"Good advice," I added. "You should listen to him."
Tate swung his gaze at me. "Fuck, Cat. I'd be jumping at my own shadow if was scared of every threat directed at me. One day I'm gonna die. Everyone will, even our kind. I'll be damned if I spend what time I have sniveling like a coward, kissing ass so I don't make people angry. All I've got is how I live. How I'll die? That's the problem of the guy who kills me."
"God," I muttered. He just wouldn't listen.
Vlad let out a whistle. "I've wondered what she saw in you. You seem so pitiful most of the time. At least you have some semblance of courage."
"You motherfucker - " Tate began.
His feet caught fire. Then his hands. The forward momentum he'd used to charge at Vlad was abruptly changed into an odd stomping dance while Tate tried to douse the flames.
Vlad tutted. "See? Watch your temper."
"Ahem." I cleared my throat. "You mind?"
The fire slowly extinguished on Tate. I shook my head. Fabian couldn't come back fast enough. Who would have thought I'd be so anxious to see a ghost?
"Can I trust you not to kill him, Vlad, while I go inside and not sleep?" I asked.
Vlad smiled. "For a while, you can."
Juan didn't come back. Neither did Fabian, though it wasn't eighteen hours before there was word. It came in the form of a phone call. Funny how terrible news usually came to me by phone.
Juan's voice. As soon as I heard it, I knew it was bad. He sounded so controlled. So forcibly gentle.
"I didn't want to wait to tell you, querida..."
Vlad was staring at me. Tate was, too. Spade almost had his head on my shoulder to hear the report firsthand.
"When Fabian found him, it was clear that Bones wasn't being held against his will. He, ah, indicated that he wanted Fabian to leave...would you pull yourself together, amigo?" This was presumably to the ghost, since I hadn't broken down. Yet. "Look, querida, Fabian said Bones was very harsh. Told him to sod off, or similar."
I took a deep breath. "So you're saying he wanted to be left alone still. Did - did he say for how long? Did he say anything about me?"
I couldn't help it; my voice cracked at the last question. My heart was racing, and I felt faint, but at least my legs were straight.
"Si." Juan sounded like he'd swallowed something rancid. "Fabian asked, 'How am I supposed to tell your wife this?' and Bones said..."
Juan stopped. "Said what?" I almost screamed.
"He said, 'I have no wife.'"
Spade snatched the cell out of my numb fingers. "That's a bloody lie!"
"Look, I don't like it either," I heard Juan snap. "But he's not lying."
Spade didn't stop fuming. "I've known that man 220 years, and I can tell you - "
"Let it go, Spade."
He quit his ranting at my calm tone and gaped at me. "You don't believe this rot, do you?"
I think I laughed. Hell if I could say for certain. "I guess after seeing satellite imagery and hearing eyewitness accounts, I'm going to side with yes. Answer me this - did Bones actually say he was coming back to me? Or did you assume?"
Spade straightened. "He didn't need to write it down for me to know his intentions - "
Now I was sure about the laugh, and it was ugly. "In other words, no, you assumed."
Here Bones had clearly told me it was over, but I still hadn't gotten it. I'd clung to the scrap of hope Spade had dangled right up until the bitter end.
Annette stayed in the far corner of the room, smart. Spade hung up on Juan without another word.
"Cat, let's get out of here," Tate said. "You can go back to Don and the team. You've always got a home there. You don't need this."
I stared at him, cold reality intruding between the searing pain. That's right, this isn't your home. You don't belong here. You don't belong anywhere.
I thought it, but I wasn't the one who said it. Vlad brushed by Tate like he wasn't there.
"Gregor's shown he won't let her go, and you can't protect her from him. You'll only get your soldiers killed, and her as well, in short order. She can come with me until she decides what she wants to do."
"I doubt your intentions are honorable," Spade said, his eyes glinting green.
