A girls guide to vampire.., p.1
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       A Girls Guide to Vampires, p.1

         Part #1 of Dark Ones series by Katie MacAlister
 
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A Girls Guide to Vampires
Chapter One

 

  "Gin makes me brilliant. "

  "No, Joy, you just think gin makes you brilliant. Gin makes you sotted. Chocolate makes you brilliant. "

  I looked at the reflection in the French door of the dark-haired woman sitting next to me in a circle of lit candles, and shook my head with a solemnity that I hoped belied the aforementioned sottedness. My reflection shook her head as if to warn me. I decided to heed the warning, and carefully set down my glass. "Chocolate has many powers, most notably in the area of adding heft to my hips, but gin, in fact, makes me brilliant. "

  Our companion drifted around the room lighting more scented candles, pausing to raise her eyebrows at the sight of our mutual friend snorting with laughter into her vodka martini.

  "No more libations of a vodka nature for you, Roxanne," Miranda warned before lighting one last candle and dropping down onto a taupe and green leaf print rug across from us. "The Goddess doesn't grant her blessings upon those who are soused. Joy, what is it you are being brilliant about?"

  I plucked the lime wedge from my gin and tonic and sucked the gin-soaked meaty pulp from it, mentally bemoaning my Amazonian stature, as Miranda, with the grace of a gazelle who had been taking ballet lessons since birth, pulled her long, slender legs into a lotus position. I gave a moment over to damning the Viking genes that left me towering over most women, and many men. "This plan of Roxy's to find us a pair of dishy guys. I've decided, after much due consideration and many, many brilliant gin-inspired thoughts, to allow you to make my case before your Goddess. If she'd like to point me in the direction of a guy who is the perfect embodiment of everything manly and good, well then, it behooves me to listen. There, in a nutshell, is my brilliance. "

  Roxanne snorted into her drink again. "In other words, you've broken up with Bradley again. "

  I shrugged. My on-again, off-again boyfriend had lots of good points, qualities like faithfulness, devotion, patience, and a sunny, optimistic nature. "The problem with Bradley is that he's just not the one - the man who makes my heart race just by being near him, the man who makes me believe in wonderful things like falling in love at first sight. He's just. . . Bradley. "

  "That's just my point, Joy! You're so stuck in your ways that you can't even be bothered to look for a man you deserve, not old stick-in-the-mud Bradley Barlow, who wouldn't know excitement if it bit him dead center on the ass. "

  I couldn't help but bristle at the judgmental tone in her voice. I've known Roxy since we were in kindergarten, but that didn't mean she could get away with every snide comment she felt like launching in my direction. "You should speak, Miss Still a Virgin at Twenty-four. What you know about relationships with men could be written on the head of a vibrator. "

  She spewed martini out her nose.

  "Can't take you anywhere, can I?" I said, mopping up the spewed vodka. It had sprayed out all over her jeans and the lovely hardwood floor we were sitting on.

  "Geez Louise," she gasped, hacking and wheezing and blowing her nose. She took the cloth Miranda silently offered, mopping up her T-shirt before glaring at me with red-rimmed eyes. "Don't do that to me again!"

  "Sorry. It was the gin talking. Told you it makes me brilliant. "

  "So that's what you call it?"

  I stuck my tongue out at her.

  She turned her glare up a notch. "As for what I was saying when you so rudely brought up the subject of sexual aids - which, just for the record, I don't have, need, or ever expect to use, unlike some people I could mention. Anyway, I'd like to point out that with regards to men, I have the good taste to save myself for someone really meaningful. " She paused to blow her nose again. "I hope you notice the contrast between my actions - responsible yet hopeful realism regarding the man destined to be my future husband - and yourself, who has settled for a guy who can't give you anything more than a good fu - "

  "Ladies!" Miranda shrieked, cutting Roxy off cold. We both looked at her. She glared back at us. "I refuse to help you if you argue with each other. Honestly, how you two can call each other best friend is beyond me, but regardless of that, I won't have dissension in my house. The Goddess is not in charity with feelings of pettiness and ill will, Roxanne, and since you asked for the Goddess's help, you should be prepared to approach her in a penitential manner with a pure heart and unblemished soul. "

  I directed a smug smile at Roxy. She ignored me and fought to wipe the stubborn-as-a-mule look from her face. "Sorry," she mumbled, clasping her hands and staring down at them in a close approximation of demureness and penitence.

