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Claire Danvers was in a rare bad mood, and nearly getting arrested didn’t improve it. First, her university classes hadn’t gone well at all, and then she’d had a humiliating argument with her “adviser” (she usually thought of him that way, in quotes, because he didn’t “advise” her to do anything but take boring core subjects and not challenge herself), and then she’d gotten a completely unfair B on a physics paper she knew had been letter perfect. She would have grudgingly accepted a B on something unimportant, like history, but no, it had to be in her major. And of course Professor Carlyle wasn’t in his office to talk about it.
So she wasn’t fully paying attention when she stepped off the curb. Traffic in Morganville, Texas, wasn’t exactly fast and furious, and here by Texas Prairie University, people were fully used to stopping for oblivious students.
Still, the screech of brakes surprised her and sent her stumbling back to the safety of the sidewalk, and it was only after a couple of fast breaths that she realized she’d nearly been run over by a police cruiser.
And a policeman was getting out of the car, looking grim.
As he stalked over to her she realized he was probably a vampire—he was too pale to be a human, and he had on sunglasses even here in the shade of the building. Glancing at the cruiser to confirm, she saw the extreme tinting job on the windows. Definitely vampire police. The official slogan of the police was to protect and serve, but her boyfriend called the vampire patrol the to protect and serve up for dinner patrol.
It was unusual to see one so close to the university, though. Normally, vampire cops worked at night, and closer to the center of town, where Founder’s Square was located, along with the central vamp population. Only the regular residents would see them there, and not the transient—though pretty oblivious—students.
“I’m sorry,” she said, and swallowed a rusty taste in her mouth that seemed composed of shock and entirely useless anger. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
“Obviously,” he said. Like most vamps, he had an accent, but she’d long ago given up trying to identify it; if they lived long enough, vampires tended to pick up dozens of accents, and many of them were antique anyway. His facial features seemed . . . maybe Chinese? “Identification.”
Claire swallowed her protest and reached in her backpack for her wallet. She pulled out her student ID card and Texas driver’s license and handed them over. He glanced at them and shoved the
“Not those,” he said. “Your town identification.”
“My . . . what?”
“You should have received it in the mail.”
“Well, I haven’t!”
He took off his sunglasses. Behind them, his eyes were very dark, but there were hints of red. He stared at her for a moment, then nodded.
“All right. When you get your card, carry it at all times. And next time, watch your step. You get yourself hit by a car, I’ll consider you roadkill.”
With that, he put the sunglasses back on, turned, and got back in his car. Before Claire could think about any way to respond, he’d put the cruiser in gear and whipped around the corner.
It did not improve her mood.
Before she could even think about going home, Claire had a mandatory stop to make, at her part-time job. She dreaded it today, because she knew she was in no shape to deal with the incredibly inconsistent moods of Myrnin, her vampire mad-scientist boss. He might be laser focused and super-rational; he might be talking to crockery and quoting Alice in Wonderland (that had been the scene during her last visit). But whatever he was doing, he’d have work for her, and probably too much of it.
But at least he was never, ever boring.
She’d made the walk so often that she did it on autopilot, hardly even noticing the streets and houses and the alley down which she had to pass; she checked her phone and read texts as she jogged down the long marble steps that led into the darkness of his lab, or lair, whichever mood he was in today. The lights were on, which was nice. As she put her phone away, she saw that Myrnin was bent over a microscope—an ancient thing that she’d tried to put away a dozen times in favor of a newer electronic model, but he kept unearthing the thing. He stepped away from the eyepiece to scribble numbers frantically on a chalkboard. The board was covered in numbers, and to Claire’s eyes they looked completely random—not just in terms of their numerical values, but in the way they’d been written, at all angles and in all areas of the available space. Some were even upside down. It wasn’t a formula or an analysis. It was complete gibberish.
So. It was going to be one of those days. Lovely.
“Hey,” Claire said with fatalistic resignation as she dumped her backpack on the floor and opened up a drawer to retrieve her lab coat. It was a good thing she looked first; Myrnin had dumped an assortment of scalpels in on top of the fabric. Any one of them could have sliced her to the bone. “What are you doing?”
“Did you know that certain types of coral qualify as immortal? The definition of scientific immortality is that if the mortality rate of a species doesn’t increase after it reaches maturity, there is no such thing as aging . . . black coral, for instance. Or the Great Basin bristlecone pine. I’m trying to determine if there is any resemblance between the development of those cellular colonies with the replacement of human cells that takes place in a conversion to vampirism. . . .” He was talking a mile a minute, with a fever pitch that Claire always dreaded. It meant he was in need of medication, which he wouldn’t take; she’d need to be stealthy about adding it to his blood supply, again, to bring him down a little into the rational zone. “Did you bring me a hamburger?”
“Did I— No, Myrnin, I didn’t bring you a hamburger.” Bizarre. He’d never asked for that before.
“What good are you, then?” He finally looked up from the microscope, made another note or two on the board, and stepped back to consider the chaos of chalk marks. “Oh dear. That’s not very—is this where I started? Claire?” He pointed at a number somewhere near the top right corner.
“I wasn’t here,” Claire said, and buttoned up her lab coat. “Do you want me to keep working on the machine?”
“The what? Oh, yes, that thing. Do, please.” He crossed his arms and stared at the board, frowning now. It was not a personal-grooming highlight day for him, either. His long, dark hair was in tangles and needed a wash; she was sure the oversized somewhat-white shirt he was wearing had been used as a rag to wipe up chemical spills at sometime in its long life. He’d had the presence of mind to put on some kind of pants, though she wasn’t sure the baggy walking shorts were what she’d have chosen. At least the flip-flops kind of matched. “How was school?”
“Bad,” she said.
“Good,” he said absently, “very good . . . Ah, I think this is where I started. . . . Fibonacci sequence—I see what I did. . . .” He began drawing a spiral through the numbers, starting somewhere at the center. Of course, he’d be noting down results in a spiral. Why not?
Claire felt a headache coming on. The place was dirty again, grit on the floor that was a combination of sand blown in from the desert winds, and whatever Myrnin had been working with that he’d spilled liberally all over the place. She only hoped it wasn’t too toxic. She’d have to schedule a day to get him out of here so she could get reorganized, sweep up the debris, stack the books back in some kind of order, shelve the lab equipment. . . . No, that wouldn’t be a day. More like a week.
She gave up thinking about it, then went to the lab table on the right side of the room, which was covered by a dusty sheet. She pulled the cover off, coughed at the billows of grit that flew up, and looked at the machine she was building. It was definitely her own creation, this thing: it lacked most of the eccentric design elements that Myrnin would have put into it, though he’d sneaked in a few flywheels and glowing liquids along the way. It was oblong, practical, bell-shaped, and had oscillation controls along the sides. She thought it looked a bit like an old-fashioned science fiction ray gun, but it had a very different use . . . if it had ever worked.
