"I will if you give me a chance," he murmured. "And you're wrong-I know a few things about you. I know you and Ruth don't get along, I know Caleb adores you, and I know you can handle a sword better than anyone I've seen before." He smiled then, achingly handsome, his eyes liquid blue pools as he gazed into mine. "You're a fighter, you question everything you don't agree with, and you're probably the only one here who's not terrified of Jeb. And I've never met anyone like you. Ever."
"Let go," I whispered. I could hear his heartbeat, thudding loud in his chest, and was suddenly terrified he would hear my lack of one. He complied, sliding his hands down my arms, holding the tips of my fingers before dropping them. But his eyes never left my face.
"I know you're scared," he continued in a quiet voice, still close enough that I could feel his breath on my cheek. The Hunger stirred, but it was weaker this time, sated for now. "I know we just met, and we're all strangers, and you keep yourself apart for your own reasons. But I also know I haven't...
felt this way about anyone before. And I think...I hope...you feel the same, because that was really hard for me to say. So..." He reached out again, taking my hand. "I'm asking you to trust me."
I wanted to. For the second time that night, I wanted to kiss him, standing there so openly in the moonlight, his bangs falling jaggedly into his eyes. Zeke leaned forward, and for just a moment, I allowed him to step close, to cup the back of my head as his lips moved down toward mine. His pulse throbbed, his scent surrounding me, but this time, I only saw his face.
No, this can't happen! I shoved him, hard. He staggered backward and fell, landing on his back in the dirt. I heard his sharp intake of breath, saw the shocked, wounded look in his eyes, and almost turned to f lee.
I didn't. Against my will, against everything screaming at me not to do this, I drew my sword and stepped up beside him, pointing it at his chest. Zeke's eyes went wide at the blade, gleaming inches from his heart, and he froze.
"Let me make this as clear as I can," I told him, holding the hilt tightly so my hands wouldn't shake. "Don't do that again. I don't trust you, preacher boy. I don't trust anyone.
And I've been stabbed in the back too many times for that to change, do you understand?"
Zeke's eyes were angry, wounded stars, but he nodded. I sheathed my blade, turned and walked back to the farmhouse, feeling his gaze on me all the way. But he didn't follow.
Dawn wasn't far. I went back to the empty room and closed the door, being sure to latch it this time. My eyes burned, and I clamped down on my emotions before they spilled over my cheeks.
In the bathroom, I splashed icy water on my face, gazing at my cracked ref lection in the mirror. Unlike the stories said, we actually did cast a ref lection, and mine looked awful: a pale, dark-haired girl with traces of blood running from her eyes, and someone else's blood f lowing in her veins. I bared my fangs, and the image of the girl disappeared, revealing a snarling, hollow-eyed vampire in the glass. If Zeke only knew what I really was...
"I'm sorry," I whispered, remembering the way he'd looked when I'd shoved him, when I'd pointed my sword at his chest.
Shocked, betrayed, heartbroken. "It's better like this. It really is. You have no idea what you're getting into." I couldn't keep this up. It was too hard, seeing Zeke, keeping my distance, pretending I didn't care. It was also getting harder and harder to keep my secret. Sooner or later, I'd slip up, or someone would put the pieces together and realize what had been lurking in their midst. And then Jeb or Zeke would put a sharp wooden stick through my chest or cut off my head. Zeke had watched rabids kill his friends and family, and he was the protege of Jebbadiah Crosse. I could not believe he would accept a vampire hanging around the group, no matter what he said about trust.
Maybe it was time to leave. Not tonight-dawn was too close-but soon. When they left the compound, that would be a good time to go. I knew Jeb didn't want to stay much longer; he was already anxious to get on the road. I would see them through the woods, protect them from any rabids that might be lurking around, and then I would slip away before anyone realized I was gone.
Where will you go? my ref lection seemed to ask. I swallowed the lump in my throat and shrugged. "I don't know," I muttered. "Does it matter? As long as I get far away from Zeke and Caleb and Darren and everyone, it doesn't matter where I go."
They'll miss you. Zeke will miss you.
"They'll get over it." I left the bathroom, my mind churning with conf licting emotions. I didn't want to leave. I had grown attached to Caleb and Bethany and Darren. Even Dorothy had her strange charm. The rest I barely spoke to, and some-Ruth and Jebbadiah-I would be perfectly happy if I never saw again, but I would definitely miss the others.
Especially a certain boy with starry eyes and an open smile, who saw nothing but good inside me. Who didn't know...
what I really was.
I slept with my sword close that day, the covers pulled over my head. No one disturbed me, or at least, when I woke again the following evening, the room was as I'd left it. Lightning f lickered outside, searingly bright for a split second, and thunder rumbled in the distance. If Jeb wanted to leave tonight, it would be a long, wet walk out.
Voices echoed through the stairwell, and I found the entire group downstairs, milling around the enormous wooden table that dominated one side of the kitchen. Ruth and Martha were ladling stew into bowls and passing them around, and a large bowl of corn muffins sat on the table within easy reach of everyone. Despite the feast, the mood around the table was somber and grim; even the kids ate silently with their eyes downcast. I wondered what was going on. Jeb wasn't here, and neither was Patricia, but I glanced up and met Zeke's eyes on the other side of the table.
