talent or something else. It was annoyingly there but vague, pricking at the edge of his mind.
He shifted, stretching his feet out before picking up his beer and making a show of taking a drink. Not that he allowed a drop to pass his lips, but over the years he'd grown good at faking it.
One of the jerks at the next table kicked his foot. "What are you looking at?"
He put down his glass, carefully arranging it on the beer mat. "Should I be looking at something?"
"Not if you want to keep your balls."
Nice. Eight pints meant aggression, and ten meant facedown on the pavement. At least he could get a hit from the alcohol his potential prey had drunk before his system processed the blood. It didn't take long, sadly. He could do with some kind of hit right now. He wasn't looking forward to going back to his hotel.
Maybe he should pick up the challenge after all and track down the evil lurking here. It would give him pleasure to tear somebody apart. No, he was better than that. He snorted. Who was he kidding? No, he wasn't, but he'd rather not draw attention to himself.
He shrugged and changed the direction of his observations. He heard the sniggers from the next table but didn't respond to them. He remembered his father saying, "It takes a real man to take an insult and walk away." Not that he necessarily believed that, but in this case, he got the sense of his words. Unfortunately his father had believed them all the time.
"Drinks, gentlemen." She'd returned. Despite his determination not to get involved, his protective instincts roared to life. Old-fashioned, maybe, but they didn't call them instincts for nothing. He could no more control them than he could control turning vampire after sundown.
Ribald laughter and jokes ensued while she put the brimming glasses on the table.
"Gentlemen, eh? Wanna see how a gentleman can make you scream?" "You could give us more than drinks, love." "How about a kiss on account?" "Maybe if you undid a few buttons, we could leave you a great tip."
"Leave her alone." He couldn't let this be. This fairy was no match for five strapping men, probably in Llandudno for a dirty weekend, but since he didn't see any women with them, they most likely planned to pick them up here.
Immediately attention turned to him. "Hey? What business is it of yours?" To his shock, the men didn't say that. She did.
He raised a brow. "I was only trying to help."
"Well, don't," she snapped, but it was too late.
Two of the men had stood, and they faced him, belligerence and joy limning their features. Rhodri guessed why they looked joyful. A woman and a fight would just make their Friday night.
"I knew he was trouble," one said.
The other rolled up his sleeves. He was wearing a button-front shirt--maybe had come straight from work, by his appearance--but his tie had gone, the end sticking out of the pocket of what looked like suit trousers. "I told you not to get involved."
His first swing was wild, and Rhodri stepped aside. Sadly his would-be assailant didn't go sprawling but swung with his other hand and caught Rhodri a painful blow on the side of his head.
Rhodri responded, but his response was by no means wild. He fended off the third blow and clipped the man under his jaw, a nice clean strike that snapped his head back and sent him staggering. He slumped, but Rhodri couldn't enjoy his success because he was too busy dealing with the second guy.
Shit, why did he get into these scenes every time he came home?
Now someone arrived to help him. A barman, built like the proverbial brick shithouse, stood at the back of the group, each beefy hand occupied by the collars of the two men at the back of the group. "I can't let you have any more to drink, sirs," he said in a thick Welsh accent. "We'd love to see you tomorrow night, but for now you'd best take your custom elsewhere. This is the biggest bar in the town. You don't want to blot your copybooks right at the start of your stay, now do you?"
Rhodri would have enjoyed seeing the barman deal with the awkward customers, but his first opponent had come up swinging. He blocked the punch and this time managed to catch the fist and twist, forcing Office Man to turn around. Then it was an easy matter to push his hand halfway up his back and effectively immobilize him. Before he could retaliate, Rhodri leaned forward and spoke into his ear. "You won't fight anymore. You never really wanted to in the first place. Did you? Go home; get some rest. You can have a good time tomorrow."
The gentle suggestion he planted in the man's mind was enough. His taut muscles relaxed under Rhodri's hand, and when he released his arm, the guy took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair as he gave the barman a sheepish shrug. "You're right. Come on, guys."