Claire hooked up the device to the plug-in analyzing programs, and began to run simulations. It was a project Myrnin had proposed months ago, and it had taken her this long to get even close to a solution. . . . The vampires had an ability, so far mysterious and decidedly unscientific, to influence the minds and emotions of others—humans, mostly, but sometimes other vampires. Every vampire had a different set of strengths and weaknesses, but most shared some kind of emotional-control mechanism; it helped them calm their prey, or convince them to surrender their blood voluntarily.
What she was working on was a way to cancel that ability. To give humans—and even other vampires—a way to defend themselves against the manipulation.
Claire had gone from building a machine that could pinpoint and map emotions to one that could build feedback loops, heightening what was already there. It was a necessary step to get to the control stage—you had to be able to replicate the ability to negate it. If you thought of emotion as a wavelength, you could either amplify or cancel it with the flick of a switch.
“Myrnin?” She didn’t look up from the analysis running on the laptop computer screen. “Did you mess with my project?”
“A little,” he said. “Isn’t it better?”
It was. She had no idea what he’d done to it, but adjusting the controls showed precise calibrations that she couldn’t have done herself. “Did you maybe write down how you did it?”
“Probably,” Myrnin said cheerfully. “But I don’t think it will help. It’s just hearing the cycles and tuning to them. I don’t think you’re capable, with your limited human senses. If you’d become a vampire, you’d have so much more potential, you know.”
She didn’t answer that. She’d found it was really best not to engage in that particular debate with him, and besides, in the next second he’d forgotten all about it, focused on his enthusiasm for black coral.
On paper, the device they’d developed—well, she’d developed, and Myrnin had tweaked—seemed to work. Now she’d have to figure out how to test it, make sure it exactly replicated the way the vampire ability worked . . . and then make sure she could cancel that ability, reliably.
It might even have other applications. If you could make an attacking vampire afraid, make him back off, you could end a fight without violence. That alone made the work worthwhile.
And what happens when someone uses it the other way? she wondered. What happens if an attacker gets hold of it, then uses it to make you more afraid, as a victim? She didn’t have an answer for that. It was one of the things that made her feel, sometimes, that this was a bad idea— and that she ought to simply destroy the thing before it caused more trouble.
But maybe not quite yet.
Claire unhooked the machine—she didn’t have any kind of cool name for it yet, or even a project designation—and tested the weight of it. Heavy. She’d built it from solid components, and it generated considerable waste heat, but it was a prototype; it’d improve, if it was worthwhile.
She tried aiming it at the wall. It was a little awkward, but if she added a grip up front, that would help stabilize it—
Myrnin’s voice came from right behind her, way too close. She whirled, and her finger accidentally hit the switch on top as she fumbled her hold on the machine, and suddenly there was a live trial in action . . . on him.
She saw it work.
Myrnin’s eyes widened, turned very dark, and then began to shimmer with liquid hints of red. He took a step back from her. A large one. “Oh,” he said. “Don’t do that. Please don’t do that.”
She shut it off, fast, because she wasn’t sure what exactly had just happened. Something, for sure, but as live trials went, it was . . . inconclusive. “Sorry, sorry,” she said, and put the device down with a clunk on the marble top of the lab table. “I didn’t mean to do that. Um . . . what did you feel?”
“More of what I already felt,” he said, which was uninformative. He took another step backward, and the red didn’t seem to be fading from his eyes. “I was going to ask you if you’d send over some type AB from the blood bank; I seem to be running low. And also, I wanted to ask if you’d seen my bag of gummi worms.”
“You’re hungry,” Claire guessed. He nodded cautiously. “And it . . . made it stronger?”
“In a way,” he said. Not helpful. “Never mind the delivery from the blood bank. I believe I shall . . . take a walk. Good night, Claire.”
He was being awfully polite, she thought; with him, that was usually a cover for severe internal issues. Before she could try to figure out exactly what was going on in his head, though, he’d headed at vampire-speed for the stairs and was gone.
She shook her head and looked at the switched-off device in irritation. “Well, that was helpful,” she told it, and then rolled her eyes. “And now I’m talking to equipment, like him. Great.”
Claire threw a sheet over the machine, made notes in the logbook, turned off the lab’s lights, and headed home.
Arriving home—on Lot Street—didn’t do much for her mood, either, because as she stomped past the rusty, leaning mailbox on the outside of the picket fence, she saw that the door was open and mail was sticking out. It threatened to blow away in the ever-present desert wind. Perfect. She had three housemates, and all of them had somehow failed to pick up the mail. And that was not her job. At least today.
She glared up at the big, faded Victorian house, and wondered when Shane was going to get around to painting it as he’d promised he would. Never, most likely. Just like the mail.
Claire readjusted her heavy backpack on one shoulder, an automatic, thoughtless shift of weight, snatched the wadded-up paper out of the box, and flipped through the thick handfuls. Water bill (apparently, saving the town from water-dwelling draug monsters hadn’t given them any utility credits), electric bill (high, again), flyers from the new pizza delivery place (whose pizza tasted like dog food on tomato sauce), and . . . four envelopes, embossed with the Founder’s official seal.
She headed for the house. And then the day took one step further to the dark side, because pinned to the front door with a cheap pot-metal dagger was a hand-drawn note with four tombstones on it. Each headstone had one of their names. And below, it said, Vampire lovers get what they deserve.
Charming. It would have scared her except that it wasn’t the first she’d seen over the past few weeks; there had been four other notes, one slipped under the door, two pinned on it (like this one), and one slipped into the mailbox. That, and a steady and growing number of rude storekeepers, deliberate insults from people on the street, and doors slammed in her face.
It was no longer popular being the friend of the only mixed-marriage vampire/human couple in Morganville.
Claire ripped the note off, shook her head over the cheap dagger, which would snap in a fight, and unlocked the front door. She hip-bumped it open, closed it, and locked it again—automatic caution, in Morganville. “Hey!” she yelled without looking up. “Who was supposed to get the mail?”
“Eve!” Shane yelled from down the hall, in the direction of the living room, at the same time that Eve shouted, “Michael!” from upstairs. Michael said nothing, probably because he wasn’t home yet.
“We really need to talk about schedules! Again!” Claire called back. She briefly considered showing them the flyer, but then she balled it up and threw it, and the dagger, in the trash, along with the assorted junk mail offering discount crap and high-interest credit cards.
It’s just talk, she told herself. It wasn’t, but she thought that eventually, everyone—human and vampire—would just get their collective panties unbunched about Michael and Eve’s getting married. It was nobody’s business but their own, after all.
She focused instead on the four identical envelopes.
They were made of fancy, heavy paper that smelled musty and old, as if it had been stored somewhere for a hundred years and someone was just getting around to opening the box. The seal on the back of each was wax, deep crimson, and embossed with the Founder’s symbol. Each of their names was written on the outside in flowing, elegant script, so even and perfect, it looked like computer printing until she looked closely and found the human imperfections.
