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Love Me Forever
By ROSEMARY LAUREY
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2004 Rosemary Laurey
All right reserved.
Chapter One"How long can we stay, Mom?"
Stella Schwartz smiled at her son. Her feet ached and she longed to get home, but she'd promised-and after a childhood of broken promises, she'd long ago vowed to never go back on her word to Sam. "How about fifteen minutes?"
Sam slammed a clenched fist against his free hand. "Right on, Mom! Thanks!" he paused. "And I know, Mom. Just to look, right?"
Heaven help her! She hated not having money to buy him more, but groceries always took more of her paycheck than anticipated. Thank goodness she didn't have to find money for rent. "Next time we'll buy you a book. This time just look, okay?"
Sam seemed more than content. She turned the car up Fifth Street toward the tiny shop on the corner of Jackson. Two large pumpkins sat on either side of the limestone steps and spiderwebs and furry bats decorated the window. They were definitely ready for Halloween. Sam grabbed the knob, pulled open the solid wood door and all but skipped into the Vampire Emporium.
It had to be the name that first attracted him, or maybe just a nine-year-old's fascination with spookiness, but Sam loved this little shop. For Stella, it was a hard reminder of all the things she couldn't afford, but Dixie, the owner, never seemed to mind that they seldom bought anything and she encouraged Sam to read the books.
"I used to be a school librarian," she once told Stella. "I miss the kids."
The shop sold mostly books, everything from paperback children's books to signed first editions and leather-bound collectors' volumes. They also stocked plastic vampire fangs and capes for the tourists that filled German Village at weekends and the place was now crowded with costumes and face paint for Halloween.
"Hi, Dixie!" Sam said as he opened the door and then stopped in his tracks.
Dixie wasn't there. Instead of a young woman with a soft southern accent, the shop was manned by ... a man. Stella all but gaped. Talk about a hunk! Tall, with chestnut brown hair brushed back from a face that could give Mel Gibson serious competition and dark eyes that seemed to scan her, taking in every detail, but not in a leering way, more like a surgeon evaluating an interesting case. His wide, full mouth smiled at Sam, and her.
"Good afternoon," he said in a smooth, British accent that set Stella's toes curling. "I'm afraid Dixie isn't here. Could I, perhaps, help you?"
He could go on talking all afternoon as far as Stella was concerned. After staring at him a good minute, she made herself reply. "We're just browsing." She found herself smiling back. "Sam likes to look at the kid's books."
"Browse right ahead, Sam," Hunk replied.
"Thanks!" Sam took off to the far corner and curled up on one of the giant pillows with a copy of Bunnicula, leaving Stella the other side of the narrow counter from a fantasy-come-true with a voice like Hugh Grant.
"I'm Justin," Hunk said, "Justin Corvus. I'm a friend of Christopher and Dixie's, just over for a bit of a visit." He held out his hand.
"I'm Stella Schwartz." His palm was smooth and cool against hers, his handshake just strong enough to feel good. He held her hand firmly but without a macho finger crush or a smarmy squeeze, a very, very nice handshake. So nice in fact, she had to remind herself to let go. She took her hand back and half-wished she hadn't. She found herself breathing fast and all but staring into his beautiful dark eyes. This was nonsense! She had to say something to break the silence that seemed to sizzle around them. "You're visiting them and they left you minding the shop ... literally!"
He even shrugged with style. "Not to worry. They had a problem with the house and I offered to fill in the gap. They're talking to someone about a sump pump. Seems their basement sprung a leak in that storm a couple of days back."
Stella understood. "I think a lot of houses round here took in water then." Heck, she still had a vast puddle in her basement. "It's the price of living in an old house." And keeping a promise to her mother.
"You live in German Village, too?"
When pigs flew. "No," she shook her head. "I live on Lubeck but I work in the Village. Sam goes to a sitter near here and this is his favorite stopping-off place."
"I'm glad you came by." He offered a slow smile. "It's been pretty solitary here. You made it worthwhile staying open."
What was she to make of that? Was he hitting on her? No. He seemed genuinely friendly but didn't appear to realize Lubeck was a world away from these expensively restored houses and neat, tidy streets. "Been a slow day?"
"Pretty much. A couple of people are supposed to pick up costumes. Other than that I'm spending the time sticking stamps on postcards." He paused and reached into the stack beside the register. "Here, if you're a regular customer you've probably got one coming in the post, but until then ..." He handed her a rectangle of shiny, cream card stock. "They're having a big open house for Halloween. Maybe you and Sam could come? I gather Halloween is quite an event here."
Where had he been living? The moon? "It isn't in Britain?"
"Not the way it once was." He paused, as if thinking back. "In some country parts they still carve turnips for lanterns and make masks and bob for apples and so forth, and in recent years, we seem to have imported some of your American customs of costumes but it's nothing like you have here." He shook his head. His most definitely, very handsome head. "Dixie's been filling me in on local traditions."
