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This day, when I bolted upright in the bed, throat tensed, vocal cords poised to emit a scream as soon as the gasping breath I'd drawn forced its way out, a hand clamped over my mouth. Nathan was already awake.
Don't make a sound, he warned through the blood tie, his body rigid with tension that jumped through our mental connection, filling me with his anxiety.
Something was seriously wrong. In the past few weeks, since we had fled Grand Rapids and come to Max's Chicago penthouse, Nathan's entire focus had been my recovery. I'd gone mute and practically catatonic after Cyrus, once my sire, then my fledgling, had died. After I'd wake from one of my many nightmaresdaymares, I supposed, since we vampires are third-shifters on account of that pesky sun thingNathan would hold me and try to reassure me that it had all been a dream, that he wouldn't let anything harm me. Now, though, I felt his irritation and acute distraction through the blood tie, the telepathic and empathic connection that coursed between a fledgling vampire and their sire, and I knew something wasn't right.
Before he could explain, I heard a thud and some violent cursing upstairs.
There's someone in the apartment, I practically screamed into his head, and the pressure of his hand on my jaw subsided slightly.
I know. That's why I said not to make a sound. I'm going to check it out. He let go of my face and threw back the blankets. I could tell from the faint light outlining the heavy curtains that it was still the middle of the day, but Max's apartment was specially designed to be dark as a tomb and just as protected from unwanted sunlight.
Be careful, I warned. As if someone could be careful apprehending an intruder in their home. At least Nathan would be armed.
Crap. He wasn't armed. "Nathan!" I whispered after him, so the cause of the disturbance wouldn't hear me. Unfortunately, neither did Nathan. He was probably halfway up the stairs by now. Rolling my eyes, I got out of bed and pulled on the jeans I'd discarded the night before, realizing how ridiculous a silk camisole nightgown looked with jeans. Good thing this wasn't a fashion show. I grabbed a stake from the drawer in the bedside table. Forget something? I shot across the blood tie, letting him feel all my aggravation at having been pulled out of a comfortable bed. I hoped it would cover the fear that pounded through my veins.
Besides pants? he quipped. He was scared, joking with me to disguise it.
We'd been sleeping in the room I'd used when I'd stayed with Max, after the spell we did to free Nathan from his sire's possession went all sorts of haywire. No, that wasn't true. The spell had worked perfectly. It was our relationship that had gone all kinds of haywire. I'd left with Max to try and sort through the disaster of my personal life, butas seemed to be the case ever since I'd become a vampirethe preternatural world didn't slow down for boyfriend-girlfriend drama. Nathan's sire, the Soul Eater, was still out there, trying to become a god and turn the world into his own personal feeding trough.
Though I'd spent a lot of time in the penthouse, I still wasn't familiar enough with the halls to navigate in the dark. The place was huge and, as huge places often were, decorated with lots of expensive and sharp-edged little tables bearing fragile objects that held the potential for lots of noise if they came crashing down. The guest rooms were on the first floor. Who or whatever had broken in would have had to access the place through the main entrance on the second floor, or the roof door on the third. I felt along the wall, recoiling whenever I encountered the shape of a painting or a light switch. My toes painfully found the bottom step of the stairs to the next floor, and I wondered why I hadn't heard Nathan tripping and falling over himself on his way. I gripped the rail and went slowly up the stairs, quelling the urge to race up, making heavy clomping sounds on each step. There was no light at the top. I'd just keep on going until there weren't any more stairs, I supposed.
Or, until I ran into something. Nathan turned abruptly as I collided with him. He grabbed my arms as if to flip me onto my back, but stopped before I even needed to tell him it was me. Don't do that, he admonished through the blood tie.
"Sorry," I whispered, craning to see past him in the dark. We were at the top of the stairs. The marble floor of the foyer gleamed in the faint glow from the recessed wall lights set at shin level around the perimeter of the room. When Max's sire, Marcus, had designed this place, he'd obviously done it with daytime stumbling in mind. Too bad he hadn't employed that feature in the rest of the house. In the darkness, a shadow moved, fast, from the bottom of the stairs to the third floor to the kitchen door.