Her instincts were tingling danger, but she tried to think positively. C’mon, this could be a good thing, she told herself. Maybe it’s just a thank-you card from Amelie for saving Morganville. Again. We deserve that.
Sounded good, but Amelie, the Founder of Morganville, was a very old vampire, and vamps weren’t in the business of thanking people. Amelie had grown up royalty, and having people do crazy, dangerous (and possibly fatal) things on her slightest whim was just . . . normal. It probably didn’t even call for a smile, much less a note of gratitude. And, to be honest, Claire’s once almost-friendly status with the Founder had gotten a bit . . . strained.
Morganville, Texas, was just about the last gathering place for vampires in the world; it was the spot that they’d chosen to make their last stand, to forget their old grudges, to band tightly together against common threats and enemies. When Claire had first arrived, the vampires had been battling illness; then they’d been after one another. And four months ago, they’d been fighting the draug, water creatures that preyed on vampires like delicious, tasty snacks . . . and the vampires had finally won.
That left them the undisputed champions of the world’s food chain. In saving Morganville, Claire hadn’t really stopped to consider what might happen when the vamps no longer had something to fear. Now she knew.
They didn’t exactly feel grateful.
Oh, on the surface, Morganville was all good, or at least getting better. . . . The vamps had been fast on the trigger to start repairing the town, cleaning up after the demise of the draug, and getting all of their human population settled again in their homes, businesses, and schools. The official PR line had been that a dangerous chemical spill had forced evacuations, and that seemed to have satisfied everybody (along with generous cash payments, and automatic good grades to all of the students at Texas Prairie University who’d had their semesters cut short). Claire also suspected that the vampires had applied some psychic persuasion, where necessary— there were a few of them capable of doing that. On the surface, it looked like Morganville was not only recovering, but thriving.
But it didn’t feel right. On the few occasions that she’d seen Amelie, the Founder hadn’t seemed right, either. Her body language, her smile, the way she looked at people . . . all were different. And darker.
“Hey,” her housemate Eve Rosser—no, it was Eve Glass now, after the wedding—said. “You going to open those or what?” She walked up beside Claire, set a glass down on the kitchen counter, and poured herself a tall glass of milk. Her ruby wedding ring winked at Claire as if inviting her to share a secret joke. “Because the last time I saw something looking that official, it was inviting me to a party. And you know how much I love those.”
“You almost got killed at that party,” Claire said absently. She passed over Eve’s envelope and picked up her own.
“I almost get killed at most parties. Hence, you can tell that’s how much I love them,” Eve said, and ripped open the paper in a wide, tearing swath. Claire—who was by nature more of a neat gently-slice-the-thing-open kind of person—winced. “Huh. Another envelope inside the envelope. They do love to waste paper. Haven’t they ever heard of tree-hugging?”
As Eve extracted the second layer, Claire had a chance to do the usual wardrobe scan of her best friend . . . and wasn’t disappointed. Eve had suddenly taken a liking to aqua blue, and she’d added streaks of it in her black hair, which was worn today in cute, shiny ponytails on the sides of her head. Her Goth white face was brightened by aqua eye shadow and—where did she find this stuff?—matching lipstick, and she had on a tight black shirt with embossed crosses. The short, poufy skirt continued the blue theme. Then black tights with blue hearts. Then, combat boots.
So, a typical Wednesday, really.
Eve pulled the inner envelope free, opened the flap, and extracted a folded sheet of thick paper. Something fell out to bounce on the counter, and Claire caught it.
It was a card. A plastic card, like a credit card, but this one had the Founder’s symbol screened on the back, and it had Eve’s picture in the upper right corner—taken when she’d been without the full Goth war paint, which Eve would despise. It had Eve’s name, address, phone number . . . and a box at the bottom that read Blood Type: O Neg. Across from it was a box saying Protector: Glass, Michael.
“What the . . .? ” Oh, Claire thought, even before she’d finished the question. This must have been what the vampire cop was asking her for. The identification card.
Eve plucked the card from her fingers, stared at it with a completely blank expression, and then turned her attention to the letter that had come with it. “ ‘Dear Mrs. Michael Glass,’ ” she read. “Seriously? Mrs. Michael? Like I don’t even have a name of my own? And what the hell is this about his being my Protector? I never agreed to that!”
“And?” Claire reached for the letter, but Eve hip-checked her and continued reading.
“ ‘I have enclosed your new Morganville Resident Identification Card, which all human residents are now required to carry at all times so that, in the unlikely case of any emergency, we may quickly contact your loved ones and Protector, and provide necessary medical information.’ ” Eve looked up and met Claire’s eyes squarely. “I call bullshit. Human residents. With blood type listed? It’s like a shopping list for vamps.”
Claire nodded. “What else?”
Eve turned her attention back to the paper. “ ‘Failure to carry and provide this card upon request will result in fines of—’ Oh, screw this!” Eve wadded up the paper, dropped it on the floor, and stomped on it with her boots, which were certainly made for stomping. “I am not carrying around a Drink Me card, and they can’t ask for my papers. What is this, Naziland?” She picked up the card and tried to bend it in half, but it was too flexible. “Where did you put the scissors . . .? ”
Claire rescued the card and looked at it again. She turned it over, held it under the strongest light available—the window— and frowned. “Better not,” she said. “I think this is chipped.”
“Chipped? Can I eat it?”
“Microchipped. It’s got some kind of tech in it, anyway. I’d have to take a look to see what kind, but it’s pretty safe to say they’d know if you went all paper dolls with it.”
“Oh great, so it’s not just a Drink Me card; it’s a tracking device, like those ear things they put on lions on Animal Planet? Yeah, there’s no way that can go wrong—like, say, vampires being issued receivers so they can just shop online for who they want to target tonight.”
Eve was right about that, Claire thought. She really didn’t feel good about this. On the surface, it was just an ID card, perfectly normal—she already carried a student ID and a driver’s license— but it felt like something else. Something more sinister.
Eve stopped rummaging in drawers and just stared at her. “Hey. We each got one. Four envelopes.”
“I thought they were only for human residents,” Claire said. “So what’s in Michael’s?” Because Michael Glass was definitely not human these days. He’d been bitten well before Claire had met him, but the full-on vampire thing had been slow-building; she saw it more and more now, but deep down she thought he was still the same strong, sweet, no-nonsense guy she’d met when she’d first arrived on the Glass House doorstep. He was definitely still strong. It was the sweetness that was in some danger of fading away, over time.
Before Claire could warn Eve that maybe it wasn’t the greatest idea, Eve shredded open Michael’s envelope, too, yanked out the inner one, and pulled out his letter. Another card fell out. This one was gold. Shiny, shiny gold. It didn’t have any info on it at all. Just a gold card, with the Founder’s symbol embossed on it.
