First Dates Are Hell
Valiance could smell his blood on the wind. Mondrian had always been good at tracking, but Valiance had never fully appreciated his brother's skills until his scent stopped right outside a house with a magical border around it a mile thick. The white stones around Esme's house glowed in the moonlight, creating a boundary around the property Valiance was sure he couldn't even get through.
Violet crouched beside him. "Think we just confirmed your girl is family."
"She's not my . . ." Valiance dropped it. Violet wasn't going to stop, and he didn't have the breath to waste.
"What's the plan?" she asked.
Valiance had to shift his weight to accommodate the fire burning down his injured leg. "Wait him out. And then you can see if she's okay tomorrow morning."
"That's not the Valiance I saw stand up against his Clade Source."
Valiance clenched his jaw, and the entire back of his head lit up like a lightning storm, all bright lights and pain. His jaw was still throbbing though he'd set it himself on the way over here. The blood from the crack on the back of his head was dried now and made the leather of his sheath itchy.
Violet winced for him. "You need to feed, don't you? It's why you're not healing. Not enough of your own power to heal yourself. Isn't that how it works?"
Violet finally shut up for two seconds, so he could think. Mondrian wouldn't be able to get through that border, especially if his intentions were to hurt Esme. But even if Valiance was right and Mondrian couldn't see Esme, he might be able to see her grandmother.
Valiance might be able to make it through the border. Make sure they were okay. But if Esme had seen three seconds of what happened in the parking lot, she was never going speak to him again, let alone invite him in to wait out the night against another vampire.
His head dropped down to his chest. His true colors had shown through, and she'd seen them and ran.
"I smell pity," Violet said.
"You smell a man realizing he should have stayed in the shop."
"Yep. Self-pity. Smells a little like rotten milk."
"Were you always so campy?" He looked over at his Prima.
She nodded. "Yes, actually. But I'm right."
Violet jumped and reached for the glowing cell phone in her back pocket. "Just when things were getting good." She sighed as sat down on the cold ground. "Hello. What? Now? I'm kinda in the middle of something, Nash. Oh, well talk about burying the lead. Of course. I'll meet you there."
Violet hung up the phone, and her energy danced around her. "I have to go."
"What?" Valiance snapped.
"Kandice just went into labor a month early. I have to go."
"You've got a hostile vampire hunting innocents in the city."
Violet patted him on the back. "And I've got my best Riko on the case."
"Riko? That's a shifter title."
Violet ran her fingers through her long hair as she pulled it back into a ponytail. She slipped off her tennis shoes and shoved them in her messenger bag. "I'm a shifter. The words are pretty. Do you accept?"
"The rules and responsibilities of being the warrior and the protector of the pack?" She zipped up her jacket against the cold wind. She dropped her personal borders, and her power sizzled around them. "Do you accept?"
Valiance knew you didn't say "no" to Violet, and even if you did, it didn't stay a "no." "Yes?"
"Wonderful. From what I've heard, there's a vampire going around and attacking innocents.
Take care of it. Call Tucker if you can't handle it."
Violet winked. In a blur of black and a whirl of energy, her panther form streaked down the street in the direction of downtown before Valiance could even manage a protest.
He clenched his jaw, and the pain flared again. "I don't have my cell phone," he finally said to the wind.
"Told you she wasn't worth it." Mondrian appeared in the street before Valiance, his hands casually in his pockets.
Valiance rose. The slick red over Mondrian's lips was unmistakable, even in the dim glow from the streetlights. He'd gotten a chance to feed. It was like hitting a reset button on the evening.
He'd be faster now, stronger than Valiance who barely had anything, power or blood, left.
"The Prima trusts us to clean up our own messes."
Anger made the angles along Mondrian's face sharper, uglier. "Is that what I am? A mess to clean up?"
Valiance walked out onto the street, hiding the wince of every step. "Destroyed my evening."
Mondrian looked at the small house. "So your girl is special?"
"And you're going to kill me, your own brother, to protect her?"
"Yes." The honesty rang through Valiance and made the sword on his back hum with anticipation.
Valiance saw another figure in the darkness. Female. Older. And completely under the sway. He recognized the glassy eyes of the woman as she stumbled this way and that. Like a marionette on strings, she danced how Mondrian wanted her to dance.