  "The same goes for you, as well," Miranda frowned at me. I widened my eyes and tried to look innocent of all wrongdoing, but it was hard to even think of muddying the truth when Miranda's eerie light gray eyes settled on me.

  "I didn't come here desperate for you to find me a man," I pointed out with as much dignity as possible. "Roxy begged me to come. "

  "I did not!" she snapped, her expression no longer demure. "I simply said that if Bradley was the best you could do for yourself, it wouldn't hurt to have the Goddess look around and see if she couldn't find someone a little better. That's hardly begging. Lord above, I'd think you'd be grateful for this chance to find what most people don't ever have a chance to find - their true soul mate. "

  I opened my mouth to dispute her statement, but caught sight of an extremely fat black cat with white whiskers and one white paw who was uncurling himself from an adjacent cushioned wicker chair. I held out a lime-scented hand, but the cat, with disdain that would do a king proud, gave me the equivalent to a cat sneer and waddled over to plop himself down before Miranda.

  "Whatever," I shrugged off my friend's comments, figuring the evening would go faster if I kept my skepticism to myself. I didn't really believe in all of the hocus-pocus that Miranda claimed to tap into with her spells and invocations to the Goddess, but then, there were a few things that had happened in her presence that I couldn't easily explain. Roxy swallowed it all, though, and despite what she said, she had asked me to sit with her for support. I figured it was the least I could do for someone who'd been with me through good times and bad. "Miranda, don't you think it's time to put Davide on a diet? He's almost as big as the Rottweiler that lives down the street from me. "

  "We are ready to begin. " Miranda glared me into silence, sent Roxy a warning look to keep her quiet as well, then closed her eyes and began to breathe deeply, humming a soft little tuneless hum. A gentle breeze swept in through a nearby window, pushing before it the familiar scent of the herbs Miranda used in her invocation candles. A bit guiltily, I remembered that I was supposed to be making my mind open and responsive, and spent a few moments doing a spot of breathing and humming myself, until I got tired of squashing all the little thoughts that kept popping into my head when it was supposed to be an unpainted canvas just waiting for fate's bold brushstrokes. Or whatever it was that Roxy had read from Miranda's instructions. I couldn't quite remember, that part of the conversation being in the pre-gin-and-tonic part of the evening. Instead I looked back at Davide, now engaged in doing a hearty round of personal hygiene on his rear legs.

  "It really is funny that you should have a black cat. "

  Roxy, who had been emulating Miranda, cracked an eye open and rolled it toward Davide. "Why is it funny she has a black cat?"

  Miranda continued a soft hum of indistinguishable words, swaying slightly from side to side as her voice rose and fell fluidly in the evening air. I raised my voice a little so I could be heard over the Call to the Goddess. "Because she's a witch, idiot. I wouldn't think most witches would want a black cat, but you have to admit Davide fits the role of familiar perfectly. "

  The
hum became a bit more pronounced, although Miranda kept her eyes firmly closed.

  Roxy sent a worried little glance to her, then leaned close to me and whispered, "I don't think they like the word 'witch' anymore, Joy. Wiccan is what you're supposed to call them now. "

  I whispered back to her, "Why? What's wrong with 'witch'?"

  She sat up straight again and closed her eyes. "Not PC," she hissed out of the side of her mouth. "Besides, Wiccans are more in touch with nature. Can't you feel the power in her Summoning?"