"If Bones were concerned with my intentions, he'd be here to observe them," Vlad replied. Tate's protest wasn't helping. The mood was quickly turning dangerous. "You're guarding an abandoned lover, not your best friend's wife. Why don't you mind your own love life, since you were lax on that front before."
If it were possible for a vampire to whiten, Spade just had. Vlad's reference to Giselda, Spade's fiancee, who had been murdered, wasn't lost on me. Quickly, before things were beyond salvaging, I moved between Spade and Vlad. It wasn't that I was worried about Vlad getting hurt. I was afraid that if Spade touched him, Vlad would burn him to death.
"Spade, whatever you may think, Bones made it crystal clear that we were over. It's my fault I didn't accept it. Tate...I can't go back. There is no going back." God, if only there were. "Vlad, what's your price? Vampires always have one, so what do you want if I go with you until I figure things out?"
Vlad seemed to consider it. "I'll take feeding from you as a fair price."
"Agreed." Or, Sold! to the vampire with the coppery-green eyes.
Spade crossed his arms. "There's no way I'm allowing you to leave with him."
Don't get physical, I sent to Vlad, seeing his lip curl at the challenge. Spade is my friend, even if he is wrong. No snack for you if you toast him. That goes for Tate as well, since he looks like he's about to throw himself in our path.
"Do I smell smoke?" Vlad asked, that little smile never leaving his face.
With that, flames began crawling across the walls. It looked like orange and red snakes magically appeared and grew. And grew.
Spade began cursing and went to the sink, filling the nearest containers with water while shouting for assistance.
"If you're quick, you'll have it out in no time," Vlad assured them, holding out his arm to me. "Shall we?"
To stay would be to cause greater damage. The three of them would come to blows, I knew, and no amount of intervention would stop them. Tate already wasn't rational. He grabbed Vlad's shoulder - and then went flying up through the ceiling. Both of them, from the sounds of it. Rubble showered down amidst the flames.
Vlad didn't even blink. "That's a warning. The next one won't be."
I gave a last glance at the hole in the ceiling and the burning walls before I took Vlad's arm, still reeling from the past fifteen minutes. "Let's go."
We got into a car that I assumed was Vlad's. As we pulled away, there were four distinct ka-booms, and the vehicles in the driveway exploded.
"So they don't attempt to follow us," Vlad said in response to my stunned look.
Lightning broke across the sky. It was the last thing I saw before I closed my eyes.
THERE ARE FIVE STEPS TO THE GRIEVING process, or so they say. Denial is the first. I'd had plenty of that since I left Spade's. Then anger, and oh yeah, I was angry. Couldn't even take a few days to stop and think about things, maybe let the dust settle? Oh no, not you, Bones! Back in the saddle, huh, cowboy?
Then bargaining, perhaps the most pathetic one of all, which kept me busy through the flight to our unknown destination. Let him come back. I love him so much, and he did love me. Maybe we can still work things out...
Fuck him! my anger said. I always knew Bones would go back to his old tricks. A leopard can't change his spots, right? Doesn't have a wife, huh? Who needs you, anyway?
If the vampire next to me was listening to my mental schizophrenia, he gave no indication. Vlad whistled while my emotions played Russian roulette. By the time he announced we'd arrived, I was into a state of full-blown depression.
Or, in other words, step Number Four.
The car stopped, and I heard people approach. None of them had heartbeats.
My car door opened. There was a light tug on my hand. "Keep them closed a moment longer. I'll lead you inside."
A minute of careful stepping later, and we stopped.
"You can open your eyes now, Cat."
I did. We were in a long hall of some sort, very old-looking. High, high ceilings. Gothic in the very definition of the word.
Vlad smiled. "Enter freely and of your own will, isn't that what I'm supposed to say?"
I flicked my gaze around the hall. "I'm just staying a few days to get my head on straight." And staple together my broken heart.
"Stay as long as you wish. After all, you owe me a debt. It might take me more than a few days to collect on it."
I gave him a tired look. "Don't bet on it."