Valiance didn't have time to get her before she fell to her knees beside the white stone periphery of the house, her teeth snapping against each other as she dropped. Where a vampire couldn't touch the protective border, an innocent human would have no problem pulling a stone out of place to break the spell.
He ran for her, but Mondrian met him in the middle of the street. His brother slammed against him with the force of a semitruck, and they flew down the street. Valiance landed hard on the pavement, with his brother on top of him, and they rolled, both struggling for the upper hand.
There was a distinct clap of flesh meeting something solid, but it didn't come from him.
Valiance looked over from his position beneath Mondrian to see an old woman with a baseball bat standing over the limp body of the puppet woman. It had to be Esme's grandmother, the abuelita she spoke so lovingly about, wielding the bat like Babe Ruth himself.
The older woman's courage gave Valiance the kick he needed. He threw Mondrian over his head and jumped to his feet. He used the last of his energy to enhance himself, heal his leg, and give his muscles the strength they needed to wield his sword.
"Keep the circle," he called out to the old woman.
The woman yelled something back at him. But he missed it when his eyes landed on Esme standing in the doorway of their small house. The entire world stopped for a moment, and he was caught up in the sight of her. Her dark hair unbound, her cheeks flushed, she glowed in the doorway of her home with her tear-filled eyes.
He heard Mondrian's sword sing as it cut through the air behind him. Valiance ducked and felt the wind of the attack against his hair.
Valiance swung his arm back hard, and Mondrian's ribs cracked under his blow. He turned around sharply and swept Mondrian's legs out from underneath him. The other vampire bounced against the concrete like a rubber ball. Valiance caught his shirt in his fist and threw him at the protective spell.
Mondrian slammed against the magical border and sizzled and seized within the white energy before being thrown across the street into a car. There was no alarm, just Mondrian's long groan.
Valiance tried not to smile, but it was the first break he'd gotten all evening.
He turned back to the house, where Esme and her grandmother were together on the porch.
He walked over to the edge of the white stones but didn't dare step across. He looked at Esme.
"Are you okay?"
"No problem here," her grandmother said, her grip still tight on the bat.
"Stay inside. I'll be right - "
Mondrian's boot landed square between Valiance's shoulders, and he flew forward through the white-stone protective spell and landed hard on the frozen ground of her front yard.
Mondrian's hand clamped down on Valiance's ankle and raked him back along the ground. As Valiance struggled to stop, he felt the protection spell break around him as he pulled a white stone from its place, like the pop of an electrical transformer.
Mondrian ripped him from the ground and threw Valiance into the same car that had broken his own fall. Valiance let gravity take him and slid down to the pavement. He couldn't feel his legs for a moment and fell forward to his knees, seeing nothing but stars.
He leaned back against the car and shook the celestial array from his vision. He had to blink a few times for his sight to focus.
Mondrian was already on the porch. He grabbed Esme's grandmother and locked an arm around her neck, swinging her petite frame around like a rag doll.
He was less than a foot away from Esme, who had plastered herself against the outside wall next to the door.
His brother didn't need to yell; the wind carried his threats fine enough. "Bet she never goes out with you again if you let her grandmother die."
Mondrian cloaked him and her grandmother in darkness and blurred away into the night.
Valiance tried to push himself up against the car, but the power was gone. He fell to the concrete. He couldn't breathe. Everything hurt, but it wasn't over. He might not have his unnatural strength, but he was still breathing. He wouldn't stop fighting until he stopped breathing.
Slowly, he pushed himself up to his feet and stumbled to the edge of the yard. He carefully put the stone he'd dragged out of alignment back into place.
He looked up to see Esme still standing on the porch, like a frightened statue, only her wide eyes following him across the yard.
"Do you know where the locking stone is?" he asked. He started to walk the periphery. He didn't know much about this kind of magic, but he knew the locking stone needed to be recharged if the border was going to go up.
Esme didn't answer, just watched him.
He kept walking. Fairy magic wasn't foreign to him; he was one, for Christ's sake. The glamour, the seeing of the unseen. The taking and giving of natural magic. Granted, he was the darker distant cousin of what normal people thought as fey, but the same principles applied. Too bad he'd never dabbled too much in garden magic.
