Last Breath

Chapter Two


Claire expected a blowup - daily - of the Michael/Eve relationship; Eve didn't mention Naomi, and neither did Michael, and the tension kept spinning up inside of Claire like twisting rubber bands.

Shane hadn't said much about Naomi's visit, either, though Claire could tell it troubled him. When Claire had tried to talk about it, he'd gone back to his old refrain. Ask Michael. Yeah, right, like she was going to get in his face and ask, when she already knew.

He also said stay out of it. And that was probably good advice. But Claire couldn't just see this all heading for the cliff and not at least try to turn the wheel. It might be wrong, it might be messy and crazy and a very bad idea, but she had to do it.

So she took Eve out for an ice-cream soda at Marjo's Diner, which Eve happily accepted, because there were no better ice-cream sodas available in the known universe, and Eve never turned down something ice-cream based. It was, Claire thought, a good thing Eve ran on so much nervous energy, with all that sugar craving.

As she spooned up the deliciousness, Eve couldn't put down her cell. She was scrolling through her to-do list, shaking her head. "You would not believe how much there is," she told Claire. "I mean, I've been doing this for weeks, and this list never gets smaller! It's insane. And I've only got a couple of days left. Oh! I need to get my appointment to get a waxing done."

"I really did not need to know that," Claire sighed. Eve threw her a wink and slurped up dessert. "Uh - I have something I need to tell you."

Eve's eyes widened, and she put both spoon and cell down. "It's Shane, isn't it? It's always Shane getting himself into some kind of crazy trouble. What vampire did he - "

"No, it's not Shane." Although Claire honestly couldn't blame her for jumping to that conclusion; Shane was trouble-prone, no doubt about that. "It's about Michael."

Eve smiled, but it looked manic and wrong. She was wearing an absolutely incredible shade of magenta lipstick, and her eye shadow matched. In the tired mid-last-century Formica and rusty chrome of the diner, she looked like a deadly, exotic flower, something imported from a place that had never seen day. Beautiful, but intimidating. And strange. "Well, at least I know Michael's not in jail. On the other hand, Shane just loves the gray bar hotel. Maybe it's the food or something." But there was a flash of desperation in her eyes. She didn't want to talk about Michael. Not at all.

Claire felt like something was pressing on her chest, driving all the breath out of her. "I'm not kidding," she said. "You need to hear this, Eve. About Michael." It hurt, saying this, physically hurt, and she felt tears tingle in her eyes. She blinked them away, fast. "I think he's seeing another girl."

Eve had picked up her spoon, and now she sat there, perfectly still, staring. She cocked her glossy black-haired head slowly over to the side, as if trying to puzzle out what Claire had just said. "Another girl," she said. "What do you mean, another girl?"

"A vampire," Claire said. "Naomi. She came to the house. I saw her. I talked to her. She asked for Michael."

Eve flinched, as if Claire had reached across the table and slapped her, and then said, "But . . . I'm sure she's just . . ."

"Just a friend?" Claire said when Eve couldn't finish. She felt like her heart was breaking. She could see the panic and horror in Eve's face, and the awkward way Eve put the spoon down. She clenched her hands together and started twisting her engagement ring.... "Maybe. I guess that's possible, but you should talk to him, Eve. You should ask. I don't think he wanted you to know about it. He hasn't told you, has he?"

Eve shook her head and looked down at her ice-cream soda, which was slowly melting. "He must have forgotten to mention it," she said, but there wasn't any conviction in her voice. "She came to the house?"

"A couple of days ago - remember when I went with Shane to give blood? She showed up after you went upstairs. I answered the door."

This time, it was definitely a flinch, and Eve glanced up. Her eyes were wide, and stricken. "He - he came upstairs later. We made up. He was - " She twisted the ring again, restlessly. "He was so sorry about upsetting me."

"Oh," Claire said softly. "And he didn't mention her."

"No. Not at all," Eve admitted. She suddenly flung her hand out across the table, and Claire grabbed it and held on, as if she were pulling Eve back from a cliff. "Oh God. I know Gloriana got inside his head, but I thought - I thought with her gone . . ."

"I know. But, Eve, I know he loves you. I just don't know - "

"If he loves me enough?" Eve laughed, shakily, and picked up a napkin to dab carefully at her eyes, making black blots of wet mascara on the paper. "Yeah, join the club. Well, what do you think?"

"It's not really what I think - it's what you do."

Eve sniffled and wiped at her nose. "This is ruining my makeup; you know that."

"You can blame me if you want."

