Blood Price (Vicki Nelson #1)

Chapter 6

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Dumping the contents of the huge black purse out on his coffee table, Henry dropped to his knees and rummaged through the mess for something that looked like ID; a wallet, a card case, anything. Nothing.

Nothing? Impossible. These days no one traveled without identification, not even those who traveled only the night. He found both card case and wallet at last in the bag itself, tucked in a side pocket, accessible without having to delve through the main compartment.

"Victoria Nelson, Private Investigator." He let out a breath he hadn't been aware of holding as he went through the rest of her papers. A private investigator, thank God. He'd been afraid he'd run off with some sort of un-uniformed police officer, thereby instigating a citywide manhunt. He'd observed, over the centuries that the police, whatever else their failings, took care of their own. A private investigator, though, was a private citizen and as such had probably not yet been missed.

Rising to his feet, Henry looked down at the unconscious woman on his couch. Although he found it distasteful, he would kill to protect himself. Hopefully, this time, it wouldn't be necessary. He shrugged out of his coat and began to compose what he'd say to her when she woke up …

… if she woke up.

Her heartbeat filled the apartment, its rhythm almost twice as fast as his own. It called to him to feed, but he held the hunger in check.

He glanced at his watch. 2:13. Sunrise in four hours. If she was concussed…

He hadn't wanted to hit her. Knocking someone out with a single blow wasn't easy no matter what movies and television suggested. Sporadic practice over the years had taught him where and how to strike, but no expertise could change the fact that a head blow slammed the brain back and forth within the skull, mashing soft tissue against bone.

And it's quite an attractive skull, too, he noted, taking a closer look. Although there's a definite hint of obstinacy about the width of that jaw. He checked her ID again. Thirty-one. Her short dark blond/light brown hair-he frowned, unable to make up his mind-had no touch of gray but tiny laugh wrinkles had begun to form around her eyes. When he'd been "alive," thirty-one had been middle-aged. Now, it seemed to be barely adult.

She wore no makeup, he approved of that, and the delicate, pale gold down on her cheeks made her skin look like velvet.

And feel like velvet…. He drew back his hand and clamped the hunger tighter. It was want, not need, and he would not let it control him.

The tiny muscles of her face shifted and her eyes opened. Like her hair, they were neither one color nor the other; neither blue, nor gray, nor green. The tip of her tongue moistened dry lips and she met his gaze without fear.

"Son of a bitch," she said clearly, and winced.

Vicki came up out of darkness scrambling desperately for information, but the sound of blood pounding in her ears kept drowning out coherent thought. She fought against it. Pain-and, oh God, it hurt-meant danger. She had to know where she was, how she'd gotten there…

A man's face swam into view inches above her own, a man's face she recognized.

"Son of a bitch," she said, and winced. The words, the movement of her jaw, sent fresh shards of pain up into her head. She did what she could to ignore them. The last time she'd seen that face, and the body it was no doubt attached to, it had risen from slaughter and attacked her. Although she had no memory of it, he had obviously knocked her out and brought her here; wherever here was.

She tried to look past him, to get some idea of her surroundings, but the room, if room it was, was too dark. Did she know anything she could use?

I'm fully clothed, lying on a couch in the company of an insane killer and, although the rest of my body appears to be functional, my head feels like it's taken too many shots on goal. There seemed to be only one thing she could do. She threw herself off the couch.

Unfortunately, gravity proved stronger than the idea.

When she hit the floor, a brilliant fireworks display left afterimages of green and gold and red on the inside of her eyelids and then she sank into darkness again.

The second time Vicki regained consciousness, it happened more quickly than the first and the line between one state and the next was more clearly delineated. This time, she kept her eyes closed.

"That was a stupid thing to do," a man's voice observed from somewhere above her right shoulder. She didn't argue. "It's entirely possible you won't believe this," he continued, "but I don't want to hurt you."

To her surprise, she did believe him. Maybe it was the tone, or the timbre, or the ice pack he held against her jaw. Maybe her brains had been scrambled, which seemed more likely.

"I never did want to hurt you. I'm sorry about," she felt the ice pack shift slightly, "this, but I didn't think I had time to explain."

Vicki cracked open first one eye and then the other. "Explain what?" The pale oval of his face appeared to float in the dim light. She wished she could see him better.

"I didn't kill that man. I arrived at the body just before you did."

"Yeah?" She realized suddenly what was wrong. "Where are my glasses?"

"Your … oh." The oval swiveled away and returned a moment later.