  I looked at the Circle of Knowledge Miranda had laid out around the two of us, and felt a little shiver of excitement ripple down my back. I may be a skeptic, but I wasn't a boob. There was something in the air, an electric charge that had the fine hairs on my arms waving around. I reminded myself that it wasn't everyone Miranda practiced her magic for, and tried to look grateful.

  "It's a bit nerve-wracking, this," I muttered a few minutes later to Roxy in a soft voice so as not to disturb Miranda as she was Communing with the Goddess. I fished out a piece of ice from my drink and popped it in my mouth. "Not that I think it'll work with me, but still, it is a bit nervy just sitting here waiting for a spirit on high to flash me the curriculum vitae of the love of my life. "

  "It's time you got a little proactive with your love life," Roxy muttered back at me. "I may still be a virgin, but at least I'm trying to find Mr. Wonderful. You don't even go on any dates. How do you expect to find the heavenly bliss of the man nature created just for you if you won't even look for him?"

  "Well," I said around the crunching of ice, "there is Bradley. "

  "That's not heavenly bliss, Joyful. " Roxy smiled, taking the sting out of her comment with the use of my childhood nickname. "That's purgatory. "

  "You have a point," I conceded, grimacing at the sight of Davide as he turned his attention to his rectal area. I fervently hoped it wasn't a comment on the success of Miranda's foreseeing. "Although it's not like I haven't tried or anything, God knows I have, but you've experienced the single scene out there - it's blood tests and background checks and references and 'Please pee in this cup before we go on a date' screenings, all clinical and stripped bare of any romance. "

  "True," Roxy nodded.

  "Whatever happened to good old fashioned falling in love at first sight? That's all I ask for, a little romance and candlelight and staring meaningfully into each other's eyes, knowing you've met your perfect mate the second you see him. "

  "Too many creeps out there these days," Roxy replied. "Love at first sight has been replaced by a comprehensive credit check. "

  Miranda's soft hum took on a decidedly strident tone. I listened for a moment to the murmured words, but could make nothing of them.

  "Shhh. " I pinched Roxy. "You're going to blow your chances with the Goddess if you keep flapping your lips when you're supposed to be concentrating. "

  "You're the one who's supposed to be concentrating. " Roxy pinched me back. "I already know what qualities I want in my perfect man. I bet you haven't thought about what you want in a man at all. "

  "Both of you are supposed to be concentrating," Miranda intoned between hums.

  Roxy and I looked guiltily at one another.

  "It really is sweet of you to spend your evening on this, since you had to close your shop for the ritual cleansing and all," Roxy smiled.

  I nodded.

  "You're a true friend, Miranda," Roxy went on. "I hope you know I wouldn't have asked you to go to all this work if it hadn't been an emergency, but what with that date last night with Mr. Octopus Hands, well, a girl just has to do something when she hits the 250th date mark with nary a boyfriend in sight to show for her trouble. And, of course, Joy needs all the help she can get. "

  "Hey!" I glared at Roxy. She just grinned back at me.

  "In fact, I've been worried about her for some time. She's got a dead-end job, an ex-boyfriend who could bore an ice cube, and no interests outside the library. If we don't take matters into our own hands, she'll end up single and chaste the rest of her life, living in a small pink house with thirty-seven cats all named Kevin, with no one to talk to but her successful, happy, catless friends. "

  "You're delusional," I said with great dignity. "And for the record, you have the same dead-end job I have. "

  "So if you don't see her soul mate in the immediate future," Roxy continued, ignoring my interruption, "I for one would appreciate it if you would lie and say you did. She's desperate, if you know what I mean. "

  And lonely. I was willing to admit that. Very lonely. I swirled the ice in my glass around and reflected on my loneliness. "I'm not desperate, Rox, I'm just. . . available. "

  "Well, there's always Germany if we can't find nice American men. "

  Miranda opened her eyes to shoot a questioning look at Roxy.

