A girls guide to vampire.., p.5
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       A Girls Guide to Vampires, p.5

         Part #1 of Dark Ones series by Katie MacAlister
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Chapter Five


  "It's just too bad Raphael isn't a Dark One," Roxy announced the following afternoon as we dragged ourselves up the three flights of stairs to our rooms. A day spent wandering the Macocha Abyss had left us both with tired legs and the need for a long soak in the tub. "If he were, then you'd know it was him Miranda was talking about. "

  I glared at her.

  "Look at your watch," she answered my unspoken accusation. "It's after three. I waited a whole extra four minutes. "

  "How fast time flies when you're not talking about mythical, pretend, made-up, utterly fictional creatures," I muttered as I pulled out my room key and unlocked my door. Roxy followed me into my room since it was bigger than hers and had an extra chair.

  "Don't think I'm going to let you put a moratorium on things I want to talk about every day. The only reason I agreed not to mention the Dark Ones until we got back was because you looked so awful this morning. "

  Strangely enough, I hadn't felt awful. My head was only slightly tender around the area I'd banged, and my mind was strangely calm. That was due wholly to the little pep talk I'd given myself during a quick morning bath. Although I'm not normally one for deep introspection, this, I felt, was necessary. It was that or sign myself up for electroshock therapy.

  "The human mind is a strange and wondrous place," I had told my bath sponge as I lathered it up with my favorite jasmine soap. "It is highly susceptible to suggestion, and can easily be fooled into perceiving something that really is not present. Stress, in particular, can do weird things to the brain, causing it to defend itself by releasing tension in the form of vivid dreams and visions. "

  The sponge declined the opportunity to comment on my theory, so I put it to use as I reasoned out the rest of the argument. The episode with Miranda, brought on by the couple of gin and tonics I'd imbibed, had obviously burned itself into my then-impressionable mind. Once I arrived in an area purported to contain elements of fantasy that had been mentioned at Miranda's, my brain decided to relieve a bit of the tension of being halfway around the world in a foreign land by dredging up related images and presenting them as reality.

  I ignored the little voice that pointed out I wasn't particularly stressed out about anything, least of all my vacation in a long-dreamed-about Europe, nodding my head as I got out of the tub and reached for a towel. The episode at Miranda's could be explained by drink, while the previous evening's fireworks were due to illusion and a little innocent delusion on the part of my mind. It made sense, and had the added bonus of being entirely reasonable. Far more reasonable, my cynical self piped up, than the thought that I could have been whisked away like Dorothy and plopped down in my own personal paranormal version of Oz.

  A newly restored calm mind and a day spent exploring the amazing geological phenomena of the area had done much to restore my good humor. A couple of times during the day I thought of bringing up the subject of the strange delusions I had experienced the night before, but was reluctant to tell even my closest friend about them. They were just too. . . personal. Once we returned to the hotel, I decided that since Roxy had refrained from mentioning her vampires all day, it was only fair to let her have a turn. I'd play devil's advocate for her; she always enjoyed that, and now that I had things settled in my mind, it wouldn't hurt me in the least to play along.

  "OK, I'll bite. How do you know Raphael isn't a vampire?" I asked as I peeled off a dirty sweatshirt and grabbed my bathrobe.

  "Hmm? Oh. Easy. He was drinking. "


  She nodded and started unlacing her hiking boots. "In the bar last night. He had a beer. Everyone and their Aunt Fanny knows Dark Ones don't drink anything but blood. You've read the books - you know that it's only after the Joining that they can ingest something other than blood. "

  "You are entirely too conversant with those books for my peace of mind. " I pulled off my jeans and grabbed fresh underwear from the tiny bureau drawer.

  She smiled and kicked a boot off. "You have to understand the habits of the prey you are hunting, don't you? Besides, you shouldn't complain. All my knowledge is going to come in handy to you when we find you your Moravian. You. . . er. . . don't think it's Dominic, do you?"

  I let her comment about finding me a vampire go, and shuddered over the idea of having anything to do with poseur Dominic. "Ick. No. I doubt seriously if he's any sort of vampire, Roxy, except in his own mind. Those teeth are definitely fake. " I kept a tight rein on my mind as the shared memory of fangs biting into flesh shimmered through it. Imagination - it was all just my fertile imagination, nothing more. I stripped out of my underwear and slipped into my bathrobe.

