Sure, the life of a graduate student wasn't exactly glamorous, but it was Merit's. She was doing fine until a rogue vampire attacked her. But he only got a sip before he was scared away by another bloodsucker and this one decided the best way to save her life was to make her the walking undead.
Turns out her savior was the master vampire of Cadogan House. Now she’s traded sweating over her thesis for learning to fit in at a Hyde Park mansion full of vamps loyal to Ethan Lord o the Manor Sullivan. Of course, as a tall, green-eyed, four-hundred-year-old vampire, he has centuries’ worth of charm, but unfortunately he expects her gratitude—and servitude. But an inconvenient sunlight allergy and Ethan’s attitude are the least of Merit's concerns. Someone's still out to get her. Her initiation into Chicago's nightlife may be the first skirmish in a war...and there will be blood.
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Table of Contents
Other novels by CHLOE NEILL
CHAPTER ONE - THE CHANGE
CHAPTER TWO - RICH PEOPLE AREN’T NICER-THEY JUST HAVE BETTER CARS.
CHAPTER THREE - YOU GOTTA FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT.
CHAPTER FOUR - THE THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT . . . ARE PROBABLY ...
CHAPTER FIVE - JUST A QUICK BITE
CHAPTER SIX - IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, FALL DOWN, DOWN AGAIN.
CHAPTER SEVEN - WHAT’S IN A NAME?
CHAPTER EIGHT - FANGS MEAN NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY.
CHAPTER NINE - THERE’S NOT MUCH WRONG THAT CHUNKY MONKEY CAN’T FIX.
CHAPTER TEN - KEEPING WATCH IN THE NIGHT
CHAPTER ELEVEN - ADVICE FOR LITIGATORS AND VAMPIRES: NEVER ASK A QUESTION TO ...
CHAPTER TWELVE - YOU CAN’T TRUST A MAN WHO EATS A HOT DOG WITH A FORK.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - TWO’S COMPANY—THREE’S A MADHOUSE.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD. SO IS THE CITY OF CHICAGO.
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - BEFORE THE FLOOD
EXCERPT FROM FRIDAY NIGHT BITES
I owe a debt of gratitude to (at least) the following people:
Jessica and the staff at Penguin for a phone call I will always remember, and for taking a chance on a new author;
Lucienne, my agent, for patiently reading would-be chapters and offering fabulous advice;
Melissa, for explaining the architecture of the University of Chicago’s English Department;
Jess and Jill, for being the guinea pigs in my writing experiment;
Jess and Jenny, for being fabulous shower hostesses;
Ryan, for reading the fight scenes and repeating the moves until I figured out how to write them;
My friends and colleagues, including Julie, Sandi, Anne, Amy, Heather, Tory, Matt, and Kevin, who read the draft, helped with the search for a title, and/or offered advice on contracting, history, character development, and editing (and who patiently listened to my incessant lectures on the virtue of vampires);
D.J., for information on weapons and tactics;
The Murphy family, for their hospitality, advice, and inspirational sarcasm;
Baxter, for keeping me company;
Nate, for making me smile more and laugh harder than I thought humanly possible; and
Dusan and Mom, for always believing in me.
Want to learn more about the vampires, the Houses, the Canon, or Chloe?
“It is better to be hated for what you are,
than to be loved for what you are not.”
At first, I wondered if it was karmic punishment. I’d sneered at the fancy vampires, and as some kind of cosmic retribution, I’d been made one. Vampire. Predator. Initiate into one of the oldest of the twelve vampire Houses in the United States.
And I wasn’t just one of them.
I was one of the best.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin by telling you how I became a vampire, a story that starts weeks before my twenty-eighth birthday, the night I completed the transition. The night I awoke in the back of a limousine, three days after I’d been attacked walking across the University of Chicago campus.
I didn’t remember all the details of the attack. But I remembered enough to be thrilled to be alive. To be shocked to be alive.
In the back of the limousine, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to unpack the memory of the attack. I’d heard footsteps, the sound muffled by dewy grass, before he grabbed me. I’d screamed and kicked, tried to fight my way out, but he pushed me down. He was preternaturally strong—supernaturally strong—and he bit my neck with a predatory ferocity that left little doubt about who he was. What he was.
But while he tore into skin and muscle, he didn’t drink; he didn’t have time. Without warning, he’d stopped and jumped away, running between buildings at the edge of the main quad.
My attacker temporarily vanquished, I’d raised a hand to the crux of my neck and shoulder, felt the sticky warmth. My vision was dimming, but I could see the wine-colored stain across my fingers clearly enough.
Then there was movement around me. Two men.
The men my attacker had been afraid of.
The first of them had sounded anxious. “He was fast. You’ll need to hurry, Liege.”
The second had been unerringly confident. “I’ll get it done.”
He pulled me up to my knees, and knelt behind me, a supportive arm around my waist. He wore cologne—soapy and clean.
I tried to move, to give some struggle, but I was fading.
“Yes,” he agreed. He suckled the wound at my neck. I twitched again, and he stroked my hair. “Be still.”.
I recalled very little of the next three days, of the genetic restructuring that transformed me into a vampire. Even now, I only carry a handful of memories. Deep-seated, dull pain—shocks of it that bowed my body. Numbing cold. Darkness. A pair of intensely green eyes.
In the limo, I felt for the scars that should have marred my neck and shoulders. The vampire that attacked me hadn’t taken a clean bite—he’d torn at the skin at my neck like a starved animal. But the skin was smooth. No scars. No bumps. No bandages. I pulled my hand away and stared at the clean pale skin—and the short nails, perfectly painted cherry red.
The blood was gone—and I’d been manicured.
Staving off a wash of dizziness, I sat up. I was wearing different clothes. I’d been in jeans and a T-shirt. Now I wore a black cocktail dress, a sheath that fell to just below my knees, and three-inch-high black heels.
That made me a twenty-seven-year-old attack victim, clean and absurdly scar-free, wearing a cocktail dress that wasn’t mine. I knew, then and there, that they’d made me one of them.
The Chicagoland Vampires.
