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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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Page 2


What had I tripped over? I pushed myself to my feet, stumbled over to the fridge, and yanked the door open. The interior light clicked on, illuminating the body stretched across the floor.

Shrieking, I scrambled back against the fridge, my dress shoes skittering uselessly against the tile. I couldn’t seem to swallow the lump of panic hardening in my throat, keeping me from drawing a breath.

His shirtless torso was well built, long limbs strung with thick cords of muscle. Dark waves of hair sprang over his forehead in inky profusion. The face would have been beautiful if it hadn’t been covered in dried blood. A straight nose, high cheekbones, and full, generous lips that bowed slightly. He had that whole Michelangelo’s David thing going—if David had been an upsetting religious figurine that wept blood.

A half-empty donor packet of O positive lay splattered against the floor, which explained the rusty-looking dried splotches on his face. Had he been drinking it when he … passed out?

Vampires didn’t pass out. And most of them could sense when to get somewhere safe well before the sun rose. They didn’t get caught off guard and collapse wherever they were at dawn. What the hell was going on here?

I eyed my shoulder bag, flung across the room when I’d fallen on my face. Breathing steadily, I resolved that I’d call Ophelia at the local World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead office and leave her a message. She would know what to do. And I could get the hell out of there before the hungry, ill vampire rose for the night and made me his breakfast.

I reached over him, aiming my arm away from his mouth. A strong hand clamped around my wrist. I am ashamed to say that I screamed like a little girl. I heard the telltale snick of fangs descending and panicked, yanking and struggling against a relentless vise grip. A tug-of-war ensued for control of the arm that he was pulling toward his chapped, bloodied lips. He tried to lunge for me, but the effort cost him, and his head thunked back to the floor with a heavy thud.

With my hand hovering precariously over his gaping, hungry mouth, I did the only thing I could think of—I poked him in the eye.

“Ow,” he said, dully registering pain as I jabbed my index finger against his eyelid. The other eye popped open, the long, sooty lashes fluttering. It was a deep, rich coffee color, the iris ringed in black.

“Ow!” he repeated indignantly, as if the sensation of the eye-poke was just breaking through his stupor.

With him distracted, I gave one final yank and broke free, holding my hand to my chest as I retreated against the fridge. I took another donor packet from the shelf. I popped it open and held it carefully to his lips, figuring that he wouldn’t care that it wasn’t heated to body temperature. He shook his head faintly, wheezing. “Bad blood. ”

I checked the expiration date and offered it to him again. “No, it’s fine. ”

His dry lips nearly cracked as they formed the words, “Poisoned … stupid. ”

“OK … jerk,” I shot back.

The faintest flicker of amusement passed over his even features. “Need clean supply,” he whispered.

“Well, I’m not giving you mine,” I said, shrinking away from him. “I don’t do that. ”

“Just wait to die, then,” he muttered.

I had to bite my lips to keep from snickering or giggling hysterically. I was sure that crouching over him, laughing, while he was vulnerable and agitated wouldn’t improve the situation.

Shouting for him to hold on, I scurried out to my car, carefully shutting the door behind me so that sunlight didn’t spill into the kitchen. I had a case of Faux Type O in the back, destined for Ms. Wexler’s house the next day. I grabbed three bottles from the package and ran back into the house. Sadly, it only occurred to me after I’d run back into the house that I should have just grabbed my purse, jumped into my van, and gunned it all the way home.

But no, I had to take care of vampires with figurative broken wings, because of my stupid Good Samaritan complex.

Kneeling beside the fallen vampire, I twisted the top off the first bottle and offered it to him. “I’m sure this is clean. I just bought it. The tamper-proof seal’s intact. ”

He gave the bottle a doubtful, guarded look but took it from my hand. He greedily gulped his way through the first bottle, grimacing at the cold offering. Meanwhile, I popped the other two bottles into the microwave. I even dropped a penny into each one after heating them to give them a more authentic coppery taste.

“Thank you,” he murmured, forcing himself into a sitting position, although the effort clearly exhausted him. He slumped against the pine cabinets. Like all of the Deer Haven homes, the kitchen was done in pastel earth tones—buffs, beiges, and creams. Mr. Calix looked like a wax figure sagging against the pale wood. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my house?”

“I’m Iris Scanlon, from Beeline. The concierge service? Ophelia Lambert arranged your service contract before you arrived in the Hollow. I came by to drop off the paperwork. ”

He nodded his magnificent dark head slowly. “She mentioned something about a daywalker, said I could trust you. ”

I snorted. Ophelia only said that because I hadn’t asked questions that time she put heavy-duty trash bags, lime, and a shovel on her shopping list. The teenage leader of the local World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead office might have looked sweet sixteen, but at more than four hundred years old, Ophelia, I’m pretty sure, had committed felonies in every hemisphere.

Scary felonies.

“Well, you seem to be feeling a bit better. I’ll leave these papers here and be on my way,” I said, inching around him.

“Stop,” he commanded me, his voice losing its raspy quality as he pushed himself to his feet. I froze, looking up at him through lowered lashes. His face was fuller somehow, less haggard. He seemed to be growing a little stronger with every sip of blood. “I need your help. ”

“How could I help you?”

