Blood Red Chapter 17


It seemed to Lauren as if they'd been driving forever.

The beautiful pink light of twilight had gone to deepest red, and now it was fading altogether. No, that wasn't true. There was still light. Red light. Blood red light, like a mist over the moon.

Suddenly, the cab driver stopped and turned in his seat to stare back at Lauren. ’’We're here. Twenty-two fifty,’’ he told her.

They were there?

Where?

Then she realized that she was in front of what should have been a lovely home and realized that it had been destroyed by the Katrina flooding. In fact, the whole neighborhood had been flooded out.

That was why there were no lights except one streetlight. The connection was weak, though, or maybe the bulb was about to go, because it kept flickering on and off.

’’Twenty-two-fifty,’’ the cabby repeated. ’’Look, lady, this is where you asked to be let off, and now I gotta go. Give me your money and get out of the car. I'm not staying here. If you're crazy enough to, be my guest. If not, it's another twenrt-two-fifty back to civilization.’’

She dug in her purse for the money. At the same time, she tucked two of the water pistols into the waistband of her jeans and pulled the tails of her tailored denim shirt down to cover them. Then she paid the cabby, but apparently she hesitated too long for his taste.

’’Lady, I'm getting out of here,’’ he warned her.

’’Sure. And thanks. Thanks a lot. Service with a smile,’’ she countered.

She was barely out of the cab when he gunned the motor and shot away.

She stared up at the dark house. It had been beautiful once. As she moved closer, she could see a faded advertisement for the development the house was part of. It had been called Arcadia. Old luxury with modern convenience, the billboard explained. Every house a variant of the original mansion. The one she was standing in front of. It must have dated back nearly two hundred years, and it had been meticulously restored.

Then abandoned.

As she stood in the darkness, she saw that there was light inside. Pale, barely showing beneath the drapes that covered every window.

Lauren fingered the cross that Mark had given her. She needed strength so badly. Her knees were giving out on her. She felt a rush of fear and knew she couldn't give in to it.

As she stood there, staring at the house, the night changed abruptly.

The sky darkened, and when she looked up, it seemed that the moon rode across a sea of red.

The darkness around her seemed to swoop and swerve. Giant shadows, changing, forming, coming close to her.

The breeze whispered.

Grew louder.

And then it wasn't the breeze whispering at all. It was the sound of laughter, soft and throaty and all around her.

A strand of her hair rose, and she shuddered;it felt as if one of the shadows had touched her face.

She gritted her teeth and fought the urge to run. The din seemed to grow, laughter rising.

Her hair was tugged.

Pulled.

The shadows began to take form, and then, suddenly, people were standing before her, at least twelve of them, all men. They were all dressed in black. Black jeans, chinos, even dress pants. Black T-shirtss, polos, dress shirts. Some were young, others older. And they were all amused.

One man stepped forward. Stephan, standing tallest, and very dark. He was wearing a black poet's shirt and trousers that clung to his muscular legs. He wore black boots, as well, that covered his calves.

’’Welcome,’’ he told her.

’’Don't welcome me. You know I don't want to be here. But you have my friend.’’

’’I have both your friends, and if you're lucky and very well-behaved, they just may live. Come. Come closer.’’

’’No.’’

He shrugged. ’’Take her,’’ he said casually.

The others closed in around her. She heard someone moving at her back, and he was close, far too close. She thought she could feel his fetid breath, teasing at her nape.

Her fear peaked. and she realized that she had to move-or die.

So she moved.

She drew out her water pistols and began to shoot.

She turned to her rear, desperate to rid herself of the creature breathing down her back. He was close, and she aimed straight into his eyes. She smelled burning flesh.

He screamed, and as he sizzled and burned, he tried to change back into shadow. He morphed...there, not there. She saw a patch of skull. She saw wings.

She fired again, and he collapsed at her feet.

She stomped on him, and he exploded into dust and soot. An old vampire, she thought. Very old.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The others moved on her then, and she began to spin, her water pistols working. She tried, in the midst of her terror, to remember to aim. She couldn't waste her holy water;she had no idea how long her ’’ammunition’’ would last.