"No. No, I don't." Eve sighed and looked up, trying for a smile but failing pretty badly. "I've known he wasn't totally - comfortable with this, you know? That he kept worrying, and thinking, and worrying . . . and I was just hoping that he'd stop, that it was cold feet, which is pretty stupid because he's a vampire and, you know, cold in general, but - I thought he'd get over it. It's just gotten worse."

"And he's not telling you about this girl."

"Apparently. Yeah." This time, Eve burst out in tears, and covered her face with the napkin. She had to use both hands, and Claire sat helplessly, wishing she could do something, while Eve bawled like a little girl. She finally got up and slid over to Eve's side of the booth and put her arms around her.

If the makeup had been extreme before, it was ultra-Goth now, with the dripping lines of mascara and smears. Eve started wiping it off, going through more and more napkins.

Marjo stopped by, took a look at the two of them, shook her head, and grabbed the desserts. She took them away and brought back a stack of napkins and a glass of water. "Wash that off," she said. "You look like a sad clown. Bad for my business."

For Marjo, that was all kinds of concerned and sensitive. Plus, she brought fresh cups of ice cream, for nothing.

Eve scrubbed most of her makeup off, leaving herself looking tender and raw and very young, and sucked down a deep breath and said, "I'm okay now. Here, eat your ice cream. There'll never be a better time, trust me."

The two of them ate, but Claire wondered if Eve really tasted hers at all. She kept hiccuping back sobs. "What are you going to do?" she asked Eve, finally, and her best friend shrugged without meeting her eyes.

"Well, pretending everything's just peachy hasn't really been the greatest idea," she said. "I could go full-on drama queen and scream and cry and throw things at him, I guess. I would have, a year ago. But now . . . now I think I'll just go . . . talk to him. I mean, I don't want to do that. It's going to hurt. But maybe it's the best thing for us both if we get it out in the open and . . ."

She kept talking, and Claire was listening, really, but the door to the diner opened behind Eve, and a man walked in, and an unnatural, weird feeling came over Claire, as if a wave of mist had washed over her. She blinked and focused on him, trying to figure out why she'd had that reaction - was it cold outside? Raining? No, it was same as it had been, winter-warm and sunny and dry.


The newcomer wasn't so much to really notice . . . medium height, medium build, light blond hair. He was turned partly away from her, and from this angle there was nothing at all to distinguish him from a million other guys.

Then he turned to look their way, and for a second Claire saw . . . something. A flicker, an image, a vision. It was too short for her to really even process it, and she could easily have just imagined it, because there wasn't anything abnormal about this guy at all. He had even, regular features and eyes that at this distance looked kind of blue.

He stuck his hands in his coat pockets and walked past them to the counter, and then, without a word, went back outside, where he walked around the corner and vanished.

Claire turned to watch him go.

"Hey," Eve said. "Are you with me? Because I'm kind of in the middle of a crisis, here." She sounded annoyed, and Claire didn't blame her. She had no idea why she'd been so distracted. There wasn't any reason, none at all.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I just - thought I knew him, I guess." That wasn't it, but he'd felt somehow wrong. As if he didn't belong here.

"Who?" Eve twisted around. "I didn't see anybody."

Claire looked out into the parking lot. Nothing stood out there - no out-of-state plates on the cars, for certain. "Nobody, I guess. Maybe he's just passing through," she said.

"Wish I was," Eve sighed. "Anywhere else is better right now, including lava pits. Are you ready to go?"

"I - Yeah, I guess so." Claire dug cash from her pocket and paid for both of them, over Eve's half hearted protests; Claire got a paycheck (allowance?) from the Founder's Office for her work with Myrnin, and her bank account had grown to impressive four-digit numbers recently. She didn't quite know what to do with all the money, but spending it on a heartsick best friend seemed like a good option. "Home?"

"Is there a second choice?"

"Well, we could go work on your shopping list?"

"That seems pretty dumb, considering."

Claire had to agree with that.

As they walked out of the diner, she glanced back, and saw the anonymous man was now back in the diner. He was sitting at a table, hands folded, and he was watching them as they walked to Eve's big black hearse.

The feeling of misty chill came over her again, and Claire shivered.

Shane was standing outside, in the yard, leaning against the single, ragged, winter-stripped tree, when Eve pulled up at the curb. He had his hands in his jeans pockets, and his brown hair ruffled in the breeze as if invisible hands combed through it. He was staring at the front door, and if he wasn't careful, he'd ignite it into flames by the sheer focused power of that stare.

Claire jumped out and ran to him, already anxious, with Eve right behind. "What is it?" she asked. "What's wrong?"

Shane jerked his chin at the house. "He's in there," he said. "With her."