It had started eight months ago with a letter, a kind of vampire manifesto first published in the Sun-Times and Trib, then picked up by papers across the country. It was a coming-out, an announcement to the world of their existence. Some humans believed it a hoax, at least until the press conference that followed, in which three of them displayed their fangs. Human panic led to four days of riots in the Windy City and a run on water and canned goods sparked by public fear of a vampire apocalypse. The feds finally stepped in, ordering Congressional investigations, the hearings obsessively filmed and televised in order to pluck out every detail of the vampires’ existence. And even though they’d been the ones to step forward, the vamps were tight-lipped about those details—the fang bearing, blood drinking, and night walking the only facts the public could be sure about.
Eight months later, some humans were still afraid. Others were obsessed. With the lifestyle, with the lure of immortality, with the vampires themselves. In particular, with Celina Desaulniers, the glamorous Windy City she-vamp who’d apparently orchestrated the coming-out, and who’d made her debut during the first day of the Congressional hearings.
Celina was tall and slim and sable-haired, and that day she wore a black suit snug enough to give the illusion that it had been poured onto her body. Looks aside, she was obviously smart and savvy, and she knew how to twist humans around her fingers. To wit: The senior senator from Idaho had asked her what she planned to do now that vampires had come out of the closet.
She’d famously replied in dulcet tones, “I’ll be making the most of the dark.”
The twenty-year Congressional veteran had smiled with such dopey-eyed lust that a picture of him made the front page of the New York Times.
No such reaction from me. I’d rolled my eyes and flipped off the television.
I’d made fun of them, of her, of their pretensions.
And in return, they’d made me like them.
Wasn’t karma a bitch?
Now they were sending me back home, but returning me differently. Notwithstanding the changes my body had endured, they’d glammed me up, cleaned me of blood, stripped me of clothing, and repackaged me in their image.
They killed me. They healed me. They changed me.
The tiny seed, that kernel of distrust of the ones who’d made me, rooted.
I was still dizzy when the limousine stopped in front of the Wicker Park brownstone I shared with my roommate, Mallory. I wasn’t sleepy, but groggy, mired in a haze across my consciousness that felt thick enough to wade through. Drugs, maybe, or a residual effect of the transition from human to vampire.
Mallory stood on the stoop, her shoulder-length ice blue hair shining beneath the bare bulb of the overhead light. She looked anxious, but seemed to be expecting me. She wore flannel pajamas patterned with sock monkeys. I realized it was late.
The limousine door opened, and I looked toward the house and then into the face of a man in a black uniform and cap who’d peeked into the backseat.
“Ma’am?” He held out a hand expectantly.
My fingers in his palm, I stepped onto the asphalt, my ankles wobbly in the stilettos. I rarely wore heels, jeans being my preferred uniform. Grad school didn’t require much else.
I heard a door shut. Seconds later, a hand gripped my elbow. My gaze traveled down the pale, slender arm to the bespectacled face it belonged to. She smiled at me, the woman who held my arm, the woman who must have emerged from the limo’s front seat.
“Hello, dear. We’re home now. I’ll help you inside, and we’ll get you settled.”
Grogginess making me acquiescent, and not really having a good reason to argue anyway, I nodded to the woman, who looked to be in her late fifties. She had a short, sensible bob of steel gray hair and wore a tidy suit on her trim figure, carrying herself with a professional confidence. As we progressed down the sidewalk, Mallory moved cautiously down the first step, then the second, toward us.
The woman patted my back. “She’ll be fine, dear. She’s just a little dizzy. I’m Helen. You must be Mallory?”
Mallory nodded, but kept her gaze on me.
“Lovely home. Can we go inside?”
Mallory nodded again and traveled back up the steps. I began to follow, but the woman’s grip on my arm stopped me. “You go by Merit, dear? Although that’s your last name?”
I nodded at her.
She smiled patiently. “The newly risen utilize only a single name. Merit, if that’s what you go by, would be yours. Only the Masters of each House are allowed to retain their last names. That’s just one of the rules you’ll need to remember.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “And it’s considered déclassé to break the rules.”
Her soft admonition sparked something in my mind, like the beam of a flashlight in the dark. I blinked at her. “Some would consider changing a person without their consent déclassé, Helen.”
The smile Helen fixed on her face didn’t quite reach her eyes. “You were made a vampire in order to save your life, Merit. Consent is irrelevant.” She glanced at Mallory “She could probably use a glass of water. I’ll give you two a moment.”
Mallory nodded, and Helen, who carried an ancient-looking leather satchel, moved past her into the brownstone. I walked up the remaining stairs on my own, but stopped when I reached Mallory. Her blue eyes swam with tears, a frown curving her cupid’s bow mouth. She was extraordinarily, classically pretty, which was the reason she’d given for tinting her hair with packets of blue Kool-Aid. She claimed it was a way for her to distinguish herself. It was unusual, sure, but it wasn’t a bad look for an ad executive, for a woman defined by her creativity.
“You’re—” She shook her head, then started again. “It’s been three days. I didn’t know where you were. I called your parents when you didn’t come home. Your dad said he’d handle it. He told me not to call the police. He said someone had called him, told him you’d been attacked but were okay. That you were healing. They told your dad they’d bring you home when you were ready. I got a call a few minutes ago. They said you were on your way home.” She pulled me into a fierce hug. “I’m gonna beat the shit out of you for not calling.”
Mal pulled back, gave me a head-to-toe evaluation. “They said—you’d been changed.”
I nodded, tears threatening to spill over.
“So you’re a vampire?” she asked.
“I think. I just woke up or . . . I don’t know.”
“Do you feel any different?”
“I feel . . . slow.”
Mallory nodded with confidence. “Effects of the change, probably. They say that happens. Things will settle.” Mallory would know; unlike me, she followed all the vamp-related news. She offered a weak smile. “Hey, you’re still Merit, right?”
Weirdly, I felt a prickle in the air emanating from my best friend and roommate. A tingle of something electric. But still sleepy, dizzy, I dismissed it.
“I’m still me,” I told her.
And I hoped that was true.
