The aroma of freshly baked croissants from the bar across the street reached my nostrils, waking me from a fitful slumber. The usual nightmare had kept me company during the night. Dark shadows, infernal shrieks, and the oppressive sensation of being forced down to the mattress. Absentmindedly, my hand rose to my throat, and my fingers circled two minuscule twin scars.
I stared at the wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling of my bedroom for a few seconds before my eyes could focus on the ancient fresco painted above. The turquoise night sky and the golden stars had faded with time, but the painting was still beautiful. A romantic ballad blared from the neighbor’s attic, cutting the quiet of the morning with its haunting lyrics. Nothing like a double assault on my ears and nose to rouse me completely. The alarm clock on my nightstand blinked 6:30 AM. I groaned. It was too early to be up, but the room was already hot. September in Rome had never been so warm; it was as if the summer had just started. An AC unit would have helped. Too bad I barely had money to buy groceries, and no spare change to grab one of those sweet pastries.
Maybe I could yell at the neighbor for being an inconsiderate jerk. The last time I checked, that was still free, and it might have made me feel better, but besides being an inconsiderate jerk, Fabian Laurentis was also a vampire. Having a shouting match with a supernatural being who could drain me dry in a few gulps fell into the being-stupid category. I was lots of things: stubborn, impulsive, romantic, and poor—definitively broke—but stupid I was not.
Plus, the man was gorgeous, but every time I looked at him, a shiver ran down my spine.
On my way to the bathroom, my eyes lingered a moment too long on my antique mahogany desk. White and pink envelopes littered its surface; all of them bills, some overdue. A gust of wind scattered the papers, but I didn’t bother to pick them up. I imagined my aunt Marella complaining about my sloppiness. I missed her, my anchor in a stormy sea. It had been just her and me for a long time; I couldn’t believe she wasn’t around anymore. The strongest woman I’d ever known, she went to the doctor one day for a persistent headache, and she was gone a month later. Just like that.
In the bathroom, I followed my routine without thinking. One dollop of minty toothpaste on the toothbrush, then a thorough cleaning of my mouth. As usual, instead of looking at my sad reflection in the mirror, I leaned on the windowsill and watched the world go by several meters below my attic. From the building facing mine, the music had changed, and the newest summer anthem blasted from my neighbor’s radio. Instead of yelling that it was too early—or too late, depending on the side of humanity you belonged to—for pop tunes, I hummed along, swallowing some of the toothpaste by mistake. The song’s repetitive words and catchy melody would haunt the rest of my day.
Mrs. Laura, the octogenarian lady who owned the tobacco shop on the opposite side of the street, raised her pale blue eyes heavenward, complaining, “In the name of God, stop this awful racket at once!” She then lowered her voice to say, “Bloodthirsty heathen.”
I couldn’t hear her words but I read her lips, and besides, Mrs. Laura never missed an opportunity to voice her displeasure regarding vampires living in polite society. Like my aunt, she believed they should have never come out. No wonder Marella and Mrs. Laura had been close friends. Also, they didn’t seem to share my fear when it came to vampires. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have insulted him as often as they had.
The bloodthirsty heathen, who probably could hear Mrs. Laura just fine above the din of his stereo even if she whispered, didn’t seem to heed her words, and yet another summer hit filled the air.
“The horrible creature thinks he can do whatever he wants because he’s famous.” Mrs. Laura ended her repertoire with her most repeated remark about our neighbor’s biggest sin.
Fabian Laurentis was not only a vampire, he was also a famous actor. Both qualities were red strikes in Mrs. Laura’s book. I had listened to her and my aunt’s tirades enough times to know all the salient points against the handsome man living in the house in front of mine. The vampire had bought the Renaissance building known as Casa Borghese several years back and threw parties every other day when he was in town, which to my aunt’s delight didn’t happen often. As an actor, he traveled for his job, but he had just recently come back, and party season was in full swing again.
Because of my recurrent nightmare, I didn’t sleep well and spent much of my nocturnal time up on my roof terrace, which happened to face his, and I might have noted on a few occasions that he liked to play music when his girlfriends were loud. His current fling must have been very vocal, judging from the loudest compilation yet to date. For crying out loud, it was almost seven in the morning. What was the man made of, steel?
Vampires’ rumored stamina must be real, although their allergy to the sun wasn’t. Several blockbusters attested that Fabian could act during the day. What else about him was true? Or false?
Meanwhile, the volume of the radio had dimmed. So, the vampire had decided to humor Mrs. Laura after all.
As if summoned by my thoughts, the actor in question appeared on the balcony. Dark-blond hair tussled and shirt opened to the front revealing fine abs, Fabian leaned over the waist-high parapet and regaled Mrs. Laura with a bright smile that was all white teeth and dimples, and yet it remained cold.