"Who?" Eve asked, but it sounded as if she already knew.

"Did you tell her?" Shane asked Claire. She nodded. "The blonde. Naomi. She showed up; he told me to leave. I left."

Eve took a deep breath and walked up the steps - not running, not crying. She looked very calm and self-possessed.

Claire and Shane exchanged a look, and Shane said, "This can't be good," and they ran after her, into the house.

They found her almost immediately, standing in the front parlor of the house, the one none of them ever used; it was a stuffy sort of room, with furniture left over from the days of black-and-white television, if not older. But that was where Michael was, sitting on the stiff sofa, with a china cup of something that probably wasn't tea sitting in front of him.

And there was Naomi, sitting on the couch beside him, with her own matching cup.

The girl-vamp sat at a ladylike angle, knees together, as if she wore a dress instead of cute skinny jeans and a figure-hugging top that Claire regretfully kind of liked. Naomi's chin was up, and her gaze was level on Eve. She didn't look guilty. She looked a little defiant.

Michael, on the other hand, looked deeply uncomfortable. "Eve," he was saying, "it's not - "

"Like it looks?" she finished for him, very calmly. "Oh, I'm sure." Eve stepped forward, holding out her hand. "I don't think we've been introduced."

Naomi's eyebrows moved up, just a little, but she rose gracefully and shook Eve's hand, making it look as if she were a foreign dignitary performing some alien custom for the sake of diplomacy. "I am Naomi de la Tour. You must be Eve Rosser. Of course, I have seen you about town."

Eve stared straight into her face. "Sorry I can't say the same. I don't know you, and I don't appreciate your being here."

Naomi actually blushed, or at least, there was a hint of color in her cheeks. "I am still becoming used to human company," she said. "And I do apologize if I seemed rude toward you. I don't intend to be."

"Eve - ," Michael said. She shot him a glare, and he settled back on the sofa. Busted.

"Maybe we ought to talk about what you do intend," Eve said, and pulled over a straight-backed chair, which she straddled, putting as strong a difference between herself and Naomi's oh-so-ladylike presence as possible. She looked over her shoulder at Shane and Claire. "Out. This could get messy."

"You're sure you don't want backup?" Shane asked.

Michael frowned. "Against what exactly? Me? C'mon, man."

"On second thought," Eve said, "maybe they should stay. Any reason they shouldn't, Michael?"

"Eve, don't do this."

She smiled, but it wasn't a happy kind of expression. "How long has this been going on?"

Michael said nothing. Naomi, on the other hand, leaned forward and said, very earnestly, "I've been coming here for almost two months."


Michael shut his eyes and rubbed his temples, as if he had a monster headache. "Eve, you don't - "

"Understand? I'm sure I don't. Why don't you tell me? Because finding you all cozied up with a blood-drinking hottie on the couch two days before our engagement party doesn't send the wrong message at all."

"I'm not cozied up with her!"

Naomi laughed, just a little. "Indeed, he isn't," she said. "If I may explain . . . ?"

"Take your best shot," Eve said. The muscles in her jaws were tight, and she gripped the back of the chair she was straddling so hard that Claire thought she might snap it off - and then stake somebody with it.

"As I'm sure you're aware, there's discontent among some of the vampires with the idea that you and Michael should marry," Naomi said. "There is reason for this."

Eve stared at her in utter silence. Naomi waited for comment, but got nothing.

"Not only that," the girl continued, "I know that human society is not the same as it was when we were . . . among their numbers, but by our immortal standards a marriage is an alliance, and you, dear Eve, are allying yourself to the descendant of an ancient and important bloodline. There are many who believe that by marrying you, Michael confers upon you a great deal of . . . power. Implied power, if not actual. Giving this to a human is . . . controversial."

"Oh, so you're just giving us advice. I got it. Nice of you two to involve me in the discussion so thoroughly . . . Oh, wait."

"You think I am lying about my presence here?" Naomi's perfect eyebrows rose in disbelief. "Do not think it; I beg you. In fact, I have been acting as Michael's advocate. Your advocate," Naomi said. "I have standing in the vampire community, and I have been acting as peacemaker, if you will, to allow your marriage to go forward, should you still wish it. I came to tell Michael that I believe my blood-sister Amelie has been persuaded to give her blessing to the union."

Claire cleared her throat. "Oliver just told us there was no way it was going to be allowed to happen."

"Oliver is my most difficult opponent," Naomi said. "And he is persuasive, I must admit. I have spent a great many hours trying to convince him of the rightness of my cause, to no good effect. I finally decided to go directly to my blood-sister and hope for the best."