It could have been his raw state, but as he passed the corner stone in the yard, a power sort of tickled at his ankle. He knelt. Well, it was supposed to be a kneel, but really he fell forward, landing next to a larger than average white stone half-buried in the yard.
He put his hand on the stone, and it was warm. A normal fae could probably just push power into the stone, but he was a vampire. It had to be blood with him.
He looked down at his hand to find a small trickle seeping from a wound on his knuckles. He smeared it against the stone. The periphery jumped back to life, like plugging back in a line of Christmas lights. What did you know? He did have it in him.
He had to take a deep breath before he pushed himself to his feet. When he did, Esme was standing right next to him. The spell between them didn't prevent him from smelling the flowers in her hair or seeing the bright sparkle in her eyes from the fearful tears that stayed wavering on the edge.
"Where did he take her?" she asked.
"I do not know. But I will get her back."
Esme looked him over from head to toe. "She didn't tell me much except that you're a . . ."
Valiance cringed. He didn't want her to say the word; it would kill everything within him to hear the disdain in her voice.
"That you can see me because you're a good guy."
Valiance felt like he could breathe again.
"You'd better come inside. You don't look so good. And someone's going to notice that car."
He shook his head. "We need to find your grandmother."
"Abuelita is strong, apparently stronger than I ever gave her credit for. You need help before you go and get yourself flattened. Again."
SHE TOOK HIM into the kitchen, but when she flipped on the light, he flipped it off right behind her. It left the only light in the small room the glow from the stove top and the moonlight that filtered in from the small window.
Fear sizzled down her spine as she went to the far side of the room to get the first-aid kit.
However, all the fear turned to a kind of strange excitement as she watched him gingerly take off his jacket and his shredded dress shirt, exposing the sword running down the length of his back.
His shoulders were broader than any man's she'd ever seen, and the handle of the sword seemed to wink at her in the moonlight streaming in from the windows.
He slowly walked across the kitchen to the sink and began to wash his hands.
She grabbed a few towels for him and quickly set them beside him before scurrying back to her place at the end of the counter.
She could see pain in his eyes as he moved. He slowly dried his hands. He wetted the towel and held it to his face, wiping off some of the dried blood and sweat.
He drew in a tired breath before he spoke, his voice low, soft. "Do you still have my phone? I think I need to call for help."
Esme had to think. The encounter already seemed like a lifetime ago. "It's in my purse." She scooted around him quickly and dashed into her room to find it.
The foreign phone was easy to find in her familiar purse, and she slipped back into the kitchen swiftly, setting the phone between them on the counter.
Valiance took it and popped it open. He hit a few buttons and growled as he put the phone to his ear. At least, it sounded like a growl. "No answer."
Esme gulped. "So no backup?"
Valiance turned around and leaned against the kitchen counter. "I don't know."
"You've said that too many times."
Valiance turned his blue eyes to hers. "I am sorry, Esme. I never meant to . . ."
Her spine stiffened, and the words that came out of her were hers but from someplace within her she wasn't familiar with yet, someplace jarred loose from this evening's activities. "It's too early in the evening for apologies. What do you need to get her back?"
Valiance sighed. He walked over to the table and sat down, looking much smaller than he had just moments ago as he put his bruised face into his hands.
He was less than two feet away, and she swore that every cell within her pulled toward him, pulled toward the fragility draped across his shoulders.
The decision solidified within her as she spoke words that were hers but not hers. "I'm willing."
Her voice was barely a whisper across the kitchen.
His steel blue eyes were grayer now, as if the color had drained out of them, along with his blood, as he looked up at her. "You don't know . . ."
"I do." Her voice was stronger as she reached for the unused first-aid kit. She cut an appropriate-sized piece of gauze. "I mean I think I know what you need. Abuelita told me stories about people like you. You need blood to heal, and I can't find my abuelita without you."
She ripped off four pieces of tape and dangled them over the edge of the kitchen counter. Then she rolled up the sleeve of her jacket and held out her arm. "I trust her, and the only thing she said to me tonight that made any sense was that you wouldn't be able to see me if you really wanted to hurt me."
His cool fingers reached out and slid around the inside of her wrist, just holding it gently. Goose bumps shot up her arm, and she gulped.
"I made a promise to myself that I . . ." He was so exhausted, he couldn't finish the sentence.