She waited, eyes closed, as he pushed the ends in over her ears, approximately where they belonged, and settled the bridge gently against her nose. When she opened her eyes again, things hadn't changed significantly. "Could you turn on a light?"

Vicki could sense his bemusement as he rose. So she wasn't reacting as he expected; if he wanted terror, she'd have to try for it later, at present her head hurt too much to make the effort. And besides, if it turned out he was the killer, there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it now.

The light, although it wasn't strong enough to banish shadows from far corners, helped. From where she lay, she could see an expensive stereo system and the edge of a bookshelf with glass doors. Slowly, balancing her head like an egg in a spoon, she sat up.

"Are you sure that's wise?"

She wasn't. But she wasn't going to admit it. "I'm fine," she snapped, closing her throat on a wave of nausea and successfully fighting it back down. Peeling off her gloves, she studied her captor from under beetled brows.

He didn't look like an insane killer. Okay, Vicki, you're so smart, in twenty-five words or less, describe an insane killer. She couldn't tell what color his eyes were, though an educated guess said light hazel, but his brows and lashes were redder than his strawberry-blond hair-coloring that freckled in the sun. His face was broad, without being in the least bit fat-the kind of face that got labeled honest-and his mouth held just the smallest hint of a cupid's bow. Definitely attractive. She measured his height against the stereo and added, But short.

"So," she said, settling carefully back against the sofa cushions, keeping her tone conversational. Talk to them, said the rule book. Get their trust. "Why should I believe you had nothing to do with ripping that man's throat out?"

Henry stepped forward and handed her the ice pack. "You were right behind me," he told her quietly. "You must have seen… "

Seen what? She'd seen the body, him bending over it, the lights of the car, the ruined garage door and the darkness beyond it. Darkness swirled against darkness and was gone. No. She shook her head, the physical pain the action caused a secondary consideration. Darkness swirled against darkness and was gone. She couldn't catch her breath and began to struggle against the strong hands that held her. "No… "

"Yes."

Gradually, under the strength of his gaze and his touch, she calmed. "What …" She wet dry lips and tried again. "What was it?"

"A demon."

"Demons don't … " Darkness swirled against darkness and was gone. " Oh."

Straightening, Henry almost smiled. He could practically see her turning the facts over, accepting the evidence, and adjusting her worldview to fit. She didn't look happy about it, but she did it anyway. He was impressed.

Vicki took a deep breath. Okay, a demon. It certainly answered all the questions and made a kind of horrific sense. "Why were you there?" She was pleased to note her voice sounded almost normal.

What should he tell her? Although she wasn't exactly receptive-not that he blamed her-she wasn't openly hostile either. The truth, then, or as much of it as seemed safe.

"I was hunting the demon. I was just a little too late. I kept it from feeding but couldn't stop the kill." He frowned slightly. "Why were you there, Ms. Nelson?"

So he's found my ID. For the first time, Vicki became aware that the contents of her bag were spread out over the smoked glass top of the coffee table. The garlic, the package of mustard seed, the Bible, the crucifix-all spread out in plain, ridiculous sight. She snorted gently. "I was hunting a vampire."

To her surprise, after one incredulous glance down at the contents of her bag, as if he, too, were seeing them for the first time, her captor, the demon-hunter, threw back his head and roared with laughter.

Henry, Duke of Richmond, had felt her speculative gaze on him all through the meal. Whenever he glanced her

way she was staring at him, but every time he tried to actually catch her eye she'd drop her lids and look demurely at her plate, the long sweep of her lashes-lashes so black he was sure they must be tinted-lying against the curve of an alabaster cheek. He thought she smiled once, but that could have been a trick of the light.

While Sir Thomas, seated to his left, prated on about sheep, he rolled a grape between his fingers and tried to figure out just who the lady could be. She had to be a member of the local nobility invited to Sheriffhuton for the day for surely he would have remembered her if she'd been with the household on the journey north from London. The little bit he could see of her gown was black. Was she a widow, then, or did she wear the color only because she knew how beautifully it became her and was there a husband lurking in the background?

For the first time in weeks he was glad that Surrey had decided against journeying to Sheriffhuton with him. Women never look at me when he's around.

There, she smiled. I'm sure of it. He wiped the crushed grape off against his hose and reached for his wine, emptying the delicate Venetian glass in one frantic swallow. He couldn't stand it any longer.

"Sir Thomas."

"… of course, the best ram for the purpose is…. Yes milord?"