The brownstone had been owned by Mallory’s great-aunt until her death four years ago. Mallory, who lost her parents in a car accident when she was young, inherited the house and everything in it, from the chintzy rugs that covered the hardwood floors, to the antique furniture, to the oil paintings of flower vases. It wasn’t chic, but it was home, and it smelled like it—lemon-scented wood polish, cookies, dusty coziness. It smelled the same as it had three days go, but I realized that the scent was deeper. Richer.
Improved vampire senses, maybe?
When we entered the living room, Helen was sitting at the edge of our gingham-patterned sofa, her legs crossed at the ankles. A glass of water sat on the coffee table in front of her.
“Come in, ladies. Have a seat.” She smiled and patted the couch. Mallory and I exchanged a glance and sat down. I took the seat next to Helen. Mallory sat on the matching love seat that faced the couch. Helen handed me the glass of water.
I brought it to my lips, but paused before sipping. “I can—eat and drink things other than blood?”
Helen’s laugh tinkled. “Of course, dear. You can eat whatever you’d like. But you’ll need blood for its nutritional value.” She leaned toward me, touched my bare knee with the tips of her fingers. “And I daresay you’ll enjoy it!” She said the words like she was imparting a delicious secret, sharing scandalous gossip about her next-door neighbor.
I sipped, discovered that water still tasted like water. I put the glass back on the table.
Helen tapped her hands against her knees, then favored us both with a bright smile. “Well, let’s get to it, shall we?” She reached into the satchel at her feet and pulled out a dictionary-sized leather-bound book. The deep burgundy cover was inscribed in embossed gold letters—Canon of the North American Houses, Desk Reference. “This is everything you need to know about joining Cadogan House. It’s not the full Canon, obviously, as the series is voluminous, but this will cover the basics”
“Cadogan House?” Mallory asked. “Seriously?”
I blinked at Mallory, then Helen. “What’s Cadogan House?”
Helen looked at me over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses. “That’s the House that you’ll be Commended into. One of Chicago’s three vampire Houses—Navarre, Cadogan, Grey. Only the Master of each House has the privilege of turning new vampires. You were turned by Cadogan’s Master—”
“Ethan Sullivan,” Mallory finished.
Helen nodded approvingly. “That’s right.”
I lifted brows at Mallory.
“Internet,” she said. “You’d be amazed.”
“Ethan is the House’s second Master. He followed Peter Cadogan into the dark, so to speak.”
If only Masters could turn new vampires, this Ethan Sullivan must have been the vamp in the quad, the one who bit me during round two.
“This House,” I began. “I’m, what, in a vampire sorority or something?”
Helen shook her head. “It’s more complicated than that. All legitimate vampires in the world are affiliated with one House or other. There are currently twelve Houses in the United States; Cadogan is the fourth-oldest among those.” Helen sat up even straighter, so I took a wild guess that she was also a flag-flying member of Cadogan House.
Helen handed me the book, which must have weighed ten pounds. I centered it in my lap, distributing the mass.
“You won’t need to memorize the rules, of course, but you’ll want to read the introductory sections and have at least a passing familiarity with the content. And of course you can refer to the text if you have specific questions. Make sure to read about the Commendation.”
“What’s the Commendation?”
“The initiation ceremony. You’ll become an official member of the House, and you’ll take your oaths to Ethan and the rest of the Cadogan vampires. And speaking of, payments typically begin two weeks after take the oath is taken.”
I blinked. “Payments?”
She gave me one of those over-the-glasses looks. “Your salary, dear.”
I laughed nervously, the sound strangled. “I don’t need a salary. I’m a student. Teaching assistant. Stipend.” I was three years into my graduate work, three chapters into my dissertation on romantic medieval literature.
Helen frowned. “Dear, you can’t go back to school. The university doesn’t admit vampires as students, and they certainly don’t employ them. Title VII doesn’t cover us yet. We went ahead and removed you, just to avoid the squabble, so you won’t have to worry about—”
My pulse thudded in my ears. “What do you mean, you removed me?”
Her expression softened. “Merit, you’re a vampire. A Cadogan Initiate. You can’t go back to that life.”
I was out the door before she was done talking, her voice echoing behind me as I rushed to the first-floor bedroom that served as our office. I wiggled the mouse to wake my computer, brought up a Web browser, and logged into the university server. The system recognized me, and my stomach unclenched in relief.
Then I brought up my records.
Two days ago, my status had been changed. I was listed as “Not Enrolled.”
The world shifted.
I went back to the living room, my voice wavering as I fought through the quickly rising panic, and faced Helen. “What did you do? You had no right to take me out of school!”
Helen turned back to her satchel and pulled out a sheath of paper, her manner irritatingly calm. “Because Ethan feels your circumstances are . . . particular, you’ll receive your salary from the House within the next ten business days. We’ve already arranged the direct deposit. The Commendation is scheduled on your seventh day, six days from now. You will appear when commanded. At the ceremony, Ethan will assign your position of service within the House.” She smiled at me. “Perhaps something in public relations, given your family’s connections to the city.”
“Oh, lady. Wrong move, bringing up the parents,” Mallory muttered.
She was right. It was exactly the wrong thing to say, my parents being one of my least favorite topics. But it was at least jarring enough to wake me from my daze. “I think we’re done here,” I told her. “It’s time for you to leave.”
Helen winged up an eyebrow. “It’s not your house.”
Brave of her to piss off the new vampire. But we were on my turf now, and I had allies.
I turned to Mallory with an evil grin. “How about we find out how much of the vampire myth is actually myth? Don’t vampires have to have an invitation to be in someone’s home?”
“I love the way you think,” Mal said, then went to the door and opened it. “Helen,” she said, “I want you out of my house.”
Something stirred in the air, a sudden breeze that blew through the doorway and ruffled Mallory’s hair—and raised goose bumps along my arms.
“This is incredibly rude,” Helen said, but yanked her satchel up. “Read the book, sign the forms. There’s blood in the refrigerator. Drink it—a pint every other day. Stay away from sunlight and aspen stakes, and come when he commands you.” She neared the door, and then, suddenly, like someone had flipped the switch on a vacuum, she was sucked onto the stoop.
