Sly Flores overheard an argument emanating from a nearby alley. His inner vigilante vampire paid attention. Creeping closer, but using the long shadows to hide his presence, he watched and listened.
"You take that back!"
"Fuck you, I will not."
Sly crept closer to get a better look at the happy couple. The guy wore a leather coat and expensive sneakers. A hat created shadows that obscured his facial features.
A roar and then a scuffle ensued. Sly wasn't sure who threw the first punch, but it didn't matter. The woman was taking a brutal beating. He didn't care what she'd said or done... nobody deserved that.
She fell, and the man kicked her. Just as he was about to kick her a second time, Sly's fangs extended and he flew out from his hiding place. He grabbed the guy by his leather collar and lunged for the thick neck in front of him.
Instead of sinking his fangs into the brute's carotid artery, Sly encountered something rock hard and unyielding. He tried to pull back, but one of his fangs was caught. He tried to retract them, but something cold and hard hit his gums first.
The woman shrieked.
Sly shoved the guy with all his might. Something popped and fell to the ground, making a "ching" noise. The jerk stumbled several feet away before catching himself.
Searing pain hit Sly's gums like a hot poker used as a dental tool. Shit! Fuck! Ow, dammit! He'd never experienced this kind of pain-even the time he was caught in the sun. Fortunately, his friend Konrad had thrown his big coat over him just before he thought he might burst into flames.
As Sly held his jaw and hopped around, the couple recovered from their shock and took off. They charged down the alley to the main street.
Ordinarily, when he was hurt, his incredible healing powers took over and whatever was wounded would be on the mend by now. Why wasn't the pain stopping?
Sly stooped to pick up the item that had fallen. A thick neck-chain draped over his hand. It looked gold on the outside, but where the links joined, he saw something white glinting through.
The enemy of every vampire he'd ever heard of. Dracula himself probably couldn't escape its blistering damage. Sly fell to the pavement, curled into a fetal position, and rolled back and forth.
Just my luck to get a rapper whose bling was a knockoff.
Morgaine opened her door the moment Sly knocked. She might have been standing there because she'd sensed someone coming to see her. Psychics were fun that way.
"Hi, Morgaine, uh..."
His throbbing fang distracted him so much that Sly hadn't looked up to see her face yet. When he did, he was met with an intriguing surprise. The woman he thought would be dressed in black with long, black hair, and wearing heavy black eye makeup and red lipstick, almost looked like a different person. He had to blink and look again to be sure she was indeed the witch he was looking for.
She smiled. Her face seemed softer with glowing skin, pink lips, and golden hair falling around her shoulders. Her dress was a dark shade of purple. Maybe something called plum.
A few moments passed before he realized he hadn't finished his sentence and was staring at her.
"Sly? Is there something I can do for you?"
He recovered and said, "Uh, yeah. There ith. Can I come in?"
She tipped her head. "I invited you in years ago, didn't I?"
"Yeth. But if you'd rather not-"
"Don't be silly. Of course you can come in. I was just wondering if you thought vampires needed to be invited in again after a certain amount of time passed."
"Like an ecthperathion date? No. Even if there wath one, I'd knock and athk. I'm not rude, you know."
Her lips twitched in a smirk. He realized she'd noticed his lisp and she too was trying not to be rude.
"I know that. Please come in." She stepped aside.
He strolled in and admired her apartment. A far cry from his secret lair in the basement, hers was a bright and cozy place with a slipcovered couch, a rocking chair, and a trunk for a coffee table. Its only decoration was a glass dish holding some colorful rocks and crystals.
Lit candles graced the fireplace, making the lavender room glow. Wind chimes he'd heard during summer months hung silent in the window, which was closed against the chilly night air.
"You mutht like thith color." He indicated her dress and the walls.
"Yes, plum is my favorite shade of purple, and purple is my favorite color."
"Plum, huh? Ith pretty on you." He meant it.
He didn't often compliment people, not that he didn't appreciate a good-looking woman, but ever since his wife had died and left him a widower twenty-six years earlier, he'd had no interest in starting up a relationship with somebody else. It wouldn't be fair to let a woman think she'd be able to replace his late wife, so he avoided giving anyone the wrong idea. Morgaine had no such illusions though, so he felt safe telling her he'd noticed her attractive change.
"I had a makeover. Roz took me to a school for aspiring cosmetologists. It took them all evening to get the black dye out of my hair and recolor it to match my natural shade."
