- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
- All the Possibilities
- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
Shane's lips felt like velvet against the nape of her neck, and Claire shivered in delight as his breath warmed the skin there. She leaned back against him with a sigh. Her boyfriend's body felt solid and safe, and his arms went around her, wrapping her in comfort. He was taller than she was, so he had to bend to rest his chin on her shoulder and whisper, "You sure about this?"
Claire nodded. "You got the overdue notice, didn't you? It's this or they come to collect. You don't want that."
"Well, you don't have to be here," he pointed out - not for the first time today. "Don't you have classes?"
"Not today," she said. "I had an oh-my-God a.m. lab, but now I'm all done."
"Okay, then, you don't have to do this because you're tax-exempt."
By tax-exempt, he meant that she didn't have to pay . . . in blood. Taxes in Morganville were collected three ways: the polite way, via the collection center downtown, or the not-so-polite way, when the Bloodmobile showed up like a sleek black shark at your front door, with Men in Black - style "technicians" to ensure you did your civic duty.
The third way was by force, in the dark, when you ventured out un-Protected and got bitten.
Vampires. A total pain in the neck - literally.
Shane was entirely right: Claire had a legal document that said she was free from the responsibility of donations. The popular wisdom - and it wasn't wrong - was that she'd already given enough blood to Morganville.
Of course, so had Shane . . . but he hadn't always been on the vampires' side, at the time.
"I know I don't have to do it," she said. "I want to. I'll go with."
"In case you're worried, I'm not girly-scared or anything."
"Hey!" She smacked his arm. "I'm a girl. What exactly are you saying? That I'm not brave or something?"
"Eeek," Shane said. "Nothing. Right, Amazon princess. I get the point."
Claire turned in his arms and kissed him, a sweet burst of heat as their lips met. The lovely joy of that released a burst of bubbles inside her, bubbles full of happiness. God, she loved this. Loved him. It had been a rough year, and he'd . . . stumbled, was the best way she could think of it. Shane had dark streaks, and he'd struggled with them. Was still struggling.
But he'd worked so hard to make it up - not just to her, but to everyone he felt he'd let down. Michael, his best (vampire) friend. Eve, his other (nonvampire) best friend (and Claire's best friend, too). Even Claire's parents had gotten genuine attention: he'd gone with her to see them twice, with exit permission from the vampires, and he'd been earnest and steady even under her father's stern cross-examination.
He wanted to be different. She knew that.
When the kiss finally ended, Shane had a drugged, vague look in his eyes, and he seemed to have trouble letting go of her. "You know," he said, moving her hair back from her cheek with a big, warm hand, "we could just blow this off and go home instead of letting them suck our blood. Try it tomorrow."
"Bloodmobile," she reminded him. "People holding you down. You really want that?"
He shuddered. "Hell, no. Okay, right, after you." They were standing on the sidewalk of Morganville's blood bank, with its big cheerful blood-drop character sign and scrupulously clean public entrance. Claire pecked him lightly on the cheek, escaped before he could pull her close again, and pushed the door open.
Inside, the place looked like they'd given it a makeover - more brightly, warmly lit than the last time she'd been in, and the new furniture looked comfortable and homey. They'd even installed a tank full of colorful tropical fish flitting around living coral. Nice. Clearly, the vampires were trying to put forth their best efforts to reassure the human community, for a change.
The lady sitting behind the counter looked up and smiled. She was human, and sort of motherly, and she pulled Claire's records and raised her thin, graying eyebrows. "Oh," she said. "You know, you're entirely paid up for the year. There's no need - "
"It's voluntary," Claire said. "Is that okay?"
"Voluntary?" The woman repeated the word as if it were something from a foreign language. "Well, I suppose . . ." She shook her head, clearly thinking Claire was mental, and turned her smile on Shane. "And you, honey?"
"Collins," he said. "Shane Collins."
She pulled out his card, and up went the eyebrows again. "You are definitely not paid up, Mr. Collins. In fact, you're sixty days behind. Again."
"I've been busy." He didn't crack a smile. Neither did she.
She stamped his card, wrote something on it, and returned it to the file, then handed them both slips of paper. "Through the door," she said. "Do you want to be in the room together or separately?"
"Together," they chorused, and looked at each other. Claire couldn't help a bit of a smirk, and Shane rolled his eyes. "She's kind of a coward," he said. "Faints at the sight of blood."
"Oh, please," Claire said with a sigh. "That does describe one of us, though."
The receptionist, for all her motherly looks, clearly wasn't sympathetic. "Fine," she said briskly. "Second door on the right. There are two chairs in there. I'll get an attendant for you."
"Yeah, about that . . . Could you get us a human?" Shane asked. "It creeps me out when a guy's draining my blood and I hear his stomach rumble."
Claire punched him in the arm this time, an unmistakable shut up, and gave the receptionist a sunny smile as she dragged him toward the door that had been indicated. "Really," she said to him, "would it be that hard just to not say anything?"
"Kinda." He shrugged, then opened the door and held it for her. "Ladies first."
"I'm really starting to think you are a scaredy-cat."
"No, I'm just flawlessly polite." He gave her a sideways glance, and with a curious seriousness said, "I'd go first in any fight, for you."
Shane had always been someone who best expressed love by being protective, but now it was deliberate, a way for him to make up for how he'd let his anger and aggression get the best of him. Even at his worst he hadn't hurt her, but he'd come close - frighteningly close - and that lingered between them like a shadow.
"Shane," she said, and paused to look him full in the face. "If it comes to that, I'd fight beside you. Not behind you."
He smiled a little, and nodded as they started moving again. "I'd still jump in front of the first bullet. Hope you're okay with that."
She shouldn't have been, really, but the thought, and the emotion behind it, gave her another little flush of warmth as she walked into the room. Like the rest of the human side of the collection center, the space felt warm and comfortable. The reclining chairs were leather, or some vinyl approximation. The speakers overhead were playing something acoustic and soft, and Claire relaxed in the chair as Shane wriggled around in his.
He went very still as the door opened and their attendant stepped inside.
"No way," Claire said. First, their attendant was a vampire. Second, it was Oliver. Oh, he was wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard and looked vaguely official, but it was Oliver. "What exactly is the second in command of vampire affairs doing drawing blood?"
