Vampire Crush Page 22

That was the wrong thing to say. James backs away.

"Not bad cold," I say hastily. "Cold like eggs! Like eggs when you take them out of the refrigerator."

He makes a sound that's half laugh, half choke.

"And eggs are, um, full of protein." Shut up, Sophie. Shut up.

James doesn't agree or disagree with my nutritional claims. Instead he peers out into the kitchen. "I should go," he says, and I can tell that I've ruined the moment. "There's no sign of Vlad. You should go too."

I suddenly feel a little guilty for hiding in a closet kissing people when Vlad is out there stalking the girls I supposedly came here to protect. "I'm not finished at the party yet," I say, just when a familiar voice echoes from the room beyond.

"What is it, Marisabel?" Vlad says, annoyed. "There are girls with skin to check. And have you seen my journal? I was sure that it would be upstairs."

James looks at me, his eyes narrowing. "Sophie - "

"It's fine," I hiss, rushing to the door to peer through the slats. Vlad is leaning against the oven while Marisabel faces him. Violet has cleared out, and from the way Vlad is scowling, I would say that was a smart move. His right hand flexes with impatience. When Marisabel doesn't respond, he clangs it down on the front burner.

"What is it?" he snaps again.

"Just hold on a second, would you?" Marisabel says, and then closes her eyes as she massages her temples. "This is hard for me."

"Thinking? I know."

Marisabel's eyes snap open. "That."

"That what?"

"That attitude, that tone, is why I'm doing this. You don't give me the respect I deserve," she says heatedly, and if noiselessness weren't vital to my well-being, I would clap.

Vlad, however, doesn't applaud; he rolls his eyes. "Really, Marisabel. Do we have to do this now?"

"Don't act like we've done this before. I've kept my mouth shut for sixty years. I've done everything for you. I hand-wrote one hundred invitations to this stupid party just so you could find your precious girl, and I didn't even get a thank-you."

He sniffs in disbelief, but it only makes her speak more loudly.

"I hunt for you when you're lazy," she continues, "and I clean for you when you're disgusting. And I'm done. We're done, Vlad."

The pronouncement hangs in the air. I can tell that Marisabel's waiting eagerly for his reaction. One of the only joys in ending a bad relationship, I imagine, is seeing if you can make him cry. But if that's what she wants, she doesn't get it. Vlad does look shocked - after sixty years of getting away with snide comments, this speech must come as a surprise. He doesn't, however, get down on his knees and beg.

"I think it's for the best," he says calmly. If he looks anything, it's relieved.

Marisabel's confidence wilts. "I don't understand," she says, her voice thick with emotion. "Don't you care?"

"It was going to end soon anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"I think that it is better this way," Vlad non-answers. "To make a clean break."

Marisabel turns and stares intently at a far corner of the room, biting her bottom lip as though struggling not to cry while Vlad looks like he could whistle.

"Something's not right here," James murmurs from beside me, and I jump at the reminder of how close he's standing.

"What do you mean?"

"I've never seen Vlad give up something this easily," he says.

"Why did he drag her all the way out here, then? I mean, if he doesn't care . . ."

"I don't know."

I open my mouth to ask another question, but end up sucking in a lungful of dust, sparking a coughing fit. Alarmed, James claps his hands over my mouth, but it's too late. Vlad's head snaps toward the pantry, and before I can blink, the door flies open.

Fingers clench around my bicep, and I'm dragged out into the dim light, disoriented and still hacking. Vlad's hands press down on my shoulders. I try to tear them off, but it only causes him to dig his fingers deeper into the tender flesh of my neck.

"You!" Vlad snaps, angrier now than when he was being broken up with. "Always you! Asking questions, meddling . . . I could go on," he says coldly and drags me up until my toes strain to stay on the ground. "Who invited her?" he growls, and then looks to where Marisabel is hovering. "Did you invite her?"

"Maybe I did," she says with a shaky bravado as her hand curls around the handle of the refrigerator like a vine. "But who cares? I don't have to listen to you anymore."

"I will deal with you later," Vlad says, not bothering to hide the undercurrent of menace. We have drawn a crowd. Violet stands, saucer-eyed, at the front of the pack, and Neville's disapproving head towers over the rest of my hushed classmates. For a second Vlad looks shamed. I see him try to shake himself back into the role of benevolent host. His grip on me sags as he adopts a tight smile. "This is a private matter," he says, and a handful of people actually turn around and start to head back to the living room. Relieved, Vlad reminds them cheerily to try the cheese puffs. But then James's voice calls out from behind us, and curiosity draws them back.

"I don't know about that, Vlad. Seems like something's going on. Why don't you just let her go and we can talk about this?" he suggests, nodding to the audience before stepping forward with a hand out, as though he can gently nudge the irate vampire away from me.

Vlad explodes, removing one hand from my neck to shove him back into the counter.

"You stay out of this!" he hisses as I scramble to keep at least one foot on the ground. "You are as bad as she is! Always lurking about - it's like you forget what you're here for!" When James says nothing, he turns back to me. "Tell me why you were in that pantry."

"I was . . . talking with James," I say weakly. Technically it's not a lie.

"Wrong," Vlad says. "Try again."

I can't think of a good excuse. "I was talking with James," I repeat.

"Lies!" he snaps, and drops me so fast that I fall to my knees and heave toward the tiled floor. I fully expect a swift kick to the stomach or a karate chop to the back. I don't expect to feel the back hem of my T-shirt being dragged over my shoulders and torn away while Vlad yells, "And the invitation clearly dictated bathing suits only!"

