Blood and Chocolate

Chapter 17

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The sun scorched her head, setting her skull on fire. Her tongue felt thick, and it was difficult to talk. "Was I?" She tried to sound nonchalant.

Rafe chuckled, but his eyes looked cold and eager.

"Got something to tell us, babe? Something we should know about? Huh?"

"You're full of shit, Rafe." She had to get away before the trembling inside broke loose. She couldn't let them see her panic. "There's nothing more to see here. I'm sure Esmé will fill me in on the details after her next shift." She turned to go.

"Don't think you're any better than us, Viv," Rafe called after her. "We saw what you did to Astrid."

She walked back the way she had come, in the knife-sharp, white summer heat, through a neighborhood as alien as the landscape of her dreams.

It wasn't me. It couldn't be me, she thought. But the blood she had scrubbed from under her nails proclaimed her a liar.

Chapter 20

20

When Vivian woke on Sunday, the air in her room was cool and sweet, and the sunlight that stole between the curtains was pale and innocent. She could hear the radio playing softly downstairs. It was all a dream, she thought, and took a long, deep breath. Aiden still loved her. There had been no blood on her face.

The moment she entered the kitchen Vivian knew she'd been lying to herself again. There were dark circles under Esmé's eyes and her hair was haphazardly gathered back in a single comb. She was still in her nightgown. "Feeling better, baby?" Esmé asked vaguely, and stared into the distance as she sipped her coffee.

"What's wrong?" Vivian asked, dreading the answer.

"They found a body in back of Tooley's Saturday morning."

No one had told Esmé that she'd been at the scene, Vivian realized. "So?" she said, her heart thumping.

Esmé set her mug down. "The cook who found the body described it to me," she answered. "Unless something's escaped from the zoo, the killer was one of us."

Vivian tried to look shocked. "Who would do that?"

"That's what we need to find out, because if this keeps on happening it'll be West Virginia all over again."

"But this is the city," Vivian said. "They'll think it's a psycho."

"Maybe the police and the newspapers will put it down to a psycho," Esmé answered. "But there's always someone who can put two and two together and come up with werewolf. And what if he fancies himself a hero?"

"Maybe it won't happen again." I won't let it happen, Vivian thought.

Esmé shook her head. "I'd like to think that, but it doesn't work that way."

Vivian fought down panic. "What do you mean?"

"Once someone goes over the edge and gets a taste, he can't seem to stop. It happened in New Orleans. That's why the pack moved to West Virginia years ago. And then it happened there, too. Your father said we could live in peace as long as we kept to ourselves. He was wrong. Now I wonder if we ever can have peace. The stories the humans tell say we're cursed. Maybe they're right."

Vivian's mouth was dry. She could hardly speak. "Even if the killer is seen, even if the killer is tracked and caught, they won't know there are others, will they?"

"I don't know, Vivian. I don't know where this will lead. We're not invulnerable. You should know that after what you've seen."

Vivian hung on desperately to the way Esmé said "he" over and over; the word put a thankful distance between her and the body. She couldn't stand the shame if her mother knew. What if she'd brought death to her people, all because she'd thought a human could love her?

The doorbell rang.

"Bloody Moon," Esmé said, swiping at her hair. "That's Gabriel."

Vivian's voice caught in her throat. "What's he doing here?"

"Don't worry," Esmé snapped. "Not to court you, Miss Priss. He wants to know what I found out last night."

Then why didn't he ask you on the phone? Vivian thought. How could she face Gabriel, who always seemed to see right through her?

"Go let him in while I tidy up," Esmé ordered.

When Vivian opened the door she was relieved to see Rudy pulling into the driveway. Gabriel turned to greet him before she was obliged to speak. Rudy slapped Gabriel on the back and ushered him in.

She was going to disappear upstairs but Gabriel called her back. "You should be in on this, too."

What did he mean by that? Did he know something?