"Yeah, and aren't you needed pulling espresso at the coffee shop?" Shane added with a totally unnecessary edge of snark. Oliver was often found behind the counter at the coffee shop, but he wasn't needed there. He just liked doing it, and Shane knew that. When you were as (presumably) rich and (absolutely) powerful a vampire as Oliver, you could do whatever you damn well wanted.
"There's been flu going around," Oliver said, ignoring Shane's tone as he took out his supplies and laid them out on trays. "I understand they're short staffed today. Occasionally, I do pitch in."
Somehow that didn't quite feel like the whole story, even if it was true. Claire eyed him mistrustfully as he scooted a rolling stool up beside her and tied the tourniquet in place on her upper arm, then handed her a red rubber ball to squeeze as he prepared the needle. "I assume you're going first," he said, "given Shane's usual attitude." That was delivered with every bit as dry an edge as Shane's sarcasm, and Shane opened his mouth, then stopped himself, his lips thinning into a stubborn line. Good, she thought. He was trying, at least.
"Sure," she said. She managed not to wince as his cold fingers palpated her arm to feel for veins, and she focused on his face. Oliver always seemed to be older than many of the other vamps, though she couldn't quite pin down why: his hair, maybe, which was threaded with gray streaks and tied back in a hippie-style ponytail just now. There weren't many lines on his face, really, but she always just pegged him as middle-aged, and when she really stared, she couldn't say why he gave her that impression.
Mostly he just seemed more cynical than the others.
He was wearing a black tee under a gray sweater today, and blue jeans, very relaxed; it wasn't too different from what Shane was wearing, actually, except Shane managed to make his look edgy and fashionable.
The needle slid in with a short, hot burst, and then the pain subsided to a thin ache as Oliver taped it down and attached the tubing. He released the tourniquet and clamps, and Claire watched the dark red line of blood race down the plastic and out of sight, into a collection bag below. "Good," he said. "You have excellent flow."
"I'm . . . not sure how I feel about that, actually."
He shrugged. "It's got fine color and pressure, and the scent is quite crisp. Very nice."
Claire felt even less good once he'd said that; he described it like a wine enthusiast talking about his favorite vintage. In fact, she felt just faintly sick, and rested her head against the soft cushions while she stared at a cheerful poster tacked up on the back of the door.
Oliver moved on from her to Shane, and once she'd taken a couple of deep, calming breaths, she stopped studying the kitten picture and looked over at her boyfriend. He was tense, but trying not to seem it; she could read that in the slightly pale, set face and the way his shoulders had tightened, emphasizing the muscles under his sweater. He rolled up his sleeve without a word, and Oliver - likewise silent - put the tourniquet in place and handed him another ball to squeeze. Unlike Claire, who was barely able to dent the thing, Shane almost flattened it when he pressed. His veins were visible to her even across the room, and Oliver barely skimmed fingertips over them, not meeting Shane's eyes at all, then slipped the needle in so quickly and smoothly that Claire almost missed it. "Two pints," he told Shane. "You'll still be behind on your schedule, but I suppose we shouldn't drain you much more at once."
"You sound disappointed." Shane's voice came out faint and thready, and he put his head back against the cushions as he squeezed his eyes shut. "Damn, I hate this. I really do."
"I know," Oliver said. "Your blood reeks of it."
"If you keep that up, I'm going to punch you." Shane said it softly, but he meant it. There was a muscle as tight as a steel cable in his jaw, and his hand pumped the rubber ball in convulsive squeezes. Oliver released the tourniquet and clamps, and Shane's blood moved down the tube.
"Can I specify a user for my donation?" Claire asked. That drew Oliver's attention, and even Shane cracked an eyelid to glance at her. "Since mine's voluntary anyway."
"Yes, I suppose," Oliver said, and took out a black marker. "Name?"
"The hospital," she said. "For emergencies."
He gave her a long, measured stare, and then shrugged and put a simple cross symbol on the bag - already a quarter full - before returning it to the holder beside her chair.
Shane opened his mouth, but Oliver said, "Don't even consider saying it. Yours is already spoken for."
Shane responded to that with a gagging sound.
"Precisely why it's not earmarked for my account," Oliver said. "I do have standards. Now, if either of you feel any nausea or weakness, press the button. Otherwise, I'll be back in a few minutes."
He rose and walked toward the door, but hesitated with his hand on the knob. He turned back to them and said, "I received the invitation."
For a moment, Claire didn't know what he was talking about, but then she said, "Oh. The party."
"The engagement party," he said. "You should speak with your friends about the . . . political situation."
"I - What? What are you talking about?"
Oliver's eyes held hers, and she was wary of some kind of vamp compulsion, but he didn't seem to be trying at all. "I've already tried to warn Michael," he said. "This is unwise. Very unwise. The vampire community in Morganville is already . . . restless; they feel humans have been given too much freedom, too much license, in their activities of late. There was always a clearly drawn relationship of - "
"Serial killers and victims," Shane put in.
"Protector and those Protected," Oliver said, flashing a scowl at her boyfriend. "One that is of necessity free of too much emotional complication. It's an obligation that vampires can understand. This - connection between Michael and your human friend Eve is . . . raw and messy. Now that they threaten to sanction it with legal status . . . there is resistance. On both sides, from vampires and humans alike."
"Wait," Shane said. "Are you seriously telling us that people don't want them to get married?"
"There is a certain sense that it is not appropriate, or wise, to allow vampire-human intermarriage."
"It has nothing to do with race," Oliver said. "It has everything to do with species. Vampires and humans have a set relationship, and from the vampire standpoint, it's one of predator and prey."
"I still think you mean parasite and host."
Oliver's temper flared, which was dangerous; his face changed, literally shifted, as if the monster underneath was trying to get out. Then it faded, but it left a feeling in the room, a tingling shock that made even Shane shut up, at least for now. "Some don't want Michael and Eve to marry," he said. "You may take it from me that even those who are indifferent believe that it will go badly for all involved. It's unwise. I've told him this, and I've tried to tell her. Now I'm telling you to stop them."
"We can't!" Claire said, appalled. "They love each other!"
"That has exactly nothing to do with what I am saying," the vampire told her, and opened the door to the room. "I care nothing about their feelings. I am talking about the reality of the situation. A marriage is politically disastrous, and will ignite issues that are best left smoldering. Tell them that. Tell them it will be stopped, one way or another. Best if they stop it themselves."