"Beggars' Night really is a major, big deal. It was when I was a kid, and still is. I can't imagine not having it." Heck, that sounded a bit rude. "I bet you have other things, right?"
"Yes," he agreed, "we do. But I must admit, I'm rather looking forward to my first, genuine, American Halloween."
"And all the witches and vampires and goblins?"
His dark eyes seemed to gleam as his wide mouth curved at the corners. "Especially the vampires."
"You won't see as many as a couple of years back. Pokemon and the Hulk seem to be the biggies this year." And she still hadn't bought Sam's costume.
"Your son's going to dress up?"
"You bet! I couldn't keep him home."
"Be sure to come by the shop, won't you?"
"Sure." Why had she agreed? She'd need to drive up here. On the other hand, why not? It was a far safer neighborhood than their own. It might make sense to spend the whole evening up here. "See you on Beggars' Night." Ridiculously, she wanted to. There was something about this man that ... would only complicate her life. "Sam!" she called. He'd reshelved the book and was eyeing a black velvet cape with the same look he used to give his bottle when he was a baby.
"Coming, Mom." He was as good as his word, stepping up to the register with a happy grin on his face. "Excuse me," he said to Justin, "but how much are those capes and do they come in kid's sizes?"
Stella's stomach sank. She didn't need to hear his answer to know the price was way above what she could afford for one.
"We've only got adult sizes, I'm afraid," Justin replied, and Stella all but hugged him with relief. That took care of that, and they'd get the Hulk one this very weekend.
"Could you get a kid's one?" Sam persisted. "I want to be a vampire for Halloween." She was going to have to talk money to Sam on the way home-something she hated to do, but he had to realize how things were.
"Possibly," Justin said, "but those costumes aren't the sort of thing you can buy with pocket money. You might need to talk this over with your mum. Doesn't she have last say in these things?"
For that he did deserve a hug! Better not!
"Yes," Sam admitted. "But one of those would be wonderful." Stella's heart tugged at the wistfulness in his voice. She realized Sam was watching her face, when he squeezed her hand. "Never mind, Mom. I don't want one that much." Hell, he was trying to make her feel better for not having money to buy the Halloween costume he wanted. Something was way off here. Time to go home.
"There is one thing," Justin said. Sam's face began to glow and Stella wished she'd dragged Sam out while she had the chance. This man had better not say they had a cape. "I don't know for sure ..." He paused, casting her a cautious glance before looking right at Sam. "No promise. Understand?" Sam nodded. Stella bit her lip. "I know Dixie has some old costumes at home, orders that weren't picked up, or didn't fit. Things like that. Why don't I ask her to check and see if there's anything that might be your size?"
Sam's eyes were as big as golf balls. "You really think so?"
"It's possible, that's all," Justin said. "Remember I said no promises. We can't have you carrying on at your mother if one doesn't turn up."
"I won't fuss, Cub's honor." Sam raised two fingers in salute.
Justin chuckled. "I knew I could count on a Cub Scout." He reached under the counter for a tape measure. "Let me just get your size and I'll have word with Dixie."
Sam happily stood still while Justin measured and jotted down figures on a notepad. Stella began to get a bad feeling. If he did find something, how in heaven could she afford it?
"That's it, I think," Justin said. "One last thing, your phone number." Sam bit his lip-he knew as well as Stella did that it had been cut off again.
"Let me give you my work number," Stella said. "They can take a message and I'll call you back. I'm off tomorrow but I'll be there the rest of the week."
Justin looked up and straight at Stella. She felt herself sinking into his dark eyes. "I'll give you a bell when I hear something." She guessed that meant he'd call her and half-hoped he wouldn't. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll work something out." Ridiculously, she believed him and trusted him utterly.
So, it seemed, did Sam. "Yeah, Mom!" He all but skipped. "Thank you," he added, bestowing his best smile on Justin. "Come on." He tugged Stella's hand. "I've got homework to do."
In the car, Stella came to her senses. There was no way in creation she could afford one of those costumes. Even if it was discounted. She'd just have to call back tomorrow and make that clear.
"Justin!" Dixie would have gasped if she still breathed. "You want me to produce a custom-made costume in two days or sooner."
"Is it too much to ask?"
No, it wasn't and he knew it. She owed Justin a bunch, and if he wanted a rush costume job, he'd get one. It was just she couldn't see Justin, Master Vampire with his Saville Row tailored duds, dressed up as a campy Hollywood vampire. "You really plan on going gung-ho for Halloween? Or rather Beggars' Night, as they call it up here."
"It's not for me!" He sounded almost shocked-much more like the Justin she knew. "Let me explain."
Dixie was silent a good minute as she digested this. "Okay, let me get this straight. You want a kid-sized custom costume but it mustn't look custom-made and you're going to give it away?"
