Anthony closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose in front of the burnt-out wreck that used to be his bar, Boston Uncommon. Even in the darkness he could see the destruction too well. His dear "aunt" Sadie rested her hand on his shoulder. Neither spoke for a few reverent moments.
At last, Sadie said, "I know it's bad, but at least no one died...per se."
Anthony slowly opened his eyes and stared at her. "Per se?"
His only living relative pursed her lips. "I don't know if I should tell you this..."
Anthony sighed. "You have my attention now. Tell me whatever it is, whether you think I ought to know or not."
"It's Claudia. She's in trouble."
Now his psychic aunt really had Anthony's attention.
Claudia had been on his mind too, but not because he thought anything was wrong with his beautiful, stylish bar manager. He assumed a smart woman like Claudia would find another job in a snap-and he would miss her terribly.
He'd trusted her completely with his business, and not just because she had an MBA. She was always there during the daylight hours when he couldn't be. He missed her cheery smile and their private conversations in his office, and if he were honest, he'd admit to missing her more than his lost income.
She'd never know that, though. He had to hide every emotion he had toward Claudia from his psycho ex-girlfriend, Ruxandra, for Claudia's safety.
"Come to think of it, she hasn't called to ask for a reference. What's wrong?" he asked.
"I'm not sure. I get the sense she's in emotional turmoil. It's more than an unhappy feeling I'm picking up. Possibly, she's very depressed-or worse. Call her."
Anthony dug his cell phone out of his suit jacket pocket. As he pushed the number 1 on his speed dial, he realized again how important she had been to him. If she was depressed, he needed to give her more than a phone call.
It rang a few times before she picked up. Her garbled hello alarmed him.
"Who wans to know?"
"It's Anthony. Are you all right?"
After a long pause, he repeated the question.
"I'm jus' fine an' dandy."
"You sound drunk."
She snorted. "So? I'm over twenty-one. I'm in my own 'partment. Don't I have the right to drown my sorrows?"
He gentled his voice. "What sorrows, Claudia? What's happening?"
She laughed. "I los' my job. I thought you knew that. You were my boss."
It had to be more than that. "Claudia, I'm coming over."
"No! I mean, please don't. I'll be fine."
"I'm on my way." He hung up and dropped his phone back into his jacket pocket.
He touched Sadie's arm. "Thank you for telling me."
"Call me later and let me know how fucked up she is."
Anthony raised his eyebrows.
She raised hers right back at him. "You can't be shocked at my language. You've heard it before. Listen, I wouldn't have had a vision if all was well. Oh, and be sure to tell her I'm thinking of her."
He nodded and jogged around the corner to a deserted side street before he took off at top speed. After all, he couldn't let the constant crowds on Charles Street see him virtually disappear. They weren't supposed to know vampires existed-along with dragons, werewolves, and any other number of supernaturals. Boston Uncommon had been a safe haven for all of them. Anthony couldn't help wondering where they'd all go now.
He had Claudia's address memorized. Even though he had never been to her high-rise apartment overlooking the river, the big sign bragged, "If you lived here, you'd be home by now." It took him about two seconds to reach it.
A doorman. Shit. If the gentleman opened the door without asking him to come in, it didn't count as an invitation into someone else's home. Without it, he couldn't get in. So, Anthony tried for a little small talk.
"Yes, sir." As predicted, the man opened the door but didn't invite him in.
Anthony spotted the concierge behind the desk inside. "Uh, I don't live here, but I'd like to see someone who does. What should I do?"
"Speak to the concierge inside."
That sounded like it might be an invitation. Better to be sure. "So, I should go in?"
The gentleman's brow wrinkled. "Yes, sir."
"Thank you." That was a trifle awkward, but it did the trick.
The concierge offered him a welcoming smile but when asked to notify Claudia Fletcher that she had a visitor, he gave Anthony the unexpected news that she had moved out.
"Where is she now?"
The concierge looked uncomfortable and said, "I'm not at liberty to give anyone that information."