"But - "
The door shut on whatever she was going to say, and anyway, Claire wasn't sure she really had any idea. She looked over at Shane, who seemed just as speechless as she was.
But he was, of course, the first to recover his voice. "Well," he said, "I told him so."
"Look, vampires and humans together have never been a good idea. It's like cats and mice hooking up. Always ends badly for the mouse."
"It's not vampires and humans. It's Eve and Michael."
"Which is different how, exactly?"
"It - just is!"
Shane sighed and put his head back against the cushions. "Fine," he said. "But no way am I breaking Eve's heart. You get to tell her the wedding's off, courtesy of the vampire almost-boss. Just let me know so I can put my headphones on the going-deaf setting to drown out the screaming and wailing."
"You are such a coward."
"I am bleeding into a bag," he pointed out. "I think I've achieved some kind of anticoward merit badge."
She threw her red rubber ball at him.
Not that Claire hadn't secretly seen all this coming.
She hadn't wanted to believe it. She'd been involved in all the party preparations - Eve had insisted. Between the two of them, they'd planned absolutely everything, from the napkins (black) on the tablecloths (silver) to the paper color on the invitations (black, again, with silver ink). It had been fun, of course, sitting there having girl time, picking out flowers and food and party favors, setting up playlists for the music, and best of all picking out clothes.
It had been only this week, as everything got . . . well, real . . . that Claire had begun feeling that maybe it wasn't all just fairy tales and ice cream. Walking with Eve downtown had turned into a whole new experience, a shocking one; Claire was used to being ignored, or (more recently) being looked at with some weird wariness - wearing the Founder of Morganville's pin in her collar had earned her an entirely unwanted (possibly undeserved) reputation as a badass.
But this week, walking with Eve, she'd seen hate close up.
Oh, it wasn't obvious or anything.... It came in sidelong glances, in the tightening of people's lips and the clipped way people spoke to Eve, if they spoke at all. Morganville had changed somewhat, in these past couple of years, and one of the most important changes had been that people were no longer afraid to show what they felt. Claire had thought that was a positive change.
At first, Claire had figured the dissing was just isolated incidents, and then she'd thought that maybe it was just the normal small-town politics at work. Eve was a Goth, she was easily recognizable, and although she was crushingly funny, she could also piss people off who didn't get her.
This was different, though. The look people had in their eyes for Eve . . . That had been contempt. Or anger. Or disgust.
Eve hadn't seemed to notice at first, but Claire detected a weakening in her usual glossy armor of humor about midway through their last shopping trip - about the time that an unpleasant lady with church hair had walked away from the counter while Eve was checking out with a bagful of stuff for the party. As she walked away, the Church Lady had reached out to mess with a stacked display of sunglasses, and Claire had caught sight of something odd.
The woman was too old for a tattoo - at least, too old for a fresh one - but there was a design inked on her arm that was still red around the edges. Claire saw only a glimpse of it, but it looked like some kind of familiar shape.
A stake. It was a symbol of a stake.
Another, younger lady had come hustling from the back of the shop to wait on Eve, flushed and flustered. She'd avoided meeting their eyes, and had said the bare minimum to get them out of the store. Church Lady hadn't bothered to look at them at all.
Claire had waited until they were safely out of earshot of any passersby before she said, "So, did you see the tat? Freaky."
"The stake?" Eve's black-painted lips were tight, and even in sunlight, her kohl-rimmed eyes looked shadowed. Her Urban Decay makeup normally looked really cool, but in the harsh winter sunlight, Claire thought it looked a little . . . desperate. Not just crying out for attention, but screaming for it. "Yeah, it's the new big thing. Stake tats. Even the geezers are lining up for them. Human pride and all that crap."
"Is that why - "
"Why the bitch refused to wait on me?" Eve tossed her black-dyed shag hair back from her pale face in a defiant shake. "Yeah, probs. Because I'm a traitor."
"Not any more than I am!"
"No, you signed up for Protection, and you made a really good deal at it, too - they respect that. What they don't respect is sleeping with the enemy." Eve looked stubborn, but there was despair in it, too. "Being a fang-banger."
"Michael's not the enemy, and you're not - how can anybody think that?"
"There's always been this undercurrent in Morganville. Us and them, you know. The us doesn't have fangs."
"But - you love each other." Claire didn't know what surprised her more . . . that the Morganville folks were turning on Eve, of all people, or that she wasn't more surprised by that herself. People were petty and stupid sometimes, and even as fabulous as Michael was, some people just would never see him as anything but a walking pair of fangs.
True, he was no fluffy puppy; Michael was capable of really bringing the violence, but only when he absolutely had to do it. He liked avoiding fights, not causing them, and at his heart, he was loyal and kind and shy.
Hard to lump all that under the vampire, therefore evil label.
An old cowboy, complete with hat and boots and a sheepskin-lined jeans jacket, passed the two of them on the sidewalk. He gave Eve a bitter, narrow glare, and spat up something nasty right in front of her shiny, high-heeled, patent leather shoes.
Eve lifted her chin and kept walking.
"Hey!" Claire said, turning toward the cowboy in an outraged fury, but Eve grabbed her arm and dragged her along. "Wait - he - "
"Lesson number one in Morganville," Eve said. "Keep walking. Just keep walking."
And they had. Eve hadn't said another word about it; she'd put on bright, fragile smiles, and when Michael had come home from teaching at the music store, they'd sat together on the couch and cuddled and whispered, but Claire didn't think Eve had told him about the attitudes.
Now this thing with Oliver, telling her outright that the marriage was off, or else.
Very, very bad.
"So," she said to Shane as they walked home, arms linked, hands in their pockets to hide from the icy, whipping chill of the wind. "What am I going to say to Eve? Or, God, to Michael?"
"Nothing," Shane said.
"But you said I should - "
"I reconsidered. I'm not Oliver's messenger monkey, and neither are you. If he wants to play Lord of the Manor with those two, he can come do it himself." Shane grinned fiercely. "I would pay to see that. Michael does not like to be told he can't do something. Especially something to do with Eve."
"Do you think - " Oh, this was dangerous territory, and Claire hesitated before taking a step into it. Filled with land mines, this was. "God, I can't believe I'm asking this, but . . . do you think Michael's really serious about her? I mean, you know him better than I do. Longer, anyway. I get the sense, sometimes, that he has . . . doubts."