I rushed to the doorway. Helen stood on the top step, glasses askew, staring back at us in disheveled shock. After a moment, she straightened her skirt and glasses, turned crisply, and walked down the stairs and toward the limo. “That was—very rude,” she called back. “Don’t think I won’t tell Ethan about this!”
I gave her a pageant wave—hand cupped, barely swiveling.
“You do that, Helen,” Mallory dared. “And tell him we said to fuck off while you’re at it.”
Helen turned to look at me, eyes blazing silver. Like, supernaturally silver. “You were undeserving,” she sniped.
“I was unconsenting,” I corrected and slammed the heavy oak door shut with enough force that it rattled the hinges. After the scritch of rocks on asphalt signaled the limo’s retreat, I leaned back against the door and looked at Mallory.
She glared back. “They said you were on campus by yourself in the middle of the night!” She punched my arm, disgust obvious on her face. “What the hell were you thinking?”
That, I thought, was the release of the panic she’d suffered until she learned that I was coming home. It tightened my throat, knowing that she’d waited for me, worried for me.
“I had work to do.”
“In the middle of the night?!”
“I said I had work to do!” I threw up my hands, irritation rising. “God, Mallory, this isn’t my fault.” My knees began to shake. I moved the few steps back to the couch and sat down. Repressed fear, horror, and violation overwhelmed me. I covered my face with my hands as the tears began to fall. “It wasn’t my fault, Mallory. Everything—my life, school—is gone, and it wasn’t my fault.”
I felt the cushion dip beside me and an arm around my shoulders.
“Oh, God, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m freaked out. I was so scared, Mer, Jesus. I know it’s not your fault.” She held me while I sobbed, rubbed my back while I cried hard enough to hiccup, while I mourned the loss of my life, of my humanity.
We sat there together for a long time, my best friend and I. She offered Kleenex as I replayed the few things I could remember—the attack, the second set of vampires, the cold and pain, the hazy limo ride.
When I’d sobbed my body empty of tears, Mallory stroked the hair from my face. “It’ll be okay. I promise. I’ll call the university in the morning. And if you can’t go back . . . we’ll figure something out. In the meantime, you should call your grandfather. He’ll want to know you’re okay.”
I shook my head, not yet ready to have that conversation. My grandfather’s love had always been unconditional, but then again, I’d always been human. I wasn’t ready to test the correlation. “I’ll start with Mom and Dad,” I promised. “Then I’ll let word trickle down.”
“Tacky,” Mallory accused, but let it go. “The House, I guess it was, did call me, but I don’t know who else they contacted. The call was pretty short. ‘Merit was attacked on campus two nights ago. In order to save her life, we’ve made her a vampire. She’ll return home tonight. She may be dizzy from the change, so please be home to assist her during the first crucial hours. Thank you.’ It sounded like a recording, to be real honest.”
“So this Ethan Sullivan’s a cheapo,” I concluded. “We’ll add that to the list of reasons we don’t like him.”
“Him turning you into a soul-sucking creature of the night being number one on that list?”
I nodded ruefully. “That’s definitely number one.” I shifted and glanced over at her. “They made me like them. He made me like them, this Sullivan.”
Mallory made a sound of frustration. “I know. I am so effing jealous.” Mal was a student of the paranormal; as long as I’d known her, she’d had a keen interest in all things fanged and freaky. She put her palm to her chest. “I’m the occultist in the family, and yet it’s you, the English lit geek, they turn? Even Buffy would feel that sting. Although,” she said, her gaze appraising, “you will make damn good research material.”
I snorted. “But research material for what? Who the hell am I now?”
“You’re Merit,” she said with conviction that warmed my heart. “But kind of Merit 2.0. And I have to say, the phone call notwithstanding, this Sullivan’s not a cheapo about everything. Those shoes are Jimmy Choo, and that dress is runway-worthy.” She clucked her tongue. “He’s dressed you up like his own personal model. And frankly, Mer, you look good.”
Good, I thought, was relative. I looked down at the cocktail dress, smoothed my hands over the slick, black fabric. “I liked who I was, Mal. My life wasn’t perfect, but I was happy.”
“I know, hon. But maybe you’ll like this, too.”
I doubted it. Seriously.
RICH PEOPLE AREN’T NICER-THEY JUST HAVE BETTER CARS.
My parents were new-money Chicago.
My grandfather, Chuck Merit, had served the city for thirty-four years as a cop—walking a beat in Chicago’s South Side until he joined the CPD’s Bureau of Investigative Services. He was a legend in the Chicago Police Department.
But while he brought home a solid middle-class living, things were occasionally tight for the family. My grandmother came from money, but she’d turned down an inheritance from her overbearing, old-Chicago-money-having father. Although it was her decision, my father blamed my grandfather for the fact that he wasn’t raised in the lifestyle to which he thought he should have been accustomed. Burned by the imagined betrayal and irritated by a childhood of living carefully on a cop’s salary, my father made it his personal goal to accumulate as much money as possible, to the exclusion of everything else.
He was very, very good at it.
Merit Properties, my father’s real estate development company, managed high-rises and apartment complexes throughout the city. He was also a member of the powerful Chicago Growth Council, which was made up of representatives of the city’s business community and which advised the city’s newly reelected mayor, Seth Tate, on planning and development issues. My father took great pride in, and often remarked upon, his relationship with Tate. Frankly, I just thought that reflected poorly on the mayor.
Of course, because I’d grown up a Chicago Merit, I’d been able to reap the benefits that came with the name—big house, summer camp, ballet lessons, nice clothes. But while the financial benefits were great, my parents, especially my father, were not the most compassionate people. Joshua Merit wanted to create a legacy, all else be damned. He wanted the perfect wife, the perfect children, and the perfect position among Chicago’s social and financial elite. Little wonder that I worshipped my grandparents, who understood the meaning of unconditional love.
I couldn’t imagine my father was going to be happy about my new vampiric identity. But I was a big girl, so after I washed my face of tears, I got into my car—an old boxy Volvo I’d scrimped to pay for—and drove to their home in Oak Park.