The shirt catches around my neck and ears, and for a second I am smothered in cotton. When it is finally free and I am allowed to fall back forward, the rush of air feels like the breeze before the storm. I should look at Vlad's face, prepare myself for the coming violence, but any willpower I might have possessed has abandoned ship. I wait for him to strike. If I contract every muscle in my body it will make my skin into a fortress! I think wildly, but the truth is that I will be lucky to escape this without something breaking. Still, he can't kill me in front of all these people. He'll kick me out for spying, but he doesn't know how much I know. Right? Right. No need to panic.

And then I realize that the warm, flat weight on my back is Vlad's book, tucked into the waistband of my jeans.

"Vlad," James says, his voice urgent, panicked, but Vlad cuts him off.

"So," Vlad says from above me, "a thief and a spy. Read anything interesting?"

I feel the cool scrabble of fingers on my back as he slides the journal out, not bothering to keep his nails from scraping my spine. The pain is just the shock I need to scramble to my feet and charge toward the door.

"Let me through!" I yell when I hit the wall of chests and elbows that clutter up the main hallway, and to its credit, the front line tries to part. But the crowd is too deep, there's nowhere for them to go. Whirling around, I see that James is blocking Vlad, arms outstretched. But Vlad is not trying to move forward, and the expression overtaking his face is not one that I've seen before. It's not angry, it's not even jaded or cynical. Instead, Vlad is blinking in amazement.

"Turn around," he says suddenly.

"What?" I ask, confused. If Vlad thinks that I am going to do the hokey-pokey before he kills me, he is sadly mistaken.

"Turn around!" Vlad roars. "Show me your back."

"No!" I yell out of habit, and regret it immediately. Perhaps I should do what the angry vampire says. My eyes search out James's, hoping for some hint of encouragement, but he looks just as confused as I feel. I swing my questioning gaze to Violet, who stands at the front of the crowd.

"Well, there are quite a few freckles on your back," Violet says as though breaking bad news, "but I think Vlad is overreacting. It does not look so horrible."

Vlad turns to address the clutch of students still huddling by the door. "I sincerely thank you all for coming. Do show yourselves out, and feel free to take a carrot for the road." When they make no move to go, he crowds them back through the door. "Really, if you do not move your foot I will have to kick you," he tells some unfortunate student. "Thank you."

He thinks it's me. He thinks it's me because I have freckles on my back. This entire time I've been assuming that Vlad's plan had some basis in reality merely because he had followed it so diligently, but now I see that he is crazy on top of crazy on top of crazy. The realization cuts through the fog of shock and confusion that has been keeping me immobile. I make a break for the side hallway only to skid to a stop when a large form swims out of the darkness.

"Ah, Devon, you are here. Tell Ashley to make sure all of our guests have vacated the premises and then guard the front door," Vlad orders before turning around and starting to walk toward me with a smile that's wide enough to show his incisors. "Now, let me see your back."

"They're freckles," I say and then turn around. "Not a birthmark. Freckles."

Jabbing a finger against the base of my spine, he starts to count. "One, two, three," he says, growing more excited with every number. "Four, five, six, seven, eight. I admit, it is not what I expected, but it is a star. It was said to appear differently every time."

James steps between us and points at what I assume are different freckles. "Nine, ten, eleven, twelve. I could make anything. I could make the Big Dipper."

"It is true," Violet says solemnly. "I see a heart. And a pineapple."

Vlad levels her with a dark glance and then reaches out to grab my arm. James knocks it away.

"Don't touch her," he says, all traces of diplomacy gone as he steps between us once again.

"This is getting tiresome," Vlad says. "Do you think you can keep her for yourself? Because you did not provide much help. But I will make a deal - move away and I will - " He stops abruptly, his eyes trailing over James's shoulder, to where I am doing my best to blend in with the counter. "Why does she not appear more confused?" he asks and then looks back at him with a chilling anger. "You told me she had forgotten."

"Guess I lied," James says, and though it comes out laconic, I feel his muscles tense in preparation for Vlad's next move. The other vampires are sharing nervous looks; Neville, especially, seems like he is about to be sick. But even his expression changes to shock when Vlad starts to laugh.

"I suppose it is only fair," he says when it's faded to an intermittent chuckle.

"How is it fair?" James snaps.

"I lied to you," Vlad says. "That nonsense about her blood being able to restore your humanity? I made it up so that you would come here and help search."

"No. I don't believe you," James says, but I remember his note.

Vlad chuckles again. "Ask Neville if you do not believe me. No one knows more about the girl than the Danae."

If possible, Neville's face has gone whiter. "I have never heard that particular myth, no," he says. "But I should say something - "

"See!" Vlad says to James. "There is no reason to guard her anymore. Step aside."

But James just backs closer to me, close enough that I could reach out and grip his back. I'm sorry, I think, hoping that for once he will hear it. I can't see his face. I wish I could see his face.

Vlad's eyebrows dart up. "You are making a dangerous choice," he says. "Even if you survive this, which is highly doubtful, you will have to - Violet, please get out of the way, I am trying to threaten him."

Violet is standing by James's elbow, tugging up the arm of her sagging costume with purpose. "I do not think that it is Sophie. And even if it were, I think I have changed my mind about helping."

"Me too," Marisabel says defiantly, pushing away from the refrigerator to flank James's other side. "I think it would be for the best if you left."

Vlad's lips curl in disbelief before he lets out a bark of laughter. "Neville, help me."

But Neville doesn't move; he begins to ramble. "I think you have been under a lot of pressure. I know I myself am crippled by the number of take-home essays that dragon who teaches German has been assigning. Perhaps you should rest awhile, and then if you still think that she exists, we will - "

"If she exists?" he roars. "If she exists? You are Danae! She is the reason you exist! Your entire organization began as a pact between families to protect her."

"About that, yes, well, you see, I didn't really think that it would come to this, but I suppose . . ." He pushes his shoulders back, gathering courage. "I have a confession to make. I am not in the Danae."

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