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     The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires

       part  #1 of  Half Moon Hollow Series  by  Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
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I snorted. “Oh, like I’m able to trust you?”

“You trust me enough to bring me into your home, which I am absolutely sure is a first for you. ”

“You don’t know anything about me. ”

“Has any other vampire seen the inside of this house?” he demanded. When I bit my lip and crossed my arms over my chest, he smirked. “I didn’t think so. You know, it’s rather hypocritical to work for vampires but think that you’re too good to be ‘directly involved’ with our world. ”

“I don’t think I’m too good!” I exclaimed. “I’ve just found that with a few rare exceptions, like Jane, you aren’t trustworthy. Vampires put their own interests first, no matter what the cost. If it came to a question of my well-being versus your survival, I would be drained faster than you could say ‘collateral damage. ’ ”

“As opposed to humans, who are so generous and selfless. ”

“I’m not saying we’re perfect, but at least we don’t eat people. ”

He muttered something under his breath.

“What was that?”

“I said, some of you do!” he exclaimed. “Humans are just as destructive and selfish and shortsighted as we could ever think to be. ”

“Well, you used to be human, so—so, suck it!” I yelled, flustered and sputtering.

He arched an eyebrow. “Suck it?”

“Not my most mature comeback,” I conceded, before adding hastily, “or an invitation. ”

He smirked again. “You don’t strike me as the type that plays hard to get. ”

I seethed. “Well, I can arrange striking you very soon. ”

“Has anyone ever pointed out that you tend to use violence to solve problems?”

“Has anyone ever pointed out that your moods are about as dependable as cheap panty hose? It makes it extremely difficult to spend time around you. ”

“Do you think I would be here unless it was absolutely necessary? You think this is easy for me?” he demanded. “Do you think I like needing humans? All I want to do is finish this job and get out of this backwater burg so I can get my life back!”

“Trust me, you’ve made it absolutely clear how you feel about being here!” I shouted back. “You’ve treated me and my home with nothing but disdain and condescension ever since you got here. Well, news flash, I don’t care what you think of me. The possibility of me being embarrassed by you pretty much ended when you threw up on me. ”

He stopped, the irritation draining from his face as his mouth slanted into a grin. “I threw up on you?”

“A lot. ”

He burst out laughing, chuckling so hard that his abused stomach muscles clenched and doubled him over, nearly toppling him against me.

“I’m so glad that my ruined clothes and personal trauma amuse you. Are we going to argue like this about every little issue?”

“I hope so. I feel a little bit better every time we do. And it’s … interesting to see you in the heat of the moment. ”

I gasped indignantly. “Are you provoking me into arguing with you?”

“I wasn’t at first, but I can’t help it now. You’re just so pretty when you get upset. Your cheeks get pink. And your eyes turn this beautiful sharp blue, like lightning about to strike. And your mouth—”

“There is something very wrong with you. ”

“There it is again. ” He chuckled. “Pink cheeks and all. ”

“If you continue to quote-unquote ‘charm’ me, I’m going to punch you in the throat,” I told him.

“You could try,” he shot back. Before he could elaborate on my flimsy human fighting abilities, he stood and listened, his head cocked to the side like a curious canine.

“What’s the matter?”

“There’s a car coming,” he said. He crossed to the window and cursed in what sounded like Greek. Really dirty Greek. “It’s a Council vehicle!”

I shot to my feet and peered out the window. I couldn’t see anything but the faint light of headlights at the end of my winding driveway. “Are you sure?” He gave me a withering look. “Well, I don’t have superhuman hearing!”

“Don’t panic. It will be fine. ”

I whirled toward him. “Don’t panic? I went from having no vampires in my house to having one in the basement and an unknown number in the driveway, and you don’t want me to panic? Why can’t you just talk to them now?”

“Because I’m just as weak and sick as I appear to be. And if the one who poisoned me is among the Council officials, I might as well paint a target on my back. ”

I sighed. I was so close to just waving the approaching Council members into the house and letting them cart his blood-spewing butt home. Cal flustered me. And he insulted me, regularly, with laser precision. But he honestly seemed frightened, and I could tell that was not a comfortable emotion for him. So I nodded slowly, my mouth set in a grim line.

His fingers wrapped around my arm, squeezing it gently. “I’m going downstairs. I’ll wait there until they leave. I doubt they’ll search the house. They probably just want to ask you a few questions. Answer them honestly, and don’t try to make up an elaborate story. You’ll be fine. ”

“Won’t they be able to smell you in here?” I asked.

He considered it for a moment. “Take them to the garden. Offer them lemonade and iced tea. ”

I exclaimed, “They don’t drink lemonade or iced tea!”

“But they’ll appreciate the ‘humanity’ of the gesture. And people with guilty consciences generally don’t take the time for beverage service. ”

“I don’t have a guilty conscience. Other than taking you in, I haven’t done anything extraordinarily evil or stupid lately,” I hissed as he headed for the basement door. “And don’t go back downstairs; go upstairs to the alcove. You’ll be able to hear what’s being said if you crack the window. I don’t want to have to relate the conversation to you later. ”

He shrugged and changed directions, heading toward the stairs. I opened up the junk drawer and rummaged around for the old clipping shears with the green plastic handles. Cal paused to watch.