Eve went for the letter. “ ‘Dear Michael,’ ” she said. “Oh, sure, he gets Michael, not Mr. Glass. . . . ‘Dear Michael, I have enclosed your card of privilege, as has been discussed in our community meetings.’ ” She stopped again, reread that silently, and looked down at the card she was holding in her fingers. “Card of privilege? He doesn’t get the same treatment we do.”
“Community meetings,” Claire said. “Which we weren’t invited to, right? And what kind of privileges, exactly?”
“You’d better believe it’s a whole lot better than a free mocha at Common Grounds,” Eve said grimly. She kept reading, silently, then handed the paper stiff-armed to Claire, not saying another word.
Claire took it, feeling a bit ill now. It read:
Dear Michael, I have enclosed your card of privilege, as has been discussed in our community meetings. Please keep this card close, and you are welcome
to use it at any time at the blood bank, Bloodmobile, or Common Grounds for up to ten pints monthly.
Wow, it really was good for free drinks. But that wasn’t all.
This card also entitles you to one legal hunt per year without advance declaration of intent. Additional hunts must be preapproved through the Elders’ Council. Failure to seek preapproval will result in fines of up to five thousand dollars per occurrence, payable to the family’s Protector, if applicable, or to the City of Morganville, if there is no Protector on file.
Best wishes from the Founder, Amelie
For a moment, Claire couldn’t quite understand what she was reading. Her eyes kept going over it, and over it, and finally it all snapped into clear, razor-sharp focus, and she pulled in a deep, shaking breath. The paper creased as her grip tensed up.
“Yeah,” Eve said. Claire met her gaze wordlessly. “It’s telling him he gets a free pass to kill one person a year, just on a whim. Or more if he plans it out. You know, like a special treat. Privilege.” There was nothing in her tone, or her face, or her eyes. Just . . . blank. Locked down.
Eve took the paper from Claire’s unresisting hand, folded it, and put it back in the envelope with the gold card. “What—what are you going to say to him?” Claire couldn’t
quite get her head adjusted. This was wrong, just . . . wrong. “Nothing good,” Eve said. And that was the precise moment when the kitchen door
opened, and Michael stepped inside. He was wearing a thick black canvas cowboy-style duster coat, broad-brimmed hat, and black gloves. Eve had teased him earlier that he looked like an animé superhero, but it was all practical vampire sun-resistant gear. Michael was relatively still newborn as a vampire, which meant he was especially vulnerable to the sun, and to burning up.
Now, he whipped off his hat and gave the two of them an elaborate bow he’d probably copied from a movie (or, Claire thought, learned from one of the older vamps), and rose from that with a broad, sweet smile. “Hey, Claire. And hello, Mrs. Glass.” There was a special gentleness when he said Mrs. Glass—a private kind of thing, and it was both breathtaking and heartbreaking.
Heartbreaking, because in the next second, he knew something was wrong. The smile faltered, and Michael glanced from Eve to Claire, then back to Eve. “What?” He dumped the hat and his gloves on the table, and shed the coat without looking away from Eve’s face. “Baby? What’s wrong?” He walked to her and put his hands on her shoulders. His wedding ring matched hers, even down to the ruby inset, and it caught the light the way Eve’s had earlier.
It was terrible, Claire thought, that he was still so much Michael— still exactly as he’d been when she first met him—eighteen, though they were all catching up to him now in age. It wasn’t fair to call him pretty, but he was gorgeous—tumbles of blond curls that somehow always looked perfect; clear, direct blue eyes the color of a morning sky. His pallor gave him the perfect look of ivory, and when he stood still, as he was now, he looked like some fabulous lost statue direct from Greece or Rome.
It wasn’t fair.
Eve held the gaze between herself and her husband, and said, “This is for you.” She held up the inner envelope with his name written on it in flowing script.
For a second, Michael clearly didn’t know what it was . . . and then Claire saw him realize. His eyes widened, and something like horror passed over his expression and was quickly hidden underneath a blank, carefully composed mask. He didn’t say anything, but just took his hands from her shoulders and accepted the envelope. He stuck it in his pocket.
“You’re not even pretending to be curious?” Eve said. Her voice had gone deep in her throat and had taken on a dangerous edge. “Great.”
“You read it?” he asked, and took it out again to open it up. The card fell out, again, but he deftly snatched it out of the air without any effort. “Huh. It’s shinier than I thought it’d be.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
He unfolded the letter. Claire was no good at reading those micro-expressions people on TV were always talking about on crime shows, but she thought he looked guilty as he read it. Guilty as hell.
“It’s not what you think,” he said, which was exactly the wrong thing to say, because it made Claire (and almost certainly Eve) think about every guy ever caught cheating. Luckily, he didn’t stop there. “Eve, all vampires get the hunting privilege; it’s just part of living in Morganville—it’s always been the rule, even when nobody in the human community knew. Look, I don’t want it. I opposed the whole idea at the meetings—”
“Which you didn’t tell us about at all, jerk,” Eve broke in. “We’re community!”
Michael took a deep breath and continued. “I told Amelie and Oliver I wouldn’t ever use it, but they didn’t care.”
“Doesn’t matter. You have a free pass for murder.”
“No,” he said, and took her hands in his, a gesture so quick she couldn’t avoid it, but gentle enough that she could have pulled away if she’d wanted. “No, Eve. You know me better than that. I’m trying to change it.”
Her eyes filled with tears, suddenly, and she collapsed against his chest. Michael put his arms around her and held her tightly, his head resting against hers. He was whispering. Claire couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it really wasn’t any of her business.
She took the glass of milk Eve had poured for herself, seeing as how it was sitting there unwanted, and drank it. He still should have told us, she thought, and slit her envelope open with a steak knife to take out her own letter and ID card. It felt weird, seeing her information on there. Even though the vampires had always known what her blood type was, where she lived . . . it felt different, somehow.
As if she were some kind of commodity. Worse: with the chip in it, it meant she couldn’t hide, couldn’t run. She now, as Eve had said, had papers, just as they demanded in those old black-and-white war movies; she had to carry the card or get arrested (today’s encounter had proven that), and it meant that they could round her up whenever they wanted . . . for questioning. Or for sticking her in some kind of prison camp.
One thing was certain: Shane Collins was not going to like this at all . . . and just as she thought about that, Shane banged in the swinging door of the kitchen, headed straight for the refrigerator, and snagged himself a cold soft drink, which he popped open and chugged three swallows of before he stopped, looked at Eve and Michael, and said, “Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you guys are fighting again. Seriously, isn’t there supposed to be a honeymoon period or something?”
“We’re not fighting,” Michael said. There was something in his voice that warned this was a bad time for Shane to get snarky. “We’re making up. We’ll be upstairs.”
