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One step, and everything's finished—the pain and the guilt and the cold, sickening fear washing over me, making my grip slick with sweat and turning my legs to rubber. With one step this nightmarish hunger ends, too. But I don't know if I have the nerve to take that step off this ledge into the darkness. Apparently I'm also a coward, among other things.
Or maybe I'm still in denial. I can't help thinking that this isn't the way my life was supposed to turn out, even though I finally understand that whining about fair and unfair is useless. But still. I mean, I should have been Mrs. Dr. Todd by now, right? I should have had the triplet wedding thing with my sisters, Megan and Katherine: summer brides, the three of us, ready to say the vows that would have ensured us the same uneventful life Grammie Crosse has. We would have been on the Maplesburg Hospital committee. We'd have played tennis at the Maplesburg country club. Megan would have hosted parties with her investment-banker hubbie, Dean, Kat would have done the same for Lance as he climbed the ladder at his corporate law firm and I would have played the part of a cosmetic surgeon's wife to perfection. And if once in a while we lay awake in the middle of the night and asked ourselves if this was all there was to life...well, remembering the nightmares we had when we were kids would answer that question for us.
But instead of getting married a few months ago we ended up having to stake our fiancés the night before Megan's wedding.
It's a long story, and in my current position I'm not sure I'll have time to finish it. I'll just say that our fiancés were turned into vamps by a bitch called Zena, the Queen Vampyr who killed our father, David Crosse, and Angelica Dzarchertzyn, our mother—for those of you who don't know, our mother was a Daughter of Lilith, a hereditary vampire killer—when we were babies. Carrying out his vow to his dying daughter, Angelica's father, Anton, made sure his triplet granddaughters had a normal American childhood by placing us with Grammie and Popsie Crosse.
So for the next twenty years Megan and Kat and I were adored, shop-till-we-dropped princesses in a small upstate New York town. Our closest encounter with a vamp was on a box of Count Chocula cereal and in barely remembered nightmares from our childhood. But then we turned twenty-one and Zena tracked us down to Maplesburg.
Which is when our perfect world was torn apart, never to be put back together again.
As I say, I don't want to dwell on the dreary details, mainly because I hate thinking about how dumb I was back then. When Anton Dzarchertzyn—Grandfather Darkheart, as he said we should call him—showed up on our doorstep the night we staked Lance and Todd and Dean, and told us the truth about how our mother had lived and died, I was convinced I would turn out to be the Crosse triplet who'd inherited Angelica's Daughter of Lilith destiny. I was equally convinced that Megan would fulfill Darkheart's other prediction.
Our mother had died trying to save her babies from Zena. She'd failed. One of us bore the mark of the Queen Vampyr and would turn vamp herself during her twenty-first year.
My theory about Megan being the vamp and me being the Daughter was blown out of the water during our final battle with Zena, when Megan proved herself to be the true inheritor of Mom's title. So I fell back on theory number two: that Kat, the languidly sexy middle Crosse sister—born half an hour before me and twenty minutes after Kat—was the one Zena had marked when we were babies.
Wrong again. When we went up against Master Vamp Cyrus Kane, Kat learned that her legacy didn't come from Mom or Zena, it came from our father, a Healer who'd been able to restore the souls of vamps and turn them back into the humans they'd once been. And after that revelation, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who among us was left to turn fang-girl.
Me. Little Tashie Crosse. The shallow sister, the bratty sister, the sister who hadn't grown up, according to Megan and Kat. The sister who now never would.
I was going to be young and hot-looking forever. I'd never need Botox or have to trade in my Manolos for double-width Naturalizers, all in return for a few minor drawbacks like not being able to take sunlight—who does, these days?—and cringing if some insensitive clod shoved a crucifix in my face. All in all, I secretly thought I'd gotten the best deal of all...until half an hour ago.
That's when the hunger came over me for the first time and I understood what being undead was really all about.
It's about killing. Killing for the love of killing, killing for the sheer, unholy joy of it, killing because killing's better than sex, better than breathing, better than falling in love. I knew instinctively that making the kill last by torturing the victim would notch the thrill up even higher, and choosing a victim close to me would be a rush of dark nirvana.
I wanted to kill Kat. When I'd had my fill of her blood and her body had been torn beyond recognition, I wanted to take on Megan. Daughter of Lilith or no, I didn't think she'd be able to stake me before I overpowered her. Grandfather Darkheart would have been next, and then I would have contented myself with acquaintances and strangers, biding my time until the two people I loved most returned from the months-long cruise they were on.
