The Hunted

Chapter Nine

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Chapter Nine

"Baby, please ... no mas, por favor." Carlos dropped his head to his pillow, his lungs battling for air in the sex-sweetened, post-dawn atmosphere. "What time is it?" He groaned. "I have to get some sleep."

Damali laughed and glanced around the barren room that was still sealed shut. There were no windows, clocks, or anything that would give her a sense of time, and there were no mirrors so she could see how disheveled she knew she had to be.

"I dunno," she shrugged, "but okay." Pouting, she stood up to look for her dress and panties. "I promise to be careful when I open the door. I'll just crack it and slip out."

"Uh, huh," Carlos said, still breathing hard, his eyes closed, losing consciousness fast.

"But you have to throw the bolt - you did that with kinetic energy, and I don't think I can move it. Last night you had it sealed so tight SWAT couldn't get in here."

"It's open," he wheezed. "The sound barrier... the lock... anything I materialized reversed well before the sun came up, woman. Please, I'm begging you. Just a few hours of sleep."

She laughed and covered her mouth for a second. "No, tell me the sound barrier stayed intact."

"I tried..." He couldn't even muster the balance of his response.

"The monks! Are you crazy?"

A low, lazy chuckle rumbled up from Carlos's chest. "Yeah... I know."

"Father Patrick, it's almost noon!" Padre Lopez walked in a circle, wringing his hands. "I have heard of the Neteru's legendary stamina, but she's been battling a master vampire all night, and even into the day. He should have lost strength, should have been vanquished by now. He must have had the advantage, if she wasn't able to escape his lair. It sounded like they were killing each other - now I don't hear either of them! This was a very bad idea, we have much to explain to her guardian team!"

"I know." Father Patrick sighed, glancing at the other seasoned spiritual warriors who had manned a post outside all night. "But calm yourself, Padre Lopez."

"Calm myself?" The youngest cleric was incredulous. "But... but... he was murdering her! Torturing her! I don't even hear her cries to the Almighty anymore!"

"Yes," Father Patrick said in a weary tone, standing with effort, using his sword to assist him, "and she killed him, too. The storm has passed."

The young cleric's panic-stricken gaze bounced from one snoozing elder to another. "But we have to reclaim her body. We cannot let the Neteru's body be desecrated!"

"Too late," Monk Lin said on a yawn. "Think I should check the blood supply?"

"That would be advisable," Asula replied, stretching. "Better make an emergency run. He's probably near extinction."

Father Patrick nodded.

"You would again revive the beast that - "

The appearance of Damali halted Padre Lopez's argument. The four men watched her slowly open the cabin door, adjust the strap of her dress on her shoulder, smooth the front of it, and rake her fingers through her locks. She squinted hard at the sun, and glanced away with a sheepish smile.

"Uh... gentlemen... can I get a lift home?"

"Neteru! Oh, thank God!" Padre Lopez rushed to her, grabbed her by the arms and held her back, inspecting her throat. "She's been wounded!" He looked at his brethren for support, and they only lowered their eyes and smiled.

"Yeah," Damali murmured, weaving a bit. She covered the wound on her neck with her hand. "You guys have any more blood in the fridge?"

"She needs a transfusion. We should get her to a hospital!"

Damali chuckled, and pecked Padre Lopez on the cheek. "Naw, I'm good, but Carlos could use a case or two."

The Neteru, bitten? Willingly? Interesting. The darkness of her lair gave the darkness in her mind room to breathe and expand. The huntress was on the move, out in the open, yet she could smell the stench of clerics all around her... just as she could detect the unmistakable scent of sex on her. Very, very intriguing.

A sudden smile graced her mouth. No wonder the master didn't answer my call. She cocked her head to the side. How had he gotten beyond what were obvious prayer barriers, laid down by seasoned warriors, to corner such worthy prey? The thrill of that conquest might have been more of a seduction than any vampire could have resisted, but it still annoyed her that the young Neteru had such pull.

Yet, in a very odd way, it increased the level of anticipation within her. If Master Rivera could accomplish such a wanton feat, then he was indeed worthy of all she had to bargain with.

Again, she surveyed the wounded Neteru. The huntress's throat had been ravaged, her own self-protection in shreds... and her telepathy was down, no barrier to a scan in effect, and her focus was still singular - Carlos. She laughed out loud and dropped her scan of the Neteru to preserve her energy for the coming night.