All around her, the night seemed to explode with cries of pain and shouts of fury. The cacaphony rose to a crescendo;there was fire, mist...explosions of unnamable filth all around her.

And then there was a roar of fury. ’’Enough!’’

It was Stephan.

’’We can't take her while she's shooting,’’ one of his minions said. She couldn't tell where the sound had come from and tried to find the speaker, longing to see him die.

But Stephan roared out a command again. ’’Enough!’’

There was stillness all around her.

Shadows formed shapes again. Only five who remained standing, and they lined up at Stephan's side.

’’She will drop her weapons,’’ Stephan said.

’’Why would I do that?’’ she demanded.

He smiled. ’’Because if you do not, your friends will die. I will kill them slowly, one at a time. The little blonde first, then the dark beauty. You will watch them suffer, and I promise, you will hear them scream and curse you as they die.’’

She froze, swallowing.

’’Drop your weapons, my dear,’’ Stephan said pleasantly. Then he snapped out a single word in a terrible fury.

’’Now!’’

Time.

Time was of the essence, Mark knew.

Stephan had been toying with them all along. He hadn't cared how many he sacrificed on the way to his ultimate showdown. Mark even knew that Stephan had planned for him to discover his lair at last. Planned for him to feel desperate.

Planned for him to come alone.

But there was no help for it.

He slipped from the ambulance and disappeared into the crowd.

He could see Canady standing in the center of the storm, fielding questions, commanding men, and he dialed the lieutenant's cell number.

’’Canady speaking’’

’’It's Mark.’’

’’Where the hell are you?’’

Mark didn't answer. Instead he gave Sean an address and said he was on his way.

’’No! That's what he wants you to do.’’

’’I know. But it's also what I have to do,’’ Mark said, then hung up before Sean could voice a further protest. Then he punched in a number for Montresse House, passed on the information he had received from Susan, then said, ’’Tell Jonas. He can get there faster.’’

Then he hung up-and moved.

As Lauren stared at Stephan, the front door of the house opened and she was stunned to see Heidi and Deanna walk calmly down the steps to flank.

’’Let's go inside, shall we?’’ Stephan suggested.

’’What are you two doing here?’’ Lauren asked her friends, ignoring Stephan's words.

Neither one appeared to even hear her.

Stephan smiled knowingly at Lauren. ’’Actually, they're both rather happy to be with me. They're both so lovely....’’ He ran his fingers down the sculpted angle of Deanna's cheek. ’’She really is a beauty. And, I'm sure, very talented. And this little one...I love a pale blonde.’’

’’If I drop my weapons,’’ Lauren said, ’’we'll all be in your power.’’

’’A cab brought you out here, and a cab can take them back,’’ Stephan said, as pleasantly and easily as if they were eager to leave a party early.

She held on to her weapons and saw a flash of anger cross Stephan's face.

’’I want guarantees.’’

’’You don't have the right to ask for anything,’’ he told her coldly.

’’You have to let them go. Both of them.’’

They were at an impasse, staring at one another. She thought she could use every last drop of water she had on Stephan. But would it be enough?

Five of his followers were still ’’alive.’’ And Stephan himself was so strong, capable of healing himself of wounds that would kill a lesser...creature..

Even as the thought passed through Lauren's mind, Deanna silently took up a position in front of Stephan, and Lauren realized that the friend she was trying to save was willing to protect him with her own life.

’’Shall we go inside?’’ Stephan asked.

’’No, not until I see the two of them safely away from you.’’

Stephan shrugged. ’’You have a phone. Call a cab. Go ahead.’’

She hesitated, then carefully kept the one pistol in her hand as she stuffed the other into her waistband and fumbled for her phone. Stephan simply stared at her, politely smiling, as she ordered the cab and hung up.

His smile deepened. ’’You've been so hard to find, Lauren. Somehow I knew, though, that you were out there somewhere. I must have sensed you would be here when I came to New Orleans. And then I saw you, through that crystal ball, and I have been patiently waiting for you, aching for you, ever since.’’