“I apologize for my guests, madam. I’ll have them behave,” he said. His words were polite, but like his smile, the glint in his eyes was emotionless.
Mrs. Laura’s face reddened as she choked on her retort.
The vampire then looked up and across the building, locking eyes with me. Unblinking, he studied me for a moment that stretched longer than I was comfortable with, but I couldn’t avert my eyes from his penetrating gaze and stood with my toothbrush raised halfway to my mouth. His brow raised, he gave me a slight nod, then turned as a giggling voice called him back.
The music resumed. When did it stop?
I stared in disbelief at his retreating form. Fabian Laurentis had just looked at me, and my knees felt like melting plastic. It was part excitement and part fear. Mostly fear. The man’s green eyes were mesmerizing, and I heard vampires could make you do things by just looking at you. It was called persuasion. I wondered if he had used his special power on me just now. Or maybe the truth was simpler; I was susceptible to his charm—millions of women were—and he didn’t need to coerce me to act like a fool. And that might be the real reason I feared him.
A new song started.
Such an idiot. I went back to the faucet to rinse my mouth. It must have been my overactive imagination, but I thought I heard moans amidst the song chorus. The man didn’t waste time. In truth, I was both curious and jealous. What would it feel like to be the lover of a man like Fabian Laurentis? Not a man, a vampire, I reminded myself—as if I needed the reminder. Had I fallen for the bad boy spiel like so many women did? How could I be attracted to a man who scared me?
“I don’t even know what I’m talking about,” I whispered to my reflection. Plain Stella looked back at me; average in every possible way with my medium height and weight. Even my complexion was a boring combination of hazel eyes and light-brown hair—that kind of brown shade that was known as Italian Blond because it became lighter, almost flaxen, in the summer. I wasn’t ugly, just unremarkable, which might explain my lack of experience when it came to the opposite sex.
At the tender age of twenty-five, my only brush with making out with a boy had happened a lifetime ago. My only kiss had been memorable, in the sense that I still remembered how awful the boy’s mouth had felt on mine. His hands had heavily clutched my sides, then moved up and down like paws. I forgot the boy’s name, though. We met at one of my mother’s friend’s summer parties at the Austrian Embassy. I was sixteen. Soon after that party, my life changed forever. No friends, social life, or anything funny. Just Aunt Marella, my studies, a house full of memories, and debt, as I discovered much later.
The song finished on a high note, followed by silence. My mind supplied images of Fabian kissing his friend goodbye. He would now go to sleep after a night of debauchery. Did he need to sleep?
I sighed, staring at the mirror. As I had told myself countless times, a vampire was too much for me—especially one as frightening as Fabian Laurentis—but would I ever experience a man’s kisses? His caresses?
Nowadays, my dire situation didn’t allow for any exploration of my wild side. And besides, did I have one? Surviving was my priority. I needed to find yet another job if I hoped to keep the family house. Not that I didn’t already work myself into the ground, but nothing seemed to help when it came to paying bills on time. I was forever late.
Sunrays warmed the back of my head, reminding me that the heat would get unbearable in a few hours. I’d better reach Piazza Navona before the commuting crowd filled the Roman streets, polluting the morning air and adding to the general discomfort. I so much preferred autumn and winter when the air was crisp, and the smog wasn’t so bad.
One quick shower, and I was out of my prestigious home in the heart of Rome. A block away from Trevi Fountain, Casa Colonna had been in my family since one of my ancestors commissioned it for his favorite. Gone were the castle and the country manors the Colonnas owned, and Aunt Marella’s Lake Como villa lay in a shamble. Only the city house remained intact, more or less.
Lately, every time I left the building, I looked back at its grand wrought iron gate with mixed feelings. For the second time that morning, a shiver went through my spine, but it was dread, not excitement, that caused it. How long before I was late one time too many on a payment?
Swinging the heavy messenger bag I carried to the front, I checked its contents. Brushes and acrylic colors slid as I rummaged inside the canvas sack, looking for the pewter miniature objects I collected for my Slice of Life sculptures. Only one bottle of glue was left, and I would need to buy another before the end of the day, but it would suffice for the time being. I checked all my shadow boxes were safely tucked inside the container on the back of my bike and secured it with a rusty lock.
“Hi, Stella,” Mrs. Laura called from her shop. A cigar between her trembling fingers, she waved her hand at me, scattering ashes all over her dark blouse.
“Hi, Mrs. Laura.” I waved back, then unlocked the wooden door of my garage.
Once a cellar, the ground-floor garage now served only as storage for my bicycle and a few empty wooden boxes. I didn’t like to dwell on the reason those boxes contained only dust, its precious cargo of antique china sold one item at a time.
Still, my eyes cut to the vampire’s building, and I couldn’t help but wonder what would it be like to live forever and accumulate so much money that you’ll never want for anything?