“Why are you looking through old takeout menus and batteries?” he asked.

“I’m going to go out there and prune a bunch of geraniums,” I said, brandishing the shears.

He stepped out of range, hands raised. “I know I told you to be a nice hostess, but I don’t think this is the time for flower arranging. ”

“Geraniums are chock-full of essential oils that stink to high heaven. If I go out there and stir a bunch of it up, maybe they won’t smell you. ”

“Good idea. ” His hands dropped, and his posture changed. He relaxed, as if he was so surprised by my saying something sensible that he forgot about the doom on wheels rolling up my driveway.

I exclaimed, “I don’t need your sarcasm right now!”

“No, really, it’s a sound strategy. ”

“Well, then, I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said, running my hands under the tap and scrubbing off the traces of his scent.

“The customary response to a compliment is ‘thank you. ’ ”

I grumbled, “I’m working up to it. ”

5

Vampires do not share emotions readily. Questions to avoid: “Why?” “Why not?” And “No, really, why?”

—The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires

By the time the Council reps unloaded themselves from Ophelia’s black SUV, I’d scrubbed my hands and face again, snagged a clean shirt from the laundry basket at the foot of the stairs, and clipped dead ends from a half-dozen geranium plants hanging from baskets on the porch. I crushed the leaves and flowers between my fingers, sending as much of the bitter green scent into the air as possible.

Offering a guileless smile, I waved like a polite little country girl. I’d only interacted with the Council members at the office. They were intimidating individually, but faced with them en masse on my home turf, I was practically twitching with nerves.

The first out of the car was a blond lady with a slight British accent, who went by Sophie. Despite the fact that even the most ancient vampires had adopted some form of last name to put on government paperwork, she just went by Sophie. She had a Barbie-doll type of beauty, unlined and unpainted, with a weird plastic sheen to her skin.

Sophie was a walking truth serum. If she was touching bare skin, she could yank the truth out of you like a loose tooth. I’d spent several unpleasant hours in her company during the Council’s screening process for humans who planned to work with vampires. That’s when I learned that you don’t refer to Buffy, the Winchesters, or even the Frog Brothers from The Lost Boys in front of Council officials. They do not have a sense of humor about that sort of entertainment.

Then there was Peter Crown, who, as far as I could tell, had never smiled. His special vampire talent seemed to be maintaining a really bad mood for centuries. Mr. Crown didn’t contract with my service, because, as he told me, he didn’t trust a human to get his dry-cleaning right, much less his complicated blood selection.

I didn’t like Mr. Crown.

A Colonel Sanders look-alike improbably named Waco Marchand was possibly the only person on the Council who didn’t creep me out entirely. He was a kind, grandfatherly sort of man, who just happened to have fangs. He smelled pleasantly of hair tonic and carried peppermints in his pockets. I was 90 percent sure I recognized him from a Confederate memorial statue downtown.

And last but certainly not least, Ophelia Lambert. The willowy brunette was wearing a red cardigan and plaid kilt that made me think of wildly inappropriate schoolgirl uniforms. She usually dressed a bit more outrageously, in carefully themed costumes. Her theme was most often “jailbait. ” But since she’d started dating Jane’s ward, Jamie, she’d tried to appear a bit more like a nice girl. The femme-fatale bit made Jamie uncomfortable.

Council members were assigned to their precincts regardless of origin, so Ophelia’s and Sophie’s “Continental” presence was unremarkable. I could only guess that Peter’s grumpiness had gotten him kicked out of all of the other Council regions.

As they approached the porch, I took a deep breath and tried to focus on keeping my heart rate even. I smiled sweetly. “Hi, Ophelia, how are you? Sophie, Mr. Marchand, Mr. Crown. What brings you here?”

“How are you on this lovely evening, Miss Iris?” Mr. Marchand chuckled, bending over my hand and kissing it. He had lovely old-fashioned manners, reminding me of my great-uncle Harold.

“Fine, thank you. ” I barely resisted the urge to curtsy. It was a near thing.

“I see we caught you in the middle of yard work. ” Mr. Crown sniffed, surveying my ratty clothes and the crushed foliage in my hands.

“Well, with my schedule, I have to fit it in whenever I can,” I said pleasantly, although the dismissive tone in his voice set my teeth on edge.

Ophelia cleared her throat. “We need to ask you a few questions, Iris. ”

I kept my expression blank, except for a slight frown. “Sounds serious. ”

Mr. Marchand patted my hand. “Oh, no, dear, just strictly routine. ”

“Well, it’s such a nice night. Why don’t you all have a seat on those benches in the side yard, by the roses? Can I offer you something to drink?”

“No, thank you,” Mr. Crown said, looking bored as he scanned the windows of my house. I bit my lip, unsure of what to say next. Ever the social buffer, Mr. Marchand made a few polite comments about the clever arrangement of the garden. I nodded absently, praying that Cal was smart enough to stay out of sight. I didn’t think I’d be in physical danger if the Council found out that I was lying to them, but my business would definitely suffer. My hands began to sweat, the warmth of my skin intensifying the aroma of geranium oil in the air. The smell seemed to distract Mr. Crown, who wrinkled his nose and stepped away from me.
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