“You already have helped. ” As he spoke, I picked up the faint trace of an accent, a sort of caress of the tongue against each finishing syllable. It sounded … old, which was a decidedly unhelpful concept when dealing with a vampire. And since most vamps didn’t like talking about their backstories, I ignored the sexy lilt and its effects on my pulse rate. “And now I need you to take me home with you. ”

“Why would I take an unstable, hungry vampire home with me? Do I look particularly stupid to you?”

He snorted. “No, which is why you should take me home with you. I already know where you live. While you were running to your car, I looked in your purse and memorized your driver’s license. Imagine how irritated I would be, how motivated I would be to find you and repay your kindness, after I am well again. ”

I gasped, clutching my bag closer to my chest. “Don’t you threaten me! There seem to be a lot of handy, breakable wooden objects in this room. I’m not above living out my fonder Buffy fantasies. ”

His expression was annoyed but contrite. Mostly annoyed. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. That was out of line. But I need to find a safe shelter before dark falls. I have a feeling someone may be coming by to finish me off. No sane person would attack me while I was at full strength. ”

I believed it, but it didn’t stop me from thinking that Mr. Calix was a bit full of himself. “How do I know that you won’t drain me as soon as you stabilize?”

“I don’t do that,” he said, echoing my earlier pronouncement while he swept my bag from my hands. I tried snatching it back, but he held it just out of my grasp, like some elementary-school bully with a My Little Pony backpack.

Scowling at him, I crossed my arms over my chest. “Considering you just vaguely threatened me, I have a hard time believing that. ”

“Check my wallet, on the counter. ”

I flipped open the expensive-looking leather folio and found what looked like a shiny gold policeman’s badge. “You’re a ‘consultant’ for the Council? In terms of credibility, that means nothing to me. I’ve met Ophelia. ”

His lips twitched at my reference to the cunning but unpredictable teen vampire.

“Why can’t you just call her?” I asked. “She’s your Council rep. This should be reported to her anyway. ”

“I can’t call her. The Council supplied me with that blood. Left here in a gift basket before I arrived,” he said, giving a significant look to the discarded packet on the floor. “Therefore, I can’t trust the Council. I can’t check into a hotel or seek help from friends without being tracked. ”

“I have a little sister who lives with me. I don’t care how you ended up on the floor. We don’t need to be a part of it. ” I grunted, making a grab for my bag as his tired arms drooped. “I am not running a stop on the vampire underground railroad. ”

“I can pay you an obscene amount of money. ”

I’m ashamed to say that this stilled my hand. If anything would make me consider this bizarre scheme, it was money. My parents had died nearly five years ago, leaving me to raise my little sister without much in the way of life insurance or savings. I needed money for Gigi’s ever-looming college tuition. I needed money to keep up the house, to pay off the home-equity loan I’d taken out for Beeline’s start-up capital. I needed money to keep us in the food that Gigi insisted on eating. And despite the fact that the business was finally becoming somewhat successful, I always seemed to just cover our expenses, with a tiny bit left over to throw at my own rabid student-loan officers. Something always seemed to pop up and eat away at our extra cash—car repair, school trip, explosive air-conditioning failure.

An obscene amount of money would provide enough of a cushion that I might be able to sleep for more than a handful of hours per night. Mr. Calix slid to the floor, apparently drained by the effort of playing purse keep-away.

“How obscene?” I asked, coughing suddenly to chase the meek note from my voice.

“Ten thousand dollars for a week. ”

I quickly calculated the estimate to replace the aging pipes in my house, plus Gigi’s first-semester tuition and the loan payment due next month, against what the Council paid even the lowliest of its underlings. I shook my head and made a counteroffer. “Twenty-five thousand. ”

“Fifteen thousand. ”

I pursed my lips. “I’m still saying twenty-five thousand. ”

“Which means you never quite learned how negotiating works. ”

It was a struggle, tensing my lips enough to avoid smirking. “How badly do you want to get off that floor, Mr. Calix?”

He grumbled. “Done. ”

“One week,” I said as I knelt in front of him, my voice firmer than I would have thought possible under the circumstances. “That means seven nights. Not seven days and eight nights. Not seven and a half nights. Seven nights. ”

“Done. ”

“Excellent. ” I gave him my sunniest “professional” smile and offered my hand for a shake.

“Don’t push it,” he muttered, closing his eyes.

I sighed, pulling my cell phone out of my bag to call Gigi. I wasn’t going to make that booster meeting, after all.

2

The first rule of caring for a stray vampire: Don’t tell anyone you’re taking care of a stray vampire.

—The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires

The moment I started dialing the phone, his hand snaked out and smacked it away. My precious BlackBerry shattered against the kitchen wall into splinters of black plastic. I shrieked indignantly, my mouth agape as I watched the shards tinkle to the ground.

He killed my phone. He ruthlessly murdered my phone! Mother … fudger.

My phone was my lifeline, my tether to my clients. It was what kept me available for their needs, their wants, each and every whim. I never ignored a call. Ever. If I wasn’t able to answer, hair-trigger frustration and undead diva temperaments could lead to lost business. Lost business meant lost income, and lost income meant … I fought the rising panic clawing at my throat.
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