Esmé came downstairs wearing a short sundress. Even  disaster  didn't  deter  her where   Gabriel was concerned.  Weren't you turning him over to me, Mom? Vivian thought.

They settled in the living room, where Esmé described in detail the condition of the corpse. Vivian didn't want to hear, but she couldn't do anything to shut the words out. I wouldn't do that, she thought. I couldn't. But again she remembered the blood on her sheets.

"The people at the bar think the killer was a rabid dog or a big cat someone was keeping as a pet that got loose," Esmé said.

Vivian spoke up although she'd not meant to. "Maybe that's what the cops think." She remembered that Gregory had mentioned a policeman mumbling about wild animals.

"Their forensic specialists are going to be pretty confused when they try to identify any hair, saliva, or blood they might find," said Rudy. "And the size of any bite wound won't make sense."

"Is that good or bad?" Vivian wondered out loud.

"That might depend on whether it's an isolated incident," Gabriel answered. "The night Astrid led a run by the river," he said, pinning Vivian with his piercing, icy eyes. "Did they bring someone down?"

"No." The intensity of his gaze frightened her, and the word came out quick and defensive.

"No one I've talked to so far has heard of any other mysterious bodies appearing, either," Gabriel said. "So if it doesn't happen again, maybe we'll be all right. Maybe after a while, when they can't identify the killer, the police will write the incident off as a weird one-timer they can spook the rookies on night shift with. Meanwhile, I'm going to order that no one go out in their fur if possible. The police are going to be searching for a large animal."

Esmé looked as if she wanted to protest but didn't dare.

"What if it does happen again?" Rudy asked.

Gabriel scowled. "Our job is to not let it."

"We need to know who to stop, first," Rudy said. "Got any ideas?"

"A few," Gabriel answered.

"Astrid?" Esmé suggested.

Gabriel shrugged. "Right now she's got an all-night alibi, not that I place much faith in Rafe's word."

Esmé rolled her eyes. "Still cradle robbing, huh?"

"What about Rafe's father?" Rudy asked. "Lucien hangs out at Tooley's drinking his meals. He's always getting into fights with that biker Skull and his buddies."

Vivian remembered Lucien watching the police, grinning.

"No," Gabriel said. "A fight would be loud. Someone would have heard it. This had to be quick. He wasn't expecting death and never got the chance to scream."

Vivian tried to picture the kill, afraid that she would suddenly see herself there, but desperate for the truth. Could she bring down a total stranger in that way, without anger, without cause?

"I could understand if this were some harsh winter hundreds of years ago, and we were starving," Gabriel said, his eyes glittering with anger. "But this wasn't a kill for food, it was for pleasure – a pleasure that could condemn us all. I'll be watching; others will watch for me; and when I'm sure who's done this I'll make him pay."

His words struck Vivian with the strength of a blow, and for a moment she couldn't catch her breath.

Gabriel rose to his feet and paced the room. Vivian watched him with cold dread. His arms were powerful; they could snap a neck with one smack. His legs were long, and even through his jeans she could sense the muscle and sinew that would allow him to run down the swiftest prey. When he put on his pelt he was a massive, dark, merciless animal.

"I understand the urge to kill as much as any of us," he said fiercely, and Vivian believed him. "But it must be controlled. There's no wilderness to hide in anymore. We can't run in packs in the mountains where travelers go unmissed for months, there are no black forests that stretch on for days, and it's been many centuries since we ruled small kingdoms in the dark center of Europe as if we were gods. Homo sapiens is everywhere, they outnumber us, and Homo lupus must live beside them. As much as we might crave to, we cannot kill them. To do so endangers us." He paused. "Sometimes I think we have outlived our time."

He yearns for the old days, Vivian realized with chill fascination. She wondered if part of his anger at the killer was because he could not allow himself the same luxury. She recognized deep within herself the same red spark of desire for a time when instinct wasn't bound and the young Moon found it easy to forgive. She shuddered and looked away.