Well, there's at least one, Nathan told me grimly. You stay here.
I pressed the stake into his hand and watched him go, wondering how long I'd have to wait before following him. He knew me well enough that he'd expect me to disobey his command, but if I waited long enough he'd be too busy with the intruder to stop me.
The kitchen door opened and light spilled out. No burglar I'd ever heard of turned on lights. Well, at least, they didn't in the movies. But burglars didn't break in during the day, either. Unless this burglar knew who and what he was dealing with.
How did they find us so quickly? my mind screamed as I watched Nathan disappear behind the door. It swung shut and I was left to adapt to the darkness again. It isn't fair. We haven't had any time.
And just like that, fair blew right out the window. There was a shout, not Nathan's, and the clatter of metal-on-metal that seemed to go on and on. A grunt, a thud, something hit the wall. I charged up the stairs, my heart very like this many times before fogging my brain.
I pushed through the door. Nathan's stake lay on the pristine white tile. The rack of pots over the kitchen island was half-empty, most of its stock scattered on the floor. The island itself was completely bare, like a body had been thrown or dragged across it. Nathan's body, from the looks of things on the floor. His assailant had him pinned, no small feat for a human fighting a vampire, and he was definitely human. I could smell his blood, and his fear. The man lay across Nathan's chest, the muscles of his back straining against his black T-shirt. Judging by the V of sweat growing there, he would tire soon. And judging by the shape of the gun tucked in the waistband of his jeans, he'd come here betting on a fight.
I knew why Nathan was losing. He didn't want to hurt a human, even if they were out to hurt us. I, on the other hand, didn't care all that much when the human in question could be one of the Soul Eater's day staff. I grabbed one of the pans off the floor, a heavy, copper-bottomed saucepan. I'd just raised it up when Nathan's gaze met mine and knew my intention. He gripped the intruder's wrists and forced them down, then pushed him off. His strength was enough to send the man flying across the room, safely out of my range. He didn't want me to kill a human, either.
Nathan was on his feet in an instant, charging as I screamed, "Nathan, don't! He's got a gun!"
The shot rang out before I'd noticed the man had climbed to his feet. Nathan crumpled to the floor, and there was a second of horrible silence before he rolled onto his back, groaning and whimpering. The intruder stood, face drawn in shock. I leaped after him, easily clearing the corner of the island between us, and knocked him to the floor. His fingers tightened around the gun. I had to slam his closed fist into the floor over and over, until the tile cracked under his knuckles and he howled in pain, releasing the weapon. I hated to give him credit, but the guy was tough.
I grabbed the gun, hoping my shaking hands and the way I held it didn't mark me as a total novice. A novice can still pull a trigger, I thought, and, through his haze of pain, Nathan admonished, Squeeze, Carrie, not pull. You squeeze a trigger.
I rolled my eyes and pressed the point of the gun into the stranger's forehead. Imagining a bullet lodging and blossoming in fatty brain tissue, I pulled it back, just in case my trigger finger squeezed when I didn't mean to.
"Don't move," I barked when he cradled his bleeding hand to his chest.
"Shouldn't you check on your friend there?" His voice had an appealing, everyman tone to it. Like the professor I had who'd been from upstate New York and could make a pharmaceutical lecture sound like a retelling of a softball game victory. It was a dangerous quality in an armed assailant, because it put me slightly at ease.
I'll be fine, Nathan sent on a wave of agony. It was a little hard to believe when he was writhing on the floor and making strangled cries as though he'd just hit a ten on the pain scale. I turned back to my captive. "He'll be fine. Who sent you?"
"Well, no one. I'm here once a month." He nodded to the refrigerator. On the floor beside it was a small cooler, white with a red top that swings back, the kind that you'd pack a transplant organ in. "I'm Max's blood supplier."
I lowered the gun a little. "Right. And you just waltz in here all the time."
"Well, once a month," he corrected with a shrug.