Henry leaned closer to the elderly knight; he didn't want the rest of the table to hear, he got enough teasing as it was. He'd barely managed to live down the ditty his father's fool, Will Sommers, had written about him; Though he may have his sire's face, He cannot keep the royal pace.

"Sir Thomas, who is that woman seated next to Sir Giles and his lady?"

"Woman, milord?"

"Yes, woman." It took an effort, but the young duke kept his voice level and calm. Sir Thomas was a valued retainer, had been a faithful chamberlain at Sheriffhuton all the long years he'd been away in France, and by age alone deserved his respect. "The one in black. Next to Sir Giles and his lady."

"Ah, next to Sir Giles… " Sir Thomas leaned forward and squinted. The lady in question looked demurely at her plate. "Why that's old Beswick's relic."

"Beswick?" This beautiful creature had been married to Beswick? Why the baron was Sir Thomas' age at least. Henry couldn't believe it. "But he's old!"

"He's dead, milord." Sir Thomas snickered. "But he met his maker a happy man, I fancy. She's a sweet thing though, and seemed to take the old goat's death hard. Saw little enough of her when he was alive and less now."

"How long were they married?"

"Month… no, two."

"And she lives at Beswick Castle?"

Sir Thomas snorted. "If you can call that moldering ruin a castle, yes, milord."

"If you can call this heap a castle," Henry waved a hand at the great hall, relatively unchanged since the twelfth century, "you can call anything a castle."

"This is a royal residence," Sir Thomas protested huffily.

She did smile. I saw her clearly. She smiled. At me. "And where she dwells, it would be heaven come to earth," Henry murmured dreamily, forgetting for a moment where he was, losing himself in that smile.

Sir Thomas gave a great guffaw of laughter, choked on a mouthful of ale, and had to be vigorously pounded on the back, attracting the attention Henry had been hoping to avoid.

"You should be more careful of excitement, good sir knight," chided the Archbishop of York as those who had hurried to the rescue moved back to their places.

"Not me, your Grace," Sir Thomas told the prelate piously, "it's our good duke who finds his codpiece tied too tightly."

As he felt his face redden, Henry cursed the Tudor coloring that showed every blush as though he were a maiden and not a man full sixteen summers old.

Later, when the musicians began to play up in the old minstrel's gallery, Henry walked among his guests, trying, he thought successfully, to hide his ultimate goal. They'd be watching him now and one or two, he knew, reported back to his father.

As he at last crossed the hall toward her, she gathered her black and silver skirts in one hand and headed for the open doors and the castle courtyard. Henry followed. She was waiting for him, as he knew she would be, on the second of the broad steps; far enough away from the door to be in darkness, close enough for him to find her.

"It, uh, it is hot in the hall, isn't it?"

She turned toward him, her face and bosom glimmering pale white. "It is August."

"Yes, uh, it is." They weren't, in fact, the only couple to seek a respite from the stifling, smoky hall but the others discreetly moved away when they saw the duke appear. "You, uh, aren't afraid of night chills?"

"No. I love the night."

Her voice reminded him of the sea, and he suspected it could sweep him away as easily. Inside, under torchlight, he had thought her not much older than he, but outside, under starlight, she seemed ageless. He wet lips gone suddenly dry and searched for something more to say.

"You weren't at the hunt today."

"No."

"You don't hunt, then?"

In spite of the darkness, her eyes caught and held his. "Oh, but I do."

Henry swallowed hard and shifted uncomfortably-his codpiece was now, indeed, too tight. If three years at the French Court had taught him nothing else, he had learned to recognize an invitation from a beautiful woman. Hoping his palm had not gone damp, he held out a hand.

"Have you a name?" he asked as she laid cool fingers across his.

"Christina."

"Vampire?" Henry stared at Christina in astonishment. "I was making a joke."

"Were you?" She turned from the window, arms crossed under her breasts. "It is what Norfolk calls me."

"Norfolk is a jealous fool." Henry suspected his father had sent the Duke of Norfolk to keep an eye on him, to discover why he continued at Sheriffhuton, a residence he made no pretense of liking, into September. He also suspected that the only reason he hadn't been ordered back to Court was because his father secretly approved of his dalliance with an older, and very beautiful, widow. He wasn't fool enough to think his father didn't know.

"Is he? Perhaps." Ebony brows drew down into a frown. "Have you never wondered, Henry, why you only see me at night?"

"As long as I get to see you… "

"Have you never wondered why you have never seen me eat or drink?"

"You've been to banquets," Henry protested, confused. He had only been making a joke.