  "Germany," I reminded her. "Roxy and I are part of the team going to the Frankfurt Book Festival. I have to admit, I wouldn't mind one of those dishy blond German men. You think some of them might be wearing lederhosen? Hubba hubba!"

  Miranda opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and shook her head. She continued the soft chanting, a prayer, according to the cheat sheet Roxy had given me earlier, to the Goddess for strength and enlightenment.

  I flicked ice chips at Davide for a few minutes until Miranda opened her eyes and pinned me back with a look that could strip the stripes off a tiger. "Now is the time for both of you to focus your attention on envisioning your ideal man. You must open yourself to the image engraved on your heart and your soul. Focus on that image, allowing it to fill your awareness, narrowing your thoughts until they are made up only of him. "

  "Oooh, goody, fantasy time!" I rubbed my hands together and thought of the ideal man made up of the better parts of Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, and Oded Fehr, all rolled into one luscious, droolworthy package.

  "Dibs I go first!" Roxy said quickly. I made mean eyes at her. When Miranda sighed and nodded, Roxy sat up as tall as a person who barely tops five feet could, closed her eyes, and started ticking items off her fingers. "OK, here's my order: someone not too tall, that is important point number one. Lord knows I've been on enough dates with tall men. Do you know how disconcerting it is to find yourself staring a man straight in the nipples? I'd like someone of medium height, please. And just to make things easier on you, I won't be picky about hair color or eye color, or even how handsome the man is, as long as he has really nice hands, knows how to cook, and wants lots and lots of children. "

  Miranda smiled as she got to her feet and began sprinkling rose petals around the Circle, still chanting, pausing to make gestures of protection to the four compass points.

  "And he's got to have a good sense of humor. I'm afraid that is a must-have; I'll have to return any prospects who turn out to be humorless. Life is simply too short to be stuck with a guy who can't be silly once in a while. "

  "I understand. Joy?"

  I glared at my friend. "Geez, Rox, leave something for the rest of us to work with, will you?"

  She smirked at me. Miranda cocked an eyebrow in such a manner that I immediately cleared my mind and tried to picture the perfect man.

  "Um, well, tall, dark, and handsome goes without saying. Roxy was right about one thing, a sense of humor is good, I'd prefer a man who likes to laugh. "

  Roxy rolled her eyes.

  "And. . . um. . . well. . . I'd. . . um. . . like someone who's nice to animals. "

  "Bo-ring!"

  "And one who likes to read. "

  "So in other words, you want Beaver Cleaver's dad?"

  I ignored Roxy's comments, deciding if I was going to do this, I might as well do it right. I thought for a long moment about what I wanted in a man, what I really wanted, what secret desires were hidden deep within me. Slowly, out of the everyday confusion of my mind, an image wavered before me, growing solid as the gentle herb-scented night breeze washed over me. With the brighten
ing image came the words, hesitant and charged with a strange emotion, as if it weren't really me speaking. "He will send shivers of delight down my spine with the dark cloak of intrigue wrapped around him. He will captivate me, fascinate me, fold me into the air of mystery and adventure that surrounds him, making my blood sing with desire. He will need me, depend on me, trust me where he has trusted no other. He will light my dark hours, and his love will shine as a beacon that will guide me through the most twisted of paths. He is my strength, my faith, and I will not really begin to live until I know his heart is mine. "

  "Ooooh," Roxy breathed. "That is so romantic. You should write that down. "

  I blinked as the image in my mind turned to mist and evaporated. I felt a bit dizzy, like I'd been turning somersaults down a long hill. I was more than a little bit weirded out by the whole thing until I remembered the gin and tonics I'd been sipping on. Although alcohol had never triggered that sort of a vision before, there was a first time for everything.

  "I want all that on my list, too!"

  "Too late, it's mine," I told Roxy with a dazed grin. She punched me in the arm.

  "Is that all?" Miranda asked us both, completing the circle and returning to her spot.