Anthony leaned in until he held the other man's gaze. "If you have the information I just asked for, you will give it to me, and you won't remember divulging it."
"Yes, sir." In slow motion, the gentleman reached under the desk and drew out an old-fashioned index-card box. He thumbed through the alphabetical tabs until he located Fletcher, Claudia, and offered the card to Anthony.
A Cambridge address in Claudia's handwriting occupied the space for forwarding mail. At the bottom she'd scrawled, "If I continued to live here, I'd be homeless by now."
Anthony took off at a brisk jog to her Cambridge apartment. He could no longer fly since he didn't know exactly where he was going. On the way, he reflected back to when he'd first met the klutzy waitress who became his bar manager...and how Ruxandra had instantly spotted the attraction.
He had been gazing with appreciation at one of his waitresses, Claudia, a blond with a pixie cut. She caught him staring at her, and the tray she carried crashed to the floor. She gasped and quickly stooped down to gather the large pieces of glass.
Anthony had to force himself to ignore her perfectly rounded bottom and help her. "Hang, on, Claudia," he called. "I'll be right there." He found the broom and long-handled dustpan while Joel brought her a damp towel.
"I'm so sorry, Anthony. Ouch!" She'd pricked her finger on a piece of glass, and a tiny red bead seeped out.
His mouth watered. The smell of her blood was intoxicating, but he wrestled himself under control. It would have been so easy to lick that wound and stop the bleeding instantly...if he could resist more than a taste. No snacking on the staff, no matter how wonderful she smells, he ordered himself.
"This sort of thing happens, Claudia. Step back and let me sweep up the shards of glass."
"I should do that. I made the mess. I-I feel like such a spaz."
Little did she know he found her flustered reaction to his gaze adorable. He'd better keep that to himself, however. Otherwise he might have to "clean up aisle one" a lot more.
"It's all right. I've got it. Just replace the drinks you were bringing to your customers."
Claudia sagged as if defeated and returned to the bar where Joel was already re-pouring the order.
"What happened?" Joel whispered to her.
Anthony wouldn't have heard the exchange if not for his superior vampiric senses.
"I just didn't have the tray balanced properly. I've never waitressed before. I'll get used to it eventually, I'm sure."
"Don't take too long," Joel said as he set two new cocktails on a dry tray.
Claudia let out a little groan and carefully walked the drinks over to the waiting customers.
In only a few minutes, the spill was cleaned up and everything seemed to be returning to normal. Anthony had just laid a hand on Claudia's shoulder, ready to reassure her that she wasn't in any trouble, when suddenly the door burst open and Ruxandra strutted in.
"I knew it!"
Anthony growled. "Ruxandra." He straightened his six-foot frame and strode over to his ex-girlfriend, now nemesis. "You're not welcome here."
"I can see that. I might spoil your plans with your new whore."
"Ruxandra!" He didn't know what else to say in front of a full bar of staff and patrons, so he grabbed her arm and dragged her outside.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
She flipped her long blond hair over her shoulder. "I came to bring you back where you belong, lover. With me."
"I'm not your lover anymore, and I belong where I say I belong."
Unconcerned, she finger-walked her way up his chest. "Then I must belong here too, because we belong together."
"No. We do not."
She ripped her arm out of his grasp and pouted. "But I always took care of you, Anthony. You need me. Why do you keep running away from me?"
"Because you won't let me go." His posture sagged. "Look. You took good care of me when we were together, it's true. But your jealousy ruined our relationship. I can't have you ruining my business too.
"But I'm no good without you." Her lower lip jutted out as it did whenever she was trying to manipulate him. Her pretty pout used to work but not anymore.
"I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm infinitely better off without you controlling my every move."
"You're my maker. You're responsible for me." She folded her arms and tipped her head back as if daring him to defy her logic.
"You can't talk like that in public." He grasped her arm again and led her back inside to his office. As soon as they were behind the closed and locked door, he took a deep, steadying breath. "I've taught you all I know-including not to use words like ‘maker' in front of humans. We are not lovers anymore and haven't been for decades. You're not even my friend. My duty has been met, and you have no claim on me."