"But you have never seen me eat or drink," Christina insisted. "And, this very night, you yourself commented on my strength."

"Why are you telling me this?" His life had come to revolve around the hours they spent in his great canopied bed. She was perfect. He wouldn't see her otherwise.

"Norfolk has named me vampire." Her eyes caught his and held them although he tried to break away. "The next step will be to prove it. He will say to you, if I am not as he names me, then surely I will come to you by day." She paused and her voice grew cold. "And you, wondering, will order it. And either I will flee and never see you again, or I will die."

"I, I would never order you… "

"You would, if you did not believe me vampire. This is why I tell you."

Henry's mouth opened and closed in stunned silence, and when he finally spoke his voice came out a shrill caricature of his normal tone. "But I've seen you receive the sacrament."

"I'm as good a Catholic as you are, Henry. Better perhaps, as you have more to lose while the king's favor wanes toward the Mass." She smiled, a little sadly. "I am not a creature of the devil. I was born of two mortal parents."

He had never seen her in daylight. He had never seen her eat or drink. She possessed strength far beyond her sex or size. But she received the sacraments and she filled his nights with glory. "Born," his voice had almost returned to normal, "when?"

"Thirteen twenty-seven, the year that Edward the Third came to the throne. Your grandfather's grandfather had not yet been conceived."

It wasn't hard to think of her as an ageless beauty, forever unchanging down through the centuries. From there, it wasn't hard to believe the rest.

Vampire.

She saw the acceptance on his face and spread her arms wide. The loose robe she wore dropped to the floor and she allowed him to look away now that she was sure he would not. "Will you banish me?" she asked softly, casting the net of her beauty over him. "Will you give me to the pyre? Or will you have the strength to love me and be loved in return?"

The firelight threw her shadow against the tapestries on the wall. Angel or demon, Henry didn't really care. He was hers and if that damned his soul to hell so be it.

He opened his arms in answer.

As she buried herself in his embrace, he pressed his lips against the scented ebony of her hair and whispered, "Why have you never fed from me?"

"But I have. I do."

He frowned. "I've never borne your mark upon my throat… "

"Throats are too public." He could feel her smile against his chest. "And your throat is not the only part of your body I have put my mouth against."

Even as he reddened, she slid down to prove her point and somehow, knowing that she fed as she pleasured him lifted him to such heights that he thought he could not bear the ecstasy. Hell would be worth it.

"This was your idea, wasn't it?" The Duke of Norfolk inclined his head. His eyes were sunk in shadow and the deep lines that bracketed his mouth had not been there a month before. "Yes," he admitted heavily, "but it is for your own good, Henry."

"My own good?" Henry gave a bitter bark of laughter. "For your good more like. It does move you that much closer to the throne." He saw the older man wince and was glad. He didn't really believe Norfolk used him to get closer to the throne; the duke had proven his friendship any number of times, but Henry had just come from a painful interview with his father and he wanted to lash out.

"You will wed Mary, Norfolk's daughter, before the end of this month. You will spend Christmas with the Court and then you will retire to your estates at Richmond and you will never go to Sheriffhuton again.

Norfolk sighed and laid a weary hand on Henry's shoulder. His own interview with the young duke's father had been anything but pleasant. "What he does not know, he suspects; I offered this as your only way out."

Henry shook the hand free. Never to go to Sheriffhuton again. Never to see her again. Never to hear her laugh or feel her touch. Never to touch her in return. He clenched his teeth on the howl that threatened to break free. "You don't understand," he growled out instead, and strode off down the corridor before the tears he could feel building shamed him.

"Christina!" He ran forward, threw himself to his knees, and buried his head in her lap. For a time, the world became the touch of her hands and the sound of her voice. When at last he had the strength to pull away, it was only far enough to see her face. "What are you doing here? Father and Norfolk, at least, suspect and if they find you… "

She stroked cool fingers across his brow. "They won't find me. I have a safe haven for the daylight hours and we will not have so many nights together that they will discover us." She paused and cupped his cheek in her palm. "I am going away, but I could not leave without saying good-bye."

"Going away?" Henry repeated stupidly.

She nodded, her unbound hair falling forward. "It has become too dangerous for me in England."

"But where… "

"France, I think. For now."

He caught up her hands in both of his. "Take me with you. I cannot live without you."

A wry smile curved her lips. "You cannot exactly live with me," she reminded him.

"Live, die, unlive, undie." He leapt to his feet and threw his arms wide. "I don't care as long as I'm with you."

"You're very young."