Eve was clearly still not buying it. She was staring holes in the other woman, lips compressed into a flat, angry line.

Michael said, very quietly, "You think it worked?"

"I can't be completely certain. Amelie is, first and always, a ruler, and a ruler keeps her own counsel on all things. But she was most gracious and understanding. I believe that I have convinced her of the importance of allowing this union to occur."

"Thank you," he said, and stood up. A step took him close to where Eve straddled the chair, and her head tilted to look up at him. She kept the exact same expression. "Do you really think I was screwing around on you with her?"

"Why not?" Eve asked flatly. "Vamp girls are hot. Even I can see that."

Naomi blushed again. "I am not interested in Michael in that way," she said. "I am sorry you think me capable of doing something so underhanded. And . . ." She seemed at a loss of what to say for a moment, then looked down at her clasped fingers and said, "And he is not what appeals to me, I am afraid."

"How could he not be your type?" Eve asked, momentarily distracted, and Claire was actually wondering the same thing because Michael was just . . . yeah.

Naomi didn't answer; she just stared hard at her lap, and Shane was the first one to get it, though how he did, Claire couldn't really tell. He said, "Because her type is more like you, idiot."

"More like - Goth?"

"More like girls."

Naomi glanced up, and Claire caught a flash of relief on her face. "In my youth it was not looked on with favor," she said. "It is still difficult for me to speak of it."

"Oh," Eve said, in an entirely different tone of voice. "Oh. You're gay."

Naomi nodded slowly.

"I could kiss you right now," Eve said, and then immediately held out a hand. "I mean, in gratitude, you know? You're really pretty but - Oh man, I just totally screwed that up." Eve took a deep breath and turned back to Michael. "Did you know she was gay?"

"Yeah," he said. "I didn't want you to think - I knew there wasn't anything going on, but I get how it looked, meeting with her in private. I should have told you. I just didn't want you to know how much resistance there was against the wedding."

"Oh," Eve said softly. "Oh." Her eyes were shining now, and Michael's smile was one of the most lovely things Claire had ever seen. Free of all the burden she'd seen in him over the past few weeks. Free of the guilt. And now, there was something completely right in it. "You idiot. You could have told me."

"Yeah, I know." He stood up and went to her, and took her hand. "I love you. I didn't want to think that - that I could lose you over this. Over not being able to get Amelie to agree."

"Idiot," Eve repeated, but she didn't mean it. She stood up and melted into his arms, and it looked like they never intended to let go of each other, ever again. "So it's all good."

Naomi was smiling at the two of them, but now a shadow seemed to come over her face. "I hope that is true. I do worry that if the human population continues to agitate, Amelie will take the side of Oliver's cause, and not mine. But I cannot help that. Perhaps you can ... ?"

"I'm not exactly Miss Popularity out there," Eve said. "But luckily, I've got someone everybody respects on my team . . . everybody on both sides of the blood line."

And she looked at Claire and raised her eyebrows.

"Oh, wait a minute," Claire said. Shane put his arms around her from behind. Even if she wanted to escape, he wasn't going to let her. "How exactly am I supposed to convince people it's all okay?"

"Facebook?" Shane said, straight-faced.

"Flyers on phone poles," Eve said.

"Invite them to the party," Michael said.

Claire blinked and looked at him, head cocked. "What did you say?"

"Invite them to the party. It's like if you're having a gigantic house party - invite your neighbors over, and they're not as likely to blow the whistle on you. Well, invite the humans in Morganville and give them the chance to really get to know the vampires. Show them it can work."

"Dude," Shane said seriously, "that just cannot end well."

"No, it could work," Naomi said. "There are precedents. And you were planning to invite both humans and vampires in any case, were you not?"

Eve nodded, still looking a little uncertain. "But - look, there are some bad feelings around here. Human pride, and all that stuff. I'm not sure it's a good idea to put vamps, humans, and alcohol all in the same place."

"Well," Naomi said cheerfully, "what's the worst that can happen?"

They were silent, considering that, because there were just so

They were silent, considering that, because there were just so many possibilities.

But in the end, it was a better idea than Facebook.

"What's this?" The man on the other side of the counter at the camera store scowled at her mistrustfully, but he took the paper that Claire handed him. It was a nice, colorful poster, advertising the engagement party being held outside at Founder's Square.

"Could you maybe put it up in the window of your store?" she asked, and gave him her best, most confident smile. "It's going to be a great party. I know your customers would like to be there. It's free!"