"Tho you're a natural blonde?"
"I guess so. My hair hasn't been natural for about thirteen years, but I don't notice a big difference at the roots now that it's growing out."
He wandered around the apartment, scanning the new-age books on her shelves and noticing how neat she kept the place. "You mutht have gotten into the goth thing a long time ago."
"Yeah, you could say I was the high-school weirdo."
He smiled. "We were all weird in high thchool."
She grinned back. "Have a seat. Can I get you some tea?"
"No, thanks. I came to athk you for thum magical help."
"You want me to heal your fang?"
"Yeth." He sat on the comfortable flowered sofa. "Did your thycic ability tell you what happened?"
"No, your lisp did." She giggled and sat next to him.
Man, she's pretty when she smiles.
"Let me see." She scooted closer, and he opened his mouth.
Her gentle, warm fingers pushed his upper lip out of the way as she examined his mouth. Her own lips were slightly parted as she studied his injured fang thoroughly. Her breath was pleasant. Minty, as if she'd just brushed her teeth. He could lean in and capture those sweet pink lips in his and... Whoa. What was happening?
"Does it hurt?"
"Like a mutha. I have a metallic tasthte in my mouth too."
"I can see why you wouldn't be able to go to a dentist. It looks like the fang that isn't healing well won't retract, and I guess they're not able to work independently, so the other one won't retract either."
"It's not the fang that's broken-or if it was, it's healed."
"Yeth. The fang grew back, but the pain won't go away. I bit into a thick thilver necklath."
"Ohhh... You were poisoned. Okay, I'll have to make a healing poultice so I can apply it directly to your gum. It will draw out the silver poison in your system. I'll reinforce its power with a healing spell if you like."
"Thankth. Will I ever be the thame?"
"Of course you will. Unless you're talking about your pre-vampire days. That I can't heal."
He hung his head. "I know. I remember athking you that when I learned you were Wiccan. You thed there wath no thpell to cure vampirithm."
"I'm afraid not. I'm sorry." She rested her hand on his knee.
When he looked up, she had a soft, sad expression on her face. It wasn't pity-not exactly. Empathy. That's what it was. He knew she had a kind heart, but there was more to it than just that. She was a nurturer. Much like his daughter, Merry, the pediatric nurse. An innate healer.
"Pardon my curiothity, but... the makeover? Are you dating?"
Her face colored. "I-well, no. I wouldn't mind meeting someone, but it's just not in me to go out to bars or anything."
"Thumthing tellth me you wouldn't meet the right kind of guy there anyway. Have you tried the Internet?"
"Not yet." She hesitated as if there was more to say, but instead she placed her hands on her knees and pushed herself up to a standing position. "Well, I'll go whip up that poultice. You try to relax."
On the second floor, Merry extended her arms to allow for her expanding pregnant belly and embraced her best friend, Roz, while trying not to cry. Tears brimmed in her eyes anyway.
"I'm going to miss you like crazy. I wish you two could stay."
Roz and Konrad were engaged and moving to Newton, where he was dean and she was a career counselor at the Newton Preparatory School for Boys.
Konrad stepped out of his apartment with a plastic milk crate full of books and smiled. "Newton isn't that far, Merry, and you're welcome any time. You can even take public transportation. The school is within walking distance."
"I know." She sighed. "But it won't be the same as having you right downstairs. Why are you taking stuff to Roz's apartment the night before you're leaving, by the way?"
Roz smiled up at him. "He doesn't want the movers to have to carry heavy things down an extra flight, so he's putting all the boxes and books in my apartment for tonight, and I'll sleep at his place. Isn't he thoughtful?"
Merry let go of her friend's hand. "Yup. He's always been that way. You got yourself a keeper, Roz."
Weird, soulful sounds drifted into the hallway from her right. "What the heck is that?"
Roz gravitated toward her fiancé and put her arm around his waist. "I think it's one of those nature CDs with whale calls."
Merry listened for a few moments. That was indeed what it sounded like. "I don't know our new superintendent very well. Is he the new-agey kind? Maybe he and one of the witches will hit it off."
Roz placed a fist on her hip. "What are you doing? Opening a matchmaker service?"
Merry laughed. "No. Like I said, I don't even know him. I guess I'm just so happy that I want everyone else to be happy too."
As soon as she said that, a door upstairs opened. They all waited to see who'd be coming down the stairs. When Sly came into view, Merry's jaw dropped.