The words lacked conviction and he could see the indecision on her face. She wanted him! Oh, blessed Jesus and all the saints, she wanted him. "How old were you when you died?" he demanded.

She bit her lip. "Seventeen."

"I shall be seventeen in two months." He threw himself back on his knees. "Can't you wait that long?"

"Two months… "

"Just two." He couldn't keep the triumph from his voice. "Then you will have me for all eternity."

She laughed then and pulled him to her breast. "You think highly of yourself, milord."

"I do," he agreed, his voice a little muffled.

"If your lady wife should come in… "

"Mary? She has rooms of her own and is happy to stay in them." Still on his knees, he pulled her to the bed.

Two months later, she began to feed nightly, taking as much as he could bear each night.

Norfolk posted guards on his room. Henry ordered them away, for the first time in his life his father's son.

Two months after that, while revered doctors scratched their heads and wondered at his failing, while Norfolk tore the neighborhood apart in a fruitless search, she pulled him to her breast again and he suckled the blood of eternal life.

"Let me get this straight; you're the bastard son of Henry VIII?"

"That's right." Henry Fitzroy, once Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Earl of Nottingham, and Knight of the Garter, leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the window and looked down at the lights of Toronto. It had been a long time since he'd told the story; he'd forgotten how drained it left him.

Vicki looked down at the book of the Tudor age, spread open on her lap, and tapped a paragraph. "It says here you died at seventeen."

Shaking off his lethargy, Henry turned to face her. "Yes, well, I got better."

"You don't look seventeen." She frowned. "Mid-twenties I'd say, no younger."

He shrugged. "We age, but we age slowly."

"It doesn't say so here, but wasn't there some mystery about your funeral?" One corner of her mouth quirked up at his surprised expression, the best she could manage considering the condition of her jaw. "I have a BA in History."

"Isn't that an unusual degree for a person in your line of work?"

He meant for a private investigator, she realized, but it had been just as unusual for a cop. If she had a nickel for every time someone, usually a superior officer, had dragged out that hoary old chestnut, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, she'd be a rich woman. "It hasn't slowed me down," she told him a little pointedly. "The funeral?"

"Yes, well, it wasn't what I'd been expecting, that's for certain." He clasped his hands together to still their shaking and although he fought it, the memories caught him up again…

Waking-confused and disoriented. Slowly, he became aware of his heartbeat and allowed it to pull him back to full consciousness. He'd never been in a darkness so complete and, in spite of Christina's remembered reassurance, he began to panic. The panic grew when he tried to push the lid off the crypt and found he couldn't move. Not stone above him, but rough wood embracing him so closely that the rise and fall of his chest brushed against the boards. All around, the smell of earth.

Not a noble's tomb but a common grave.

Screaming until his throat was raw, he twisted and thrashed through the little movement he had but, although the wood creaked once or twice, the weight of earth was absolute.

He stopped then, for he realized that to destroy the coffin and lie covered only in the earth would be infinitely worse. That was when the hunger began. He had no idea how long he lay, paralyzed with terror, frenzied need clawing at his gut, but his sanity hung by a thread when he heard a shovel blade bite into the dirt above him.

"You know," he said, scrubbing a hand across his face, terror still echoing faintly behind the words, "there's a very good reason most vampires come from the nobility; a crypt is a great deal easier to get out of. I'd been buried good and deep and it took Christina three days to find me and dig me free." Sometimes, even four centuries later, when he woke in the evening, he was back there. Alone. In the dark. Facing eternity.

"So your father," Vicki paused, she had trouble with this next bit, "Henry VIII, really did suspect?"

Henry laughed, but the sound had little humor. "Oh, he more than suspected. I discovered later that he'd ordered a stake driven through my heart, my mouth stuffed with garlic and the lips sewn shut, then my head removed and buried separately. Thank God, Norfolk remained a true friend until the end."

"You saw him again?"

"A couple of times. He understood better than I thought."

"What happened to Christina?"

"She guided me through the frenzy that follows the change. She guarded me during the year I slept as my body adapted to its new condition. She taught me how to feed without killing. And then she left."

"She left?" Vicki's brows flew almost to her hairline. "After all that, she left?"

Henry turned again to look out at the lights of the city. She could be out there, he'd never know. Nor, he had to admit a little sadly, would he care. "When the parent/child link is over, we prefer to hunt alone. Our closest bonds are formed when we feed and we can't feed from each other." He rested his hand against the glass. "The emotional bond, the love if you will, that causes us to offer our blood to a mortal never survives the change."