Shane actually opened his mouth to say something else, but he suddenly shivered and took a step back. “Hey!” he said, and looked up at the ceiling. “Stop it, Miranda! Brat.”
Miranda was . . . well, the Glass House teen ghost. A real, official one. She’d died here, in the house—sacrificed herself, in the battle with the draug—and now she was part of it, but invisible during the day.
She could still make herself felt, when she wanted to; the cold spot she’d just formed around Shane was proof of how she felt about his impulse to harass Michael and Eve just now. Miranda couldn’t be heard or seen during the daytime, but she could sure make her displeasure known.
And they’d probably hear about it tonight, in detail, when she materialized.
Claire sighed as Michael led Eve out of the room with an arm around her shoulders. “Here,” she said, and passed Shane the envelope with his name on it. “You should sit down. You’re really not going to like this.”
Sitting Shane down to discuss things didn’t help, because all it accomplished was an overturned chair, and Shane stalking the kitchen in dangerously black silence. He tried to throw his ID card in the trash, but Claire quietly retrieved it and put it back on the table, along with hers. Eve’s still sat abandoned on the counter.
“You’re going along with this?” he finally asked. She’d been watching him as he paced; there was a lot to learn about her boyfriend when he wasn’t saying anything, just from the tenseness of his muscles, and the way he held himself. How he looked right now was telling her that he was on the verge of punching something—preferably something with a set of fangs. Shane had gotten better about controlling his impulses to fight, but they never really went away. They couldn’t, she supposed. Now he stopped, put his back to the wall, and used both hands to push his shaggy, longish hair back from his face. His eyes were wide and dark and full of challenge as he looked at her.
“No,” she said. She felt steady, almost calm, really. “I’m not going along with it. None of us is—we can’t. Are you coming with me to talk to Amelie about it?”
“Hell yes, I’m coming with you. Did you think I’d let you go alone?”
“Do you promise to keep your cool?”
“I promise I won’t go starting any fights. But I’m taking a little insurance, and you’re carrying, too. No arguments. I know you don’t think Amelie’s exactly on our side anymore, so trusting her’s off the table.” He pushed off the wall and opened the cabinets under the sink; under there were several black canvas bags of equipment, all of it damaging to vampires in some way.
Claire wanted to be brave and say that she didn’t need any kind of defenses, but she was no longer sure of that. Morganville, since the defeat of the draug, was . . . different. Different in small, indefinable ways, but definitely not the same, and she wasn’t sure that the rules she’d learned about interacting with Amelie, the vampire Founder, were the same, either. The old Amelie, the one she’d gotten almost comfortable knowing . . . that woman would not have hurt her just for disagreeing.
But this new, more powerful Amelie seemed different. More remote. More dangerous.
So Claire looked at the contents of the bag he’d opened, and took out two vials of liquid silver nitrate, which she put in the pockets of her blue jeans. She wasn’t exactly dressed for vampire fighting—not that there was a real dress code for that—but she was prepared to sacrifice the cute sky blue top she had on, in an emergency. Pity she hadn’t picked the black one this morning.
Ah, Morganville. Where dressing to hide bloodstains was just good daily planning.
“We should talk to Hannah first,” she said as Shane picked out a thin-bladed knife that had been coated with silver. He checked the edge on it, nodded, and jammed it back in the leather sheath before he stuck it in the inside pocket of his leather jacket.
“If you think that’ll help,” he said. Hannah Moses was the newly minted mayor of Morganville—she’d been the police chief, but with the death of Richard Morrell, she’d ended up being appointed the First Human of the town. It wasn’t a job Hannah wanted, but it was one she’d accepted like the soldier she’d once been. “Though I figure if Hannah could have done anything about this, it would have already been done. She doesn’t need us to bring her the news.”
That was true enough, but still, Claire couldn’t shake the feeling that they needed allies at their side before dropping in on Amelie. Strength in numbers, and all that; she couldn’t ask Michael, not without asking Eve, and Eve was a hot button for the vampires right now. Michael and Eve were married, really, legally married, and that had cheesed off a good portion of the plasma-challenged in their screwed-up community. Apparently, prejudices didn’t die, even when people did.
Not that the humans seemed all that happy about it, either.
“Still,” she said aloud, “let’s go talk to her and see what she can do. Even if she just comes with us . . .”
“Yeah, I know—she’d be harder to make disappear.” Shane stepped in and bent his head and kissed her, a sudden and warm and sweet thing that made her pull her attention away from her worries and focus utterly on him for a moment. “Mmmm,” he murmured, not moving back farther than strictly required for the words to form between their lips. “Been missing that.”
“Me, too,” she whispered, and leaned into the kiss. It had been a busy few months, rebuilding Morganville, finding their lives and place in things again. Then she’d been focusing on getting caught up at school again—once Texas Prairie University had reopened, she’d been determined not to have to repeat any credit hours she’d missed during the general emergency. Her boyfriend had been through some rough times—more than rough, really—but they’d come out of it okay, she thought. They understood each other. Best of all, they actually liked each other. It wasn’t just hormones (though right now, hers were fizzing like a shaken soda; Shane just had that effect on her); it was something else. Something deeper.
Something special that she thought was actually going to last. Maybe even forever.
Shane pulled back and kissed the tip of her nose, which made her laugh just a little. “Gear up, Warrior Princess. We’ve got some adventuring to do.”
She was still smiling when they left the house, hand in hand, walking through the blazing hot midafternoon. Lot Street, their street, was mostly intact from all the troubles Morganville had seen; it even had most of its former residents back in place. As they passed, Mrs. Morgan waved at them as she watered her flowers. She was wearing a bathing suit that was—in Claire’s opinion— way too small, especially at her age, which had to be at least thirty. “Hello, Shane!” Mrs. Morgan said. Shane waved back, and gave her a dazzling grin.
Claire elbowed him. “Don’t bait the cougars.”
“You just don’t want me to have any fun, do you?”
“Not that kind of fun.”
“Oh, come on—she’s not serious. She just likes to flirt. Gives her a thrill.”
“I’m not thrilled.”
Shane’s smile this time was positively predatory. “Jealous?”
She was, surprisingly, and hid it under a glare. “Disgusted, more like.”
“C’mon, you think that actor guy is hot, and he’s probably as old as Mrs. Morgan.”
“He’s on TV. She’s modeling a bikini for you two doors down from us.”
“Oh, so it’s about access. In other words, if he lived two doors down and was walking around in his Joe Boxers . . .”
She elbowed him again, because this was not turning out to be an easy win of a conversation. He grunted a little, as if she’d hurt him (which she hadn’t, at all), and he put his arm around her shoulders. “Okay, I surrender,” he said. “No more cougar baiting. I won’t even go outside without a shirt on when I mow the lawn. But you have to make the same promise.”
“Not to go outside without a shirt? Sure.”
“No,” he said, and suddenly he was completely serious. “No flirting with older guys. Especially the really old ones.”