  "It is for me, since old greedy-guts there won't share the good stuff on her list," Roxy said huffily.

  I ran down my mental checklist. Yup, it was all there, all but for one last item. . .

  "I have one more request," I said.

  Miranda paused in the act of lighting the large candle sitting before her.

  "Big private parts," I told them. "That's important, don't you think? I mean, size does matter, no matter what they say, right? And since we are talking the man for me, my soul mate, he'll be the only one I sleep with for the rest of my life, so I think he should have really nice personal equipment. Something memorable. The phrase 'hung like a horse' comes to mind. "

  "Joy Martine Randall!" Roxy choked.

  I made an innocent little moue at her. "What's wrong? Mad you didn't think of it first?"

  Her hazel eyes flashed a warning at me. I cackled. She was mad I had beaten her to big genitals.

  Miranda gave me a look of martyrdom that had me biting back my cackle to a more seemly giggle. "OK, you don't have to include that last item on the official request list. I can live with a man with a regular set of dangly bits as long as the rest of the items are there. If he meets the other requirements, I'll be happy. "

  Miranda sighed and shook her head. "You're so flippant, both of you, I don't know how you expect me to help you find the man you are searching for if all you're thinking of is the size of his crotch and whether or not he's likely to laugh at your jokes. This is serious; the power of the Goddess is nothing to be taken lightly. You should be reaching out with your heart and soul to find this man, not parroting the silly ideas you've soaked up from those romances you both read. "

  Roxy and I instantly united in a solid front against her condemnation of our beloved romances.

  "They aren't silly or horrible; romances are upbeat and fun to read," my bosom buddy protested.

  "Yeah," I added, flipping another ice chip at Davide. He gave me an open-mouthed silent hiss that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Skeptic I might be, but there was no reason to be stupid and tempt powers I wasn't sure didn't exist.

  Miranda stilled. "What about those vampire books you are both addicted to?"

  Something in the air between us thickened. I wondered if an electrical storm was on its way. "What about them?" I asked.

  "They're dangerous. "

  "Dangerous? How can books be dangerous? They're just a series of stories about heroes who happen to be vampires, Miranda. It's not like they advocate the drinking of blood or anything. "

  "Some people," she said to me, without taking her gaze off Roxy, "believe them to be a guide to their fate. "

  I looked between her and Roxy. The latter was sitting quietly, picking at the leather thong on her sandal, not meeting our eyes.

  "Some people believe every word written in them to be the truth. "

  I shook my head. "No one really believes in the Book of Secrets' Dark Ones," I told Miranda. They're just really dark, broody heroes that turn a lot of women on, myself included, I'm not too horribly embarrassed to say. Just because we like the stories doesn't mean we believe that vampires really exist. "

  "I do," came a soft voice.

  I stared at my friend of nineteen years.

  "I do," she said louder, with more confidence, an obstinate set to her jaw that I knew well. "I believe they really exist. C. J. Dante, the author of the Book of Secrets series has done extensive research in the Moravian Highlands, the area where the Dark Ones live. He even moved there so he could be closer to them, so he could study them and learn their ways. I believe they exist. "

  She must have felt the weight of two sets of disbelieving eyes, because she hiked her chin up even higher. "Well, I do!"

  "Roxy. . . " I shook my head. "Honey, I know it's a tempting thought to believe that such things really exist, but come on! Vampires? Men who drink blood and burn up in the sun and wander around all tormented and angsting because they haven't found the right woman to save their soul? I'll admit some of the guys you've dated might meet a few of those qualifications, but we're going to have to have a long, long talk if you're going to start believing in ghosties and goulies and things that go bump in the night. "

  I had forgotten in whose house I was sitting.

  " 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy'," Miranda said quietly.

  "Yeah, but I don't think Shakespeare had Moravian Dark Ones in mind when he wrote that," I argued.