As soon as our gazes met, he turned, grabbed a muffin from the bowl and walked out of the room without looking back.
My chest constricted. I wanted to go after him, to apologize for last night, but I didn't. It was better that he hate me now; I'd be gone from his life soon enough.
Instead, I wandered over to where Darren stood, leaning against a corner and dunking his bread in his stew. He glanced at me, nodded and went back to eating. But he didn't seem openly hostile, so maybe he hadn't spoken to Zeke about what happened.
"What's going on?" I asked, leaning beside him. He gave me a sideways look and swallowed a mouthful of food.
"We're leaving soon," he muttered, gesturing to the back door, where all our packs lay, stacked in a neat pile. "Probably in a couple hours, after everyone has eaten. Hopefully, we can get underway before the storm hits, and then the rain will hide our noise and our scent from any rabids in the woods.
Jeb is talking to Patricia right now-she's trying to get him to stay for another night or two, but I don't think she'll get very far. Jeb already gave us the order to move out."
"Now? Tonight?" I frowned, but Darren nodded. "I thought we were staying until Joe got better."
"He died," Darren said softly, and my throat clenched in horror. "This afternoon. Larry went out to check on him, and he was gone."
He's dead? "No," I whispered, as a growl of distant thunder drowned my voice. No, he can't be dead. Not after... Breaking away, I ducked out the back door and headed toward the woodshed.
Outside, a few drops of rain had begun to fall, making pattering sounds on the tin roof. As I passed the barn, the animals inside were bleating and crying, and I heard thumps of bodies hitting each other and the walls, the scuff le of hooves on the f loor. In the twilight, the woodshed was dark and silent. Several logs had already been taken to feed tonight's fires, though the rain would drench the f lames soon enough.
I wondered if the rabids got excited every time it stormed.
As I rounded the shed, I saw the cage, and the body huddled in the corner, shaking. Relief swept through me. Darren had been wrong. Joe was still alive.
"Hey," I greeted softly, stepping up to the bars. "You sure gave me a scare. Everyone thought you were de-" Joe looked up, eyes blazing, and lunged at me with a scream.
I jerked back, and the body struck the cage with a chilling shriek, grabbing at me through the bars, its skin pale and bloodless. The rabid howled, shaking the bars of the cage, biting and clawing at the iron, its mad eyes fixed on me.
Sickened, I stared at the thing that had once been Joe Archer, at the once familiar face, now gaunt and wasted. His beard was covered in blood and froth, his eyes glazed and glassy as they stared at me, nothing in them except hunger.
And my stomach twisted so hard I thought I might throw up.
Did I do this? Is this my fault? I thought back to the previous night, when Joe had spoken to me, had accepted coffee from Zeke and even made a joke. He had been fine then. Had I taken too much that he had died, succumbed to the infection? Would he still be alive, if I hadn't fed from him?
I heard the crunch of gravel behind me and turned, hoping and fearing it was Zeke. But it was only Larry, come to return the empty wheelbarrow to the woodshed. He set it aside and stared at the rabid a few moments, his weathered face crumpled with grief.
"Damn," he muttered in a choked voice. "Damn damn dammit! I was hoping he wouldn't..." He sucked in a breath, swallowing hard. "I'll have to let Patricia know," he whispered, sounding on the verge of a breakdown. "Aw, Joe. You were a good man. You didn't deserve this."
"What will happen to him now?" I asked.
Larry didn't look at me, continuing to stare at the rabid as he answered. "Joe is gone," he said in a f lat, dull voice. "We would've buried the body if he hadn't Turned, but there's nothing left of him anymore. The sun will take care of the rest tomorrow."
He shuff led away, back toward the farmhouse, leaving me to stare at the monster that had been Joe and feel completely and utterly sick.
My eyes burned, and I felt something hot slide down my cheek. I didn't wipe it away this time, and more followed, burning crimson paths down my skin. The rabid watched me, cold and calculating. It had stopped throwing itself against the bars and now huddled against the back corner, unnaturally still, a coiled spring ready to be unleashed.
"I'm sorry," I whispered to it, and it bared its fangs at the sound of my voice. "I did this. You'd still be alive if I hadn't bitten you. I'm so sorry, Joe."
"I knew it," someone hissed behind me.
I whirled. Ruth peered at me from around the corner of the woodshed, her brown eyes wide with shock.
We stared at each other, frozen in time. As our eyes met, I became aware of the small things happening around us: the drip of rabid drool hitting the ground, the lines of blood smeared across my cheek.
Then Ruth stepped back and took a breath.
The cry echoed off the woodshed, carrying over the rain, as Ruth turned to f lee. Behind me, the rabid shrieked in response, and my vampire nature surged up with a roar. I lunged forward on instinct. Before the girl could take a single step, I was in front of her, slamming her back into the wall, fangs bared to their fullest. Ruth screamed.
"Shut up!" I snarled, even as I caught myself from lunging forward, from driving my fangs into her slender throat.