She stomped her foot and the hardwood floor cracked. "But I need your protection. It's a big, scary world out there."
He couldn't help it. He leaned back and roared, laughing. When he had composed himself, she was glaring at him.
"If anything, the world needs protection from you, Ruxandra. My bar is off-limits. I cannot prevent you from staying in the city, but I can ban you from my business."
"It's a public place. I don't need an invitation."
"It's my bar, and I can ban anyone who doesn't behave themselves in it."
"I haven't done anything-yet."
"I'm afraid you have. You called one of my waitstaff a whore."
She snorted. "Is that all anyone has to do to get banned? Use a bad word? Ha! You won't be open very long if that's the case."
"I won't be open long if you cause a scene every time you get jealous."
She tipped her nose in the air and sniffed.
He'd had all he could stand of her. "Ruxandra, I need to get back to work." He unlocked his office, marched her to the front door, and gave her a shove. "Now, go away."
A couple passed them on the sidewalk and stared.
"I'll go for now, but I'll be back. Mark my words. You'll regret throwing me away like trash."
Anthony had to bite his cheek to avoid the retort he so badly wanted to mutter. Instead, he just hoped he'd have a bar to run the next evening.
Stepping out of his flashback, he found the street he'd been looking for near Central Square and stopped to catch his breath-what there was of it.
At the brick apartment building's entrance, a few buzzers showed names of tenants. He located the one for C. Fletcher and pressed it. No answer. She wouldn't have left because I said I was coming over, would she? He leaned on the buzzer and didn't take his finger off until Claudia's voice shouted, "Cut that out!"
"Claudia! It's Anthony. Let me in."
"I tol' you not to come," she slurred.
"Well, I'm here, and I'm not leaving until I see you."
After a few tense seconds, a third-story window slid open. When Anthony looked up, Claudia leaned out. "There. You've seen me. Now go away." She swayed and he was afraid she might fall out.
"Let me in, Claudia." He was tempted to jump up to that high window, but she didn't know what he was.
It might scare her straight, but I couldn't enter without her permission, so I'd just wind up hanging off the side of the building and that wouldn't attract attention at all.
A young man stared as he walked by. Anthony couldn't help feeling a little stalker-ish, standing on her doorstep and begging to come in.
At last, Claudia let out a loud sigh and said, "Oh, all right." She slammed the window shut, and a few seconds later she buzzed him in.
Now what? Is a buzzer enough of an invitation when someone doesn't want you to enter? He opened the door and cautiously extended his foot past the threshold. Whew. I guess it is. Either that, or Claudia really did want to see him. He went with that assumption and genuinely hoped he was right.
Jogging up to the third floor, he wondered what he should say to her. I miss you? I can't believe I won't see you every day?
She opened the door just a crack, but it was enough for him to see her face. Her eyes were red, puffy, and ringed with smudged black mascara. He never dreamed he'd see her like this. She always seemed so smartly put together, but clearly she was falling apart.
"Claudia," he said softly. "May I come in?"
She hesitated but eventually let out a deep breath and opened the door. "Why not?"
It wasn't much of an invitation but would have to suffice. She didn't look like she was going to welcome him with open arms.
"Thank you," he said as he stepped into her living room. She had always kept his office immaculate, so he was shocked to see her apartment looking like a Tasmanian devil had torn it apart.
A pizza container, empty glasses, and paper plates littered the coffee table and floor around it. Empty beer cans and liquor bottles were strewn across the open kitchen counters. Pillows lay on the floor and sported black stains.
"Have you been crying?"
She swiped at the smudges under her eyes. "No."
"Don't lie to me, Claudia. Have you been depressed ever since the fire?"
She wandered over to her sofa and plopped down on it, dropping her head into her hands. Anthony followed and sat beside her. When she didn't answer his question, he softened his approach.
Rubbing her back, he said, "Tell me what's wrong, Claudia. This can't all be because the bar is gone. Even I don't feel that bad about it, and I owned the place."