  She just looked at me with light gray eyes that reminded me of a full moon at its brightest. Her belief in things that I doubted made me uncomfortably aware of just what I was doing sitting in a circle of candles. "Look, why don't we get on with this? Dr. Miller wants me to re-catalog the entire biology collection before we leave for Germany, and I'd like to get some sleep before I face a bunch of books on fungi and spores and mildew in the morning. "

  "No," Roxy said stubbornly. "I want to hear why Miranda believes in the good powers she uses, but won't admit the possibility of a darker side of the same power. "

  Miranda shook her head, her red curls a riot of crimson and gold in the candlelight. "I never said I don't believe in a dark power, Roxanne. I do, most profoundly. There are things I have seen that I hope I never see again, but that type of danger is not what I'm speaking about. I'm talking about the power of persuasion, the intent of the author who includes in his fiction ideas dangerous to your soul. "

  "Dante writes them as fiction, true," Roxy argued, "but all of his followers know the stories are based on truths he has uncovered during his research. You should see the websites devoted to the genealogies of the people Dante has written about - "

  "They're romances for the masses, glorifying the cult of bloodsucking killers. "

  "Oh!" Roxy stormed, leaping up. I reached out to grab the back of her leg, but she sidestepped quickly until she was almost out of the circle. "Bloodsucking killers? I'll have you know that every single Dark One is tormented, very, very tormented by the horrible truth of his life, and none of them kill people. They just borrow a little blood now and again. I don't see what's so wrong about that!"

  "Roxanne, if you don't sit back down, you will break the Circle of Truth, and the Invocation will be useless. "

  She sat down with a hrmph. "Take it back, Miranda. "

  "This Dante is guilty of brainwashing you, of seducing innocents like yourself into thinking the darkness found in men's souls is something to be tampered with. . . "

  "Luke, beware the dark side," I intoned in my best Obi Wan Kenobi voice.

  Both women turned astonished faces at me. I gave them a weak smile and held up my hands. "Sorry, I thought it was funny. You know, Miranda,
I don't mean to be picky, but some of what you believe could be thought to be a bit. . . well, out there. "

  She raised an eyebrow. "My beliefs are not the point - it is the silliness of these books, these novels that you and others insist on believing are real that I'm concerned about. "

  "I don't believe they're real," I said at the same time Roxy muttered, "They're a lot more real than some things I can name. "

  "Only the foolish meddle in the darkness in men's souls," Miranda warned.

  "Dark Ones are not evil, they just appear that way at first!" Roxy snapped back.

  They glared at each other until I decided to mellow them both out.

  "Would you two lighten up a bit? You're giving me the creeps with all this talk about the dark power of men's souls and stuff. "

  Miranda was shaking her head again, even before I stopped speaking. "The dark power within each of us is nothing to joke about, Joy. "

  "Right. Sorry. So why don't we agree to disagree?" I asked, gesturing between the two of them. "Roxy will continue to believe that there are actual Moravian Dark Ones wandering around looking for women to save their souls, and you'll continue to believe that famed author C. J. Dante is a nutball bent on world domination by brainwashing millions of frustrated housewives. K? Are we all happy now?"

  "I won't be until she takes back what she said about the Dark Ones!"

  Miranda sighed as she made sweeping gestures with her hands to reinforce the bounds of the circle. "Very well, I take it back. They're harmless little books that give you and millions of others pleasure, and as long as you realize they are fiction, complete fiction, and not a guidebook to exploring the dark forces within, I will withdraw my objections. "

  I figured that was as much of an apology as she was going to give. Roxy evidently decided the same, because she nodded.

  "I want to warn you both, though," Miranda added as she shook a long, elegant finger at us, "that those who play with fire should expect to be consumed by it. "

  "Consumed by the fire of passion. " I grinned at her as I fingered the remaining ice in my glass. "Sounds like something from one of Dante's books! I'm willing to bet there are worse ways to go, huh?"

  Davide gave me another silent hiss.

 
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