  "Oh, you're just prejudiced. Promise me you'll keep an open mind tonight at the fair. "

  I didn't want to have an open mind. Open minds led to visions, and that was definitely not good for one's sanity. Still, I'd always prided myself on my ability to judge impartially all the facts in a situation, so I supposed it would only be fair to not be too judgmental before weighing all the evidence and finding that there were, in fact, no such things as vampires.

  Besides, I pointed out to myself, I knew I was right and she was wrong, so it wouldn't hurt me in the least to have an open mind. If everyone at the fair was like Dominic, there was nothing to worry about. I grabbed my bath things and turned to face Roxy. "Fine, I'll have an open mind. "

  "Promise you won't pick on Dominic. " I held my hand up. "I won't pick on Dominic. "

  "And you'll be nice to any vampires you meet. "

  "Sure. You want the tub first?"

  "No. " She pulled off her other boot and hobbled toward the door. "You look like you need it more than me. I'll see you downstairs at six for dinner, and then we can go to the fair after that. Don't forget to take a nap! You always get cranky if you're up late without a nap, and I want to see everything in the GothFaire. I can't wait to see that Dominic again. He's just so dashing!" And well he knew it. "Rox, a word of warning. " She paused at the door, her head cocked. "What?"

  "Tanya looked awfully possessive of him. I wouldn't suggest you tangle with her. She doesn't look like the type to tolerate encroachment on her domain. " She smiled one of her patented "men fall for me like trees under an axe" smiles. "Don't worry about me. Go take your bath. Oh, and Joy? Wear something sexy. Even if Raphael isn't the man of your dreams, he's the only one I know who could carry you up three flights of stairs without having to take a rest stop. You might want to check him out a bit. It's just too bad he isn't a vampire. . . " She drifted out of the room.

  I watched the door as it closed behind her, seeing not it but the bar below. The image was fresh in my mind: Raphael standing at the end of the bar, talking to the bartender, his eyes on me as he held a stein of beer in his hands.

  If I took a huge mental pinch of salt and was willing to admit the possibility that such a thing as vampires existed and were bounded by the laws set forth in Dante's books, wouldn't self-preservation necessitate the pretense that they fit in to human society?

  It seemed to me that if a vampire truly wanted to keep his secret, he might go to a bar and order a drink, and then give the appearance of having drunk part of it by, oh, say accidentally spilling half of it in a place that no one would notice.

  Like a potted palm.

  I had my bath and took a brief snooze. It pains me to admit that Roxy was right about me not being a night person, and since the GothFaire was open until two a. m. each night, I knew there was no way I could last through it without having a nap ahead of time. I got up two hours later and pulled on a pair of brown wool pants and a bulky fisherman's sweater, adamantly refusing to dress in anything that could be mistaken for sexy. Raphael, I was sure, was a very nice man - in addition to being an exceptionally strong one - but despite all of Roxy's hopes and plans for me, I wasn't really on the prowl for a man. Well, OK, maybe I was a little interested, but I didn't really have the time to start something, so it was for the best
that I stick to the ogle-but-don't-touch plan.

  As I started down the winding stairs, I heard a door close behind her. There were two rooms and a bathroom on the upper floor, so Roxy and I pretty much had the bathroom to ourselves. Out of curiosity I paused on the curve of the landing and waited to see who had invaded the top floor.

  A pair of thick-soled, chunky black boots came into view, followed by black and white striped tights visible through the poofy black net skirt that brushed on the stair treads behind her, crowned by a red and black strapped velvet top and. . . Tanya's head. She stopped when she saw me.

  I blinked at her hair. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone with hair that's actually crimson. Nice color. Matches your top. I had no idea you were staying here. I assumed everyone connected with the fair lived in the trailers parked around it. "

  "We do live there," she said in her husky, thickly accented voice. Her eyes shone brightly, her face painted white, her lips set off by the dramatic black lipstick so dear to the Goth heart.

  "Oh? Just checking out the view from up this high?"

