"Is it. um--"
She nodded, not wanting to say the word.
"Yes, But there's no need to be squeamish. I didn't kill anybody to obtain it, if that's what's worrying you."
Another nod. The idea had crossed her mind, but the source of the blood was the least of it. Questions assaulted her brain but she forced them aside. Like it or not, the guy was right. She didn't have a choice, not if she wanted to go on living, such as it was. She had to drink the glass before her.
What would it taste like? Her memory of the one time she’d fed—the night she’d spent with Valentin—wasn’t all that clear. She’d still been recovering from losing most of her blood and hadn’t quite known what she was doing. Of course, the lovemaking part was still vivid. She wouldn’t have minded if that memory faded but no, she could still remember the cool feel of the vampire’s lips against her skin. Still craved it.
“Can I have a straw?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said, a bemused look lighting his face, as if she’d requested something particularly whimsical or extravagant. He crossed to the other side of the kitchen and pulled one out of a drawer. “I’d offer you some celery to go with it, but you don’t want anything to interfere with the absorption.”
“It’s not a damn bloody Mary.”
He returned to where she sat and laid the straw onto her open palm. “Isn’t it?”
She inserted the straw into the drink and braced herself. So strange to be drinking human blood, especially in a room that looked as if it belonged on the pages of an IKEA catalogue for rich guys. On the far side of the room floor-to-ceiling French windows opened out onto a brick courtyard. The cabinets were white and surprisingly modern, as were the table and chairs. Everything was light, open, spacious, almost the complete inverse of Valentin’s gothic mansion back in Salem with its ornate antiques, erotic colors and pockets of darkness. Aside from its location in the Garden District—home of Anne Rice’s vampires—nothing about the town house seemed remotely connected with the supernatural.
Because if she didn’t she wasn’t going to make it.
She looked up and found him staring at her, his blue eyes on hers. He didn’t look like a vampire—he had the beginnings of a tan and his dark blonde hair was streaked with natural highlights that could only have from time spent outdoors. Then there was the warmth of his skin. He didn’t dress like a vampire either, not that she was an authority when it came to haute couture for the undead. Still, his worn jeans and plaid flannel shirt didn’t fit with her conception of the breed.
No, no a vampire. But not a normal human being either. “I don’t even know your name,” she said warily.
“I guess you deserve that at least.” He leaned back against the granite countertop. “Leilan. Leilan Donovan.”
“Dare I ask where this came from?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know, actually. Well, at least I don’t know who it belongs to. But if your conscience is troubling you, I assure you it came from the local blood bank. I have a friend who works there.”
“And he just happens to supply you with pints of blood?”
“She understands what’s necessary.”
Hayden opened her mouth to protest but he headed her off before she could get the words out. “Cut the bullshit, Hayden,” he said sternly, pointing at the full pint. “You’ve stalled long enough.”
He was right. Again. Which annoyed her beyond belief but she was beginning to get used to it. She stirred the drink with the straw a few times and looked up in surprise at the sound of his laughter.
“You’re worse than a kid,” he said, making an effort to regain his composure. “Do you know that?”
She didn’t smile back. “The funny thing is normally I’m not. Or at least I never used to be—I was always 13 going on 50. I spent most of my life with my nose in a book. Never had many friends, never had much fun. If only I’d known—what would happen—I would’ve done things differently. Gone out more. Traveled. Had lots of sex.”
If her last admission fazed him he didn’t show it. The mask was back in place, his expression placid, unreadable. “Don’t beat yourself up about it. What’s done is done. Anyway, it’s understandable, considering your situation.”
The conversation skipped a beat.
“What situation would that be?” she asked.
“One thing at a time.” He folded his arms across his chest. “Right now we’re working on saving your life.”
“And how do you know my name?”
“Drink first. Talk later.”
“Is that a bribe?”
“I prefer not to think of it that way.”
“Okay, okay.” She bent forward and placing the straw between her lips. She took a sip, felt the liquid fill her mouth. Not bad, actually. She took another sip, longer this time, and another, not stopping until she’d emptied the entire glass. The draw made a sucking sound as she tried to siphon off every last drop of blood from the bottom of the glass.
Leilan reached over and took the empty glass from her. “More?”
When he returned from the stainless steel refrigerator this time she didn’t bother with the straw.
Wrapping both hands around the pint she lifted it to her mouth and drank until there was nothing left.
She set the glass down onto the table, resisting the impulse to lick it clean.
“Yes,” she said a little self-consciously. She knew she must seem like a glutton but she couldn’t stop. After 16 days of near starvation she didn’t have the willpower to resist. She remembered stories about starving people dying after gorging themselves and wondered if that happened to vampires too.
