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     The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires, p.6

       part  #1 of  Half Moon Hollow Series  by  Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
Page 6
For all I knew, Cal’s impotent-kitten routine could have been an act. And I wasn’t exactly pinning my hopes for personal safety on my houseguest’s inability to climb the cellar stairs unassisted.

I used my insomnia time wisely. I finished a historical romance I’d started-and-stopped so many times I’d forgotten the names of the main characters. I reported the loss of my darling BlackBerry to my cell provider’s online insurance site and was slightly mollified by the promise that a replacement phone would be shipped to my house overnight. My business landline rang several times. There were calls from clients asking for various deliveries, pickups, and errands … And asking why I wasn’t picking up my cell phone, which had me grumbling and cursing Cal’s very existence. Ophelia called at around two A. M. and was surprised that I’d answered the phone instead of letting it go to voicemail. It was interesting to hear any emotion in her voice beyond smug boredom.

“Aren’t you normally asleep at this hour, Iris?”

Pressing the phone to my ear, I blew a cooling breath over a cup of valerian root tea. I needed my special “It’s two A. M. , and the infomercials are starting to make sense” blend to counteract the bag of espresso jelly beans I’d found in my desk drawer.

I am a constant contradiction.

I yawned for effect. “Yes, Gigi has a school project due. Nothing like last-minute extra credit in hopes of saving a biology grade. ”

“What an exciting life you lead,” she said dryly.

“What can I do for you, Ophelia?”

“I was curious. The Council arranged for a new contract with a Mr. Calix, one of our freelance employees. Did you happen to drop by his house today?”

This was it. This was my opening to alert Ophelia to Cal’s problems and wash my hands of the situation. It would be so easy to let someone else handle this situation. And it wasn’t as if I didn’t have enough on my plate. I had a complicated, high-maintenance business to run. I had Gigi to lead on the precarious path to functional adulthood.

But …

I breathed steadily through my nose. I could deny being there, but I’d left Cal’s contracts on the counter. Besides, I was pretty sure that I’d left trace evidence all over that house. I didn’t know if the Council had fingerprint analysts, but they did have psychic interrogators, and I wouldn’t put using a few forensics geeks past them. Lying would only make Ophelia suspicious.

“Um, yeah, I got there just before sunset,” I said. “I was running late. Mr. Rychek had some special issues for me to attend to, and it took me longer than expected. ”

“Diandra is making her triumphant return?” Ophelia asked. Through the phone, I could practically hear her eyes rolling.

“Yes. It took forever to work out her ‘special dietary requests. ’ I had just enough time to drop the contracts off at Mr. Calix’s and get out of there before the sun went down. You know I don’t like getting caught in clients’ homes after dark. ”

“And you didn’t see anything unusual, out of place?” she asked.

Say, a six-foot-two Greek god of a vampire with a pouty mouth and an acid tongue? He looked pretty out of place, sprawled unconscious on the kitchen tile.

“A couple of packing boxes. The house was pretty empty. ”

Notice that I hadn’t actually lied. I just wasn’t answering questions directly. I was raising a teenager and therefore familiar with the distinct difference.

“Is there a problem, Ophelia?”

“No, no,” she assured me. “But I’m afraid Mr. Calix is going to have to cancel his contract. You will, of course, keep your retainer deposit, out of respect for your continued services to our local vampires. You should know that the access codes to Mr. Calix’s house have been changed. You should not enter the house again. He is no longer your client. ”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. My tone was a careful balance of detached, but sincere, regret. I would regret losing any client, but Ophelia knew that I wouldn’t get hysterical over it.

“I’m sure you’ll have another client to fill up his spot on your roster soon,” she said in a tone that might have been considered reassuring from anyone else. “Speaking of which, have you managed to find the item I requested?”

“Yes, I found the doll,” I said. “A pristine turn-of-the-last-century Clarenbault, with the original dress and bonnet. I only had to shamelessly flatter-slash-threaten the administrators of several obscure antique auction Web sites to obtain it. You owe my PayPal account a considerable sum. ”

“Send me an invoice,” she said, her tone lifting. “I’m happy to pay any price. ”

I made a note about the invoice on my to-do list for the next day. And I knew better than to ask why a centuries-old vampire would want an antique porcelain doll. Ophelia frequently requested childish items such as bears, dolls, Mary Jane shoes, and sweet little dresses. Not to mention the obscene number of video-game controllers she went through every month. I was convinced that she was supplementing her income by posing for questionable Internet sites. But I didn’t know how the video-game controllers came into play. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to.

“If you happen to run into Mr. Calix, please let me know,” she said. “We’d like to speak to him, but we seem to be unable to reach him by phone. ”

“Well, I doubt I’ll see him,” I said, keeping my voice deliberately casual as I tossed Cal’s soiled shirt toward the laundry hamper. “You know me, I avoid face time whenever possible. But if I do, I’ll give you a call. ”

“You do that. ”

Eager to get off the phone unscathed, I promised to drop the doll off at her office on Monday. I hung up and lay back on the bed. I’d chosen Cal. Why? I knew Ophelia far better than I knew Cal. I owed her some personal loyalty. She’d helped me get my business off the ground. She’d never tried to bite me. But I’d backed the guy who sort of threatened me and made me use animal-control techniques to keep him in line.