They had been wrong. This man was obviously so much more than a mere vehicle to amass limitless territory; he was a consummate professional. This morning he'd gained her respect.

She raked her fingers through her hair and shook her head at the dilemma. She might have to find a way to keep him without killing him - at least for a little while.

"It's past noon, Marlene!" Shabazz shouted. He paced back and forth within the weapons room, intermittently pounding his fist on the table. "The man is a master vampire, and nature is nature, Mar! Fuck all this philosophical rhetoric about him not killing Damali! You hear me! Bottom line, he's still a vampire! He'll flat line her."

"That's right, Mar. I told you we should have done the sonofabitch when we had him in the compound," Rider added, going over to stand by Shabazz.

"Yeah, Mar," Big Mike argued. "Noon? We need to be real. She's toast. Our baby went outta here without her blade..." Tears stood in Big Mike's eyes. "He done killed our baby girl... and I'ma kill him up good for this!"

"Aw... man... I never thought he'd do her," Dan murmured. "I never thought - "

"Never do her? You saw the way he looked at her!" Jose was on his feet, walking a hot path of rage between the doorway and the equipment table. "But you guys had me convinced that he was on our side, was the only one who could really protect her with that block-the-shot bullshit y'all came up with!" He spun on the group and pointed hard at the elder guardians. "I must have been out of my mind going along with allowing a master vampire to guard her against another master vampire. Are we crazy?"

"That's right," JL said. "We all saw the way he looked at her. Were we nuts, or what?"

"Marlene, if he was a third or fourth generation, I wouldn't be as worried..." Rider's words trailed off as he gazed out the window. "Love will make you do some crazy shit, and I think this time we messed up, getting all sentimental, hoping against hope. Aw... shit, Mar, tell me you've got something to shock her system and purge it, if we find her body... that is, if she's still breathing."

"Are you gentlemen finished?" Marlene said, yawning.

"Finished? Finished!" Rider spat. "We haven't even gotten started, Mar." He grabbed a round of artillery, as did the others. "We hunt this motherfucker down and stake his ass in broad daylight, if she's not breathing."

"Word," Shabazz said, picking up a handful of holy water grenades along with his Glock nine. "Might even have four dead monks out there in the woods. Last night, Father Pat said the shit was cool out there. In fact, I was cool until ten o'clock this morning. If Marlene hadn't been arguing about not being hasty, I would have been out. Now we ain't heard from nobody in hours. What's that shit about? Huh, Mar? How do we know that Rivera didn't answer the phone last night and throw the clerics' voices, or something? What if they were probably dead on arrival last night - fuckin' DOA when we called! But, no, I couldn't tell you jack - you said, 'Oh, Shabazz, have faith.' You crazy? I'm a man. I know what I'm talking about!"

"I just want her body back," Big Mike said, trying to keep his emotions in check. "Gotta drive a stake in her heart and bury her ashes on hallowed ground... that's the least we can do."

"Yeah..." Jose agreed, wiping his eyes. "We never leave our own."

"Uhmmph, uhmmph, uhmmmph," Marlene said in a blas� tone, glancing at the monitors before the reading even came up. "You got incoming, JL. Man your station. Five warm bodies approaching."

Ignoring protocols, the team rushed the compound doors, weapons in hand, leveling artillery and fanning out in battle stances.

Ohhh... boy... she was in trouble. Damali glanced at the clerics when their Jeep came to a stop in her compound driveway. "Uh, look... uhmmm... it's gonna be a little tense with my family when I go in there, so, how about if you guys go back, make sure Carlos is all right, and uh, I'll get back to you later?"

Father Patrick glanced out of the window and nodded. "You will give Marlene my best?"

Damali smiled. She could dig it. If she could send word by third party herself, she would have opted for that, too. "Yup. Will do," she said, opening the door slowly to avoid any sudden motion that would start bullets flying. "Thanks for the lift... and uh, the evening."

Without looking back, she watched her team visibly relax as the Jeep made a SWAT turn in the driveway and took off. Carefully strolling toward them, she opened both arms and turned around in a full circle, allowing the sun to speak for her. "Can I come in and get some breakfast and a shower?" she asked, trying not to laugh.

Only when Big Mike lowered his shoulder cannon, did she approach. Marlene was standing in the door shaking her head. Shabazz took his time, but ultimately put Sleeping Beauty back in its holster. Rider spat on the ground, and lowered his crossbow, while JL, Jose, and Dan mopped their brows and went inside.