When I arrived, I parked the Volvo in the drive that arced in front of the house. The building was a massive postmodern concrete box, completely out of place next to the more subtle Prairie Style buildings around it. Money clearly did not buy taste.
I walked to the front door. It was opened before I could knock. I glanced up. Dour gray eyes looked down at me from nearly seven feet of skinny white guy. “Ms. Merit.”
“That’s what I said.” Of course I knew his name. Pennebaker, the butler, was my father’s first big purchase. Pennebaker had a “spare the rod” mentality about child rearing and always took my father’s side—snooping, tattling, and generally sparing no details about what he imagined was my rebellious childhood. Realistically, I was probably lower than average in the rebellion department, but I had perfect siblings—my older sister, Charlotte, now married to a heart surgeon and pumping out children, and my older brother, Robert, who was being groomed to take over the family business. As a single twenty-seven-year-old graduate student, even though studying at one of the best universities in the country, I was a second-class Merit. And now I was coming home with a big ol’ nasty.
I walked inside, feeling the woosh of air on my back as Pennebaker shut the door firmly behind me and then stepped in front of me.
“Your parents are in the front parlor,” he intoned. “You are expected. They’ve been unduly concerned about your welfare. You worry your father with these”—he looked down disdainfully—“things you get involved in.”
I took offense to that, but opted not to correct his misunderstanding of the degree to which I’d consented to being changed. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.
I walked past him, following the hallway to the front parlor and pushing open the room’s top-hinged door. My mother, Meredith Merit, rose from one of the room’s severe boxy sofas. Even at eleven p.m., she wore heels and a linen dress, a strand of pearls around her neck. Her blond hair was perfectly coiffed, her eyes pale green.
Mom rushed to me, hands extended. “You’re okay?” She cupped my cheeks with long-nailed fingers and looked me over. “You’re okay?”
I smiled politely. “I’m fine.” Relative to their understanding, that was true.
My father, tall and lean like me, with the same chestnut hair and blue eyes, was on the opposite sofa, still in a suit despite the hour. He looked at me over half-cocked reading glasses, a move he might as well have borrowed from Helen, but it was no less effective on a human than a vampire. He snapped closed the paper he’d been reading and placed it on the couch beside him.
“Vampires?” He managed to make the single word both a question and an accusation.
“I was attacked on campus.”
My mother gasped, clutched a hand to her heart, and looked back at my father. “Joshua! On campus! They’re attacking people!”
My father kept his gaze on me, but I could see the surprise in his eyes. “Attacked?”
“I was attacked by one vampire, but a different vampire turned me.” I recalled the few words I’d heard, the fear in the voice of Ethan Sullivan’s companion. “I think the first one ran away, was scared away, and the second ones were afraid I was going to die.” Not quite the truth—the companion feared it might happen; Sullivan seemed supremely confident it would. And that he could alter my fate when it did.
“Two sets of vampires? At U. of C.?”
I shrugged, having wondered the same thing.
My father crossed his legs. “And speaking of, why, in God’s name, were you wandering around campus by yourself in the middle of the night?”
A spark fired in my stomach. Anger, maybe mixed with a hint of self-pity, not uncommon emotions when it came to dealing with my father. I usually played meek, fearful that raising my voice would push my parents to voice their own long-lived desires for a different younger daughter. But to everything, there is a season, right?
“I was working.”
His responsive huff said plenty.
“I was working,” I repeated, twenty-seven years of pent-up assertiveness in my tone. “I was heading to pick up some papers, and I was attacked. It wasn’t a choice, and it wasn’t my fault. He tore out my throat.”
My father scanned the clear skin at my throat and looked doubtful—God forbid a Merit, a Chicago Merit, couldn’t stand up for herself—but he forged ahead. “And this Cadogan House. They’re old, but not as old as Navarre House.”
Since I hadn’t yet mentioned Cadogan House, I assumed whoever had called my parents mentioned the affiliation. And my father had apparently done some research.
“I don’t know much about the Houses,” I admitted, thinking that was more Mallory’s arena.
My father’s expression made it clear that he wasn’t satisfied by my answer. “I only got back tonight,” I said, defending myself. “They dropped me off at the house two hours ago. I wasn’t sure if you’d heard from anyone or thought I was hurt or something, so I came by.”
“We got a call.” His tone was dry. “From the House. Your roommate—”
“Mallory,” I interrupted. “Her name is Mallory.”
“—told us when you didn’t come home. The House called and informed us that you’d been attacked. They said you were recuperating. I contacted your grandfather and your brother and sister, so there was no need to contact the police department.” He paused. “I don’t want them involved in this, Merit.”
The fact that my father was unwilling to investigate the attack on his daughter notwithstanding, my scars were gone anyway. I touched my neck. “I think it’s a little late for the police.”
My father, evidently unimpressed by my forensic analysis, rose from the couch and approached me. “I’ve worked hard to bring this family up from nothing. I will not see it torn down again.” His cheeks were flushed crimson. My mother, who’d moved to stand at his side, touched his arm and quietly said his name.
I bristled at the “again,” but resisted the urge to argue with my father’s assessment of our family history, reminding him, “Becoming a vampire wasn’t my choice.”
“You’ve always had your head in the clouds. Always dreaming about romantic gibberish.” I assumed that was a knock against my dissertation. “And now this.” He walked away, strode to a floor-to-ceiling window, and stared out of it. “Just—stay on your side of town. And stay out of trouble.”
I thought he was done, that the admonishment was the end of it, but then he turned, and gazed at me through narrowed eyes. “And if you do anything to tarnish our name, I’ll disinherit you fast enough to make your head spin.”
My father, ladies and gentlemen.
By the time I made it back to Wicker Park, I was red-eyed and splotchy again, having cried my way east. I didn’t know why my father’s behavior surprised me; it was completely in keeping with his principal goal in life: improving his social standing. My near-death experience and the fact that I’d become a bloodsucker weren’t as important in his tidy little world as the threat I posed to their status.