’’Patiently waiting?’’ she said. ’’Interesting. As far as I can tell, you've been running all over town seducing women.’’

’’Only to get your attention,’’ he told her.

’’You have my attention. What you don't have is my trust.’’

’’You called for a cab yourself,’’ he reminded her. ’’Who knows? Maybe the fellow who dropped you off will just turn around and come back.’’

’’Maybe he'll report this place to the police.’’

’’I rather hope not. It's tricky when you kill an entire police force,’’ he said conversationally.

’’You know that the police here know exactly who and what you are,’’ she told him.

’’You're stalling for time,’’ he said softly. ’’You're waiting for Mark to come to your rescue, like a hero of old, riding up on a white charger. But surely you know the truth by now. I have been maligned. He is the liar, the evil one.’’

’’Somehow, I just don't believe that.’’

He shrugged. ’’You will.’’

To Lauren's surprise, she was startled by the sudden glow of headlights. She turned around, shielding her eyes.

The taxi had arrived.

Stephan lifted his arms. Like zombies, Deanna and Heidi walked toward the car. Lauren stared at Stephan with mistrust.

’’Speak to the driver yourself, my dear. But you will hand me that water gun, and then you and I will walk inside together. If not, the cab-and your friends-will not be allowed to leave.’’

Her fingers itched, but she didn't dare pull the trigger. Five of his goons were still grouped around him. She knew that none of them would think a thing of killing the driver and the girls.

She walked with Stephan over to the cab. ’’The ladies need to get back to Bourbon Street,’’ Stephan said pleasantly, producing a large bill. ’’Get them there safely, please.’’

He made sure that the back door was properly closed, then patted the top of the cab. It drove off.

Lauren felt the gun twisted from her hand.

’’Let's go in.’’

She still had the cross around her neck, she reminded herself.

And the toothpicks.

She was in the monster's lair, and all she had were toothpicks.

Mark arrived just in time to see the two girls get into the cab, then watch Stephan put his arm around Lauren and lead her toward the house.

He held still, desperate to control himself;if he wanted to save her, he couldn't behave rashly. That was what Stephan was counting on. If he played his hand too quickly, he would lose.

He had to be careful not to betray himself;he didn't want Stephan's goons knowing he was there. He had to get into the house.

As he waited, he got a look at the taxi driver and cursed silently.

The driver wasn't really a man at all. Not in the customary sense of the word. Lauren had just sacrificed herself so that Heidi and Deanna could become a gourmet meal....

He cursed fate, but just as Stephan knew him, he knew Stephan. Mark waited.

Then he went after the cab.

She still had the cross, Lauren thought, but she didn't dare touch it;she didn't want Stephan to remember that she was wearing it around her neck. She prayed that when the ambulance had reached Susan, the woman had managed to speak and tell someone where Lauren had gone.

’’Come in, come in,’’ Stephan said welcomingly, as if she had finally agreed to a date, and he meant to do his charming best to seduce her.

She entered the house. The glow inside came from candles set in holders on the floor. There was nothing else, not a stick of furniture, in sight.

But there were more shadows. The sound of whispering. The flutter of wings.

Suddenly the ceiling came alive. With a sinking heart, Lauren realized that at least twenty or thirty more vampires were hiding in the dark confines of the house.

’’The basement is my real domain,’’ he told her. ’’I think you'll find it quite inviting.’’

’’Really? I find a beach in bright sunlight inviting, actually,’’ she told him.

He smiled at that. ’’You'll see.’’

He waved his hand, and the empty room seemed to come to life as shadows dropped to the floor and fluttering wings became feet against hard wood.

’’Go,’’ Stephan said.

And they all began to move, taking up defensive positions outside.

’’Downstairs,’’ Stephan invited her, opening a door. There was light coming from the basement-more candles, she thought.

She walked down the stairs. She would be alone with him down there, she thought. Maybe the chance to kill him would somehow arise.