He meant Myrnin, her vampire boss, friend, mentor, and sometimes the bane of her existence. Crazy, wildly sentimental Myrnin, who seemed to like her more than was good for either of them.
And she sometimes hadn’t done a very good job of handling that, she had to admit.
“I promise,” she said. “No flirting.”
He sent her a sidelong look that was a little doubtful, but he nodded. “Thanks.”
Other than Mrs. Morgan’s bright orange bikini, it was an uneventful walk. Morganville wasn’t a huge place, and from Lot Street to the mayor’s office was about ten minutes at a stroll—in the current late-spring temperatures, just about enough time to really start to feel the burn of the sun beating down. Claire was a little grateful when Shane opened the door and she stepped into the cooler, darker space of the Morganville City Hall lobby. It had been rebuilt, mostly, but one thing about the vampires: they demanded high standards on their civic buildings. The place looked great, with new marble floors and columns and fancy-looking light fixtures overhead. Old-world elegance in the middle of Nowhere, Texas.
A round wooden information desk was situated in the center of the lobby, staffed by a good-looking lady probably only a few years out of college. The nameplate in front of her said she was Annabelle Lange. Looking up as Claire and Shane stopped in front of her, she gave them a warm, welcoming smile. She had chestnut brown hair worn long and glossy, and big blue eyes . . . entirely too pretty, and all her attention focused on Shane immediately.
This was worse than Mrs. Morgan by a whole lot. Annabelle wasn’t old. And she didn’t have to wear a Day-Glo bikini to get attention.
“We’re here to see the mayor,” Claire said before Annabelle could speak or ask Shane for his phone number. “Claire Danvers and—”
“Shane Collins,” Annabelle interrupted her, still smiling. “Yes, I know. Just a moment; I’ll see if Mayor Moses is available.”
She turned away and got on a telephone. While she was busy, Claire sent Shane a look—a significant one. He raised his eyebrows, clearly amused. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. “Totally not my fault.”
“Stop being so . . .”
“Charming? Attractive? Irresistible?”
“I’m going with arrogant.”
“Ow.” Before he could defend himself, the receptionist was back, all smiles and dimples.
“Mayor Moses is in a meeting, but she says she can work you in immediately after. If you’d like to go upstairs and wait in her office . . .”
“Thanks,” Shane said. And the girl actually did that lip-biting shorthand for I’m available and gave him the under-the-lashes look. Textbook. Claire couldn’t help but roll her eyes, not that she actually existed on Annabelle Lange’s planet at all.
Shane noticed, though. Definitely. He hustled Claire on, fast, to the elevators. “C’mon, that wasn’t worth all that effort at a reaction. She’s just . . . friendly.”
“If she were any friendlier, she’d be giving you a lap dance right now.”
“Wow. Who turned you into the Green-Eyed Monster? And don’t tell me you got bitten by a radioactive spider. There’s no superhero of jealousy.” When she didn’t reply before they reached the elevators, he punched the button, then turned toward her. It wasn’t just a casual kind of look; it was a level stare, very direct, and it caught Claire a little off guard. “Seriously. Are you really thinking I’m into Mrs. Morgan? Or what’s-her-name back there?”
“Annabelle,” Claire said, and wished she hadn’t remembered the girl’s name quite that fast. “No. But—”
“But what?” It wasn’t like Shane to be so serious. “You know I was just kidding about Mrs. Morgan, right? I wouldn’t go there. Or anywhere. I mean, I look at girls, because c’mon, that’s biology. But I love you.” He said it so matter-of-factly that it sent a shiver through her, deep down to her toes. When Shane was serious, when he got that steady, calm look in his eyes, it made her hot and cold all over. She felt as if she were floating someplace very high, where the air was terribly thin but intoxicating.
“I know,” she whispered, and stepped closer to him. “That’s why I’m jealous.”
“You know that doesn’t make sense, right?”
“It does. Because now I have so much more to lose, and more every time you kiss me. I think about losing you, and it hurts.”
He smiled. It occurred to her that Shane didn’t smile much with other people, only with her, and certainly not that way. It was so . . . hot, having that all to herself. “You’re not losing me,” he said. “I straight-out promise that.”
Whatever else he was going to say—she would have managed to think about it in the ringing, happy silence of the afterglow— was interrupted by the soft bell of the elevator. Shane offered his arm, and she took it, feeling stupid and a little bit giggly, and let him escort her into the elevator.
As soon as the doors slid shut, Shane pushed the button for the third floor (it had a boldly lettered mayor’s office sign on it) and then backed her up against the wall, bent his head, and kissed her for real. A lot. Deeply. His lips felt soft and damp and sweet and more than a little too hot for being in public, and she made a protesting little sound that was half a warning that the door was going to open any second. The other half of her was begging him to completely disregard the warning and just keep going . . . but then he pulled back, took in a deep breath, and stepped away as the doors opened.
He was still smiling, and she couldn’t stop staring at him. In profile, those lips were just . . . yeah. Delicious.
“Claire,” he said, and gave her an after-you gesture.
“Oh,” she said brilliantly, and pulled her head together with an effort. “Right. Thanks.”
The warm spell of the elevator was broken, because as she and Shane stepped out into the hallway, a door slammed hard down the hall, and a tall girl in a short skirt and designer heels came striding around the corner. The season’s color was hot pink, and she was practically glowing in the dark with it . . . the skirt, the shoes, the nail polish, the lipstick.
The lips took a particularly bitter curl when Monica Morrell spotted the two of them. Her steps slowed for a second, and then she tossed her glossy hair over her shoulders and kept coming. “Somebody call security—vagrants are getting in again,” she said. “Oh, never mind. It’s just you. Here visiting your parole officer, Shane?”
It sounded classically Monica, Mean Girl, Deluxe Edition, but there was something different about her, Claire thought. Monica’s heart didn’t seem quite in it anymore. She looked a little pale under her must-have spray tan, and despite the up-to-the-minute makeup and clothes, she seemed a little lost. The world had finally and decisively knocked the props out from under Monica Morrell, and Claire wished she could have more satisfaction in that. She still felt the pulse of dull anger and resentment, sure; that was pretty much hardwired inside, after the years of abuse Monica had heaped on her since she’d arrived.
But, knowing what she knew, there was not nearly enough delicious revenge to be had in seeing Monica off-balance.
“Monica,” Shane said. Nothing else. He watched her the way you’d watch a potentially hostile pit bull, ready for anything, but he wasn’t reacting to her jibe. Monica didn’t return the greeting.
“Nice dress,” Claire said. She meant that. The hot pink looked particularly good on Monica, and she’d obviously taken a lot of time with the whole look.
Monica punched the elevator button, since the doors had already shut, and said, “That’s it? Nice dress? You’re not even going to ask me if I mugged a dead hooker for it or something? Lame, Dan-vers. You need to step up your efforts if you want to make an impression.”