Shane was silent for a long moment - too long, she thought - and then he said, "You're asking if he's serious about loving her?"
"No, I know he loves her. But marrying her . . ."
"Marriage is a big word for all guys," Shane said. "You know that. It's kind of an allergy. We get itchy and sweaty just trying to spell it, much less do it."
"So you think he's nervous?"
"I think . . . I think it's a big deal. Bigger for him and Eve than for most people." Shane kept his eyes down, fixed on the sidewalk and the steps they were taking. "Look, ask him, okay? This is girl talk. I don't do girl talk."
She punched him in the shoulder. "Ass."
"That's better. I was starting to feel like we should go shoe shopping or something."
"Being a girl is not a bad thing!"
"No." He took his hand out of his pocket and put his arm around her shoulders, hugging her close. "If I could be half the girl you are, I'd be - Wow, I have no idea where I was going with that, and it just turned out uncomfortable, all of a sudden."
"You like being a girl - that's good. I like being a guy - that's also good."
"Next you'll be all Me, Tarzan, you, Jane! "
"I've seen you stick arrows in vampires. Not too damn likely I'd be thumping my chest and trying to tell you I wear the loincloth around here."
"And you changed the subject. Michael. Eve."
He held up his left hand. "I swear, I have no idea what Michael's thinking. Guys don't spend all their time trying to mind-read each other."
"But - "
"Like I said. If you want to know, ask him. Michael doesn't lie worth a damn, anyway. Not to people he cares about."
That was true, or at least it always had been before. A particularly cold slash of wind cut at the exposed skin of Claire's throat and face, and she shivered and burrowed closer to Shane's warm side.
"Before you ask," Shane said, bending his head low to hers, "I love you."
"I wasn't going to ask."
"Oh, you were going there in your head. And I love you. Now it's your turn."
She couldn't help the grin that spread across her face, or the warmth that burst up inside her, a summer contrast to the winter's day. "Well, you know, I'm still analyzing how I feel, in my completely girly way."
"Oh, now, that's just low."
She turned, stood on her tiptoes, and kissed him. Shane's lips were chilled and a little dry, but they warmed up, and a lick of her tongue softened the kiss into silk and velvet. He tasted like coffee and caramel and a dark, spiced undertone that was all his own. A taste she craved, every day, every hour, every minute.
Shane made a pleased sound in the back of his throat, picked her up around the waist, and moved her backward until she felt a cold brick wall against her shoulders. Then he set about really kissing her - deep, sweet, hot, intent. She lost herself in it, drifting and delirious, until he finally came up for air. The look in his brown eyes was focused and dreaming at the same time, and his smile was . . . dangerous. "Are you still analyzing?" he asked.
"Hmmm," Claire said, and pressed against him. "I think I've come to a conclusion."
"Damn, I hope not. I've still got a lot of ways left to try to make my case."
Someone cleared a throat near them, and it was unexpected enough to make Shane take a giant step back and turn, putting himself between the source of that noise and Claire. Protecting her, as always. Claire shook her head in exasperation and moved to her right, standing next to him.
The throat clearing had come from Father Joe. The priest of Morganville's Catholic church was a man in his early thirties, with red hair and freckles and kind eyes, and the smile he gave them was only just a touch judgmental. "Don't mean to disturb you," he said, which was a lie, but maybe only a small one. "Claire, I wanted to thank you for coming to last Sunday's choir practice. You have a very nice voice."
She blushed - partly because a priest had just closely observed her thinking very impure thoughts about her boyfriend, and partly because she wasn't used to those kinds of compliments. "It's not very strong," she said. "But I like to sing, sometimes."
"You just need practice," he said. "I hope we'll see you again at mass." He raised those eyebrows at her, then nodded to Shane. "You're always invited, too."
"Thanks for asking," Shane said, almost sincerely.
"But you won't come."
"Not too damn likely, Father."
Claire continued to blush, because as Father Joe walked away, hands clasped behind his back, Shane had turned to stare at her. "Mass?" he echoed, raising his eyebrows. "Tell me you're not confessing, too."
"No, you have to be a real Catholic to do that," she said.
"So - what was the attraction?"
"Myrnin wanted to go." That said volumes, brief as it was. Claire's boss - a dangerously nuts vampire who was an utter sweetheart, most of the time, until he wasn't - was not a subject Shane really liked very much, and she hurried on as she saw his expression shift a little toward annoyance. "I went with him a couple of times as, you know, sanity control. But I'm more of a Unitarian, I guess. The church is nice, though. And so is Father Joe. Hey, did you know there's a Jewish temple in town, too, and a mosque? They're both really small, but they're here. I don't think the vamps are too welcome there, though."
"Just don't go telling him about, you know, anything personal. About us."
He buffed his fingernails on his coat and looked at them with an exaggerated smugness. "Me, embarrassed? Nah, I was just worried he'd feel bad about his celibacy thing."
"God, you are such a jackass."
"That is three times you've called me that in one walk. You need a new compliment." He tickled her, and she mock-shrieked and ran, and he chased her, and they raced each other around the block, down the street, all the way to the white fence around their not-very-attractive yard, up the walk to the big pillared porch of the peeling Victorian house. The Glass House, called that because the last (and current) owners were the Glass family - Michael being the last of that family still in residence. The rest of them were, technically, renting rooms, but over time Shane, Claire, and Eve had become Michael's family. As close as family, anyway.
As evidenced by the fact that when Shane opened the door, he yelled out, "Put your pants on, people; we are back!"
"Shut up!" Eve yelled from somewhere upstairs. "Jackass!"
"You know, when people say that, I just hear the word awesome ," Shane said. "What's for lunch? Because personally I am down two pints of blood and I need food. Cookies and orange juice did not cut it."
"Hot dogs," Eve's distant voice said. "And no, I didn't make chili. You'd just criticize how I make it. But there's relish and onions and mustard!"
"You're a princess!" Shane called back on his way to the kitchen. "Okay, a lame Goth half-dead princess, but whatever!"