And maybe he would cease teasing and playing;maybe his fangs would sink into her throat at any second.

She banished the thought and tried to focus on escape.

The instinct to survive was quiet incredible, she realized.

His basement had been turned into an elegant salon. There were comfortable sofas, and a pool table stood to one side, separated from the sitting area by support pillars. Music played softly from somewhere, and she saw a large screen television in one corner of the room. She wondered if he had a generator to provide power.

He led her to the sofa. She didn't want to sit, but she could tell that he wasn't going to give her a choice.

’’Watch the screen.’’

’’No.’’

’’You are afraid.’’

She refused to answer and looked deliberately away from the screen, so he simply caught her chin between his thumb and forefinger and forced her to watch as a portrait came into focus.

It was as if she were staring at herself. ’’You must understand. She was mine, always mine. I watched Katya when she was a child. I watched her grow. I was the one in love with her. Then...she came here.’’

The French Quarter appeared on the screen in a series of old photographs. There were no cars, no taxis. No neon lights.

The roads were dirt. Carriages were traversing them. Men and women in nineteenth century costume were walking past shops, gentlemen tipping their hats to the ladies....

And there she was.

Except that it wasn't her. It was another woman. Katya. And there was Mark His hair was longer;he had sideburns. He was laughing, showing the woman something in a store window. They were walking, her hand, delicately encased in a white gloves, on his arm.

The scene changed. They were in a castle, a fire burning in the hearth. There was a daybed, covered in fur.

And the woman...

Katya.

Katya was on the daybed with a man who looked like Stephan. They were together, naked, making love....

Lauren gazed at the image in horror.

She was stunned when the screen suddenly went blank and a rough, angry voice said forcefully, ’’Actually, that's not how it happened at all.’’

She turned to the stairs, her heart leaping. Mark was there, and he wasn't alone. Heidi and Deanna were behind him.

’’See!’’ Stephan cried as he stood, and smiled triumphantly. ’’He is the evil one. I sent your friends to safety, but he has made them his creatures.’’

Mark continued down the stairway, followed by the women. They still seemed to be acting like zombies, Lauren thought.

’’Tell her the truth, Mark, or don't you dare?’’ Stephan asked mockingly.

’’The truth? Why don't you tell the truth for once? You never intended to free her friends. You sent them off with one of your lackeys as a reward for serving you.’’

Lauren hadn't realized that Mark was holding something behind his back until he tossed it down before Stephan, and then, even after everything she'd seen, she cried out.

It was the taxi driver's severed head.

Stephan ignored the gory trophy and looked at Mark. ’’She's mine now. Just as Katya was mine.’’

’’Katya was yours because you used the evil power that fuels your existence to seduce her. She was never with you willingly. And you could never bear the fact that she came back to me.’’

Stephan turned to Lauren. ’’I didn't kill Katya.’’

She was torn, unsure what to believe. She knew for a fact that Mark hadn't told her the truth, or at least not all of it. Then the moment passed as she realized what must have happened all those years ago, at the same time wondering why Mark didn't seem to understand that they were in grave peril, that neither Heidi nor Deanna would be any help in a fight. That in fact they would probably try to kill him.

She spoke softly when she finally responded to Stephan. ’’I know that Mark's father killed Katya. Because he knew she was a vampire. He might have even known that she had, in turn, made Mark a vampire. But you caused her death. You killed her. Because you made her a vampire. It was the only way you could win her. Maybe at first you did try simply to get to her to care about you...for you. But you failed. So you tainted her, and then you murdered her, made her just like you. Except she wasn't like you, because when she came back to life, she still despised you. And she went back to Mark. And he loved her, was willing to love her...no matter what.’’

Stephan let out something like a snarl, staring at her, and she had to fight not to tremble. He was close, so close. She could be dead in seconds.

’’The real truth is this-I have the power, the greatest power.’’

’’You don't know what real power is, Stephan,’’ Mark charged him.

’’The only question now is who to kill first,’’ Stephan said softy.

Then he lunged. Faster than light. Lauren shrieked, certain his fangs would rip into her at any second.