"But you could still… "

"Yes, but it isn't the same." He shook himself free of the melancholy and faced her again. "That also is tied too closely to feeding."

"Oh. Then the stories about vampiric… uh… "

"Prowess?" Henry supplied with a grin. "Are true. But then, we get a lot of time to practice."

Vicki felt the heat rise in her face and she had to drop her gaze. Four hundred and fifty years of practice…. Involuntarily, she clenched her teeth and the sudden sharp pain from her jaw came as a welcome distraction. Not tonight, I've got a headache. She closed the book on her lap and carefully set it aside, glancing down at her watch as she did. 4:43. I've heard some interesting confessions in my time, but this one…. The option, of course, existed to disbelieve everything she'd heard. To get out of the apartment and away from a certified nut case and call for the people in the white coats to lock Mr. Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, etcetera, etcetera, away where he belonged. Except, she did believe and trying to convince herself she didn't would be trying to convince herself of a lie.

"Why did you tell me all this?" she asked at last.

Henry shrugged. "The way I saw it, I had two options. I could trust you or I could kill you. If I trusted you first," he spread his hands, "and discovered it was a bad idea, I could still kill you before you could do me any harm."

"Now wait a minute," Vicki bridled. "I'm not that easy to kill!" He was standing at the window; ten, maybe twelve feet away. Less than a heartbeat later he sat beside her on the couch, both hands resting lightly around her neck. She couldn't have stopped him. She hadn't even seen him move. "Oh," she said.

He removed his hands and continued as though she hadn't interrupted. "But if I killed you first, well, that would be that. And I think we can help each other."

"How?" Up close, he became a little overwhelming and she had to fight the desire to move away. Or move closer. Four hundred and fifty years develops a forceful personality, she observed, shifting her gaze to the white velvet upholstery.

"The demon hunts at might. So do I. But the one who calls the demon is mortal and must live his life during the day."

"You're suggesting that we team up?"

"Until the demon is captured, yes."

She brushed the nap of the velvet back and forth, back and forth, and then looked up at him again. Light hazel eyes. I was right. "Why do you care?"

"About catching the demon?" Henry stood and paced back to the window. "I don't, not specifically, but the papers are blaming the killings on vampires and are putting us all in danger." Down below, the headlights of a lone car sped up Jarvis Street. "Until just recently, even I thought it was one of my kind; a child, abandoned, untrained."

"What, purposefully left to fend for itself?"

"Perhaps. Perhaps the parent had no idea there was a child at all."

"I thought you said there had to be an emotional bond."

"No, I said the emotional bond did not survive past the change, I didn't say that it had to exist. My kind can create children for as many bad or accidental reasons as yours. Technically, all that is needed is for the vampire to feed too deeply and for the mortal to feed in return."

"For the mortal to feed in return? How the hell would that happen?"

He turned to face her. "I take it," he said dryly, "you don't bite."

Vicki felt her cheeks burn and hurriedly changed the subject. "You were looking for the child?"

"Tonight?" Henry shook his head. "No, tonight I knew and I was looking for the demon." He walked to the couch and leaned over it toward her, hands braced against the pale wood inlaid in the arm. "When the killings stop, the stories will stop and vampires will retreat back into myth and race memory. We prefer it that way. In fact, we work very hard to keep it that way. If the papers convince their readers we are real, they can find us-our habits are too well known." He caught her gaze, held it, and grimly bared his teeth. "I, for one, don't intend to end up staked for something I didn't do."

When he released her-and she refused to kid herself, she couldn't have looked away if he hadn't allowed it- Vicki swept the stuff on the coffee table back into her bag and stood. Although she faced him, she focused on the area just over his right shoulder.

"I have to think about this." She kept her voice as neutral as she could. "What you've told me… well, I have to think about it." Lame, but the best she could do.

Henry nodded. "I understand."

"Then I can go?"

"You can go."

She nodded in turn and reaching into her pocket for her gloves, made her way to the door.

"Victoria."

Vicki had never believed that names held power nor that speaking names transferred that power to another, but she couldn't stop herself from pivoting slowly around to face him again.

"Thank you for not suggesting I tell all this to the police."

She snorted. "The police? Do I look stupid?"

He smiled. "No, you don't."

He's had a long time to perfect that smile, she reminded herself, trying to calm the sudden erratic beating of her heart. She fumbled behind her for the door, got it open, and made her escape. Despite proximity, she took a moment on the other side to catch her breath. Vampires. Demons. They don't teach you about this sort of shit at the police academy…

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