Have mercy... it didn't have to be all of this. But she knew she had to face the music in order to stop a lynching. Taking the lead, she walked past her team and went into the living room. Right now, the last place she wanted to go was into the weapons room. God how she hated this.

"Okay, y'all," she said, yawning, feeling every deliriously placed bruise on her body. "I'm fine, sorry that I worried you, and I - "

"Sorry you worried us?" Shabazz looked like he wanted to slap her.

"Try stopping our hearts," Big Mike muttered, giving her a glare of disapproval.

"So'd you kill the bastard, or what?" Rider asked. "Tell me you killed him, so we don't have to." He rubbed his hands over his face and punched the wall. "Look at her throat." He leveled his gaze at her, then sent the hot glare to Shabazz and Big Mike. "A master did that? Let her come home raggedy and torn up like she'd been in an alley attack! Is it me, or am I insane? No respect, whatsoever, to send the girl home like that!" His line of vision returned to Damali with fury. "Tell me you killed him - broke a wooden table leg off and gored that sonofabitch!"

She couldn't help it, but a lopsided grin found its way to her face. "Yeah... I think I killed him. Several times."

She watched their shoulders slump, bodies dropped in sudden relief onto chairs and the large sectional sofa. JL laughed with a nervous burst, while the muscle in Jose's jaw pulsed. Tears streamed down Dan's face as he shut his eyes and silently wept for his friend, not comprehending. Marlene leaned against the wall with one eyebrow raised.

"You could've called," Marlene said casually. "Not that we're in your business, and we know you're grown, but even at my age, if I'm going to be out all night, I do leave the team a message so nobody freaks."

"Yeah, you're right, Mar... but, uh..."

"Yeah, I know," Marlene said calmly walking toward her.

"Okay, Mar, I know we were all worried, but, 'You could've called'?" Rider glanced at the other guardians who also shared his confusion.

Marlene swallowed away a smile and took Damali's chin, moving her head to the side. "Quite a bite you got there... couple of 'em, in fact. Gonna need a scarf and some makeup - "

"A bite? A bite! And all you got for the girl is a scarf and some makeup? You lost your mind, Marlene? When I got bit - oh, shit... you lose your magic, Mom? Not now!" Big Mike was hysterical, and rushed over to Damali before she could push him away. He'd swept her up in his arms like a baby and was pacing toward the hallway. "Get an ambulance - a holy water douse! Lord, Jesus... a bite and Mar's magic is shot! That's why she didn't call, she's dying and we ain't got no antidote!"

Struggling and laughing, Damali wrested herself from Big Mike's arms, kissed his cheek quickly, and hopped down.

"Guys... I am really, really tired. I need a couple hours and a shower. Mar, we got anything in the fridge? I'm starved."

She watched with amusement as her team backed up. Marlene chuckled and shook her head.

"I can rustle up some breakfast. You look about a few pints low."

"Yeah. Oh, Marlene, try a half gallon."

"She's gonna turn, ain't she?" A sob caught in Big Mike's throat.

Shabazz looked away. Rider inhaled sharply and faced the window to hide his emotions. Dan hung his head and Jose slung an arm over his shoulder like he was holding them both up. JL covered his face with his hands and breathed in deeply.

Marlene winked at Damali. "Go get a shower, and let me break it to the fellas gently, hon. I know you're a vegetarian... but this morning, you need some steak and eggs."

It felt like the worst hangover he'd ever experienced. Carlos sat up slowly, feeling as if he'd taken several body blows, then smiled. Oh, yeah...

He ran his palm over his jaw, noting the prickly stubble. He didn't even have the energy to shave. With effort he stood, groaning from the exertion, found his pants, and tried to sense time... Eleven o'clock at night? Man.

His legs felt like jelly, even the muscles in his ass were sore, but hunger pulled him through the lair door, up the steps, holding onto the wall for support. Four pairs of worried eyes greeted him as he entered the main section of the cabin safe house on the way to the refrigerator.

"Yo, que pasa?" he muttered on a yawn.

For a moment, none of the clerics replied. Whatever.

"Are you all right?" Father Patrick asked.

"Just need a few pints. I'll be cool." Carlos stumbled toward the refrigerator, and grabbed two bags, slit them, and downed the cold liquid they contained and grimaced. Cold. Shit. He hated leftovers. He let out his breath and took out two more. The blood was slow to hit his system, and definitely didn't have the same kick as hers. He glanced up at the nervous clerics and shrugged off the temptation they presented. "I'm cool, y'all," he murmured when their faces blanched.