"Sly? Who were you... Oh, sorry. Never mind. It's none of my business."
Sly smiled briefly but didn't say anything. Merry noticed something a little odd about his face but couldn't put a finger on what was different.
As she was wondering about it, Morgaine leaned over the banister upstairs.
"Oh, Sly? I forgot to ask you to come back tomorrow..."
She had apparently noticed the others in the hallway because she hesitated a moment. "I-uh, I should check your-thing." She blushed. "I mean... You know what I mean. Make sure everything's okay."
He was looking up at her with a silly grin on his face. That's what was different. Before, he had seemed to be trying not to smile and show his fangs. But looking up at Morgaine, he didn't seem able to stop smiling, fangs and all.
"I'll be there."
Morgaine grinned, nodded briefly, and went back to her apartment. As soon as they heard her door shut, Sly said, "Hi, Merry," gave her a kiss on the cheek, and then winced.
"Are you okay?"
"I will be. Morgaine ith taking care of me. I had an accthident to my gumth."
Konrad chuckled. "I guess you can't see a dentist for obvious reasons."
"Yup. Thank goodneth for Morgaine. Theeth a magical healer. How are you feeling, Merry? Ith the baby letting you keep your food down?"
"Yes, thank goodness. No more morning sickness. Now I'm getting kicked every once in a while."
"Good! I'm thorry, I meant ith a good thing that the babyth healthy. I can't wait to be a grandfather."
She giggled. "I knew what you meant."
Sly turned to his good friends. "Konrad, Roth, good luck with the move tomorrow."
Roz shook his hand and said, "Thanks. We'll miss everyone, but you have an open invitation to our place in Newton."
"I'd come, but I know your pack friendth don't take kindly to vampireth."
Konrad set down the box he'd been holding. "A few of them are stuck in the old ways. But if you're uncomfortable, I'm sure we'll come back here to visit once in a while. We'll look you up when we do." He extended his hairy arm and they shook hands.
"Can I help you carry thumthing?"
"Almost done, buddy. I had about a hundred boxes of books, but you can help me carry down the couch if you want to."
As the guys retreated to Konrad's apartment, Merry grabbed Roz by the arm and pulled her to the other side of the hall.
She whispered, "What did you think of Sly's reaction to the new Morgaine? I thought I saw some chemistry there."
"I did too."
They waited while the guys carried the couch out of the apartment and down the stairs before continuing.
"I'll never get over how strong those two are," Merry said. "They looked like they were carrying a two-by-four, not a whole couch."
Roz watched them. Then she turned back to her friend and said, "I sense you want to see someone else in the building hook up."
"I hadn't really thought about it until you said something, but Sly... He's been so lonely since my mother died and that was the day I was born-twenty-six years ago."
Roz shrugged. "Just get him to move into my old apartment and let it work its magic."
Merry snapped her fingers. "That's it! The love shack. When I lived there, I hooked up with Jason. Then you moved in and hooked up with Konrad. Now that you're moving out..."
"The love shack is available," Roz finished for her.
"But he doesn't have a job. How would he pay for it?"
"Does he have to? I mean, he's your father. Jason let his aunt and uncle stay in 2B rent-free for a while."
"You're right." Merry grinned and hugged Roz. "You're a genius. What will I ever do without you?"
"Oh, I'm sure you'll learn to be devious on your own one of these days. When you want something badly enough, you'll figure out how easily men can be manipulated."
"You mean like on Desperate Housewives?"
"Hell, no. Don't go to those extremes. Just cook his favorite meal and tell him how much you want this. Then if he says yes, give him a blow job."
Merry laughed. "It's that easy, huh?"
The guys exited Roz's apartment and ambled up the stairs.
"You haven't seen me carrying anything heavy yet, have you?" Roz raised her eyebrows and Merry laughed, then sneezed.
"You know what? I think your moving is kicking up some dust-not that Konrad isn't a good housekeeper, but I might need my inhaler."
"Of course. And you're right about the dust. With all of Konrad's dusty old books, I wouldn't be surprised if your allergies flare up."
"I'd better go upstairs. I'll see you tomorrow before you go, right?"
Merry hugged her again. "Thanks for understanding. Besides, I can't wait to put this devious plan into action."
"Let me know how it goes."
"I might leave out the details of his thank-you, but I'll tell you the rest."