Claire shook her head as she dumped her backpack on the couch. She was glowing and tingling from the run, and felt a little light-headed - probably hadn't been smart, doing that so soon after giving blood, but that was one thing you learned quick in Morganville: how to run even with blood loss. Shane wandered into the kitchen, and she heard things banging around for a few minutes. He came back with two plates, one with plain hot dogs, one with hot dogs buried under a mound of whatever that stuff was - onions, relish, mustard, probably hot sauce, too.
Claire took the plain plate. He dug a can of Coke out of his pocket and handed that over, too. "You're officially no longer a jackass," she told him, as he thumped down on the couch beside her and started shoveling food in his mouth. He mumbled something and winked at her, and she ate in slow, measured bites as she thought about what she was going to do about Eve.
Shane finished his plate first - not surprisingly - and took hers away into the kitchen, leaving her holding the second hot dog. He was gone - conveniently - when Eve came downstairs. Her poufy black net skirt brushed the wall with a strange hiss as she descended, like a snake's, and Eve did look poisonously fierce, Claire thought. A leather corset and jacket, skull-themed tights under the skirt, a black leather choker with spikes, and loads of makeup. She flung herself on the couch in Shane's deserted spot and thumped her booted feet up on the coffee table with a jingle of chrome chain.
"I can't believe you actually got him to donate without some kind of four-point restraint system," Eve said, and reached for the game controller. Not that the TV was on, but she liked to fiddle with things, and the controller was perfect. On her left hand, the diamond engagement ring twinkled softly in the light. It was a silver ring, not gold; Eve didn't do gold. But the diamond was beautiful. "You're going to be around on Saturday to decorate, right?"
"Right," Claire agreed, and took a bite of her hot dog. She was still hungry, and focused hard on the delicious taste to take her mind off what Oliver had said. "Anything you want me to get?"
Eve smiled, a happy curve of dark red lips, and dug in the pocket of her jacket. She came out with a piece of paper, which she handed over. "Thought you'd never ask, maid of honor," she said. "I had some trouble finding the right party supplies. I was hoping maybe you'd take a look . . . ?"
"Sure," Claire said. It was a long list, and she silently mourned the loss of her day off. "Ah - Eve - ?"
"Yeah?" Eve ran her hand through her shag-cut hair, fluffing it out into the appropriate puff ball thickness. "Hey, do you think this is too much for meeting with Father Joe?"
Claire blinked as she tried to put the image of Eve's combat boots and stiff net skirt into the same space with Father Joe. She gave up and said, "Probably."
"Awesome. I was going for over-the-top. That way, no matter what I wear to the party, it'll be a relief."
Eve had a logic all her own, and usually it was awesomely amusing, but right now, Claire was focused on something else. Shane wasn't going to like it, and truthfully she didn't much enjoy it, either, but she felt like she had to speak up. That was what friends did, right? Speak up even when it was hard.
"I need to tell you something," Claire said. There must have been something serious in her voice, because Eve stopped fiddling with the controller and put it aside. She turned, putting one knee up on the couch, and faced Claire directly. Now that she had Eve's undivided attention, though, Claire felt suddenly tongue-tied, and there was a suspicious absence of Shane as backup . . . and no sound from the kitchen. He was probably lurking on the other side of the door, listening.
Eve saved her from the unbearable tension by saying, in a very level voice, "Oliver talked to you, didn't he?"
Claire pulled in a deep, relieved breath. "You know."
"Oh, he's been dropping hints like atomic bombs for about a month now," Eve said. "Everything short of ordering Michael to call it off." Her dark eyes studied Claire's face, all too knowing. "He told you to tell us to call it off." Claire just nodded. Eve's lips slowly spread into a wicked smile. "See, I always wanted to turn this town upside down, and we are so doing that. I can just hear him now. Back in my day, humans knew their place. What's next, marrying cattle? Dogs and cats, living together."
Her impersonation of Oliver's accent and impatience was so dead-on that Claire burst out laughing, a little guiltily. She heard the kitchen door swing open behind her, and when she glanced back, she saw Shane standing there, arms folded, leaning against the wall as he watched the two of them. "So," he said. "Vamp Central Command doesn't want you guys getting hitched. What are you going to do?"
"Piss them off," Eve said. "You with me?"
Shane's smile was every bit as dark and wicked as Eve's. "You know it."
"See, I knew I could count on you for quality mayhem, my man." Eve settled her focus back on Claire again. "What about you?"
"I know you're friends with them," Eve said. "Lots more than me or Shane. This is going to put you in the middle. I don't like that, but it's going to happen."
"Oliver already tried to put me in the middle, but as far as I'm concerned, who you marry is none of his damn business," Claire said. "I just wanted to make sure you knew what was happening."
"And what about Amelie?"
"It's none of her business, either. This can't be the first time a human and a vampire got married."
They all jumped - Eve included - because Michael was standing at the top of the stairs, looking over the railing at them, looking casual and rumpled and fresh out of bed. His shirt was still half-unbuttoned.
"Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to eavesdrop." He kept fastening his shirt on the way down, which was - from a purely objective point of view, Claire thought virtuously - kind of a pity. "It isn't the first time a vampire and a human have gotten married in Morganville, and that's the problem." He was a tall boy - and, oddly for a vampire, he was almost exactly as old as he looked, which was frozen somewhere around eighteen. It was a weird thought, but Shane looked just a little bit older now than when Claire had first met him, and Michael didn't. And never would.
He settled into his usual chair, the one where his guitar was lying in its case next to it. He was like Eve; he had to have something to do with his hands, and in his case, his default was the guitar. He went for it immediately, and began picking out soft chords and notes, tuning the strings as he went.
"Well?" Shane said, and sat on the arm of the sofa beside Claire. "You can't leave it like that, man."
Michael glanced at him, a flash of big blue eyes, and then set his gaze at a safe middle distance. His music face, Claire thought, the one that he put up like a shield. One place he wasn't looking was at Eve. At all. And that just wasn't right.
"It was before my time," he said. "Back in the sixties, I guess, a vamp named Pavel hooked up with a girl named Jenny, and it got serious. They got married."
Silence, except for the steady, relentless whisper of his fingers on the strings of the guitar. Eve was staring at him intensely, and finally said, "You haven't told me this."
That broke through his shell for a second, and he glanced over at her, an apologetic and gentle look. "Sorry," he said. "I was trying to think how to do it, because it's not a happy ending."