Father Patrick stood and approached him with caution. "We need to have a conversation... about the, uh, events of last night."

Carlos closed his eyes and leaned against the counter. He was in no mood for this bull right now. His body hurt, he was still tired. Needed a shot of adrenaline... needed a shot of Damali. He let his breath out slowly. "Talk to me."

"There are a number of issues," Father Patrick said, his tone firm as he tried to find a delicate way to begin. He glanced at his team who remained mute. "We were all concerned."

"I didn't hurt her," Carlos grumbled, too embarrassed for words.

"True, but, uh..."

"Look, I need to get out of here for a couple of hours."

Father Patrick glanced at his team for support. "That's not a good idea."

"Why not?" They were pissing him off, and he could feel Damali waking up. Her pull was distracting. The monks needed to talk fast.

"You're in a compromised state."

Carlos stared at the cleric, then chuckled. "You're telling me."

"No, I'm serious, Carlos. You need to regenerate more, first."

"Pulleease, spare me."

"That's what I'm trying to do."

Carlos shook his head. These old boys had no idea. If he had to die like this, then so be it.

"You have to stay away from her... uh... No more talks, that is."

His gaze narrowed on the old seer. "Then you might as well drive a stake through my heart right now. What do mean, stay away from her?"

Carlos brushed past them, heading for the door.

"Right now, try to use your energy to change what you're wearing," Father Patrick said quickly.

Carlos turned and studied the man. Impatient, he let the thought enter his mind and fuse with kinetic energy. But nothing happened. Panic coursed through him. Satisfaction registered in Father Patrick's eyes.

"Sit down," he told Carlos. "And grab a few more pints while you're at it."

Damali stood before the refrigerator weighing her options. She felt more alive than she'd ever felt in her life. But she was still hungry as hell. Dang, they never kept the fridge stocked right. The guys always ate everything that wasn't nailed down. Sensing the entire team gathering behind her in the kitchen, she let her breath out hard, slammed the door, and turned to face them.

"Aw'ight. What now?" she asked, folding her arms over her chest.

"You can't go over there tonight," Marlene said with a sigh. She turned to the rest of the team when Damali bristled. "Gentlemen, would you give us some space? This is a woman-to-woman thing."

Begrudgingly, the male members of the team filed out of the kitchen, and Damali bided her time until they were gone before she launched into an argument with Marlene. What did she mean, "You can't go out?" She was grown, last time she checked!

"Mar - "

"Listen," Marlene urged, cutting her off. "Just hear me out, then you can do what you want."

"Fine," Damali muttered, too through for words. Carlos's call was pulling her, making it hard to tolerate the delay.

"Father Patrick called..."

Damali closed her eyes and groaned. Oh, shit... Yeah, the old dudes had a right to have their feathers ruffled, if they heard half of what had gone on. Humiliation singed her - but she was going out. Had to.

"He said that Carlos isn't himself - "

"What's wrong? Is he hurt? The daylight? Oh, God..." Damali put her hand over her chest.

"No," Marlene smiled. "Daylight didn't get into the lair, but his ass is burned out. Fried."

She released her breath and closed her eyes in relief.

"I don't even want to venture a guess what you did to that poor man," Marlene said with a wry grin, "but uh... it was his first time out, you understand?"

Damali just looked at Marlene for a moment, and then burst out laughing.

"No, this is serious, D," Marlene said, trying not to laugh. "He's in a seriously weakened condition, which is dangerous for a master vampire."

Now Marlene had her attention.

"That's right, girl," Marlene pressed on. "If he goes out with you before he fully regenerates - which you didn't allow because the Covenant said you had that man hollering past daybreak, okaaaay—any weaker vampires in the territory will pick up the scent of a compromised master and try to rush him for his turf. Not good, since, ironically, he's on our side."

"Oh, shit."

"Now, you get the picture." Marlene folded her arms over her chest, a look of triumph blazing in her knowing eyes. "You have to be responsible, Damali. You've opened that brother's nose so wide he can't see. Father Patrick said the man couldn't even muster projection, or change his damned clothes."

The two women stared at each other for a moment, then suddenly burst out laughing.

"Damn, girl," Marlene sucked her teeth and shook her head. "In a priests' compound?"