Chad had the advantage of being the only spirit to haunt the building. Well, in some instances it was an advantage, but on the other hand, it could be lonely. Fortunately, he had Morgaine. Some of the other residents knew he was there but rarely thought about him. Out of sight, out of mind. And he honestly thought some of them were out of their minds.
Not Morgaine though. The two of them had the kind of friendship in which they could rib each other, but they always knew the sharp jabs were said in jest. That seemed to be the only fun Morgaine ever had though.
He'd like to see her happy.
Chad's time had come and gone, and what did he have to show for it? Nothing. And no one.
But it wasn't too late for Morgaine. He had noticed the affection growing between Sly and the gifted witch he thought of as his friend. Ordinarily, he wouldn't match her up with a vampire, but she had limited her options by staying inside all the time. Hell, he wouldn't do something as girly as play matchmaker, but maybe if he just gave them a little push...
He forced his way through the door to her apartment and found her in the kitchen putting away the groceries her cousin Gwyneth had dropped off earlier.
Morgaine turned toward him and smiled. "Hi, Chad. What are you up to?"
"Not much. I just thought I'd drop by and see how you're doing."
"In other words, you're bored." She placed a head of lettuce in the crisper and returned to the bag on the counter.
"Are you saying I only visit you when I'm bored?"
"No. You're always bored."
Chad chuckled and situated himself on the other side of the tiny kitchen so she wouldn't have to pass through him and shiver.
"I'm not terribly bored right now. I actually thought I'd tell you something about Sly."
Her eyebrows raised and she turned toward him. "Sly? Is he okay?"
"Ah ha, I knew you liked him."
"Well, of course I like him. Why wouldn't I? He's a kind, decent per... uh, vampire."
"Yes, I know. His kindness and decency are even more impressive because he's a vampire. And I've noticed he likes you too."
"Oh." She turned back to her groceries. "Really?" The color in her pink cheeks was deepening.
"Oh, yeah. He's into you. But I'm worried about something."
"I think both of you are so used to being alone, you've forgotten how to begin a new relationship."
She snorted. "That's ridiculous."
"Is it? How would you go about it?"
She shrugged and didn't answer him. She just opened a cabinet and tried to set a box of granola on the top shelf.
"I can't quite reach the top shelf, Chad. Can you give me a hand?"
"You're changing the subject."
She shifted uncomfortably. "Never mind. I'll stick it on the counter."
"You can stick it in your ear for all I care, just don't ignore the question."
She whirled on him and folded her arms. "I don't have to answer your stupid question."
Chad concentrated on the cereal box until it floated up to the top shelf and slid into place among the other boxes and cans up there. "Okay, fine. Then think about why you don't want to answer it."
"Because it's none of your business."
"Or because you can't. You have no idea how to approach an attractive man who's attracted to you."
She blew out a deep breath. "Okay, fine. I've thought about it. But our friendship is too important to me. What if it doesn't work out? I don't have that many friends."
"You can say that again. Now that Konrad and Roz have moved out, you have exactly one cousin who you're fighting with half the time and a bored ghost. Your life sucks."
"I call 'em like I see 'em. And when I see you and Sly together, I notice the goofy grins on your faces. Think about it, Morgaine. If you snooze, you might lose. I've noticed Gwyneth seems to like him too."
"Well, then I better not get my hopes up. Any man will take the easy girl over the challenging one."
"I admit most of us are schmucks, but I don't think Sly's into superficial, dumb redheads. His eyes don't light up when he sees her like they do when he sees you."
"Whatever you do, never call Gwyneth dumb. She's super sensitive about it. Besides, she has a good mind. She just hasn't had the educational advantages a lot of people have had."
"You're changing the subject again."
"And with good reason. Not only is my life none of your business, but there's nothing you can do about it. He can't hear you."
"Yeah, but you can. And I might just decide to follow you around singing show tunes off-key until you go downstairs and make a move on him." He laughed maniacally.
"Chad, go away. You're pissing me off."
"Fine. I'll just ignore you."
"Aw, screw it. Go ahead and be lonely for the rest of your life. Maybe you can get a few cats or something."
"For Goddess's sake, Chad. Will you leave me alone?" Her tone had a chilly edge to it.
"OOOOOklahoma, where the wind-"
Morgaine clapped her hands over her ears and shouted, "Go away! I don't need your interference. If the opportunity presents itself, I'll do something about it, okay?"
"There now, was that so hard?"
Morgaine rolled her eyes toward the ceiling.