It was late when I pulled the car into the narrow garage beside the house—nearly one a.m. The brownstone was dark, the neighborhood quiet, and I guessed Mallory was asleep in her upstairs bedroom. Unlike me, she still had a job at her Michigan Avenue ad firm, and she was usually in the Loop by seven a.m. But when I unlocked the front door, I found her on the couch, staring blankly at the television.
“You need to see this,” she said, without looking up. I kicked off the heels, walked around the sofa to the television, and stared. The headline at the bottom of the screen read, ominously, Chicagoland vamps deny role in murder.
I looked at Mallory. “Murder?”
“They found a girl dead in Grant Park. Her name is Jennifer Porter. Her throat was ripped out. They found her tonight, but think she was killed a week ago—three days before you were attacked.”
“Oh, my God.” I dropped onto the sofa behind me, pulled up my knees. “They think vamps did this?”
“Watch,” Mallory said.
On screen, four men and a woman—Celina Desaulniers—stood behind a wooden podium.
A swath of print and broadcast reporters huddled before it, their microphones, cameras, recorders, and notepads in hand.
In perfect sequence, the quintet stepped forward.
The man in the middle of the group, tall with a spill of dark hair around his shoulders, leaned over the microphone.
“My name,” he said, in a wine-warm voice, “is Alexander. These are my friends and associates. As you know, we are vampires.”
The room erupted in flashes of light, reporters frantically snapping images of the ensemble. Seemingly oblivious to the flash of the strobes, they stood stoically, side by side, perfectly still.
“We are here,” Alexander said, “to extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Jennifer Porter, and to promise to do our part to assist the Chicago Police Department and other law enforcement agencies in any way that we can. We offer our aid and condemn the acts of those who would take human life. There is no need for such violence, and it has long been abhorred by the civilized among us. As you know, although we must take blood to survive, we have long-established procedures that prevent us from victimizing those who do not share our craving. Murder is perpetrated only by our enemies. And rest assured, my friends, they are your enemies and ours, alike.”
Alexander paused, but then continued, his voice edgier. “It has come to our attention that a pendant from one of Chicago’s Houses, Cadogan, was found at the crime scene.”
“Oh, my God,” Mallory whispered.
I kept my eyes on the screen.
“Although our comrades from Cadogan House do drink from humans,” Alexander continued, “they are meticulous in ensuring that the humans who donate blood are fully informed and fully consenting. And Chicago’s other vampires do not, under any circumstances, take human blood. Thus, it is our belief, although only a hypothesis at this early time, that the medal was placed at the scene of the crime solely to inculpate the residents of Cadogan House. To suggest otherwise is unjustified supposition.”
Without another word, Alexander fell back in line next to his comrades.
Celina stepped forward. At first, she was silent, her gaze scanning the reporters in front of her. She smiled softly, and you could practically hear the reporters’ sighs. But the innocence in her expression was a little too innocent to be believable. A little too forced.
“We are devastated by the death of Jennifer Porter,” she said, “and by the accusations that have been leveled against our colleagues. Although Navarre House vampires do not drink, we respect the decisions of other Houses to engage in that practice. The resources of Navarre House are at the city’s disposal. This crime offends us all, and Navarre House will not rest until the killer is caught and prosecuted.”
Celina nodded at the bank of reporters, then turned and walked offscreen, the rest of her vampires falling in line behind her.
Mallory muted the television and turned back to me. “What the hell have you gotten yourself into?”
“They say the Houses aren’t involved,” I pointed out.
“She says Navarre isn’t involved,” Mallory said. “She seems pretty willing to throw the other Houses to the wolves. And besides, vampires were involved when you turned up almost dead. A vampire attacked you. That’s too many fangs to be coincidental.”
I caught the direction of her thoughts. “You think I’m, what, number two? That I was supposed to be the second victim?”
“You were the second victim,” she said. She used the remote to turn off the television. “And I think it’s an awfully big coincidence that your throat was ripped out on campus. It’s not exactly a park, but it’s close enough. Look,” she said, pointing back at the television.
A picture of Jennifer Porter, a small shot from an ID card, filled the screen. Dark brown hair, blue eyes, just like me.
We shared a moment of silence.
“And speaking of heinous people,” Mallory finally said, “how was the visit home?” Mallory had met my parents only once, when I couldn’t hold off an introduction any longer. She’d just adopted the blue-hair regimen. Needless to say, they weren’t impressed. Creativity, even if benign, was not tolerated in the Merit house. After the one visit, during which Mal had barely avoided socking my father in the jaw, I decided not to force them on her again.
I shrugged. “My expectations were low going in, just not as low as they should have been.” I took a long look at the giant leather Canon on top of the coffee table, then reached out and pulled it into my lap. “They were concerned, I guess, but mostly I got a lecture about embarrassing the family.” I put my hands in the air, waggled my fingers for dramatic effect. “You know, the Chicago Merits. Like that means anything.”
Mallory snorted softly. “Unfortunately, it does mean something. You only have to look at the Trib to know that. Did you go see your grandpa?”
“You need to.”
“I will,” I quickly replied, “when I’m up to it.”
“Bullshit,” she said, grabbing the cordless phone from its cradle next to the couch. “He’s more of a father to you than Joshua ever was. And you know he’s always up. Call him.” She handed the receiver over, and I clutched it, stared down at the rubbery blue buttons.
“Damn it,” I muttered, but punched in his number. I lifted the phone to my ear, clenching my hand to control the shaking, and silently prayed that he could be understanding. The phone rang three times before the machine kicked on.
“Hi, Grandpa,” I said at the beep. “It’s Merit. I wanted to let you know I’m home and I’m okay. I’ll come over as soon as I can.” I hung up the phone and handed the receiver back to Mallory.
“Way to be an adult,” she said, reaching across the couch to return it to its cradle.
“Hey, I’m pretty sure I can still kick your ass, undead or not.”
She snorted disdainfully. She was quiet for a moment, then cautiously offered, “Maybe something good could come from this.”
I slid her a sideways glance. “Meaning?”
“Meaning, maybe you could get laid?”