Damali had to cover her face and laugh harder.

"He took his virgin bite from a virgin Neteru, pure Neteru - nearly an overdose, from the looks of things, and your blood is full of antibodies that are designed to kill off the vampire virus. That part ain't funny. Endorphins rushing through both your systems are probably the only things that kept him standing. Neteru hits their brains like dopamine, blocks out all pain until they start coming down. He's probably not feeling too good at the moment, now that he can feel the virus you gave him in his system."

The words slammed into Damali's brain, instantly cutting the mirth, making her hands fall away from her face as she stared at a very serious Marlene without blinking.

"They tried to revive him with an entire case from the monks' donations, and when he still couldn't get himself together to bear fangs, me and the fellas had to each give a pint."

"Oh, shit."

"Yeah, girl," Marlene said on a heavy rush of breath, shaking her head, chuckling. "Brotherman was strung out. But our team had enough adrenaline still running through their veins to shock his system back to normal. For him, normal human blood with adrenaline or terror running through it is like methadone. You are pure crack. You understand?" Marlene shook her head. "Problem is, y'all are both strung out. It'll take a full day and night for your system to purge the vamp trace in it. Until then, you're gonna feel it."

"Oh, my God, Mar."

"Yeah, sweetie, that's how it goes. Your temper, your passion, your appetite, your draw to the night is gonna make you bounce off the walls. Right now, we've got four innocent clerics over there trying to contain a master vamp who's jonesing for you so bad he's howling - and looking at them with a very hungry stare. The blood packs just aren't doing it for him anymore. Not after you. The fellas are concerned."

Damali nodded. "You don't think Carlos would..."

"That's the variable," Marlene said flatly "We don't know how much he ingested, truth be told. That's why you and I are standing in this kitchen. How bad was it, D? Not to get in your business, but we need to know."

Damali turned and faced the sink and closed her eyes. She had no idea... "It was bad, Mar," she finally admitted, unable to look at Marlene.

"How many bites?"

"Six... maybe seven, and then I lost count."

"Oh, my God... past daylight?"

"Yeah, I blacked out a couple of times after that. That last time was just before noon."

"Noon! Noon? You kept a master vampire awake feeding and... and... past noon? Oh, Lord have mercy!"

Marlene's silence made her turn around. Her stricken expression drew Damali's hand to her own throat. It was healed, but she then looked at her wrists, and the insides of her elbows, and closed her eyes, not even wanting to think about the bites that had landed on her inner thighs. But damn... it was so good.

"Don't even think it," Marlene said quietly, chuckling despite herself. "Oh, girl." She covered her mouth and then laughed. "Pretty soon we're going to have to get you sunglasses and a transfusion."

Damali wrapped her arms around herself trying to stave off the tremor the memory produced.

"Look at you," Marlene added, shaking her head. "Your eyes are flickering gold... pretty soon, you won't have a reflection."

Pure alarm raced through Damali and she ran to the refrigerator and stared at herself in the shiny stainless steel surface of it. "Oh, Mar... shit. My eyes!" She whirled on Marlene who was now chuckling with her hand over her mouth. "I won't turn, will I?"

"No, but you wore his ass out," Marlene said, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. "Damali, listen, okay? He can't get you pregnant, so you're cool. He can't pass any human disease - if he had any - because everything that could have killed him died when he became a vamp. In that regard, you're safe. His vamp virus only has a temporary effect. But you can hurt him, so you have to cool it. Plus, he now has a full tank of Neteru in his system. It'll draw other male vampires to him like flies, looking for you, then they'll fight him. But, he doesn't have the strength, tonight, to ward them off. Dig?"

Marlene walked over to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "You've gotta let him recover, and let the team's blood thin out and dilute what he's ingested. By tomorrow evening, he'll be fine. He just needs to chill."

She nodded, and let Marlene put her arms around her. Marlene stroked her hair and kissed her temple.

"This is going to be a rough night, baby," Marlene warned. "Hold onto your seat and get ready for the ride."

"What am I gonna do?"

"I don't know, baby. The choice is yours," Marlene chuckled. "But tonight, you're gonna walk a mile in that man's shoes."

Four armed clerics barred the door, and his gaze shot around the room for a way out. Turning over a table and a sofa, Carlos snarled, "I have to go to her!"