It was a welcome sound. Maybe she still had her sense of humor. If Anthony could get her to see things in a lighter way, he might be able to save her. He picked up a beer bottle from the floor and set it on the coffee table. "I see you decided to open your own bar."
She raised her face and frowned at him. "I drink when I'm upset. What of it?"
"I'm sure you know this, but alcohol won't help. If anything, it will make you even more depressed."
She sighed and sagged against the colorful pillows. "I missed the smell of Boston Uncommon. I know that's nuts, but it's the truth. So, that's why..." She made a sweeping gesture toward the well-stocked kitchen-counter bar. Only then did he notice that all the bottles were open and most were empty.
He doubted that was the only reason why, but now was not the time to discuss a possible drinking problem. The thing was, he'd never smelled alcohol on her at work. They shared an occasional brandy when they discussed business before she left for the evening, but he'd never seen her have more than one.
Claudia's eyes shimmered with new tears, and she turned her head away from him.
Anthony couldn't refrain from touching her any more than he could fly to the moon. He reached over and pulled her into his arms.
She leaned against him and sighed. Then she turned her face into his shirt and inhaled deeply. If she knew I ran all the way here, she might not want to do that. As it was, she seemed to melt into him.
"Claudia, Claudia, Claudia...what am I going to do with you?"
She leaned away from him and looked up into his eyes, searching, yearning-but for what?
Could she have harbored feelings for me and hidden them so well that I never recognized them? Well, why the hell not? He had done the same thing around her for the last five years.
From the day she walked into his office to apply for a waitressing job, he had felt the instant pull of attraction. If not for his jealous ex-girlfriend, Ruxandra, showing up, he might have considered acting on it. For Claudia's safety, he had kept her at arm's length. Now here she was safe in his arms, feeling like she'd always belonged there.
Claudia's blond highlights might not be natural, but they made her hair shine like spun gold whenever she stepped under the lights of the bar. He cherished the memory-especially now when it looked as if she hadn't brushed her shoulder-length bob in days.
She seemed to be fading fast. Her eyes fluttered closed, and eventually her breathing took on the long, slow rhythm of sleep. She might have passed out, but Anthony chose to believe she felt so safe in his arms that she could finally relax and let go.
He vowed to hold her until just before dawn, if she didn't wake up before then. At that point, he'd have to leave. Otherwise, he would appear to be the one who'd passed out cold...more like dead. He didn't think she could handle that in her fragile condition.
Hours later, Claudia's intercom buzzed. Anthony considered waking her to answer it, but Claudia looked so angelic sleeping in his arms. He edged out of her delicate grasp and laid her down gently.
Who would come to see her at five in the morning?
He touched the intercom speaker button and whispered. "Who is it?"
After a brief delay, a woman's voice said, "Is this Claudia's apartment?"
"May I ask who you are first?"
An impatient male voice called out, "It's her parents. Who the hell are you?"
Oops. Caught in a girl's apartment at 5:00 a.m. by her parents. That hadn't happened in a while. Anthony glanced over at Claudia, who was softly snoring. The apartment was still as disheveled as it had been when he first saw it. If he was concerned for her after seeing that, her parents certainly would be.
"Give me a few seconds to wake her," he said.
An oath from her father was cut off halfway as Anthony let go of the buzzer. He used his vampiric speed to clean up the apartment. Finding the trash can under the sink, he grabbed the bucket and loaded it with empties until it wouldn't hold any more. Then he simply hid the rest of them. He zoomed around the room once more, putting pillows back on chairs, mascara side down, and placing the empty pizza boxes on the kitchen counter.
He stopped to appraise the job he'd done, and everything seemed neat. Then he shook Claudia. "Wake up. Your parents are here."
She protested with an agh.
He shook her harder and called out, "Claudia, wake up!"
At last, she opened her eyes and blinked. "Anthony? What are you..." Then she groaned. "Oh, yeah. I remember now." She looked shaky as she pushed herself up to a sitting position.
The intercom buzzed again.