  She started toward me. The staircase, as I have mentioned, is narrow, winding, and due to its age, has uneven steps. Tanya left me no choice but to turn around and descend in front of her.

  "I was looking for the toilet," she said to my back.

  "Oh, really?" I paused a moment as I reached the second landing. "There's one on the ground floor, you know, quite handy to the bar. "

  The way her eyes glittered in the dimly lit staircase reminded me of a snake that's just spotted a particularly juicy mouse. I decided not to stand around waiting to see if she'd pounce, and started down the next flight, holding on to the wall for support. When you are six feet tall you tend to have big feet, and big feet in a building with three-hundred-year-old staircases can mean trouble.

  "The toilet was occupied. " The words were clipped and pointed. I was willing to bet she was spitting them at me, but with my back to her, I couldn't tell.

  "As far as I know," I called out over my shoulder, "there is also a toilet on the second floor. "

  "It, too, was occupied. "

  "Ah. " Why didn't I believe her? Maybe because she rubbed me the wrong way? Maybe because she was ruining Arielle by making her over into a copy of herself? Or could it be because the only other rooms on the upper floor were Roxy's and mine, and that meant dear little Tanya might have been snooping around?

  "You know, I've heard the Czech prisons aren't terribly nice places to be in. "

  "Why are you telling me this?" She must smoke five packs a day to get that grating tone honed to razor-sharp roughness.

  "Oh, no reason. I was just thinking how terrible it would be for anyone caught stealing, especially someone who wasn't a Czech citizen. Tourism is a god in this area. If, for instance, someone broke into a hotel room and messed with a tourist's belongings, I imagine the police would prosecute that person to the fullest. "

  I stumbled on a particularly warped tread as I started down the last flight, and clutched the wall more diligently.

  "You should be careful how you are marching down these stairs," Tanya growled behind me in a sickening parody of sweetness. "If you fell, you could break your neck, and that would be so tragic. "

  I glanced back at her and bared my teeth in a smile. She bared hers in return. As I rounded the last curve, something slammed into the back of my knee, knocking my leg out from under me. I shrieked and went down, slamming first into the wall of the staircase, then rebounding off it and hurtling straight for the hardwood floor of the narrow hall.

  I didn't end up on the floor, although it felt like I hit a brick wall. Just as I went sailing off the stairs, Raphael loomed up out of the darkness and grabbed me, pulling me against his body as he did an impressive half-twist so it was his back rather than mine that crashed into the oak-paneled wall. I leaned drunkenly against him, clinging to his coat and panting with shock, my heart racing madly from the rush of adrenaline. I got my feet under me and stood up slowly, looking up to find his amber eyes dark with concern.

  "Boy, do you have fast reflexes. Are you all right?" I asked.

  One glossy chocolate eyebrow rose, just as I knew it would. "I was about to ask you the same. You should be more careful on the stairs. These old buildings can be dangerous if you aren't watching where you step. "

  His arms were still wrapped around me, but I wasn't complaining - he might have felt as hard as steel when I crashed into him, but I was thankful he was there. He was also extremely warm, had that same enticing scent of soap and man that I noticed the night before, and was close enough that I could see the pulse beating in his neck.

  I wanted to swoon into him but managed instead to push myself back, out of his embrace. "As a matter of fact, I was watching where I was going - that's the problem. I couldn't see the steps and the she-devil behind me at the same time. "


  rie! You are not accusing Tanya of foul deeds?" asked a voice from the left. Dominic stood in front of the door to the bar, Tanya cuddled up against him with such a smug look on her face, I wanted to pull her blood-red hair out by the roots, paste it on with glue, and pull it off again.

  "You bet I'm accusing her! She pushed me down the stairs because I threatened her with the police when I found her where she had no right to be. "

  "She lies," Tanya cooed in Dominic's ear.

  "like hell I do! You kicked me on the back of my leg. I bet I'll have a huge bruise there from those monster shoes you're wearing. "

  "Monster shoes!" Tanya's eyes spoke volumes, and they were all about methods of disembowelment. "You Americans know nothing about that which is fashionable - "

  "Enough!" Dominic shouted, and shoved Tanya away. He sauntered over to where Raphael and I stood, eyeing me up and down in a manner that set my hackles rising.