"I'm sorry this has frightened you," Gabriel said, and she realized he was standing at her chair, studying her. His eyes were gentler than they had been moments ago.

"What makes you think I'm frightened?" she said.

"Vivian, I can smell it on you." He reached down and lightly stroked her cheek with fingers that could easily crush her throat. She didn't dare pull back. "I'm sorry you lost your home in West Virginia. I'll find you another, and soon, I promise. I'll make you safe."

She almost laughed.

Chapter 21

21

Vivian sprawled on the couch and allowed the tears to dry on her face. All she'd done for the last three days was haunt the living room, listening to the most miserable music she could find and tying herself up in knots. At night she locked herself in her room and comforted herself with chocolate. Her dreams were of the dark and of blood.

The CD ended, leaving her in harsh silence, allowing the same old thought to ring in her head. How can he not love me? She clutched the pentagram she still wore around her neck. No one had ever turned her away. Even Gabriel wanted her. And all she wanted was some pale, floppy-haired human with huge dark eyes who didn't want her.

She knew now that what she'd done was all a big mistake – a stupid, stupid mistake. She should have enjoyed him while she could and never let him know she was different. What if he did something foolish? What if something terrible happened because of her?

And worse, what had she done when she left his house?

"What's wrong?" Esmé said, coming home to find Vivian in exactly the same place she had been when Esmé had left. "That boy dump you?"

Vivian turned away. She couldn't deny it, but she didn't want to talk about it, either, because then she'd have to go through the effort of inventing a reason why. The truth, of course, was unrepeatable.

"The nerve of him," Esmé proclaimed, but she sounded relieved. "What an idiot! Couldn't he see how lucky he was? Men! They're jerks. No matter what the species. There weren't any phone calls for me?" she added anxiously.

Vivian shook her head.

"Oh, baby, I know you feel rotten," Esmé said. "But he's not worth the pain. It couldn't have lasted, you know that. You can do better. Much better. You could have Gabriel  –  someone you can be yourself with. You've had your taste of rebellion, now it's time to get real."

Vivian didn't have the energy to argue. She'd thought she could be herself with Aiden, and now he was afraid of her.

"I'll make some dinner," Esmé said. "I bet you haven't been eating. How about a beer?" She left for the kitchen.

Esmé never offered her beer. It was a bribe.

Beer made Vivian think of Tooley's. The death behind that bar had been in the news all weekend. Aiden must think it was Vivian who was responsible.

What if he told someone about her? She needed to talk to him and convince him the murder was nothing to do with her. She laughed bitterly. And maybe she could convince herself as well. But she kept on putting off the phone call; she couldn't bear the thought of what he might say.

In the middle of dinner the doorbell rang. Vivian inhaled sharply and hope fluttered in her chest, but before she found the sense to rise, Esmé bounded to her feet and went to answer the door. Vivian sat, her hands clenched around her knife and fork, unable to eat. When Esmé came back with Tomas, the newcomer from the Ordeal, Vivian felt as if she'd been kicked in the gut.

"I'm going out, baby," Esmé said. "You gonna be all right?"

"Sure," Vivian replied wanly.

After Esmé left she went to bed early. Sleep was her only escape.

By the next night she could stand it no longer; she waited until Esmé had left for Tooley's, then dialed Aiden's number. She hoped she could catch him before he went to work.

He answered.

"Aiden?"

He hung up.

She waited, a cold lump in her stomach. Maybe he'd regret hanging up on her and call her back. The phone didn't ring. Perhaps he was waiting for her to phone him so it wouldn't look as if he was too eager to give in. Perhaps he needed her to insist. She called again.

He answered.

"Aiden, please …"

He hung up again.

She called back, stabbing the buttons, barely seeing the numbers through the prickling blur in front of her eyes. A recorded message came on. She slammed the phone down and snatched up a dish and flung it against the wall. Paper clips went flying. The dish crashed to the floor and skidded down the hall. Hot tears stung her raw cheeks.


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