“Jesus, Mallory. So not the point,” I said, but gave her points for the hit on my nonexistent dating life. Mallory blamed the cold spell on me, said I “didn’t put myself out there.” What was that supposed to mean? I went out. I hung out in coffeehouses, went to English department FACs. Mallory and I went out almost every weekend to catch bands, Chicago being a hub for touring indies. But I also had to focus on finishing my dissertation. I’d assumed there’d be time for boys after. I guess I had an (undead) eternity for it now.
Mallory put an arm around my shoulder, squeezed. “Look. You’re a vampire now. A vampire.” She looked me over, took in the Cadogan makeover. “They’ve definitely improved your fashion sense, and pretty soon you’ll have this whole goth-chic-undead thing going on.”
I lifted brows.
“Seriously. You’re tall, smart, pretty. You’re like eighty percent legs.” She cocked her head and frowned at them. “I hate you a little for that.”
“You’ve got better boobs,” I acknowledged. And just as we’d done each time we’d had this boobs-versus-legs conversation, we looked down at our chests. Ogled. Compared. My boobs were fine, if a little on the small side. Hers were perfect.
“So I do,” she finally said, but waved a hand dismissively. “But that’s beside the point. The point is, you’re great-looking, and although it personally irks you, you’re the daughter of Joshua Merit. Everyone knows his name. And for all that, you haven’t had a date in, what, a year?”
Fourteen months, but who was counting?
“If you’re out there doing your hot new vampire thing, it could open up a new world for you.”
“Right, Mal. That’s a phone call home I’m gonna make.” I raised my hand, arched my fingers to mimic a telephone receiver. “Hi, Dad. It’s the daughter you barely tolerate. Yeah, I know you’re disappointed I’m the walking undead, but vampire guys are seriously hot.” I mimicked hanging up the phone. “No, thanks. I’m not going to date a vampire.”
She put her head on my shoulder. “Hon, you are a vampire.”
I rubbed my temples, which were beginning to throb. “I know, and it sucks. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
Mallory sighed impatiently, but didn’t say anything else about it. She pushed back into the couch cushions and tapped the cover of the guide to vampire life, still closed in my lap, with a finger. “So, you’re going to read it?”
“I should probably understand the ground rules. And since I have all night . . .”
“Well, I don’t have all night.” She rose and stretched. “I’ve got to get some sleep. I’ve got an early meeting. Have fun with your vampire book.”
“Night, Mal. Thanks for waiting up.”
“No problem. I’ll call U of C tomorrow and let you know what they say about reenrolling.” She walked out of the room, but peeked back in, her hand wrapped around the oak doorframe. “Just to review, you’re pissed about being made a vampire, and we hate this Ethan Sullivan guy, right?”
I thumbed through the Canon’s thick, ancient-looking pages, scrolling through the acknowledgments and table of contents, my drifting gaze stilling when I reached the title of chapter two: “Servicing Your Lord.”
“Oh, yeah,” I assured her. “We hate him.”.
I slept on the couch, book in my hands. I’d spent the final hours of the evening, long after Mallory had dragged herself upstairs, pouring through the Canon. I was wide-awake for the review, the transition to vampire already reversing my sleep schedule, at least until the wave of exhaustion hit me at sunrise. As dawn approached, I could feel the sun creeping up, preparing to breach the horizon. As it rose, so did the weighty drowsiness. What was it that Carl Sandburg had said about fog? That it crept in like a cat? That was how the exhaustion came. It crept in, silent but assuredly there, and covered me like a heavy velvet blanket.
But where falling asleep was incremental, I woke suddenly, finding myself wrapped in an ancient musty quilt. I unraveled my limbs, and looked out to see Mallory on the love seat in jeans and a Cubs T-shirt, staring at me curiously.
“Were you trying to mummify me?”
“There are windows in the room,” she pointed out, “and you were too heavy to get upstairs. I leave you exposed to the sun all day and I definitely don’t get this month’s rent.” She rose, walked closer, and looked me over. “No burns or anything?”
I threw the blanket on the floor and surveyed my body. I was still in the slinky cocktail dress, and the parts of skin that showed looked fine, maybe better than they had before the change. And I felt a helluva lot better than I had the night before, the sluggishness having finally cleared. I was now a healthy bloodsucking vampire. Yay!
“Nah,” I told her, sparing her the internal monologue. “I think I’m good. Thanks.”
Mallory tapped nails against her thigh. “I think we need to spend a little time tonight, you know, checking you out. Figuring out what we’re dealing with, what your needs are. Write down stuff you might need.”
I lifted my brows skeptically. Mallory was brilliant, without a doubt. Case in point: She’d landed the job as an advertising executive at McGettrick-Combs right after college—literally the day after she graduated from Northwestern. Said Mallory: “Mr. McGettrick, I want to work for your firm.” Said grumpy, balls-to-the-wall Alec McGettrick: “Be here at eight a.m. Monday morning.”
But Mallory was an idea person, not a detail person, which was probably why she was so valuable to Alec and crew. For her to suggest that I make a list—well, that just wasn’t typical Mallory.
“You feeling okay, Mal?”
She shrugged. “You’re my best friend. Least I can do.” Mallory cleared her throat, looked blankly at the wall. “That said, the refrigerator is now filled with blood that was delivered before you woke up, and there’s an eight hundred number on the side to order more.” Her mouth twitched, and I could tell she was trying not to laugh.
“Why are you chortling at my food?”
She closed her eyes. “The company that does this vampire delivery thing? It’s called ‘Blood4You.’ Unoriginal much? I mean, they’ve got a captive audience, but still, take your branding seriously, for Christ’s sake. They need a new name, new image, repackaging. . . .” Her eyes glazed over, probably as potential logos and mascots danced in her head to the sound track of the jingle she’d no doubt already conceptualized.
“Never mind,” she finally said, shaking her head as if to clear it. “I’m not at work. In more important news, I bought a leather curtain for your bedroom. It’s huge, so it completely covers the window. That should give you a safe place to crash, although it totally clashes with the decor.” She looked critically around the room. “Such as it is.”
When Mallory moved in, she hadn’t made any changes to the brownstone beyond divvying up bedrooms, stocking the fridge, and adding electronics. So the decor, such as it was, remained Aunt Rose-ish. The woman took her name seriously, and covered virtually every free surface with flowered doilies or throw rugs. Even the wallpaper was dotted with cabbage-sized roses.