"Your parents are here."
"What?" She shot to her feet and swayed.
Anthony grabbed her arm and clasped her around her waist to steady her. "You need to buzz them in."
"No. They're in Florida."
"They're here. If you don't let them in, I'll have to."
"No! They can't know you're here. Quick. Hide in the bedroom." She pushed at him, but he didn't move.
"It's too late. I answered the intercom the first time it buzzed."
She hit him. "Why did you do that?"
He turned her toward the door and marched her over to it. "Let them in. They're probably as worried about you as I was."
She sighed. "Okay, but first I need to make sure it's really them." She leaned on the intercom button and said, "Mom? Dad?"
A soft click was followed by her mother pleading, "Open the door, honey," and her father bellowing, "What kind of daughter lets her parents stand on the sidewalk while she-"
Claudia let go of the intercom and buzzed them in. "That's them all right."
"I'd better go," Anthony said.
Claudia glanced around her apartment and her eyebrows rose. "You cleaned up after me?"
"Just a quick tidying up."
She rested a hand on his arm. "Thank you."
Anthony held her gaze for a moment. Something unspoken but deeply meaningful passed between them. He was fairly sure it was more than gratitude on her part. It certainly was on his.
A hard knock on her door broke the spell.
"Time to face the music-or the cacophony," Claudia muttered.
Anthony buttoned his suit jacket a moment before she opened the door to reveal a bedraggled-looking couple.
"We drove thirty-six hours straight to get here, young lady," her father blasted. "You'd better have a damn good excuse for not answering your phone or emails."
Her father turned his anger on Anthony. "Are you the reason she was unreachable for a week?"
"No, Dad," Claudia quickly said.
Someone upstairs opened their door and yelled down, "It's five o'clock in the friggin' morning. Shut the hell up and let people sleep!"
Claudia opened her door wider. "Come in and try to calm down."
When her parents were inside the apartment, Anthony extended his hand. "I'm Anthony Cross. I was concerned about her as well."
Her father stared at Anthony's hand. At last he grasped it and shook twice. "Your hand is cold. You must have arrived just before we did."
Her mother added, "Even if he's been here all night, she's a grown woman and allowed to have a boyfriend, dear."
Anthony didn't quite know how to respond to that. Should he let Claudia's father think they were a couple? Fortunately, he didn't have to confirm or deny. Claudia jumped in.
"He's not my boyfriend. He's my old boss."
"Old boss?" her father said. "Did he fire you? Is that why you look like hell?"
She sighed. "No. He didn't fire me. The fire fired me." Claudia faced Anthony straight on and shot him a poignant look. "The building that housed the import-export business burned down."
Import-export? Was that code for "my parents don't know I worked in a bar"?
"Oh! Were you hurt? Is that why we couldn't reach you?" her mother asked, wringing her hands.
Anthony glanced at his watch. He had to get going in order to make it to his lair in Chinatown before the sun came up. It would happen about 5:44 a.m. at this time of year.
"Excuse me for interrupting, but I have to go," Anthony said.
Claudia smiled gratefully. "Yes, I suppose you must be tired. Thank you for listening to me, uh, talk your ear off."
Anthony was glad his suit wasn't rumpled and it looked as if talking was all he'd been doing, but how would Claudia explain her appearance?
"I'm glad we talked. I'm sorry I got you out of bed by arriving so late. I'll call you soon so we can continue putting together a plan to get the business back up and running."
She waved away his fake apology. "Oh, don't worry about getting me up. I'm just glad you're including me in your plans to rebuild."
"I couldn't do it without you."
Her parents smiled and seemed to buy into their explanation. Whew. Not bad for a cockamamy story on the fly. He shook hands with both of them, waved to Claudia, and left.
He'd have to zoom back to his place. Public transportation wasn't fast enough. Standing on the sidewalk, he checked for witnesses, and dammit, the garbage truck was rumbling down the street and people were scrambling to get their trash out in time.
Panic gripped him as he noticed the dawn approaching and pictured his bad self bursting into flames in the sun.