She hesitated, glancing from me to Jean-Claude and back. "Is everything going according to plan?"

I walked towards her. Jean-Claude grabbed my arm. "Do not harm her, Anita. She is under our protection."

"I swear to you that I will not lay a finger on her tonight. I just want to tell her something."

He released my arm, slowly, like he wasn't sure it was a good idea. I stepped next to Monica, until our bodies almost touched. I whispered into her face, "If anything happens to Catherine, I will see you dead."

She smirked at me, confident in her protectors. "They will bring me back as one of them."

I felt my head shake, a little to the right, a little to the left, a slow precise movement. "I will cut out your heart." I was still smiling, I couldn't seem to stop. "Then I will burn it and scatter the ashes in the river. Do you understand me?"

She swallowed audibly. Her health-club tan looked a little green. She nodded, staring at me like I was the bogey man.

I think she believed I'd do it. Peachy keen. I hate to waste a really good threat.

Chapter 8

I watched Catherine's cab vanish around the corner. She never turned, or waved, or spoke. She would wake tomorrow with vague memories. Just a night out with the girls.

I would like to have thought she was out of it, safe, but I knew better. The air smelled thickly of rain. The street lights glistened off the sidewalk. The air was almost too thick to breathe. St. Louis in the summer. Peachy.

"Shall we go?" Jean-Claude asked.

He stood, white shirt gleaming in the dark. If the humidity bothered him, it didn't show. Aubrey stood in the shadows near the door. The only light on him was the crimson neon of the club sign. He grinned at me, face painted red, body lost in shadows.

"It's a little too contrived, Aubrey," I said.

His grin wavered. "What do you mean?"

"You look like a B-movie Dracula."

He flowed down the steps, with that easy perfection that only the really old ones have. The street light showed his face tight, hands balled into fists.

Jean-Claude stepped in front of him and spoke low, voice a soothing whisper. Aubrey turned away with a jerky shrug and began to glide up the street.

Jean-Claude turned to me. "If you continue to taunt him, there will come a point from which I cannot bring him back. And you will die."

"I thought your job was to keep me alive for this Nikolaos."

He frowned. "It is, but I will not die to defend you. Do you understand that?"

"I do now."

"Good. Shall we go?" He gestured down the sidewalk, in the direction Aubrey had gone.

"We're going to walk?"

"It is not far." He held his hand out to me.

I stared at it and shook my head.

"It is necessary, Anita. I would not ask it otherwise."

"How is it necessary?"

"This night must remain secret from the police, Anita. Hold my hand, play the besotted human with her vampire lover. It will explain the blood on your blouse. It will explain where we are going, and why."

His hand hung there, pale and slender. There was no tremor to the fingers, no movement, as if he could stand there offering me his hand forever. And maybe he could.

I took his hand. His long fingers curved over the back of my hand. We began walking, his hand very still in mine. I could feel the pulse in my hand against his skin. His pulse began to speed up to match mine. I could feel his blood flow like a second heart.

"Have you fed tonight?" my voice sounded soft.

"Can you not tell?"

"I can never tell with you."

I saw him smile out of the corner of my eye. "I am flattered."

"You never answered my question."

"No," he said.

"No, you haven't answered me, or no, you haven't fed?"

He turned his head to me, as we walked. Sweat gleamed on his upper lip. "What do you think, ma petite?" His voice was the softest of whispers.

I jerked my hand, tried to get away, even though I knew it was silly, and wouldn't work. His hand convulsed around mine, squeezed until I gasped. He wasn't even trying hard.

"Do not struggle against me, Anita." His tongue slid across his upper lip. "Struggling is - exciting."

"Why didn't you feed earlier?"

"I was ordered not to."

"Why?"

He didn't answer me. Rain began to patter down. Light and cool.

"Why?" I repeated.

"I don't know." His voice was nearly lost in the soft fall of rain. If it had been anyone else I would have said he was afraid.

The hotel was tall and thin, and made of real brick. The sign out front glowed blue and said, "Vacancy." There was no other sign. Nothing to tell you what the place was called, or even what it was. Just vacancy.

Rain glistened in Jean-Claude's hair, like black diamonds. My top was sticking to my body. The blood had begun to wash away. Cold water was just the thing for a fresh blood stain.

A police car eased around the corner. I tensed. Jean-Claude jerked me against him. I put my palm against his chest to keep our bodies from touching. His heart thudded under my hand.

The police car was going very slowly. A spotlight began to search the shadows. They swept the District regularly. It was bad for tourism if the tourists got wasted by our biggest attractions.

Jean-Claude grabbed my chin and turned me to look at him. I tried to pull away, but his fingers dug into my chin. "Don't fight me!"

"I won't look in your eyes!"

"My word that I will not try to bespell you. For this night you may look into my eyes with safety. I swear it." He glanced at the police car, still moving towards us. "If the police are brought into this, I cannot promise what will happen to your friend."

I forced myself to relax in his arms, letting my body ease against his. My heartbeat sounded loud, as if I had been running. Then I realized it wasn't my heart I was hearing. Jean-Claude's pulse was throbbing through my body. I could hear it, feel it, almost squeeze it in my hand. I stared up at his face. His eyes were the darkest blue I had ever seen, perfect as a midnight sky. They were dark and alive, but there was no sense of drowning, no pull. They were just eyes.

His face leaned towards me. He whispered, "I swear."

He was going to kiss me. I didn't want him to. But I didn't want the police to stop and question us. I didn't want to explain the blood stains, the torn blouse. His lips hesitated over my mouth. His heartbeat was loud in my head, his pulse was racing, and my breathing was ragged with his need.

His lips were silk, his tongue a quick wetness. I tried to pull back and found his hand at the back of my neck, pressing my mouth against his.

The police spotlight swept over us. I relaxed against Jean-Claude, letting him kiss me. Our mouths pressed together. My tongue found the smooth hardness of fangs. I pulled away, and he let me. He pressed my face against his chest, one arm like steel against my back, pressing me against him. He was trembling, and it wasn't from the rain.

His breathing was ragged, his heart jumping under his skin against my cheek. The slick roughness of his burn scar touched my face.

His hunger poured over me in a violent wave, like heat. He had been sheltering me from it, until now. "Jean-Claude!" I didn't try to keep the fear out of my voice.

"Hush." A shudder ran through his body. His breath escaped in a loud sigh. He released me so abruptly, I stumbled.

He walked away from me to lean against a parked car. He raised his face up into the rain. I could still feel his heartbeat. I had never been so aware of my own pulse, the blood flowing through my veins. I hugged myself, shivering in the hot rain.

The police car had vanished into the streetlight darkness. After perhaps five minutes Jean-Claude stood. I could no longer feel his heartbeat. My own pulse was slow and regular. Whatever had happened was over.

He walked past me and called over his shoulder. "Come, Nikolaos awaits us inside."

I followed him through the door. He did not try to take my hand. In fact he stayed out of reach, and I trailed after him through a small square lobby. A human man sat behind the front desk. He glanced up from the magazine he was reading. His eyes flicked to Jean-Claude and back to me. He leered at me.

I glared back. He shrugged and turned back to his magazine. Jean-Claude moved swiftly up the stairs, not waiting for me. He didn't even look back. Maybe he could hear me walking behind him, or maybe he didn't care if I followed.

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