  "Dominic!" Tanya looked mad enough to spit fire, but Dominic paid her little heed. He made a pretty pout and tsked as he saw me rubbing the sting out of my wrist where I bashed it against the wall. He took my wrist in his hand, pushing away my other hand to rub little circles on the wrist bone.

  "But you have hurt yourself!" he said in a syrupy voice. He had surprisingly short fingers for a man who seemed long and lean otherwise, something I noticed when he bent over my wrist, licking his lips as he brought it up for inspection. "This does not seem to be a day which brings you great luck. Yet. "

  "Let her be, Dominic. " Raphael looked bored as sin leaning against the wall, but there was plenty of command in his voice, and his eyes were blazing with something I hoped Dominic found threatening.

  "Yeah, let me be, Dominic. "

  Tanya nudged his arm, but he ignored her to give me a fanged grin. "And if I cannot, little one?"

  Little one? I stood almost eye-to-eye with him. Who was he kidding?

  "What agonies would you suffer if I withdrew my attention from you?" With his free hand he cupped my chin and tipped my head back, his fingers lingering on my neck. I jerked my head out of his grasp, but his hand clamped down tight on my wrist. Pain shot up through my arm.

  "Let go of me, you fake-toothed creep!"

  "Dominic!" Tanya was tugging on his arm, trying to get his attention, but he hissed and pushed her aside, reeling me in by my wrist.

  "Let her go, Dominic. " Raphael's voice was low and deep and rumbled around the narrow hallway. Something warm and pleasant inside me started to hum in response to it. He was still leaning against the wall, looking more bored, if possible.

  The grateful look I was about to send him dried up. I glared at him instead. "Are you going to just stand there and hold up the wall, or are you going to help me?"

  "Raphael is in my employ," Dominic purred as he pulled my wrist up to his mouth, parting his lips and baring his pseudo fangs. "He knows well the dark forces I can command if he tries my temper. "

  I felt like I was in the middle of a badly written Gothic soap opera, something along
the lines of Dark Shadows Meets The Ministers.

  "You are the hammiest actor I've ever met," I told Dominic. A muscle in his eyelid twitched.

  "Dominic, I insist you stop this at once!" Tanya was a veritable blaze of fury, but she backed down immediately when her lover spun around - jerking my sore wrist in the process - and spat out a string of invectives in French.

  "So help me God, if you don't let go of me, I'm going to sue you for assault up one side and down another!" I tugged on my wrist. "And don't think I can't do it, either! My mother is an attorney!"

  His fingers tightened painfully around my wrist. "Ch¨

  rie! So impatient! I like a woman who is demanding. I also like one who has spirit. Fight me, mon petit chat. It pleases me to see you struggle. "

  I stared at him for a moment in utter disbelief, then turned to glower at Raphael. "Dammit, he's your employer - do something. "

  He shrugged and straightened up. "What would you have me do?"

  "Is castration out of the question?"

  "You will be mine tonight, mon ange," Dominic promised, pulling me closer and making sure I saw him lick his fangs. "But I think you need a little lesson in manners first. " As he spoke, he pulled my hand to his lips.

  "Raphael!" I swear his eyes glowed bright for a moment in response to my demanding plea.

  Just as Dominic's tongue snaked out to lick my pulse point, I made a fist with my free hand and prepared to knee him in the happy sacks, but before I could, all hell broke loose. A wordless cry of fury echoed in my head as the door to the outside crashed open in a sudden gust of wind, rattling the windows and sending a blast of cold air and a flurry of dead leaves in through the open door. At the same time as Raphael lunged for Dominic, Roxy and Christian, the man with the nice voice I'd seen the night before, came racing out of the bar. Dominic screamed as if he'd been struck, and released my hand as he staggered backwards. Tanya howled and headed for me with her claws bared, leaping past Roxy, who clutched Christian and bravely shouted, "Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!" in the worst French accent I'd ever heard.

  "Aidez-moi?" I asked her as I avoided impalement on Tanya's fingernails. "You want someone to help you? What about me?"