"I've never had to make promises to myself. I've never had anything this horrible ever happen before."
He looked down at her pale wrist as he stroked it with his finger. "You think I'm horrible."
She took in a deep breath, trying to calm the stammering of her heart. Her words might be brave, but her body was still catching on to the idea. "No. But as far as first dates go, I'm sure this is up there with the worst ever."
"It was selfish of me. I just wanted to have a pleasant evening with a pretty girl."
His words caused a flutter in her stomach. She tried to convince herself he would say anything right now to get blood, but she couldn't believe it. Especially after he looked up at her, his skin paper white in the dim light. The heavy look in his eyes made her forget about the press of sharp white on his lower lip.
"Esme, I . . ."
She cut him off. "I did nothing, Valiance." The name those men had called him fit better as she said it out loud. It was more him than the abbreviation. Even more regal than the name on his credit card.
Esme went on. "He was three feet away from me, and I froze. I couldn't even move until after he'd already taken her. I need to do this. I failed in my first attempt at bravery. I will not fail in my second. I will not fail her."
His hand tightened on her wrist, and he pulled her down the edge of the counter until she stood before him. Her pulse raced in her ears as he leaned forward, his forehead almost resting against her breasts as he pulled something off the counter behind her. He pressed that something into her right hand as he pulled away.
She looked down at the silver knife. "Will this really do any damage?"
"It's sharp enough to ensure I stop."
Esme curled her fingers around the handle though she wasn't sure she could use it on him.
His eyes trailed down to her tender wrist, still in his hand, as he sat back down on the chair before her. "I promise this will not hurt much."
When his lips touched her arm, heat flew up her wrist and burned into her core. She barely felt the slice of his teeth against her skin. She was more focused on the other hand he slid around her waist, pulling her closer to him, keeping her still.
His tongue began to coax out the blood, undulating slowly against her skin. Not that he needed to work much, her stammering heart was rushing blood to all her extremities and warming every part of her.
She leaned back against the cabinets, and her eyes fluttered shut. Immediately, her thoughts traveled to what else he could do with that tongue, where else it might have the same flushing effect.
He gripped her waist tighter, and the pressure on her arm increased. She gasped as she felt a stronger pull of blood out of her veins.
"Val," she said softly.
When his fingers began to dig into her arm, she gasped, and cool fear fought the intense heat that had spread throughout her.
"Val," she repeated. She tried to pull her arm back, but his grip was too strong.
"Valiance," she cried out.
He was standing above her in less than a blink. His eyes were livid blue with blown pupils, and his mouth was stained red. His body pressed her against the counter, and she was awash in the smell of blood and sweat. The monster was here, and still hungry.
But just as fast as he had risen, Esme had the knife to his throat. The flash of the silver blade dug into the pale skin, and her eyes steadily gazed into his dark pools. Her heartbeat steadied, and she let out a long breath. That other part, that braver part, saved her and settled in for the evening.
"Sit," she ordered.
Valiance did as he was told, and the moment he was in the chair, he looked away.
Esme looked down at her wrist to see nothing more than an inch-long slice on her lower forearm. It wasn't like the movies at all, probably wouldn't even scar, but then again, she didn't need anything to remind her of what happened tonight. She grabbed the bandage and taped up the small wound, keeping her fist to her chest to stop any bleeding.
He was looking down, away, his neck exposed.
She watched the fair flesh come back together at his cheek, mend itself until it was a bruised reminder of what had happened earlier. Esme couldn't believe the magic before her eyes. That a little bit of her blood could do all that wonder. Maybe she really was something special.
"Valiance?" She kept her voice soft as she reached out to his shoulder.
"Are you okay?" he asked, still looking away from her.
"You were the one pulverized."
"Please, Esme." When he looked up at her, she'd never felt so seen. His blue eyes glowed with power, and everything about him was perfect. The bruises on his cheeks were gone. He looked rested, flushed even. His cheekbones could cut leather, and his lips were the most perfect shade of rose.
He still wasn't as beautiful as when he had smiled at her in the coffee shop the first time.
"I'm fine," she finally managed.
"Please don't look at me like that." He stood and strode across the kitchen to a darker corner.
"It's part of the blood, part of the glamour. It attracts, and I feed. Do you understand?"
"The power makes you pretty?"