But just when she thought there was no hope, that no one could save her, the room seemed to explode. Darkness burst between them like the beating of a massive wing. But it wasn't darkness, it was Mark. He struck out at Stephan, and the force of his blow sent the other man flying across the room. For a second Lauren felt a sense of sheer triumph, but it was quickly gone, because Stephan was up in a flash.

Worse, howling like a pair of banshees, Heidi and Deanna came flying across the room, and while Stephan and Mark were locked in a vicious struggle, Lauren was left to face her two best friends, both of whom seemed intent on killing her. Heidi was so tiny that Lauren was able to shove her away with a swift push. Deanna, however, was tall. And strong. And she had her fingers around Lauren's throat and was squeezing tightly.

Lauren fumbled desperately in her pocket and found the toothpicks. She managed to get her fingers around one and jab Deanna forcefully in the rib cage.

To her amazement, the hands around her throat relaxed.

When Heidi moved, Lauren jabbed her again. A toothpick in each hand, she managed to rise and face the two of them, her eyes searching the room to see where Stephan had dropped her water pistol.

She saw it and managed to grab it-then shot both her friends. Crying out, they ran to a corner of the room, and huddled together, arm in arm, staring at her as if she were a creature from hell.

She spun around. Mark and Stephan were still fighting bitterly, the battle so frenzied that they were literally flying around the room. Stephan clung to the rafters, trying to kick Mark when he sprang for him. There was a burst of power so great that the whole house shook when Mark dodged Stephan's maneuver and slammed into the other man.

Darkness shadow the room in tandem with a blast of hot air as Stephan fought back.

Lauren decided she must be going mad, because she thought she saw wings, thought she saw wolves, golden eyes gleaming, canines dripping, fur flying....

She sensed someone behind her and spun around.

Deanna had found her courage and was getting ready to reach for her, to attempt throttle her once again.

She didn't have to defend herself, because before Deanna touched her, someone else came hurtling into the room.

Jonas.

’’Deanna!’’ he shouted, and Deanna froze.

Suiddenly Lauren felt hands clutch her from behind and whirl her around.

Stephan.

He opened his mouth, and she saw his fangs. They seemed to gleam, and they were almost on her. Then he was ripped away from her, as something huge and black exploded in the room.

For a split second there was an blinding flash of light, and in its brilliance she saw Mark grasp Stephan and force the other man to his knees, his hands tight on Stephan 's head.

Mark twisted...and here was another explosion.

The explosion was Stephan.

Lauren choked and coughed and staggered back.

As the dust began to clear, she saw Mark, flesh bloodied, body torn, standing there.

Then he crumpled to the ground.

She raced over to him and dropped to her knees. Blood was oozing from wounds on his arms, on his forehead. She used the tail of her shirt and dabbed at the blood. She was barely aware of Deanna speaking nearby.

’’Where the hell are we?’’ Deanna asked, confused. And then, ’’Jonas!’’

But Jonas was already hurrying to Lauren's side. He knelt down by her.

’’He's going to die!’’ she cried.

Jonassqueezed her hand reassuringly. ’’No he's not. He's going to be all right. See? He's healing already.’’

Lauren stood and drew away from Jonas.

’’How did you get in here? How did he get in here? There were dozens of...them outside. But you...you're both just like them, aren't you?’’

Jonas stood up and looked down at her. ’’Yes, I'm a vampire,’’ he admitted. ’’But I'm not like them. What do I have to do to prove myself?’’

There was a groan from the floor. Mark.

Lauren fell back to her knees and helped him to sit up, then stared in amazement. The wound on his forehead already seemed smaller, and he was no longer oozing blood.

She stared at him.

He winced, lowering his head. ’’I should have told you the truth right from the beginning. I just...I just...There was so much you had to accept and understand first....’’

She drew back. ’’We're still in danger. There were at least a dozen vampires out there.’’

’’It's safe,’’ Jonas said.

’’I don't believe you,’’ Lauren said. She was scared. No, not just scared-terrified. Shaking. And that made her angry.