One thing could be said for staying with the uncrowned Prince of Darkness. He didn't have a lazy, inattentive staff. After I was shown to my room by a vampire named Shrapnel, I asked what kind of plasmaless drinks they had. Shrapnel didn't respond by listing them from memory - he brought me the entire beverage contents of the refrigerator. When I told him I would have gone down myself to see it, he stared at me like I was crazy.
Well, he was right on that one.
Vlad had dinner with me each night even though he didn't eat. He was pretty scarce during the day, tending to his own affairs, I guessed. Not that I knew for sure. I spent most of my time in my room, brooding, my mood swinging wildly from anger at Bones to self-recrimination. Had my relationship been doomed from the start because Bones was incapable of changing his promiscuous ways? Or would everything have been okay if I just hadn't left that day with Gregor? I didn't know, and not knowing festered.
I went to the dining room at nine. Dinner was served late, for obvious reasons. Vlad was already seated. His long brown hair was brushed and loose, and he twirled the stem of his wineglass as I took my usual place next to him.
I started to fill my plate from the selections on the table. Rack of lamb with a rosemary reduction, marinated asparagus with mango salsa and tiny, tender red potatoes. Vlad just watched, drinking his wine. Living with a vampire, I'd gotten used to being the one munching while someone else just watched, so I didn't feel self-conscious.
After a few minutes of silent chewing, I paused. "This lamb is really good. Sure you don't want to try any?"
"I'll eat soon."
Something about his voice made my fork poise over the next bite. Vlad didn't sound like he was referring to the feast spread before him.
"Are you mentioning that in passing, or prepping me?"
"Gauging your reaction." With a tilt of his head. "Your eyes aren't as puffy tonight. And your manner is less downtrodden. Does this mean you've finally resigned yourself to Bones's abandonment?"
It was the first time in four days that he'd mentioned him. Personally, I could have stood to let it go longer.
"Don't worry, you won't have to talk me off a ledge again."
"I'm pleased to hear that."
He leaned back in his chair, twirling his glass again.
"You haven't contacted Spade or anyone else since you've been here. Aren't you curious to know if they've spoken to him?"
That had me setting down my fork. I didn't know where he was going with this, but Vlad did nothing without motivation.
"What's up, buddy? Trying to get my blood pumping? Tenderize me before you dig in? No, I haven't talked to them, and I don't want to. I don't need more gory details."
"Like whether he has his hands on someone this very minute? Squeezing her, kissing her...holding her na**d against him?"
My plate hurled across the room to shatter against the stone wall. Even as I did it, I cursed myself, Vlad, and most of all, Bones.
"You're just seeing how quickly I'll lose it, aren't you? Gauging me? Well, I'm a little testy, as you can tell, so excuse me."
I grabbed my linen napkin and headed toward the broken dish, determined to clean up my own mess, but Vlad was faster. Still seated, he yanked me to him.
"What are you doing?" I snapped.
His hold tightened until he was almost hurting me. "Claiming my blood price."
I had time to tense before Vlad's mouth latched onto my throat, and his fangs bit into it.
A cry came out of me, but it wasn't of pain. Vlad sucked harder, drawing more of my blood into him. Pulsing warmth spread through me with each pull of his mouth. Vampire venom. Not harmful, but capable of producing a false, very pleasant sensation of heat.
"Vlad, that's enough..."
"No." Muffled. "More."
He pulled me closer. Now I was half-sagged against him while those deep suctions felt like they went going straight through to my spine.
Vlad ran his hands down my arms. I gasped. They were hot, so unlike a vampire's normal temperature. Must be from his pyrokinesis. My blood couldn't warm them that quickly.
Just as fast as he'd grabbed me, Vlad released me. I leaned against the table, my knees far weaker than before.
"That should give you something else to think about," he said.
"No, it won't."
It came from me brokenly. All at once, I started to cry. "I still love him, Vlad! I hate him, too, maybe, but...I still love him."
His stare didn't waver. "You'll get over it."