I was about eighty percent sure he was lying. "Sorry. I think that Max would have mentioned you to me. Or, at least, that I would have seen you before."
"No, I'm quiet. And I've got keys. How the hell else do you think I got in here? There's a doorman and great security." He ran his uninjured hand through his sandy-colored hair, his gaze flicking to Nathan, still on the floor.
"Listen, I knew your friend there was a vampire, or I never would have shot him."
"Right." Trembling, I moved to tuck the gun into the back of my jeans.
"I wouldn't do that. Not with it ready to fire and the safety off." He held out his hand for it. I turned, fired a hole into the side of the plastic wastebasket, then looked for the safety switch and pushed it before sliding the gun into my waistband. I felt oddly empowered with a gun in my hands, and very grateful that the bullet hadn't ricocheted and wounded me.
I knelt beside Nathan and tried to roll him onto his back. He resisted, arms clamped tight around his stomach. "Let me see," I said, urging his hands away from the wound.
"Don't you should tie him ." Nathan managed between wheezing breaths.
"I'm not moving. Trust me." The stranger paused. "Just like I'm trusting you guys not to eat me."
"I'm not really hungry at the moment," I snapped. "If you move, I might change my mind."
Nathan reluctantly let his arms drop to his sides. Blood gushed, and I quickly replaced his hands with mine. "Burglar, get me a towel or a pot holder or something."
There was a noise of rummaging, then a blue-and-white checked towel thrust in front of my face. "I'm not a burglar."
"I don't care. Go back to where you were." I snatched the towel. The bullet hole in Nathan was perfectly round, identical to the one in the trash can, but for the torn flaps of skin around it. It looked like some kind of diseased tropical flower. I pressed the folded cloth to it and held it, noting the time on the clock. With my other hand, I reached up and touched Nathan's face, clammy with sweat. "When the bleeding stops, I'll give you something for the pain."
"He can heal from this, right?" our visitor asked. "I swear, I thought it would just slow him down."
I nodded. "It will slow him down. And he can heal from it. But not the way you see vampires do it in the movies, where the bullet oozes out and the wound closes up instantly. If you'd gotten his heart, he would be dead now."
The guy made a noise of self-loathing. "God, I'm sorry. But you understand my position, right?"
I did. If I had been a human fighting with a vampire who could have easily killed me with his bare hands, I would have used any method at my disposal to stop him. Understanding didn't stop me from being pissed off at the guy who'd shot my sire. I turned back to Nathan. "Do you think you can walk?"
He gave a shaky laugh. "Oh, I could run a mile. Just point me in the right direction."
"Do you think you can walk with help?" I fixed him with a no-nonsense glare. The medical kit is downstairs, and I don't want to leave you alone with him.
Then tell him to get the hell out, Nathan said, his gaze flicking to the stranger. He's the one who broke in and shot someone. I'm not worried about hurting his feelings.
Neither am I. But the bullet needs to come out so you can heal faster. I helped him sit up, intending to get him on his feet and downstairs, so he could rest.
"You stay right where you are," I ordered the intruder.
"I'll be back."
The hell you will. I'm not going anywhere, Nathan argued.
"You have a recently fired piece registered to me, with my fingerprints on it. I'm not leaving," the burglar assured me. "You want help getting him wherever he needs to go?"
"Stay where you are," I repeated, and, to Nathan, Yes you are. You're going downstairs, away from the crazy man who shot you.
Before I could get him on his feetand before he tried to argue with mehe stabbed two fingers into the wound and, barely restraining his grunts of pain, pulled the bullet out himself. When he withdrew his fingers, a cold, wet jet of blood shot out, and I clamped the towel over his stomach with a curse.
"What the hell were you thinking?" I scolded, reminding myself firmly that any of the various germs and bacteria he'd just introduced into the wound wouldn't affect him.
"Now the bullet is out," he said, infuriatingly calm despite the beads of sweat standing out on his forehead. His teeth chattered and he sagged against me. "And I'm staying right here."