  With a movement too fast for me to follow, Raphael grabbed Dominic by the fancy ruffled poet shirt he wore and slammed him against the bar wall. Tanya came at me again with a frustrated shriek, but I grabbed both her arms and held her off.

  "Remember your position!" Dominic screamed as Raphael snarled and lifted him off the floor with one hand. Christian jumped in and wrestled Tanya away from me, pulling her away and holding her until she calmed down.

  "Remember who I am, St. John! You will have nothing without me, nothing! I can break you with just a word!"

  Brave words, considering it was Raphael who was holding Dominic impotent with only one hand, but to my immense disappointment, the words seemed effective. Slowly Raphael let Dominic slide down the wall until he was once again on his feet. Dominic smiled a completely repulsive smile full of gloating, and with exaggerated gestures straightened his shirt and striped vest.

  "It is a wise man who knows when he has met his master," Dominic crowed, turning to retrieve a furious Tanya from Christian.

  Employer or no employer, I hoped Raphael would punch him, but other than flexing his fingers, he did nothing. His face was tight and expressionless, and grudgingly I gave him full marks for control.

  Dominic's gaze settled on me as I stood next to Roxy. He smiled and dropped his eyelids in what I'm sure he thought was an extremely sexy look, but which really just made him look dopey. "And you, mon ange - I will see you later tonight, eh? I promise you, I will fulfill all your darkest fantasies, no matter how extreme. "

  Tanya made a wordless noise of protest.

  "Oh, goody," I said with irony that I doubted he would appreciate. "It's been eons since I saw a really quality vampire-staking. So glad you've volunteered. "

  The muscle over his eye twitched again, but he held on to his leer. With a showy bow to me, he flashed his canines at everyone and stalked to the door.

  "Raphael!" Dominic paused at the door, but did not bother with the courtesy of turning around and facing Raphael when he spoke to him. "I expect you to be on the grounds before opening. "

  "I'll be there," Raphael answered, crossing his arms over his broad chest and sending Dominic a look I hoped to heaven no one would ever point at me. Dominic swirled his cape over his shoulder and swept out the door with a grand flourish, Tanya following sullenly behind.

  "Bet he learned that in Dramatic Exits 101," I murmured to Roxy. She snickered in return. I gave Raphael a grateful smile. "Looks like I owe you one. "

  His jaw tightened. He didn't smile in return. In fact, he looked mad as hell. "Looks like you do," he acknowledged with a terse little nod of his head.

  I thinned my lips at him, all thoughts of thanking him evaporating under the glare of those wicked amber eyes. "Let's not be overly gracious about this, shall we?"

  He took a step forward - a long step forward; the man had legs that went up to his armpits - and frowned down on me. I have to admit he made a very intimidating figure, but I refuse to let anyone intimidate me with nothing but a bunch of muscles, a handsome face, and eyes that could drop a horse at ten paces.

  "I could have lost my job because you insisted on flirting with Dominic. Isn't there an expression that says if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen?"

  My jaw dropped. I looked at Roxy to see if she was hearing the same outrageous accusation I was. She didn't seem to, since she had a hand clapped over her mouth and was clearly trying not to laugh. Christian's dark eyes were bright with interest on me, but he didn't seem to be appalled either. I raised my chin, spun around to face Raphael, and let him have it with both barrels.

  "Flirting? Heat? Kitchen? Are you mad? Crashing against the wall like that must have scrambled your brains, mister, because there is no way on God's green earth anyone could claim I was flirting with old fang-tooth!"

  Raphael took another step forward until we were toe to toe, nose to chin. "You allowed him to hold your hand, and I noticed you weren't fighting too hard to get away. Not to mention you repeatedly batted your eyelashes at me in an obvious attempt to make him jealous. In other words, you showed every sign of a woman who was desirous of a man's attention by putting on a show of indifference to pique his interest. That, Joy Martine Randall, is flirting. I'd appreciate it if you could leave me out of your plans the next time you want to play your little sex games. "

  "Oh!" I huffed, unable to believe how wrong I'd been about him. I liked him better as the blood-sucking undead than I did as the self-centered, stuffy, righteous, PRIGGISH male he was. "For your information, Mr. So-Stuck-on-Yourself-You-Probably-Attract-Flies, I was not flirting! I do not play games! And I most certainly was not batting my eyelashes at you, so you can get that idea right out of the pudding that passes for your brain!"