“How are you?” Claire asked. Shane made a sound of protest in the back of his throat, a low warning she disregarded; maybe this was useless, trying to be empathetic with Monica, but it wasn’t really in Claire’s nature not to try.
“How am I?” Monica sounded puzzled, and for a moment, she looked directly at Claire. Her eyes were expertly made up, but under the covering layers they looked tired and a little puffy. “My brother’s dead, and you jackasses just stood there and let it happen. That’s how I am.”
“Monica—” Shane’s voice was gentler than Claire expected. “You know that’s not what happened.”
“Do I?” Monica smiled slightly, her eyes never leaving Claire’s. “I know what people tell me happened.”
“You were talking to Hannah,” Claire guessed. “Didn’t she tell you . . .”
“None of your business what we talked about,” Monica interrupted. The elevator dinged for her, and she stepped inside as it opened. “I don’t believe any of you. Why should I? You’ve all hated me since forever. As far as I’m concerned, you all thought this was payback. Guess what? Payback’s a bitch. And so am I.”
Monica looked . . . alone, Claire thought, as the doors slid closed on her. Alone and a little scared. She’d always been insulated from the real world—first by her father, the former mayor of Morganville, and by her faithful mean-girl companions. Her brother, Richard, hadn’t coddled her, but he’d protected her, too, when he thought it was necessary. Now that Richard was gone, killed by the savage draug, she had . . . well, nothing. Her power was pretty much gone, and with it, her friends. She was just another pretty girl now, and one thing Monica wasn’t used to being . . . was ordinary.
“I thought she’d be less . . .”
“Bitchy?” Shane supplied. “Yeah, good luck. She’s not the reforming type.”
Claire elbowed him. “Like you? Because as I remember it, you were all bad-boy slacker bad attitude when I met you. So you’ve what, forgiven her? That’s not like you, Shane.”
Shane shrugged, a slow roll of his shoulders seeming to be more about getting rid of tension than expressing an emotion. “Could have been wrong about some things she did before,” he said. “Doesn’t mean she isn’t a waste of general air space, though.”
Well, he was right about that, and since Monica was gone, there was no point in spending time discussing her, anyway. They had an appointment, and when they rounded the corner toward the mayor’s office, they found the door open, with the receptionist at her desk.
“Yes?” The receptionist here, unlike the one downstairs, was all business . . . matronly, chilly, with X-ray blue eyes that scanned the two of them up and down and rendered a verdict of not very important. “Can I help you?”
“We’re here to see Mayor Moses,” Claire said. “Uh—Claire Danvers and Shane Collins. We called up.”
“Have a seat.” The receptionist went back to her computer screen, completely uninterested in them even before they moved to the waiting area. It was comfortable enough, but the magazines were ages old, and within a few seconds Claire found herself itching to do something, so she pulled out her phone and began scrolling through texts and e-mails. There weren’t very many, but then her circle of tech-savvy friends wasn’t very large. Most of the vampire residents of Morganville hadn’t mastered the knack and didn’t want to ever try. Most of the humans were too wary of network monitoring to commit much to pixels.
However, Eve had linked her to a funny cat video, which was a nice break from the usual vampire-related mayhem. Claire watched it twice while Shane flipped through a decade-old Sports Illustrated before the receptionist finally said, “The mayor will—” She was probably going to frostily pronounce that the mayor would see them now, but she was interrupted by the door opening to the mayor’s inner office, and Hannah Moses herself stepping out.
“Claire, Shane, come in,” she said, and cut a glance at her assistant. “We’re not that formal here.”
The receptionist’s mouth tightened into a lemon-sucking pucker, and she stabbed at the keys on her computer as if she intended to sink her fingerprints into them.
Mayor Moses—that sounded so strange, honestly—closed the door behind the two of them and said, “Sorry about Olive. She’s inherited from two previous administrations. So. What was so urgent?” She indicated the two chairs sitting across from her desk as she took her own seat and leaned forward, elbows on the smooth wood surface. There was something elegant and composed about her, and something intimidating, too. . . . Hannah was a tall woman, angular, with skin the color of very dark chocolate. She was attractive, and somehow the scar (a souvenir of Afghanistan and her military career) just worked to make her more interesting. She’d changed her hair; the neat cornrows were gone now, and she’d shaved it close to her head in a way that made her look like a beautiful, scary piece of sculpture.
She’d exchanged her police uniform for sharply tailored jackets and pants, but the look was still somehow official . . . even to the Morganville pin in her lapel. She might not have a gun anymore, but she still looked completely competent and dangerous.
“Here,” Shane said, and handed over his ID card. “What the hell is up with these things?”
He certainly wasn’t wasting any time.
Hannah glanced at it and handed it back without a smile. “Don’t like your picture?”
“There are certain . . . compromises I’ve had to make,” she said. “And no, I’m not happy about them. But carrying ID cards isn’t going to kill you.”
“Hunting licenses might,” Claire said. “Michael’s letter said they were back in force. Each vampire can kill one human a year, free and clear. Did you know that?”
That got her a sharp, unreadable look from the mayor, and after a moment, Hannah said, “I’m aware of it. And working on it. We have a special session this afternoon to discuss it.”
“Discuss it?” Shane said. “We’re talking about licenses to murder, Hannah. How can you sign up for this?”
“I didn’t sign up for it. I was outvoted,” she said. “Oliver’s got . . . influence over Amelie now. In defeating the draug—which we had to do, for the safety of the human population—we also removed the only thing that vampires really feared. They certainly aren’t afraid of humans anymore.”
“They’d better be,” Shane said grimly. “We’ve never taken any of this lying down. That’s not going to change.”
“But—Amelie promised that things would change,” Claire said. “After we defeated her father, Bishop. She said humans would have an equal place in Morganville, that all this hunting would stop! You heard her.”
“I did. And now she’s changed her mind,” Hannah said. “Believe me, I tried to stop the whole thing, but Oliver’s in charge of the day-to-day business. He’s put two more vampires on the Elders’ Council, which makes it three to one if we vote along vampire versus human lines. In short, they can just ignore my votes.” She looked calm, mostly, but Claire noticed the tight muscles in her jaw, and the way she glanced away as if reliving a bad memory.
Claire followed her gaze and saw a lone cardboard moving box in the corner. Hannah hadn’t had the job very long, so it could have just been unpacking left to do . . . but from what she knew of her, Mayor Moses wasn’t one to just let things sit around undone.
The mayor focused on her, and for a second Claire thought she might talk about what was bothering her, but then she shook her head. “Never mind,” she said. “Claire, please take my advice. Drop this. There’s nothing you can do or say that will change her mind, and Amelie’s not the person you knew before. She’s not reasonable. And she’s not safe. If I could have put a stop to this, I would have; seven generations of my family come from Morganville, and I don’t want to see things go south any more than you do.”