Father Patrick remained calm. "If you don't have the energy to take us, or to project yourself past simple steel and wood, you're staying until tomorrow night. Then there's the not so small matter of our prayer line, Carlos." He sighed. "Why don't you watch some television?"

Asula cringed as the television lifted and smashed against the cabin wall, then he let out a weary breath. "I was going to watch the football game, Carlos. This is ridiculous."

Even Padre Lopez sat down as Carlos paced. Monk Lin fished in his robes and pulled out a deck of cards.

"Poker, anyone?"

She couldn't sit still. The room was closing in on her as the team worked on weapons, talked about general goings on, idly chatted about everything and nothing. They were getting on her nerves. In fact, she had no nerves left. She stood before the large picture window, willing her mind to see beyond the steel grate. The moon was siphoning her, calling her. Carlos.

The image of him immediately sent a shudder through her. Five-o'clock stubble covered his jaw, darkening it. The tips of her fingers tingled, remembering what it felt like first thing in the morning. She saw him stop pacing in the monk's cabin, close his eyes, and run his hand over his cheek. Yeah, baby, I miss you, too. It was agony.

She saw him go to the window and place his hand on it, splaying his fingers, then drop his head in defeat. It drew her to the window, and she rested her palm on it slowly, splaying her fingers to match his distant handprint. Sudden warmth filled her, and she felt his knees buckle. Phantom thrusts entered her, sending a tremor to wash through her. She stifled a gasp. Torture. She could hear the silent plea from four miles away echo into the night. Wolves howled outside—not all of them wolves... some third-generation vamps. Fuck it. She was out.

"Look, fellas," she said, turning from the window abruptly. "I'm just gonna - "

Marlene shook her head. Rider stood up. Shabazz stopped cleaning his gun, and the muscles in his jaw tensed. Big Mike folded his arms over his chest. JL let his breath out hard as Jose and Dan passed a nervous glance between them. Humiliation claimed Damali. Damn, she was a junkie.

She stared at her team, but another image in her head eclipsed her physical sight. An erotic touch ran down her arms, and a deep, sensual kiss covered the side of her neck. She struggled for composure as the sensation created goose bumps on her arms. Her nipples stung with need and she felt herself get wet.

"Is it me, or am I the one who is crazy?" Rider said flippantly. "Give girlfriend a mirror."

"Uh, D," Big Mike said slowly, "baby, your eyes are going gold again."

"Two minutes from now she'll be bearing fangs, if she doesn't sit her ass down and chill," Shabazz fussed.

Rider folded his arms. "You're creepin' us out, Damali. You gotta let this shit wear off. Play some music; watch some TV. Damn I need a drink!"

"You still got that bottle of Jack Daniel's?" JL said, standing and heading toward the kitchen to look for it.

"Bring a coupla glasses," Dan shouted behind him.

"Hell, why stand on ceremony?" Jose added. "Get the cards out and just pass the bottle around. It's gonna be a long night."

There were no words. Never before had she felt so exposed, and so thoroughly out of control. Her business was all in the street; the team was all up in it. Her man was locked up. And her body was talking to her. How in the hell was she supposed to fight this?

"Mar, can I talk to you alone, for a minute?" Damali searched Marlene's face and found a patient but weary expression in it.

"Yeah, hon. In your room."

Relief swept through Damali as she picked up her sword and paced quickly down the hall, listening to Marlene's slow footfalls behind her. As soon as Marlene shut the door, she cast the Isis blade on the bed and began walking in a tight circle, talking fast.

"Mar, I'm losing my mind. What part of this is normal?" She was now breathing hard, trying to collect herself, beyond shame.

"About seventy-five percent of it," Marlene said with a smile, taking a seat on the bed as she studied Damali.

"Okay, okay, okay." Damali continued pacing. "That's a good thing, right?"

"Yeah," Marlene chuckled. "I remember those days... the pull was just as strong as a vampire's bite. Uhmmph, uhmmph, uhmmph."

"Well, how do you shake it, get it out of your system?" Damali fought off another shudder and briefly closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and looked at Marlene for an answer.

"Turned you out, didn't he? Uhmmph." Marlene shook her head.

"It's not funny, Mar. Stop laughing. Don't you have an antidote for this shit?"

"Nope."

"For real? Aw, man..."

"Nope."

"It hasn't been twenty-four hours!"

"Nope. And it's gonna get worse before it gets better," Marlene said, swallowing away another chuckle. "That part didn't have jack to do with him being a vampire."