Well, she didn’t care. She wanted only the sensation of blood coursing through her, filling her with life and strength. Until this minute she hadn’t realized how weak she’d been, how unlike her former self.
It wasn’t until she’d polished off a fourth glass that Leilan cut her off. “That’s enough for now.”
He scooped the glass off the table and set it down in the sink. “That should hold you for a few days, if not more. I’m going to give you more packets, enough to keep you strong for another couple of weeks after that. Then you’ll have to learn to hunt. People are best, unfortunately, but animals will work too. And in the meantime, you have to promise me to use moderation. Ration out the packets, make them last.”
“Sure, whatever,” she said quickly.
“Not whatever,” said Leilan.
“I’ll use moderation,” she repeated, feeling like a teenager being lectured on the perils of alcohol. “I promise. Happy now?”
“That doesn’t quite cover it,” he said. “But yes, I guess you could say I’m somewhat convinced you’re not going to overindulge and end up killing yourself all over again.”
“I am getting kind of sick of it,” she agreed. “The whole dying thing’s overrated.”
“So they tell me.” Something—pain? amusement?—flickered behind his eyes but he quickly suppressed it. “You’ll need to get some sleep too. You don’t look as if you’ve been doing much of that lately either.”
She hadn’t. The light—even a sliver of it—seeped through her eyelids, burning her retinas and keeping her awake through the nights. And the days. Come to think of it, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d dozed off for more than an hour or two.
Through the French doors, she could see a curve of moon shining behind a mass of clouds. The edges glowed so brightly she felt as if she were watching an eclipse. The city below was almost blinding in its luminosity, its urban skyline bathed in fiery white light.
The blood hadn’t only affected her sense of strength. Her vision was sharper now too, as was her hearing. Everything pressed in upon her, sensory impressions edging out rational thought.
“It does get better with time,” Leilan said softly, as if in answer to her unasked question.
“So they tell you.”
If he knew she was baiting him, he chose to ignore it. “You’ll need a coffin. You’re on your own on that one but you seem like the resourceful type. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”
He made it sound as if tracking down a coffin was the equivalent of buying a used car. Thankfully, she at least had that—her Subaru had nearly 200K on it but it had gotten her to New Orleans and showed no signs of imminent death, which was more than she could say for herself. “Yeah, well, I hope so. I guess I missed that badge in Girl Scouts.”
He didn’t look as if he got the joke. “This is the home of the city of dead, after all. You’ll find something serviceable, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
For some reason, she found herself thinking back to the scene in the alley. To the way he hadn’t done anything, had barely reacted at all. “What if I asked you to help me?”
A quick shake of the head. “No.”
“Not in the job description.”
“And just what might that be?”
Leilan pressed his lips together. He’d dimmed the track lights overhead when they first got to the townhouse but even in shadow there was something evanescent about him. Something almost beautiful, though that wasn’t the right word either. “You’re not some kind of angel, are you?” she asked, a little embarrassed by her lack of knowledge about the supernatural world she was now a member of.
“I stood by and watched someone rape and kill an innocent woman,” he said. “Does that strike you as the kind of behavior you’d expect from an angel?”
She resisted the impulse to comfort him. Much as she wanted to absolve him, she couldn’t. What he’d said was true—how could there be any justification for his behavior? “Now that you put it that way, no. But you’re not human. You can’t be.”
“Because there’s something—unearthly—about you.”
He raised an eyebrow. “So now I’m an alien?”
“No,” she sputtered. “That’s ridiculous. I don’t believe in aliens.”
“Just vampires and angels.”
He was baiting her now. The more she fumbled for an explanation, the more he seemed to derive satisfaction from her inability to find one.
She wasn’t going to play his little game. She’d had enough of games back in Boston. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
Before she could press him any further, he pushed himself away from the counter and walked out of the room. She watched him disappear down the hallway and wondered if he expected her to follow.
But if he did, why hadn’t he said anything?
She’d made up her mind to go after him when he reappeared in the doorway carrying a thick white envelope. Crossing toward the spot where she sat, he laid it down before her. “That should tide you over for a good long time. Though if you need more, that’s not a problem.”
Hayden opened the envelope and glimpsed at the stack of bills. A very substantial stack of bills. “You know I can’t accept this.”
“I don’t know any such thing.” He pulled several credit cards out of his shirt pocket and set those down next to the envelope, fanning them out across the table. “These are all in your name. Most of them have fairly high limits but, if necessary, they can be raised.”