He stared at her. Claire didn't know him; he was an older man, graying at the temples, and he had a square, stubborn kind of face. His sleeves were rolled back to the elbows, and she saw a fresh stake tattoo on the inside of his right forearm. "You're that girl," he said, and she was almost sure he'd continue, The vampires' pet. She'd heard that a few times today. "The one the Collins kid is dating."

Oh. Right. Shane had antivampire street cred. "That's right," she said. "I'm Shane's girlfriend."

"Frank said you were all right."

Great, now she had Shane's dad as an endorsement.... Well, anything that would help, she'd take it. "That was nice of him." She managed not to make it sound like an indictment on the whole Frank Collins issue. Water under the bridge, and all that stuff. "Would you mind putting it up for me?"

"You know this ain't going to end well, right?" He rattled the paper at her. "Glass and the human girl. I'm sorry the kid got turned, but he's one of them now. No coming back over that line."

She was tired of the argument. "Thanks for your time," she said. "I appreciate you thinking about it."

He grunted. "I guess I'll put it up. Don't expect me to show up, though."

"Free drinks?"

That actually earned her a smile. A small one. "Well, you drive a hard bargain, kid. Be careful out there."

"You, too."

She walked out, and Shane fell in step beside her. He had a handful of flyers, but fewer than there had been. "So, was that fun?" he asked. "Kind of an antivamp stronghold, there. Captain Obvious used to be a good friend of the manager." Captain Obvious had once been a figurehead of the antivampire underground, but he was now permanently underground, in the six-feet-under sense. Nobody had yet stepped forward to take up his masked identity, as far as Claire knew - not that she would have been in on the antivampire memo chain. "He give you any trouble?"

"Not once I pointed out there would be free booze."

"Too easy," Shane said. "How are you planning to keep the frat boys out?"

That, Claire had realized early on, was going to be a problem. . . . The Texas Prairie University campus was its own little world, a microcosm inside Morganville's strange alternate reality. And on campus, few people really knew about the vampire world outside. Keeping the frat boys on campus, instead of searching for a free drunk, was a challenge, and one that required absolute attention. There had been too many near misses already. "I talked to Chief Moses," she said. "She said the police would be checking IDs. No town resident card, you don't get into the square at all. That should keep the aspiring partyers out."

"You hope. So, who else we have left?"

They'd covered almost all of their particular sector of Morganville; Michael had taken the more vampire-centric neighborhoods this morning, and Eve had braved it with him, trying to show the vampires she could be well behaved and perfectly acceptable. By common consent, they'd all decided that Claire and Shane had the reputations to win over unwilling humans, or at least get them to listen.

They'd been about seventy percent successful, which was better than Claire had expected, but it had been a long day, and her feet hurt. "We should hit it tomorrow," she said. "I need to lay down."

He raised his eyebrows at her, and she swatted his shoulder. "Rest," she said.

"Well, we could rest together. I swear, I'll be good." He gave her a charming, intensely hot smile. "You can take that any way you want."

So many levels to that, she got dizzy trying to sort them out. But it warmed her, and made the walk home less of a trial . . . at least, until her cell phone rang. The ringtone was a dead giveaway, emphasis on dead . . . creepy organ music. She didn't even have to glance at the image of fanged bunny slippers on the screen to know who was calling. She just sighed, thumbed it on, and held it to her ear.

"Claire! I need you here immediately. Something's wrong with Bob." Myrnin, her mad-scientist, blood-addicted boss, sounded actually shaken. "I can't get him to eat his insects, and I used his favorites. He just sits there."

"Bob," she repeated, looking at Shane in wide-eyed disbelief. "Bob the spider."

"Just because he's a spider doesn't mean he deserves any less concern! Claire, you have a way with him. He likes you."

Just what she needed. Bob the spider liked her. "You do realize that he's a year old, at least. And spiders don't live that long."

"You think he's dead?" Myrnin sounded horrified. So wrong.

"Is he curled up?"

"No. He's just quiet."

"Well, maybe he's not hungry."

"Will you come?" Myrnin asked. He sounded calmer now, but also oddly needy. "It's been very lonely here these past few days. I'd like your company, at least for a little while." When she hesitated, he used the pity card. "Please, Claire."

"Fine," she sighed. "I'm bringing Shane."

After a second of silence, he said, flatly, "Goody," and hung up.

"You're kidding," Shane said. "Do you think I want to visit Crazy McTeeth in his lair of insanity?"

"No," Claire said, "but I'm pretty sure you won't like it if I go alone when I just kind of promised to be with you. So . . . ?"

"Right. I've been missing Nutty McFang anyway."

"Stop making up names for him."

"What about Count Crackula?"

"Just stop."

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