  "Pudding?" he bellowed at me, outrage bristling from every pore.

  "Vanilla. With lumps in it!" I bellowed back.

  He took a deep breath, his fingers flexing as he struggled to keep control of himself. Oddly enough, the fact that he was bigger and stronger than me wasn't threatening. Somehow I knew that, try him though I might, he was not the type of man who would hurt me.

  "You are the most exasperating woman I've ever met," he growled through clenched teeth. His eyes were things of beauty to behold, but I wasn't about to tell him that, nosiree, not me. A compliment would be the last thing out of my mouth to a man who was so pigheaded he could be served at a luau. "I wouldn't doubt for a moment that you planned this whole fiasco just so I'd lose my job. I had you marked as trouble the moment I saw you fawning all over him. " He pointed at Christian.

  I stared at Christian in open-mouthed surprise, so flabbergasted I couldn't think of anything to say. Christian gave Raphael an odd look that mingled surprise with anger. I wondere
d briefly what he had to be angry about; it wasn't him being slandered in such an atrocious manner. My flabbergastedness lasted about three seconds.

  "You great big tottyhead! First I'm flirting with Dominic and then I'm fawning on Christian? Is that what you think? Because if you do, you're deranged, you're just one hundred percent deranged! You've got some sort of sex obsession, that's your problem!"

  "Unlike a woman who has thrown herself at three men she's met in the space of a single day, I do not have an obsession with sex. "

  "Three? Three?" I steamed at him.

  "I'm the third. Have you forgotten last night?"

  "That was different. I have long since changed my mind," I argued, poking him in the chest and tipping my head back so I could glare at him better. "I know your type, all strong and silent and sexy as hell, and believing every woman within a five-mile radius has the hots for you. I bet you even think I'm attracted to you. "

  "You are the one who said you'd pay me to have sex with you. "

  "Joy!" Roxy gasped.

  "It was a joke," I told her, lying through my teeth. I turned back to Raphael. "I'd just hit my head. I obviously wasn't myself. "

  His eyes glittered wickedly at me as he dropped his head so he could glower into my eyes. "Very well, we'll forget last night, but that doesn't explain the fact that you're attracted to me now. "

  "I am not!" I said, outraged at such an idea, refusing to admit that my body was thrumming like a plucked string in reaction to his nearness.

  "You are. You're practically begging me to kiss you. If that's not being attracted to me, I don't know what is. "

  His breath feathered across my face, distracting me for a moment. I bathed in the light of his heated eyes, feeling warm and feminine and very, very aroused.

  Damn him.

  "If I wanted you to kiss me, Bob, I'd be checking your tonsils right now. "

  "Is that so?"

  He was so close to me, I could feel the heat of his chest as it brushed against me. His eyes burned into mine, our mouths just a fraction of an inch apart as I acknowledged that he was right, I did want him to kiss me, more than anything else I could think of.

  "Yes, it's so. I think you're the one who wants to kiss me. Why don't you just give in and say it?"

  "You say it first. "

  "Never. "

  "I don't give in," he warned just before his mouth brushed against mine.

  I drowned in his eyes and parted my lips, preparing for full surrender, but was rudely dragged back to reality when Roxy loudly cleared her throat and said, "Um, guys, you're not actually going to have sex - paid for or otherwise - here in the hallway, are you? 'Cause it sure looks to me like that's where you're headed, and for one thing, I don't want to see it, and for another, I doubt if it would prove to be the experience you want it to be, what with all the people going in and out of the bar. "

  With an effort I wrenched my lips away from Raphael's and swallowed. Hard. I refused to look at him and turned to give Roxy and Christian a shaky smile. "I'm sorry, Christian, I'm sure you didn't enjoy seeing that, but as you are aware, he started it. "

  "You're the one who's thrown herself on me. Twice," Raphael rumbled behind me.

  "What I see is something that requires a little investigation," Christian replied neutrally, his voice silky with comfort. "I suggest we adjourn to the dining room. Roxanne has very kindly invited me to join you, and perhaps this gentleman would like to do so as well?"