“In case it matters, you were actually sleeping.”
I grinned at her. “You checked?”
“I held a finger under your nose. I didn’t know if you were breathing, or if you just kind of . . . died. Some books say vampires do that, you know, during the day.”
And Mallory, being a student of the occult, would know. If she hadn’t been so well-matched to her job at a Chicago ad agency, she would have dedicated her life to vampires and the like—and that was even before she knew they were real. As it was, she put in the time during her off-hours. And now she had me, her own little in-house vampire pet. Vampet?
“It felt like sleep,” I confirmed, and stood, laying the book on the floor between us and realizing what I was still wearing. “I’ve been in this dress for twenty-four hours. I need an excruciatingly long shower and a change of clothes.”
“Knock yourself out. And don’t use all my conditioner, dead girl.”
I snorted and walked to the stairs. “I don’t know why I put up with you.”
“Because someday you want to be as kick-ass cool as me.”
“Please. You’re a total fang hag.”
Laughter issued from the living room. “We’re going to have some serious fun with this.”
I doubted that, too, but I’d wallowed enough, so I swallowed my doubts and padded upstairs.
I avoided looking at the bathroom mirror just in case, fearful that I’d find no reflection there, but stood beneath the showerhead until the hot water ran out, cherishing the prickles of heat, and thinking about my new . . . existence? Helen had mentioned the basics—stakes, sunlight, blood—but she’d avoided the metaphysics. Who was I? What was I? Soulless? Dead? Undead?
Forcing myself to face at least part of the issue, I brushed a hand over the fogged mirror, praying for a reflection. The steam swirled in the small bathroom, but revealed me, damp and mostly covered by a pink bath sheet, the relief in my expression obvious.
I frowned at the mirror, tried to puzzle out the rest of it. I’d never been explicitly religious. Church, to my parents, was an excuse to show off Prada loafers and their newest Mercedes convertible. But I’d always been quietly spiritual. I tried, my parents notwithstanding, to be grateful for the things I’d been given, to be thankful for the things that reminded me that I was a small cog in a very big wheel: the lake on a moodily cloudy day; the gracious divinity of Elgar’s “The Lark Ascending”; the quiet dignity of a Cassat painting at the Art Institute.
So as I shivered, naked and damp, in front of the bathroom mirror, I raised my eyes skyward. “I hope we’re still okay.”
I got no answer, but then, I didn’t really expect one. Answer or not, it didn’t matter. That’s the thing about faith, I guess.
Twenty minutes later, I emerged downstairs, clean and dry, and back in jeans. I’d settled for a favorite low-waisted pair and teamed it with two thin, layered T-shirts in white and a pale blue that matched my eyes, and a pair of black Mihara Pumas. At three inches short of six feet, I had no need for heels. The only accoutrement missing from the ensemble was the black elastic I kept on my right wrist for hair emergencies. Today, I’d already pulled my dark hair up into a high ponytail, leaving the fringe of straight-cut bangs across my forehead.
I found Mallory downstairs in the kitchen. She sat on a stool at the kitchen island, a Diet Coke on the counter before her, a copy of Cosmo in her hands.
“What’d you learn last night in your vampire bible?” she asked, without looking up.
Preparing myself for the retelling, I nabbed a soda from the refrigerator, popped the tab, and slid onto a stool next to her. “Like Helen said, there’re twelve vampire Houses in the United States; three in Chicago. The House arrangement is kind of . . . Well, think feudal England. Except instead of a baron, you’ve got a Master vampire in charge of everything.”
“Ethan,” she offered.
I nodded my agreement. “For Cadogan, Ethan. He’s the most powerful vamp in the House. The rest of the vampires are basically his minions—we have to take an oath to serve him, swear our allegiance, that kind of thing. He even gets a fancy title.”
She looked up, brows lifted.
“He’s my ‘Liege.’ ”
Mallory tried unsuccessfully to hide a snicker—which ended up sounding strangled and anemic—before turning back to her magazine. “You have to call Darth Sullivan your ‘Liege’?”
I grinned. “Only if I expect him to answer.”
She snorted. “What else?”
“The Houses are like”—I paused to think of a good analogy—“company towns. Some vamps work for the House. Maybe guards or public relations folks or whatever. They’ve got administrators, docs who work outside the House, even some historic positions. All of them get a stipend.”
I took a sip of my soda. “Ethan has a ‘Second,’ like a second-in-command or something.”
“Ooh, like Riker?”
Did I mentioned she also loved Star Trek: The Next Generation ? “Sure. There’s also a ‘Sentinel,’ which is like a guard for the House.”
“For the brand?”
I nodded at the apt metaphor. “Exactly. And the House itself is in Hyde Park. Think mansion.”
Mallory looked appropriately impressed. “Well. If you’re going to be attacked and unwillingly made a vampire, let it be a rich and fancy vampire, I guess.”
“That’s an argument.”
“How many Cadogan vamps?”
“Three hundred and eight nationally. Eighty-six actually live in the House proper. They get dorm rooms or something.”
“So these vamps live in a mansion-slash-frat house, and you get a stipend just for having pointier teeth.” She cocked her head at me. “How much cash is it, exactly?”
“Decent. Better than TA-ing.”
“Minus the free will.”
“There is that.”
Mal cleared her throat, put the can on the counter, linked her hands together, then looked over at me. I guessed I wasn’t going to like whatever confession she was about to make.
“I called the university.”
The tone of her voice made my heart sink. “Did you tell them none of this was my choice?”
Her gaze dropped to the counter. “Merit, they don’t admit vampires. They don’t have to do it legally, and they’re afraid of the lawsuits if one of you was to, you know”—she frowned, waved a hand in the air—“with the teeth and the biting. Honestly, if Helen hadn’t done it, the university would have dropped you when they found out.”
That seed of hatred unfolded, sprouted. “But I wouldn’t have told them,” I persisted. “How else would they have known? I could have rearranged my schedule, taken night classes. . . .”