“But—if we don’t talk to Amelie, what are we supposed to do to stop it?”
“I don’t know,” Hannah said. She seemed angry, and deeply troubled. “I just don’t know.”
At times like these, Claire was sharply reminded that Hannah wasn’t just some small-town sheriff upgraded to mayor. She had been a soldier, and she’d fought for her country. Hannah had taken up arms in Morganville before, and in a fight there wasn’t anybody Claire wanted at her back more (except Shane).
“That’s not an answer,” Shane said. He tapped the identification card again. “You’re not serious about really carrying these things.”
“That’s the new law of the land, Shane. Carry it or get fined the first time. Second time, it’s jail. I can’t advise you to do anything else but comply.”
“What do we get the third time, stocks and public mockery?”
“There wouldn’t be a third time,” she said. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
He looked at her for a long moment, then silently put it back in his pocket. Claire knew that look, and she saw the muscle jumping uneasily along his jawline. He was counting to ten, silently, letting go of the impulse to say something crazy and suicidal.
When he let his breath out, slowly, she knew it was okay, and she felt tension she didn’t even know she had start to unbraid along her spine.
“Thanks for seeing us,” Claire said, and Hannah stood to offer her hand. Claire accepted, though she still felt awkward shaking hands. Trying to be professional always made her seem like a fraud, like a kid playing dress-up. But she tried to hold Hannah’s gaze as she returned the firm, dry grip. “Are you sure you won’t come with us?”
“You’re intent on going to see Amelie?”
“We have to try,” Claire said. “Don’t we? As you said, she used to listen to me, a little. Maybe she still will.”
Hannah shook her head. “Kid, you’ve got guts, but I’m telling you, it’s not going to work.”
“Will you make an appointment for me, though? That way there’s a record.”
“I will.” Hannah looked to Shane. “You’re going to let her do this?”
Ten seconds later, they were out in the waiting area, under the judging gaze of the assistant, and then in the hallway. Claire took in a deep breath. “Did we actually accomplish anything?”
“Yeah,” Shane said. “We figured out that Hannah wasn’t going to help us much. Go figure, a Morganville mayor whose hands are tied? Who saw that coming?” He stopped Claire and put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ll go with you to see Amelie.”
“That’s sweet, but having you with me is kind of a walking invitation to trouble.”
“Just because they know I prefer my vampires extra-crispy . . .”
“Exactly.” Claire covered the hand on her shoulder with her own. “I’ll be careful.”
“I meant what I said. You’re not going in there alone,” he said. “Take Michael. Or—and I can’t believe I’m actually saying this— take Myrnin. Just have somebody at your back, okay?”
It was really something if Shane suggested she go anywhere at all with Myrnin, and for pretty good reasons. . . . Myrnin had feelings for her, and he had feelings for Shane, too, but in the opposite way entirely. As in, Myrnin probably thought about the death of her boyfriend, and Shane had the same fantasies. It was a mutual, weirdly cheerful loathing, even if it didn’t come to outright conflict.
“Okay,” Claire said. She didn’t mean it, but it touched her that he was so genuinely concerned about her safety. She’d survived a lot in Morganville—not as much as Shane, granted—and she thought of herself as pretty tough these days. Not indestructible, but . . . sturdy.
One of these days, she’d have to sit him down and explain that she wasn’t the fragile little sixteen-year-old he’d met; she was an adult now (she so didn’t feel that status yet, despite the birthdays) and she’d proven she could meet the challenges of survival around here. And while it was sweet and lovely that he wanted to protect her, at a certain point he really needed to understand it wasn’t his job to do it, twenty-four/seven.
He linked his arm with hers and walked her to the elevator. There was no repeat of the kissing, which was a little disappointing, but he outright ignored his would-be stalker Annabelle down in the outer lobby. That was better.
After the chill of the lobby, walking into the sun was like hitting a furnace face-first, and Claire blinked and grabbed her sunglasses. They were cheap and fun, blinged all to heaven—a gift from Eve, of course. As she adjusted them, she saw something odd.
Monica Morrell was still here. Standing at the bottom of the steps, leaning against a forbidding granite pillar (the courthouse was built in a style Claire liked to call Early American Mausoleum) and shading her eyes to peer out at the street. The hot wind stirred her long, glossy, dark hair like a sheet of silk, and that dress—as ever—was dangerously close to violating decency laws when the breeze inched the hem up.
Shane saw her, too, and slowed down, shooting Claire a sideways glance. She silently agreed. It was odd. Monica didn’t just stand places, at least not unless she was making a statement of some kind. She was always on the move, like a shark.
“Huh,” Monica said. “That’s weird. Don’t you think that’s weird?” She addressed the remark to the air, but Claire supposed she intended it for her and Shane. Kind of.
“What?” she asked.
“The van,” Monica said, and tilted her head toward the street. “Parked on the corner.”
“Sweet,” Shane said. “Somebody got new wheels.”
“This year’s model,” Monica said. “I know for a fact that our lame-ass car lot doesn’t even have last year’s model. I had to go all the way to Odessa to buy my convertible. Morganville doesn’t exactly keep up with the cutting edge.”
“Okay.” Shane shrugged. “Somebody went to Odessa and bought a new van. Why’s that weird?”
“Because I’d know about it if they did, stupid. Nobody in Morganville’s bought a new van in years.” She sounded confident. Monica was the queen of town gossip, and Claire had to admit, she had a point. She would know. She’d probably know the serial numbers of each purchase, and how many times it had driven through town, and what the driver had been wearing on each occasion. “Besides, that shine? That’s so town, not country. And check out the tinting.”
“So?” Claire asked. Most glossy cars in Morganville had superdark windows, because they were owned by people who were— to put it mildly—allergic to the sun.
“That’s not vampire shades,” Shane said. “Dark, but not that dark. Custom stuff. Huh. And there’s a logo on the side. Can’t really see it, though, and . . .” His voice trailed off as the doors opened on the van. Three people got out.
“Oh,” Monica said. “Oh. My. God. Look at him.”
There were two men who’d exited the van, but Claire knew exactly what she meant. . . . There was only one him, even at a distance. Tall, dark, Latin, hot 125.
“That,” Monica continued, in a voice that sounded very much like awe, “is some serious man candy.” Shane made a throwing-up sound in the back of his throat, which brought out a leisurely smile on Monica’s lips. “I’ll bet if I licked him, he’d even taste like fruit. Passion fruit.”
There was a woman, too—tall, leggy, with blond hair pulled back in a bouncy, glossy ponytail. She seemed pretty, too, but Claire had to admit, her attention was on Mr. Man Candy. Even at a distance, Monica had nailed the description.
Monica pushed away from the pillar and set off in a runway stride, high heels clicking on the hot concrete sidewalk.
“Come on,” Shane said, and tugged Claire after her. “This, I’ve got to see. And maybe get on the Internet.”