"Heavens no, Dixie! Stella doesn't seem the sort to take anything even whiffing of charity. I thought you could make it with a deliberate mistake." His mouth curved a little. "Make it up with a flaw near the hem. Something like a selvage showing. That would make it unsellable but if she turns up the hem it would do."
"How come you know so much about sewing?" Stitching up people, he was good at. She still had faint marks on her forehead and under her breast, where he'd repaired injuries. Neither scar had faded after her transformation to vampire.
His eyes went distant. "Long before you were born, I knew a seamstress." He looked back at Dixie. "Can you do it?"
"Of course." She could hardly outsource this, the requirements were too odd. "Give me a day or so and I'll see what I can come up with." She smiled at Christopher, her love, her lifemate, who'd been listening intently. "You two going feeding tonight?"
Christopher shook his head. "No. You want to?"
"No." Over a year vampire, and she still wasn't comfortable with live feeding and used blood bags as much as possible. She was slowly getting use to living off blood but definitely missed Lindt chocolate and Starbucks ice cream.
"I thought Justin and I would take a turn round the village. Just to keep an eye on things."
"You're deputizing him, are you?" She had to smile.
"Just letting him see what I do with my spare time." Christopher crossed the room and hugged her. "You worry too much, Dixie."
"Why wouldn't I? You're taking on crooks!"
"Just discouraging petty criminals from targeting the neighborhood."
They never would see it the same. Christopher wasn't invulnerable, even if bullets couldn't hurt him. "Be careful."
"With you to come home to? Of course." His lips were cool and inviting and she'd much rather he took her upstairs than left to wander the streets.
"Make sure you don't come back with a whacking great hole in your shirt!" She'd nearly flipped out the time he did that. Even if the wound had half-healed by the time she saw him, the bloodstains and singed bullet hole in his broadcloth shirt would have given her palpitations-if her heart still beat.
"Don't you think the pair of us can take care of anyone we meet?" Justin asked.
She scowled at Justin. Now there were two of them out to play "stop the bullet" or "trick the thug," or whatever silly macho games male vampires played when no one was watching. "I don't want to think about what the pair of you are likely to get up to!"
Okay, petty crime had dropped since they'd moved into German Village. So what? It didn't ease her mind to know her lover was swooping the streets discouraging would-be burglars. She'd seen herself how closely Christopher skirted injury. "Take care of him, Justin. If I'm making that costume, I won't have time to repair slashed and punctured clothing."
"You know we'll come back, don't you?"
She'd never had much luck arguing with Justin. "Yeah." She kissed Christopher and hugged Justin and watched them disappear around the corner before she shut the door and went up to her attic workroom.
Velvet. Justin's suggestion of a missewn selvage wouldn't work with the nap, but she did have a bolt end she'd put aside, as it had a row of flaws. Five minutes with a tape measure and Sam's measurements and she had it figured out. She'd make the cape three inches too long and put the row of flaws at the hem. Stella could easily turn it up and make it the perfect length. Or better still-Justin could take it around and check the length and deliver it back after she'd fixed it. That way he'd be invited into Stella's house and could reenter at will when he needed sustenance.
Dixie sat bolt upright and stared at the ceiling. Had she really thought of Stella as a food source? Dixie shuddered but slowly calmed. Yes. She had no other choice. She was vampire and fed off blood-when she ran out of blood bags, it had to be animals or mortals. That was the way her world was now ordered. She thought back to the times Christopher had fed off her before her transformation. Stella wouldn't be complaining and Justin would do right by her.
And Justin would soon be back with Christopher, so she'd better get going. There was enough spare velvet to make a pair of pants. She'd leave the bottoms unfinished to add to the "just something I found" myth and Stella could add a tee-shirt or sweater. Busy with scissors and sewing machine, Dixie almost forgot her anxiety about Christopher. She was glad to be working, and particularly pleased to be making something for Sam.
She missed the kids she'd worked with in her librarian days, and Sam was neat. Bright, polite and an avid reader, heck he was the answer to a teacher's prayer, and obviously Stella's pride and joy. And Dixie liked Stella, admired her independence and determination to get the very best for Sam. Interesting really, after asking for the costume as a favor for Sam, Justin's conversation had been ninety percent Stella.
Dixie chuckled. Could ethical, straightlaced Justin be smitten? She shook her head. Hardly likely. He'd been more adamant even than Christopher that mortals and vampires avoid emotional involvement. No, Justin was just being kindly towards a poor kid. Very typical of him. Besides, what chance was there of Justin ever linking with another female while he still carried a torch for Gwyltha? Not that Dixie understood that after all that had happened, but men were hard enough to understand at the best of times and add vampire to that complication. Dixie shook her head and reached for her tailor's shears and started cutting.
Excerpted from Love Me Forever by ROSEMARY LAUREY Copyright © 2004 by Rosemary Laurey. Excerpted by permission.
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