She was so grateful that he was alive,

But she had just watched him twist off a man's head like a bottle cap. No, not a man's head. A vampire's head.

An evil vampire's head.

Jonas let out a groan of impatience, reached for her water pistol and thrust it toward her. ’’Go ahead. Shoot me.’’

When she just stared at him, horrified, he turned the pistol toward his chest and pulled the trigger himself.

Deanna screamed.

Nothing happened, except that. Jonas got wet.

He turned the gun on Mark and shot him. In the face. Mark started, then stared at him with a fierce scowl. ’’Come outside,’’ he told Lauren firmly.

He got to his feet without asking for help and he strode toward the stairs.

Deanna gave Lauren a distrustful glance. Even Heidi shuddered as she walked by.

With little choice, Lauren followed Mark

The room above was empty. It was dark, the candles out, but it didn't matter. She could feel that it was empty.

She followed him out into the night.

The moon was no longer shadowed and red. It was a huge, glowing orb in the heavens, casting a gentle glow.

Then she looked around and was amazed by the sight that met her eyes.

There was Big Jim, a huge wooden lance in one hands, the tip dripping blood, and a machete in his other hand.

And there was Stacey, armed with a mega-water pistol, like the Uzi of squirt toys.

Sean was there, and Maggie, and Bobby and the cop who had been watching over Deanna when she had first gone into the hospital.

To her amazement, there was also an older black woman there, carrying a huge cross and a machete, and flanked by a handsome black man and a stunning young black woman. Lauren realized that she had seen the younger woman before, at the hospital. She was Deanna's nurse, the one who had gone mad, although she seemed to be just fine now.

The older woman stepped forward. ’’It's over, then?’’ she asked Mark.

He reached out, drawing her to him. ’’It's over, Ms. Lockwood. Thank you.’’

’’I told you I knew what I was up against,’’ the woman told him, drawing away and shaking a finger at him. ’’You've just got to have a little more faith in folks, you hear?’’

’’Yes, ma'am.’’ Mark looked at Sean. ’’How are you going to explain this one?’’ he asked.

Lauren took a good look around the yard and gasped.

There were dust piles and soot streaks everywhere.

There were also bones, and a fresh headless body. She winced.

’’I think it'll poetic justice if we pin it on the taxi driver,’’ Sean said. ’’Though I'll have to think about how to explain him ending up without a head.’’

’’Really, Sean,’’ Maggie protested. ’’Sometimes you can be so...’’

Sean sighed. ’’Maggie, his ID is false. The guy's real name was Wayne Girard. He was found guilty of twenty-seven murders, then escaped-I'm sure with our pal Stephan's help. I'll have some fast talking to do, but he can take the blame.’’

Lauren walked over to Maggie and Sean, and everyone from Montresse House. They all hugged her-hard.

’’Cop by day, vampire hunter by night,’’ Bobby said lightly, winking.

’’You all need to get the hell out of here,’’ Sean said. ’’Except for you, Bobby, Mr. Fearless Vampire Hunter. You get to stay and help me clean this mess up. More cars are on the way,’’ he said quietly.

His wife gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and headed for her car. By then the others had come up from the basement, and Mark beckoned the two women closer.

’’You three,’’ he said, including Lauren, ’’go with Maggie. Jonas and I will get back on our own.’’

’’Jonas...’’ Deanna murmured.

’’Jonas will be fine,’’ Maggie called. ’’Get in the car. Come on. It will be much easier for Sean and Bobby if we get out of here.’’

Deanna exchanged one last long kiss with Jonas before Maggie sighed and grabbed her arm, almost throwing her in the car.

As they drove away, Lauren looked back. Mark and Jonas were still there with Sean and Bobby. Maybe they meant to help with the clean up. But how would they explain their presence when the rest of the cops got there?

’’What will the other cops say when they see Mark and Jonas?’’ Deanna asked worriedly.

’’They won't,’’ Maggie said.

’’They'll fly back,’’ Heidi said cheerfully

Lauren waited for Maggie to correct her.