“I’m not taking any of this.” She pushed the envelope and the credit cards back across the table. “This doesn’t make any sense. The blood’s one thing but this is way over the top. And I don’t need your money to survive. I’ve got savings of my own and when those run out I’ll figure out a way to get by. I always have. I’m not about to start taking charity now.”
He made no move to retrieve the cash or the credit cards. “This isn’t any different than the blood.
We’re talking about survival—your survival, which more than a few of us are interested in. And if it makes you feel any better, it’s not my money.”
“I’m still not taking it, I don’t care whose money it is.”
“How about we call it a loan?”
She hesitated. “The answer’s still no.”
He thought he had her—his triumphant expression told her that. “Once you get settled, you can pay it back.”
“You said people are interested in me. Why?”
“Who then? We’ve already established you’re not a vampire.”
“I’m not sure we did. But you’re right, I’m not.”
“So . . . what are you?” she asked in exasperation. “And if it’s not your money, then whose is it? Can you at least tell me that?”
Leilan pulled up a chair and sat down next to her. His long legs were nearly touching hers, making her even more uncomfortable than she already was. “I can’t tell you where the money came from—or the credit cards. But both are given freely, with only with your best interests in mind. Please don’t let your ego get in the way of your survival. Too much is riding on your getting through this adjustment phase, difficult as it may seem.”
Valentin. The realization struck her all at once. Why hadn’t she seen it before? Leilan had to be working for him. Somehow Valentin had traced her whereabouts. It wouldn’t even be that difficult.
He knew she was from New Orleans. Where else would she run to?
“I don’t want his payoff,” she said in a low voice, “let him feel guilty. If he’s even capable of that emotion.”
Until she heard herself say the words, she hadn’t understood the depth of her anger toward the man who claimed she was his soul mate. That she and Valentin were twin beings she didn’t doubt—she’d felt the connection between them from the start. It was unlike anything she’d ever felt for another being, unbreakable. But the bond between them had twisted itself into something altogether different, something ugly. Since she’d left New England, passion had turned to anger, affection to fear. The craving for union had been replaced by the need to put as much distance between them as possible.
The intensity was still there—it would probably always be there—but it had reversed itself, like a photographic negative of love.
“What if I told you Valentin wasn’t the source of the funds?”
Well, at least Leilan wasn’t going to insult her by pretending he didn’t know who she was talking about. But that didn’t make her any more inclined to take the money. “What if I told you you’re lying.”
“All right,” he said after a pause. “Have it your way. But you know where to find me if you change your mind.”
He studied her face a moment. “Maybe not. But I’m not sure you understand what you’re up against. You think tonight was bad—”
A shiver ran through her. Someone walking on your grave, her grandmother would’ve said. What spirit would walk on the grave of one of the undead? She remembered the pints of blood she’d downed—the part of her that hadn’t wanted to stop, the part that longed for the taste of a dead woman’s blood as it ebbed onto the pavement.
She was a monster, an abomination. And she had Valentin to thank for it. The further she’d gotten from Boston the more she’d been able to steel herself against him. But if she saw him—touched him—she wasn’t sure she’d be capable of keeping herself safe behind the walls of her reserve. Here, in the city she’d grown up in, she was on her own turf. She might be a monster but at least she wasn’t his monster. She’d find her way on her own. Taking his money was the equivalent of saying that she forgave him. That she needed him.
Well, she hadn’t. And she didn’t.
She got up from the table. “I think it’s time for me to go.”
To her surprise, Leilan didn’t protest. “There’s a cab waiting outside.”
Of course there was.
He rose from the table as well and crossed to the refrigerator. Her stomach turned at the idea of taking all that blood but she didn’t have a choice. She’d come home to find her mother and unravel her past.
To do that, she’d need to be strong and if that meant compromising herself, so be it.
Leilan walked her to the door and handed her the bag of “supplies.” Neither of them had spoken since their disagreement about the money. He still hadn’t told her what he’d meant by his remarks about others being interested in her, nor had he admitted Valentin had arranged for him to pay her bills. Nor had he revealed who or what he really was.
Come to think of it, she’d gotten almost no information at all out of him.
“Will I see you again?” she asked, not sure if she wanted to or not. Despite his good looks—and the fact that he’d saved her life, such as it was—there was something unsettling about him. He didn’t seem to lack a conscience and yet. . .
He didn’t answer immediately. “Only if you change your mind about the money.”
He held out his hand to her. “Then I guess this is goodbye.”
She took it, caught up for a moment in the warmth radiating from his skin. “It is,” she said. “I’d wish you good luck—
“—but you’re the one who needs it,” Leilan finished for her. “Since you insist on acting like a stubborn fool.”
“Trust me,” she said. “I learned from the best.”