"Didn't think it was," she said. Eve sounded very steady, very adult. "But every story's tragic somewhere along the way. You just have to know where to stop telling the story to make it a happy ending."
"Well, this one doesn't have any happy middles, either," Michael said. "They were married for about a month, and Pavel killed her. He didn't mean to do it; he just . . . couldn't cope."
"Why?" Claire asked. Michael raised his eyebrows, just a twitch, and got a very odd look on his face, as if he was trying to think how to phrase his reply.
Finally, he said, "He wasn't used to being around humans on a daily basis. In particular, not around girls."
"And she pissed him off?" Shane asked.
"Not exactly - you really don't want to know."
"Yeah," Shane said, frowning. "I kinda do."
Michael now looked truly uncomfortable. "There are times when it's hard to be around girls when you're a vampire. Look, don't make me draw you a picture, okay?"
"I don't - " Eve's face went blank, and she looked over at Claire. "Oh. Oh."
Claire shrugged, mystified for just another second, and then she got it, too.
Once a month. And vampires could smell blood.
She imagined her expression looked pretty much like Eve's.
Shane slowly sat down on the couch next to Claire. "That is . . . epically disgusting," Shane said, "and I don't think I will ever, ever get that out of my brain again, man. Thanks."
"Told you you didn't want to know," Michael said. "Anyway, Pavel didn't expect it, and he lost control and killed her. Then her family came after him and killed him. The vamps arrested her father and brother and executed them; some said they weren't even the ones who did it. It started the whole human underground resistance, and a bunch of them attacked the vampire districts and tried to burn them down. People and vampires got hurt; some got killed. Morganville was chaos for a while. It was bad."
They all let that sit in silence for a few seconds, and then Eve said, "And now, what? Amelie's afraid our story's going to end the same way? With her cleaning up the mess?"
"I don't want to hurt you," Michael said. He'd lowered his head while he was talking, focusing on his guitar, but now he looked up and directly at her, blue eyes clear and honest. "But we both know the risks, Eve."
"Honey, it's not the same thing at all. If you were going to snap, you'd have already done it - you've been living in a house with three heartbeats and two girls for how long now? You're not going to make a mistake, because you've already proved you know how to handle - this." She waved at them, the whole situation, everything. "You said it yourself: Pavel hardly ever came in contact with a pulse. He got overwhelmed - too much too soon. You're already used to it."
"What if I'm not?" he asked softly. "You really think about what might happen?"
She pulled in a deep breath. "All the time, Michael. I'm the one who's risking my life, after all."
Shane cleared his throat. "If you guys want to have some kind of serious convo, let me clear the hell out."
"No, you stay," Eve commanded. "Everybody stays. Everybody needs to hear this; right, Michael? If Amelie wants to come down from the mountain and tell you stop the wedding, what are you going to do about it?"
He looked - well, there was no other word for it than miserable. He looked down again, strummed a few chords, actually hit a wrong note. She saw him flinch, and he deliberately waited a few long seconds before he said, "I'd do what's right."
"That's not an answer." Eve's voice shook a little this time, and her fists clenched where they rested on her skull-patterned tights. "Michael, are you going to marry me even if Amelie tells you not to do it?"
"I don't know if I can," he said. "Amelie can influence other vampires, if she wants to. She has the power to make me do what she wants."
"I'm telling you the truth!" He shouted it, and almost threw the guitar back in its case, standing up with sudden energy. His pale face was lightly flushed, and his body language rippled with tension. Claire unconsciously pressed herself back into the cushions, and felt Shane shift his weight next to her. She put a hand on his knee, and he relaxed. A little. "Dammit, Eve, I am trying. Don't you understand? It's not like I can just do what I want, twenty-four /seven! I'm - "
"Owned," Eve finished for him, and stood up to face him. Her fists were still clenched. "Amelie's pet. And she can make you roll over - is that it? You won't stand up to her, even for me?"
"Eve - "
"No. No, I get it." She was gulping in deep breaths now, and her eyes glittered, but she wasn't crying. Not yet. "Do you even want to marry me, really?"
"God," Michael whispered. He stepped forward and put his arms around her, a sudden, almost desperate move, and she was like a statue in his arms, stiff with surprise. "God, Eve, yes. I want to make you happy. I want that so much."
She went limp against him, holding on, and rested her forehead against his shoulder. "Then fight for us," she whispered. "Please."
"If I fight Amelie, I'll lose."
"Then go down fighting, you jerk!"
He kissed the top of her head. "I will." He rested his chin there where he'd kissed, and Claire realized that he was looking at Shane. She glanced up and saw Shane looking back. Whatever communication was going on there, she didn't have the playbook to read it. Shane's face was blank, his body language tense.
After a second, he got up and walked out of the room into the kitchen. Claire stuffed the rest of her hot dog in her mouth and followed him.
Shane kept walking, right to the back door, opened it, and went outside. Claire chewed fast, swallowed, and lunged out after him before the screen door flapped shut. She hopped down the concrete steps and caught up with Shane just as he sat down under the shade of the scraggly tree next to the leaning wooden garage.
"What was that look?"
Shane pulled out a pack of breath mints and took two, then passed them over. She took one. "You know what it was."
"If you don't know, you don't want to know, trust me."
"It could not possibly be as bad as the Pavel story."
He sighed. "It's just that I'm not going to stand there while he lies to her. I'm trying to be all nonviolent and shit. And I want to punch him, and he knows it, and out here is better right now until I get myself together."
Wow. That was a lot of communication going on in a ten-second look. So much for guys not talking; they just did it way, way differently. "Wait. . . . He was lying?"
"I'm not saying he doesn't love her. He does. But - " Shane was silent for a moment. "But there's something else, too." He shrugged. "Look, it's between them, okay? We have to let them work it out."
"No, it's not between them - she's my best friend! I can't let her walk into this if he's not really serious!"
"She knows," Shane said. "Girls know, deep down."
She did, Claire realized. Eve had been focused on all the stuff, the party plans, the invitations, all that, instead of facing her own fears. She already knew something was wrong, and she didn't know how to fix it. "Well - she can't go through with it. She just can't."
"Hang on - half an hour ago you were saying how the vamps couldn't tear apart true love."
"If it is. But what if it's not, Shane? What if they're making some awful, awful mistake and they're both afraid to admit it?"