"Oh, man..."

"Yup."

"But, Mar... if I just go out one more - "

"Nope."

"But - "

"Deal with it, honey."

Damali grabbed the sides of her skull. "He's in my head, Mar. My full vision is back, and... oh, man... listen... Mar... for real, for real... I gotta go out."

"You wanna kill him?"

"No," Damali said on a pitiful wail. "No. I do not want him to be hurt."

"Then stay put."

"But - "

"Remember how he kept trying to tell you?" Marlene's question made Damali open her eyes and look at her. "Remember the night he came in here to deliver the information about the tunnels to the team?"

Damali nodded but didn't speak.

"Remember at the concert when you were walking around him and he kept telling you to be still, stop stirring the very air around him?"

"Yeah," Damali finally said on a quiet breath.

"Remember the look on his face when he had to carry you... and the sound of his voice when he let you go in that last battle in order to save your life?"

Remember? Was Marlene crazy? It was a tattoo in the middle of her brain. "Yeah," Damali whispered.

"Well, then now you know how hard it was for him to do that."

Damali nodded. Tears of frustration filled her eyes.

"It was just as hard for him to back off when he wanted you like this, even before he was turned. The brother loves you. Always has. He had the will power not to try to bring you into his life at a time when you were vulnerable... at a time when he knew you couldn't hang, and his life would have been dangerous for you - gotta respect that much about him."

"I do," Damali said quietly, sitting down hard on a bedroom chair. She leaned over, placing her elbows on her knees and stared at the floor. "Always did."

"Can you image how difficult it must have been for him to know how much you wanted him, how willing you were to be with him, all new to the game, filled with passion just ready to explode for him—and he had to push you away for your own good?"

Damali closed her eyes. Marlene's words shredded her conscience.

"Tonight, you gotta do that for him."

"Oh, Mar. I thought I knew, but damn... Now I really know."

"Pure agony."

"In a word, yes."

"It'll pass."

"I hope so."

"It will."

"It has to."

"It will."

"Oh, Mar."

"I know."

"Get some rest."

"Yeah, right!"

The two women sat in companionable silence for a moment, then suddenly Damali jerked her head up. Her heart was beating fast, and she was on her feet. "Got a cold-body reading on monitor one."

JL burst through the bedroom door, the full team behind him. "Got a cold-body reading on monitor one!"

"So we gathered," Marlene stated in a blase tone.

"What do we do, Mar?" JL said nervously.

"Hit the lights... and let Carlos in."

"Are the monks okay?" Damali ignored the disgruntled team that flopped onto stools and chairs behind her. She couldn't keep her eyes off him. However, she was glad that the guardians had lowered their weapons.

"Yeah," Carlos said slowly. "But they have to repair the south wall before morning." He smiled, appraising her from head to toe.

"Awww, maaaan." Rider just shook his head.

"About that Jack Daniel's," Shabazz said in a disgusted tone, standing and leaving the room.

"Wanna go out?" Carlos murmured, moving one of Damali's stray locks over her shoulder with his finger.

"Maybe just for a little while," she whispered.

"Card game, anybody?" Marlene said, leaving the room with the team slowly filing out behind her.

"Wanna go to a club?"

Damali shook her head. The sight of Carlos was practically paralyzing as he ran his hand up and down her arm.

"If you're hungry, I can take you to dinner, or a movie, maybe we could just take a walk on the beach... or whatever you want to do, just name it," he murmured, stepping in closer to her.

His scent filled her as she inhaled him deeply. "It's too dangerous for you right now outside. You shouldn't have risked coming out. They explained everything to you, right?"

He nodded, tracing her collarbone and slipping the edge of her T-shirt off her shoulder with his finger. "I love you in red," he said, his eyes burning her, igniting an internal fire. "Noticed you've been wearing that color a lot lately."

She swallowed hard. "Baby... uh, listen. You've gotta go back home."

"So early?"

"Yeah, like right now, okay," she stammered, closing her eyes as his nose trailed across her shoulder, past her neck, and his lips captured her earlobe.

"I missed you..."

"I missed you, too," she breathed. "But not here. Not in this compound with my whole family here. Some things are just not done."

He chuckled low in his throat. "You're right."

"I know I'm right," she whispered, melting against him as his arms enfolded her.

"Then you wanna get your blade and go somewhere?"

"Aw, Carlos..."

"Please."

"Well... maybe. Just for a little while."

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