She didn't.

It was over, Mark thought

By the time he returned to Montresse House, it was very late and the house was quiet.

He spent a long time showering, and as he tried to wash away more than just the soot-seeking to dispel the hatred and bitterness that had ruled him for so long-he kept telling himself that it was over. Really over. Stephan was dead.

But he felt hollow. Drained.

When he stepped out of the shower, he saw that he was just about healed already. The outside didn't matter, though.

He felt as if hid insides were all torn apart.

He should have told her.

But he hadn't been honest and she'd found out on her own, and. now he'd lost her.

No, he'd never really had her.

He lay down in bed, glad that he could open the doors to the balcony and feel the soft breeze wash over him. Maybe when he closed his eyes he would no longer dream.

No longer see her walking toward him, all in white. See her smile.

Katya had loved him, trusted him enough to tell him the truth about what had happened. And though he hadn't believed her at first, he had believed in her. He had fought with Stephan over what he had done to her, and it had been who had turned him. It was something Stephan had relished...until he had realized that it didn't matter to the two of them. They would have their wedding, and they would have it in a church. When she had been vulnerable and unaware, Stephan had been able to hypnotize Katya. But not after she had realized what he was and what he was doing. She'd had a will of steel.

But his father...

God, his father! So strong, so loving, so proud. He'd told Mark what had happening, but Mark had never imagined his father would so willingly give up his own life to slay Mark's intended bride. He hadn't known that his son had been turned as well, or that there were ways to fight the evil nature of their new way of being.

So what now? Mark asked himself. Now that it was over.

Lauren would leave. She wopuld be going home with Heidi, though Deanna...

There was no question. She was staying.

With Jonas, who had turned out to be the real deal.

He closed his eyes;he needed to sleep. Needed to stop tormenting himself.

He froze suddenly, aware that his door had opened. He carefully opened one eye.

Lauren was walking toward the bed. Softly, silently. She smelled of soap and shampoo and simple sweetness. She was wearing a white silky nightgown, her hair like a sunset against it.

She paused, then lay down at his side and rose up on one elbow, staring at him.

’’There will be no more keeping the truth from me-the absolute, complete and total truth-ever again,’’ she told him.

He opened his eyes. She had sounded so fierce, but there was a slight smile curving her lips.

’’Lauren...’’

’’Shut up and listen. I thought I'd never been more afraid in my life than when I first got out there tonight. But then...I thought I had lost you, and it was a fear that was ten times more terrible. So here's the thing. Don't protect my feelings. Even if I'm going to be angry.’’

’’I was, er, actually a little worried about you being more than angry if I told you the truth about myself,’’ he said softly.

’’I admit it. At one point I might have been afraid of you. But now...I think we've gotten to know each other really well, even if it's been in a short but very intense amount of time.’’

He smiled, then turned on her fiercely. ’’What part about me telling you to stay in this house didn't you understand?’’ he demanded.

’’I had to go,’’ she protested.

’’Not without telling me.’’

’’But you might have stopped me,’’ she said.

’’Damn right.’’

She smiled, and her lashes fell;then her eyes rose to meet his again. ’’Seriously, Deanna and Heidi...I couldn't risk their lives. We still don't know if Susan is going to make it or not.’’

’’I believe she will,’’ he said firmly.

’’The point is-’’ she began.

’’The point is that you don't listen,’’ he teased her.

’’The point is that from now on I always get the truth from you,’’ she told him.

’’Because intelligent people believe in vampires?’’ he asked wryly.

’’When they can't help but see what's happening,’’ she told him softly.

’’From now on, will you swear to tell me before you run off trying to save anyone? And will you have faith in me?’’ he demanded.

’’Yes,’’ she said. And then she touched his face, leaned closer to him and spoke against his lips. ’’Now...hold me, please. Because I don't care who-or should I say what?-you are. I have never known love like this before. So...please, show me that you feel the same way.’’

He did.

And the hollowness was gone.

He was whole, as he had never thought he could be again.

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