Wait. There were five. He and the barman had taken care of four. He turned, and then he saw her. She'd dropped the fifth man somehow and stood over him. Rhodri wanted to applaud. But she gave him a distinctly unimpressed look, her mouth turned down, her eyes cynical. "You men. You think size is everything, don't you?" Unlike the barman, her accent was faint but gave her voice a lilt Rhodri found distinctly sexy. So his libido wasn't completely dead after all. Nice to know.
"You do martial arts?" He let her see how impressed he was. And relieved.
She shrugged. "I might." She jerked her thumb back, indicating her beefy colleague. "I keep telling Dave I don't need all this protection. I can take care of myself." "And you're not the only vampire in Llandudno."
That rocked him as nothing else had. The Talent he'd detected? It had to be her, surely. Talents were more prevalent than most mortals suspected, but not that numerous. "Sorry." He communicated the same way she had, telepathically. "But you hid your sigil."
"So did you." He heard the exasperation in her mental voice as easily as in her physical one. "What's your name?"
He felt a jolt of recognition, but he couldn't sense any more. She spoke to her colleague. "Shall we see these gentlemen off the premises? Then if it's all right with you, Dave, can I have an early night?"
"It's Friday, Cerys. We'll be swamped in a couple of hours. I can't spare you."
They looked busy enough now, but he knew how people rushed into the nearest watering hole to stock up before closing time. Especially on a Friday night. Clubbers would drink in places like this to avoid the extortionate prices they'd have to pay later. "I'll help. I used to work behind a bar." He wanted to talk to her, needed to.
Dave sniggered. "We'll talk about it when we get these jokers out. Come on, gentlemen."
The ambulant one staggered, and he forced the other to his feet and frog-marched him out. He might have missed a meal, but he had landed in a much more intriguing place. Feeding could wait.
Dave turned to him, offered his hand. "Thanks for your help."
"Want some help behind the bar?"
"I don't know you."
He hadn't expected her--Cerys--to say anything. He'd offered out of sheer boredom and a definite interest in the ethereal Cerys, especially now that she'd come out to him.
He had no idea other vampires existed in Llandudno. Until he'd left, he'd only known one. Him.
Cerys gave him a smile, a mere baring of her teeth. "He's a Tryfanwy."
Dave stared at him with new interest. "I thought the last Tryfanwy died last month."
Rhodri shrugged. "My family left here a long time since. Looking for work, they were. They found it. But when old Gareth died, the lawyer looked for relatives and found me."
"So where have you been?"
"Around. London, New York. My job takes me to a few places." Anywhere Cristos or Will Grady sent him. He worked from New York for Cristos usually, but a recent operation had drawn him back to England. The rest was true. The lawyer had contacted him about Gareth Tryfanwy's estate. He grinned. "I don't know why he bothered, except that he needed someone to tie up his loose ends. Once the estate is sorted out, there won't be much left."
"He was in debt?"
No, of course he wasn't. Rhodri had seen to that, even if he'd done it from a distance. "Not really. I get the house, apparently. Pretty little place, if a bit run-down." To say the least. Gareth had been a collector. Newspapers and old bean cans were his specialty.
The two staff left at the bar were coping, but already the place was fuller than it had been when he arrived. "Shouldn't we get to work?"
"Five pounds an hour, cash. You sign the book when you're done," Dave said. Meaning he wouldn't use his real name, and he'd get the five an hour without deductions. Otherwise he could demand minimum wage. Five an hour was almost half that. As it happened, money was the least of the attractions in working behind the bar in a place like this. His background, his training urged him to discover more about the place, and what better way than to act in a role that many people hardly noticed? The fact that he'd be closer to the woman who'd fascinated him from the minute he'd seen her was only a byproduct. Didn't matter at all.
Sure it didn't.
"Thanks." Did he look that indigent? He was sure he didn't, but maybe Dave thought he'd come back out of desperation. Hardly. Which made him wonder something else. Why was she working here? Vampires weren't usually short of money. His mentor had always said, "Show me a poor vampire, and I'll show you an idiot." They had family, and anyone who couldn't make enough money to be comfortable in the first hundred years of their existence had to be doing something wrong.
Maybe she liked it. Or maybe she had a thing for Dave. Big, strong motherfucker like that had to be attractive to women.
He'd find out. It would enliven his so-called vacation.