He put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him, turning her face to bury it in the heavy fabric of his blue jean jacket. It was chilly out here, even in the sun, and she was grateful for the warmth of his body. The feel of his fingers stroking through her hair made some tense, anxious part of her slowly relax inside. "You can't fix everything," he told her. "Sometimes you've just got to let it fix itself, or wreck itself."
"Was it Gloriana?" she asked. Her voice was muffled, but she knew he could hear and understand. "Do you think she got to Michael?"
At the sound of the female vampire's name, Shane's muscles tightened, then deliberately loosened; it wasn't quite a flinch, but it definitely was close. Gloriana had been a horrible, manipulative, deceptive (beautiful) witch of a vamp who'd wanted . . . well, human playthings. She had definitely gotten to Shane, who'd become her toy soldier; she'd seduced the part of him that loved to fight.
She'd treated Michael differently. Still a toy, but a completely different kind.
"Maybe she did get to him," Shane acknowledged quietly. "Yeah, at least a little. She could do that, make you feel - anything she wanted. It's tough to deal with it, but at least Glory's gone in that not-coming-back way. Eve's still here."
"Is that enough?"
He didn't answer her, and Claire thought, miserably, that there really was no answer - none that the two of them could get to, anyway. He was right.
It was Eve and Michael's engagement, and Eve and Michael's problem.
If they could admit they actually had one.
The shadows got longer, and the wind got colder, and eventually not even Shane's body heat could keep Claire from freezing, so they went back inside. It was quiet, but not silent; as Claire poured herself a glass of water and grabbed an apple from the bowl on the table, she heard the creak of footsteps overhead. It had to be Eve, because from the living room drifted the quiet, contemplative sound of Michael's guitar. Talk about "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," Claire thought. That was the saddest thing she'd ever heard.
Shane gave her a quick, sweet kiss and went into the living room. She stayed where she was, eating her apple, listening to the quiet, low buzz of their voices over the music (Michael was still playing), and wondering if she ought to go upstairs and see if Eve wanted to spill it out. It was a friend's duty, right? But Claire felt angry at Michael right now, righteously angry, and she wasn't sure that wouldn't boil over and complicate everything even more.
She eased over to the kitchen door and cracked it open. Shane would be kicking Michael's ass, at least verbally; she just knew it.
But he wasn't. They weren't talking about Eve or the engagement party at all.
Michael was saying, ". . . over it, man. If you want us to get back where we were, you have to let that crap go."
There was a short silence, and then Shane said, "I hurt Claire. Hell, man, I hurt you. I wanted to kill every damn vampire in the entire world, including you, single-handed." He paused for a second, and then said, very softly, "I was like my dad, only on steroids, and it felt right. I'm not sure that's ever going away, Mike. That's my problem. If deep down I'm an abusive, violent ass like my old man, how exactly do I pretend I don't know that?"
"You're not him." Michael kept playing, a slow and soothing tune, and his voice was quiet and deep. "Never were, never will be. You just hang on to that." He paused a second, and Claire almost heard a smile in his voice. "You still want to kill me?"
"Sometimes, yeah." Shane, on the other hand, sounded completely serious. "I love you, man, but . . . it takes time for all that stuff to go away. I don't want to feel it."
"I know, shithead."
"If you break Eve's heart, I will kill you."
Michael stopped playing. "It's complicated."
"No, it's not. Stop screwing around and commit."
"Oh, so now you're giving me relationship advice? You can't commit to a cell phone contract, let alone - "
"I'm committed," Shane interrupted. "To her. You know I am."
"Yeah," Michael said. "Yeah, I know that. And you know if you screw it up with Claire, I'll rip your throat out and drink you like a juice box, so you've got some incentive."
Shane laughed. "You know what? I do that, you've got permission. And you know how I feel about that whole drinking-me stuff."
It was a nice moment - one of the best she'd heard between them for a while - and then it all fell apart because there was a knock at the back door, and Claire went to answer it, and standing on the steps was a vampire. Female, wearing a hooded black jacket and gloves, very chic but also very sun-blocking. Claire couldn't really make her out beneath the giant dark glasses and the smothering garments, so she said, "Can I help you?"
"It's Claire, isn't it? Hello. You probably don't remember me," the woman said. She smiled, a little tentatively. "My name is Naomi. I met you the day that you freed us from confinement in the cells below town."
For a few seconds Claire didn't know what she was talking about, because that had happened a long time ago. Once she did remember, she blinked and involuntarily stepped back.
When she'd first come to Morganville, the vampires had been hiding a secret: they were sick, and getting sicker. That illness led first to forgetfulness, then to acting out, then to mindless violence . . . and finally to a motionless catatonia. The onset varied from one vampire to another; some were dangerously uncontrollable in weeks, and others were watching themselves slip slowly, day by day, year by year, toward the inevitable.
Naomi had been in the cells - one of the violent ones, confined for everybody's safety. When the cure had been distributed, those vampires had gotten better, and returned to normal - for Morganville - lives. She'd thanked Claire, back then, and seemed nice enough, if disturbingly Vampire with a Capital V.
Naomi took silence as an invitation, and stepped over the threshold into the kitchen, sighing with relief. "Thank you," she said. "I fear I don't brave the sun as much as I ought to. Even at my age, one needs to build up a tolerance, but I'm not good at forcing myself to do unpleasant things." She pulled off the glam glasses and pushed back her hood, and the face finally clicked into place for Claire. Lustrous, long blond hair, pretty, young. She looked a little like the much-loathed Gloriana, whom Claire and Shane had just been mutually hating, but Naomi was a very different person, and a very different kind of vampire - at least, from Claire's memory of her.
She smiled politely at Claire and held out a slender hand. Claire took it and shook. Naomi's felt cool and strong.
"Uh . . . it's nice to see you," Claire said, which was kind of a lie, because it was unsettling to see any vampire show up at your back door. "What can I do for you?"
"May we sit?" Naomi indicated the kitchen table with a very elegant gesture, and Claire couldn't shake the idea that this girl - not much older physically than she herself was now - had grown up in a time when elegance and perfect manners were survival tools, especially for girls. Especially for royal girls.