  "I've already eaten," Raphael answered, picking up my bag from where it had fallen when Tanya sent me flying. He brushed it off and handed it to me.

  I was still charged up, and although I'm ashamed to admit it, didn't want him to leave. So I did the only thing I could. "Afraid you won't be able to keep your hands off me if you have dinner with us?"

  I swear steam just about boiled out the top of his head. "Are you trying to bait me?"

  I smiled.

  "Fine," he snapped, his eyes narrowing. "Since you can't bear to be parted from me" - I made an outraged "Oh!" of protest to that - "I will accede to your feeble woman's ploy and join you, although I have, as I already mentioned, already dined. "

  "That's OK," Roxy said, taking his arm and steering him toward the dining room. "You can sit and watch us eat. If you stare at Joy long enough, she's bound to spill something on herself. That's always entertaining. "

  I watched them disappear into the seldom-used tiny dining room (most of the hotel patrons preferring to take their meals in the bar), and looked at Christian. "Have you ever seen anything like that aggravating man?"

  "Never," he replied, taking my hand and gently massaging my wrist. A vague sense of warmth and comfort filled me at his touch. I smiled into his dark brown eyes, but he didn't smile back. He just held my gaze captured in his for a moment, then lifted my hand to kiss it. I'd never had a man kiss my hand before, and had always thought it a pretty silly gesture, but with his dark-eyed gaze holding me prisoner, the brush of his lips against my knuckles was anything but silly. Slowly he turned my hand over, his mouth a hairs-breadth from my pulse point.

  The room suddenly went gray as a wave of bone-deep hunger slammed into me, sucking at me, pulling me down into its icy hold. I was gripped by it, possessed by it, drowning in a need I couldn't begin to understand. Just as abruptly as it started, it ended, leaving me gasping at Christian as he placed a chaste kiss on my wrist. I pulled my hand back, wanting to scream, wanting to know what was happening to me, needing to understand why my mind was suddenly doing things it shouldn't be doing. Something is wrong with you, a frightened voice in my head cried out. I whirled around, desperate to run away, wild to escape the imaginings of my fractured mind.

  Raphael stood in the doorway to the dining room watching Christian. His eyes were hooded, glowing with unspoken emotion, hard and glinting and so full of anger the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Slowly he moved his gaze to me, then gestured to the dining room and held out his hand for me. "Shall we?"

  I stood sick at heart with the knowledge that I must truly be going mad, and struggled to control my beating heart. Inside my head I was shrieking and screaming and pleading for someone to explain to me what was happening, but outside I stood silent, unable to move lest the stillness break and the madness descend upon me again.

  You see visions of vampires. Something is wrong with you.

  "Joy? You look like you need to eat. Come, let us have dinner. "

  Christian's voice was an oasis of calm, but it didn't stand a chance in the wild turbulence that filled my mind. He, too, held out his hand to me. I stared at it, unable to move.

  Vampires or insanity - which did I want as an explanation? My mind fractured a little more trying to decide. I put my hands up to my head, wanting to hold it together, terrified that I would lose control over everything important to me. Vampires or insanity? Which was real, and which was my imagination? How would I know which was which? Could I trust myself to recognize reality anymore, and if I couldn't, who would help me?

  Your mind can't recognize what's real and what's not, the voice in my head whispered. Something is wrong with you.

  "Joy. "

  Raphael's voice glowed like a beacon in the maelstrom of my whirling thoughts. I fought to control the swelling panic that gripped me, tried to focus my thoughts so they didn't drag me down with them, drowning in a sea of confusion and fear. Desperately I clung to the thought that if I could just have a little time, I could figure things out and make sense of all the disorder.

  There is no hope. SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH YOU!

  "Joy. "

  "There is nothing wrong with me!" I yelled at Raphael. "So I have a few visions? So what? Who doesn't? I REFUSE TO GO MAD!"

  The words echoed in the long, narrow hallway, disturbed only by the muffled hum of noise from the bar. Shocked that I had yelled out loud, I stared wordlessly at Raphael.

  He pursed his lips. "I think you'r
e going to be more trouble than I first anticipated. "

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