Welcome home, Grammie. Your darling Tashya's missed you, Popsie.
Just for a moment the vision of killing them had been so clear in my mind that it had seemed like I'd already done it, and the horror that rushed through me had beaten back the hunger, breaking its hold on me. But it'll be back, and when it comes a second time I don't know if I'll be strong enough to fight it off again.
So here I am, standing in the dark on the highest point in Maplesburg, which happens to be the bell tower of St. Jude's, the Episcopalian church where I was baptized. There was no problem sneaking in—Maplesburg churches still remain unlocked after-hours for the benefit of any sinners looking for redemption, and I didn't have to go through the church proper to get to the tower staircase. I won't have any problem getting out, either, as long as I can bring myself to do what I have to do.
Just one step into thin air and it'll all be over. Just one step and the ones I love will be safe from me. But maybe it's fitting that Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, because I don't think I can take that last step.
And oh, God...
I can feel the hunger coming on again.
When I bumped into the muttering derelict with the shopping cart glaring at me through his tangle of matted hair I knew I'd hit rock bottom. Worse yet, I didn't care. Well, okay, I cared. I was so worried that someone I knew might see me that I was in disguise, which explained the short brunette wig bulging out like the Elephant Man's cranium where I'd crammed in my own hair. I'd pulled a trenchcoat over the mint-green Beth Bowley summer-weight cashmere sweater and short, tiered silk skirt I had on. I also wore dark sunglasses, although maybe they weren't the smartest idea, since it was eleven at night and I was in a dim alleyway. In the five blocks from where I'd parked my noticeable white Mini I'd walked into two fire hydrants, almost stumbled off the curb into the gutter and now I'd nearly knocked an old street loony off his feet.
But rock bottom or not, I was so churned up with anticipation and nerves that I was shaking. When the weird cat lady who lives in the apartment above mine had told me about old man Schneider and his after-hours service, she'd warned me he sometimes ran out of product. Actually, as I learned during that same conversation, her name was Kathy Lehman, but I couldn't shake the habit of calling her Weird Cat Lady in my mind, mainly because she was weird and had about twenty cats. In fact, I'd met one of her feline buddies before I met her.
How it happened was this way: I was just passing the Dumpster behind my building earlier in the evening, wondering whether I should run back into the rundown building I'd been calling home for the past few weeks and change into something less dressy than the Chloé skirt and silk-knit sleeveless top I was wearing. I was also making a mental note to buy a pair of Doc Martens, since the Ferragamo slides I had on, although adorable, definitely weren't the right footwear for what I had in mind. Then I saw the rat, a husky brute that looked as if it could take on Dobermans and win, and all thoughts of clothes and shoes left me.
It was the first time I'd tried what I was about to do, but desperation made me cunning. I held my breath—a trick that's become easier and easier lately—and remained motionless. The rat's whiskers twitched cautiously as he sniffed the air. Then he began scurrying toward the Dumpster. I waited until he was only inches away before I lunged.
I had the sucker, I swear it. I could feel him twisting in my grasp, trying to get his head close enough to my clutching hands to rip some flesh from me. Two red-hot trails exploded down my bare arms and an unearthly yowl split the darkness, startling me so much that I let go.
Mr. Rat streaked toward the hole in the side of the building he'd come out of. I threw myself after him like a baseball player sliding into home plate, my hands outstretched, my silk top shredding on broken pavement and the heel of one of my Ferragamos snapping as I made my leap.
I slammed headfirst into the wall. The mangy tomcat beside me slammed into it at the same time.
"You've killed Bojangles!" The screech startled me more than the yowl had, and the apparition that appeared out of the gloom almost stopped my heart. Then I recognized the figure with the frizzy, waist-length gray hair swooping toward the tomcat as my elusive upstairs neighbor.
"I didn't kill him," I denied, getting to my feet and preparing to beat a hasty retreat. The last thing I wanted was to answer questions about why I was staking out a Dumpster. "I...I tripped over him. I was just walking along minding my own business and I—"
Bojangles chose that moment to prove he was alive by letting loose with another enraged yowl. He sprang from Weird Cat Lady's arms and took off around the side of the building.
"See, he's fine." I gave his mistress a nervous smile. "Well, it was certainly nice meeting you, but I really must be—"
"I should have realized. You were fighting Bo-Bo over a rat." Her voice dropped from its previous screech, and I thought I could hear a note of pity in it.
"Excuse me?" I hoped my laugh sounded suitably incredulous. "Why would I fight your flea-bag cat over a rat?"