"It makes me attractive, so I can feed." He licked his lips of any red still left there. "And you're fey, right? I wasn't really sure."
Esme grew colder as she thought about the why of his perfection and that he was tasting the magic in her blood. She shivered. "But you're faster, stronger, too. I mean, I saw you fight that other vampire, and you were - "
"Some days, the other perks aren't worth it."
She tried to lighten the mood, get the conversation going again because the guilt that shaded his eyes struck a pain through her heart, and the last thing she needed right now was a sullen vampire on her hands. "Did you know that to her family and friends, Emily Dickinson was more known for her gardening than her writing, and she would send bouquets to her friends with poems attached?"
Valiance frowned, but his expression slowly turned into a smile. "You really do like that poetry class you're taking."
She smiled, relieved, and started packing up the first-aid kit. "I just relate to them. All the great ones looked in from the outside. We loners have to stick together." She thought she heard him chuckle from the other side of the kitchen. "What do we do now?"
Valiance looked down at his hands, his long fingers, and turned them over to inspect them. He rubbed his chin and tested it. "I should be able to track him down now. He's not a strategist, so he'll go where he feels safe."
"What will he do with my abuelita?"
"Nothing. He's still trying to get me to go with him."
"What about kidnapping my abuelita will convince you to go with him?"
"I have no idea. Just managed to piss me off really. You don't touch grandmothers. They are universally off-limits in the rules of engagement."
"Rules of engagement? You sound like one of those old generals in a Civil War movie."
"I was one of those generals in the Civil War."
"Oh." That meant he was old. Like really old. She let the fear wash over her again before she took a deep breath and just integrated it with what she knew about him. He opened doors, he drank blood, he fought to protect her, and he was older than her grandmother.
It was more interesting than her list of traits: inviso-girl.
Esme put away the first-aid kit and rolled down her sleeve. "So what do we need to do?"
"She's my grandmother. I'm going after her. Don't exactly know what I can do as the invisible girl, but I'm going with you."
Valiance stepped out of the darkness and into the light from the stove. Gold fell across his perfect features, and her breath caught in her throat as he continued toward her.
Even his voice was smoother now, deeper, softer. "I want you to be sure about this, Esme.
Once you've seen violence, seen evil, it changes you, and I don't want to be the reason you see the world a little darker."
Esme's skin flushed with his words and with his scent as it beat around them both. "What's your real name?"
"That thing called you Valiance, but it's not the name on your credit card. What's your real name?"
Valiance licked his lower lip.
She was honest. "Valiance sounds made up."
Esme looked up and tried to fight a smile. "What?"
"My Clade Source Emilio, the one who made me, renamed us into our new life. One word to describe us."
"And yours was Valiance?"
"Warrior prince, he used to call me."
Esme knew that no other name could suit him. "Like the fairy tale?"
"I'm not a fairy tale."
"I'm not saying you are," she said quickly. "I'm simply saying that it's like a fairy tale. Like everything else that's come true tonight. And if vampires and fairies can be real, then I think we have a good chance of getting my abuelita back."
Valiance watched her for a long moment, then went to get his jacket from the kitchen chair. His movements were fluid, smooth, not the jerky pain from before. "There are three places he might go. The apartment, the shop, or this warehouse off Industrial."
"Great. Let's go find him."
"We need more of a plan than just knocking on the door."
"What if I knock?" she asked. Her stomach tightened. Where would an insane plan like that come from? "What?"
Esme licked her lips. "What if I knock, he doesn't see me, and I sneak in? Distract him somehow?"
Valiance thought. It took him a long time, and Esme was suddenly nervous. What did she know about covert ops and rescue missions? It was probably a ridiculous idea that might lead straight to her death. Or worse, her grandmother's.
Slowly, a smile spread across his lips. "I don't think you're the same girl I asked out for coffee."
"I've been through a lot this evening. I'm not the same girl I was five minutes ago. I woke up this morning a normal human girl with low self-esteem, and now I'm some fairy who's invisible to bad guys. Who knows what I might be by dawn?"
He laughed. That one deep laugh as he looked at her. "We need to get going. Can you drive?"
"Is that why you walk everywhere? You can't drive a car."
"Over a hundred and fifty years old, and I still can't get the hang of it."
"But you have a cell phone?"
"I like texting."