"Sure," Claire said, instantly marking herself as part of the unwashed rabble, definitely not throne-worthy, but she tried to sit down with at least a little bit of grace. "Can I get you any - well, anything?" They had a little extra type A in the refrigerator, not that it was Claire's to offer, but she didn't think Michael would mind. Then again, she felt weird about offering blood as if it were a cup of tea. There were limits to being social.
"I thank you, it is most generous of you, but no, I am not hungry," Naomi said. The way she sat, straight-backed and yet somehow perfectly at ease, made Claire feel sweaty and round-shouldered. "I am very pleased to see you again. I am told you are doing very well in your studies." Her polite smile deepened a little, bringing out charming little dimples. "And that sounds as if I'm your terribly ancient maiden aunt. I am sorry. This is awkward, is it not?"
"A little bit," Claire said, and couldn't help but smile back. Naomi felt like a real person to her - someone who had lived a real life, and still remembered what it was like to have human feelings. "Things are going okay; thanks for asking. And you - how's your sister?" She scrambled to remember the name, some kind of flower. . . . " Violet?"
"I am gratified you remember. Violet is fine. She's taken up the opportunities Morganville presents with an alarming amount of enthusiasm. She's painting now." Naomi rolled her eyes. "She's not very good, but she's very determined. It always irked her when we were children that she was forbidden to do anything but ladylike watercolors. Every time I see her these days, she looks as if she's fallen face-first onto a paint palette."
"When we met before, you said - I think you said you were Amelie's sisters?" Meaning sisters to the town's vampire Founder, Amelie the all-powerful. Claire, looking at Naomi, could believe it; there was something about the way she held her head, the posture, even the glossy, pale hair.
So she was a little surprised when Naomi shook her head. "Oh, no, we are not sisters in the sense that we were born in the same family," she said. "Sisters in our second birth, if you will. We are both of the same generation turned by Bishop, and there are not so many of us left, so by tradition we look on each other as family. Violet is my true sister of my mortal life. Amelie is our sister of immortal life. I know it's a bit confusing."
"Oh." Claire wasn't very clear about the vampire concept of family.... Apparently they traced it through who had made them vampires in the first place, so Bishop had a lot of kids, some of whom were what Claire considered good - like Amelie - and most of whom were definitely not. It mattered, but Claire wasn't really sure how much, or how it ranked against a human family relationship. Not enough to keep them from occasionally killing one another, but then, the same could be said for natural-born siblings. "I just wondered."
"At the time I met you, I wasn't used to speaking with mortals. It had been a very long time, and we were still . . . not as well as we could have been. But we're much better now." Naomi showed a full smile, and it was just a tiny bit unsettling. My, what big teeth you have, Claire thought. Not that Naomi had done anything wrong, not at all. She didn't even show a hint of fang. "So of course, I first want to apologize for any possible discomfort I might have caused you during our initial meeting. None was intended, believe me."
That was, in terms of what had gone on in Claire's life, a really long time ago, and it struck her as oddly funny. She tried not to let it show. "No, really, it was fine. I'm fine."
"Ah, you relieve me." Naomi settled back in her chair, as if she really was relieved, which Claire sincerely doubted. "Now that I'm reassured on that point, I can proceed to my second. I came to pay a call on my youngest relative."
Again, Claire went blank. "Um . . . excuse me?"
"Michael," Naomi said. There was something that turned warm and even sweeter in her voice when she mentioned Michael's name, and that wasn't vampire at all.... That was something Claire understood completely. "I have been missing him."
It was purely a girl-appreciating-a-hottie reaction.
And just like that, it all became crystal clear for Claire. There was, after all, a hidden vampire angle to what was going on with Eve and Michael.... He must have been seeing Naomi. On the side. Without telling anyone, or at least not discussing it in front of Claire and Shane, and Claire was pretty sure that Eve wouldn't have been just Oh, fine about it if she'd really known.
The pretty blond reason for Michael's erratic behavior was sitting across the table and smiling at her.
Claire stood up, all in one rushed motion. "I'll go get him," she said. She knew it sounded rude, and saw surprise on Naomi's face, but she didn't care, not at all. "Stay here." And that was probably even ruder, that somebody with royal whatever blood was being told to stay in the kitchen like the help. Good.
Claire burst through the kitchen door. She must have interrupted some intense guy talk, because both Michael and Shane stopped talking and straightened up the way people did when they felt guilty. Michael hushed his guitar strings with a flat palm.
"You have a visitor," Claire said. She spat the words out flat and hard, straight at Michael, and she thought he must have been able to hear how fast her heart was beating. Maybe her face was red. It should have been; she felt hot all over. "It's Naomi."
If she'd had any doubts at all about it, the sight of his face when she said the name erased them. That was the most shocked, caught-red-handed expression she'd ever seen, and God, in that moment she hated him.
Shane looked over at his best friend, but by the time he did, Michael had managed to wipe away all guilt from his expression and just look curious. "Oh," he said, and stood up, leaning his guitar against the arm of the chair. It seemed to her to be not just careful, but too careful, as if he was afraid to be seen rushing. As if he felt he had to slow down and make sure he didn't make mistakes. "Of course. Thanks, Claire."
She glared at him, and avoided him as he went past her toward the kitchen. She headed straight for the steps, prepared to run all the way up, but Shane's voice stopped her. "Hey," he said, keeping it low. "What the hell?"
"You go ask. You're always telling me not to try to analyze," she said, and went up, wondering if she should tell Eve, wondering if that would lead to the ultimate Glass House apocalypse. She didn't, only because she heard the shower running. Eve tended to shower when she got unhappy. There wouldn't be any hot water for anybody else, not for a while.
Claire passed up the bathroom, closed and locked her door, put her headphones on, and blocked out the world with the loudest, saddest music she could stand.
Oh, Michael, how could you?
If the knowledge hurt her, how awful was it going to be for Eve?
- The Loners
- The Saints
- Tome of the Undergates
- Black Halo
- The Skybound Sea
- If You Stay
- If You Leave
- Until We Burn
- Before We Fall
- Every Last Kiss
- Suspiciously Obedient
- Random Acts of Crazy
- Random Acts of Trust
- Her First Billionaire
- Her Second Billionaire
- Her Two Billionaires
- Her Two Billionaires and a Baby
- His Majesty's Dragon
- Throne of Jade
- Black Powder War
- Victory of Eagles
- Tongues of Serpents
- Empire of Ivory
- Crucible of Gold