I’d given Cal my word. He seemed pretty keen to stay away from the Council. And despite the regular flow of contract payments coming in, none of them would pay me $10,000 in one swift swoop. That had to purchase some sort of loyalty, too.

I sprang from bed and paced all over the house, a heavy, sour weight settling low in my belly as I straightened up the debris that resulted from teenage occupancy. I made a list of errands and tasks that needed to be completed over the next few days. Shopping for a week’s supply of blood, meetings with two vampire brides, baking six dozen cupcakes for the high school’s bake sale. I ran through all of the various ways this “vampire refugee” situation could end, and an alarming majority of those scenarios ended up with me broke or broken.

Finally, just before dawn, I sank into my bed, exhausted, and passed out.

I slept like the dead for hours, dark and deep. I dreamed of cool lips brushing over mine, down the line of my jaw, over my throat. My fingertips skimmed skin that smelled of sandalwood and leather. Rough hands slipped over my thighs, leaving burning trails of sensation. His tongue slipped against mine, pulling it into his mouth.

I was aching, hollow inside, desperately needing to be filled. I shifted my weight, rubbing against him and whimpering softly. He chuckled, sitting back and stroking his fingers down my face. In the dream, I sighed and gazed up at him with adoration. He bent his head to nuzzle my throat as he plunged between my thighs. Hot, crushing pain radiated from my pulse point as my skin tore like wet tissue—

I gasped as I bolted up, hands clawing at my throat. “No!”

The room was shadowed and cool. I was alone. My cool spring-green sheets lay crumpled across the floor, a sure sign that I’d kicked and flailed during my nightmare. The heady scent of sandalwood was replaced by that of the homemade chamomile and lavender sachet I kept under my pillow. I drew in a shaky breath. It felt so real. The soft, cool kisses. His hands on my skin. I could still feel hot, smooth pressure where … well, I hadn’t felt much of anything lately. I was actually surprised when I pulled my hand away from my neck and found that it wasn’t covered in blood. Part of me wanted to check under the bed to make sure my vampire client wasn’t lurking among the dust bunnies.

I glanced at the clock. It was after five P. M. on Saturday. I’d slept almost twelve hours.

I immediately got up, pulled my laptop into my bed, and Googled “vampire dream hypnosis,” but beyond the average crackpot Web sites, there was no evidence that vampires could diddle with my brain while I slept.

I checked my e-mails, put out a few bridal fires, and made arrangements to pick up some signed contracts from a new Council referral. If I found him passed out on the floor in a puddle of faux blood, I was taking Gigi, changing our name to Smooter, and moving to Tallahassee. Seriously, there’s only so much vampire hijinks a girl can take.

I could hear light clanking noises from the kitchen downstairs. I looked outside. The sun was still visible over the horizon. My vampiric guest shouldn’t have been up and stirring yet. And Gigi’s Beetle wasn’t in the driveway.

I crept downstairs on silent feet. On the way to the kitchen, I snagged an ugly soapstone carving of a rabbit that we only kept around because Mom had been proud of it. Peering around the corner of the fridge, I couldn’t see who was rifling through my kitchen drawers. I debated running out the back door and letting Cal deal with them. But instead, I jumped into the open, the statue held aloft over my head.

My little sister arched a dark, sleek brow at me while snacking on microwave popcorn. “I know you don’t like it when I take the last bag of Butter Lovers, but I think this is an overreaction. It’s not like I broke into your precious ‘Do Not Eat Under Penalty of Death’ chocolate stash in the freezer. ”

All of my breath left my lungs in a whoosh. I set the sculpture on the counter and threw my arms around her. “Gigi! What the hell are you doing home?”

“I … live here?” she said, her tone confused.

Gigi and I shared the same dimpled cheeks, stubborn chins, and eyes that our mother called cornflower blue. We had the same small, compact frame. But that’s where the similarities ended. At seventeen, Gigi’s looks were more refined than mine, like the difference between something that hung at the Louvre and something you hung on your fridge. I was simple lines and straight features, while she was all elfin curves and pert angles.

I couldn’t have loved her more if she was my own child. But sometimes I considered shaving her eyebrows off while she slept.

For the sake of developing her character.

Moving on.

“I asked you to call before you came home,” I said, hugging her as I set the sculpture on the counter. “Where’s your car?”

Her mouth perked up at the corners. “I did call, several times. But you didn’t pick up. And my car is in the garage. Did you know that you left the Dorkmobile parked out in the middle of the driveway? That’s not like you. ” She took in my ragged hair and the circles under my eyes. She groaned and tossed a piece of popcorn at my head. “Aw, is Booty Call Paul here?”

Used to these theatrics, I ducked my head to the side and let the kernel sail by and bounce against the maple cabinet. My brow furrowed at Gigi’s mention of my off-and-on, mostly off, somewhat boyfriend. “Why would you ask that?”

“You’ve got sex hair … or crazy cat lady hair. They’re remarkably similar. ”

“If that’s the case, I’ve always got crazy sex hair. That came out wrong,” I conceded, gesturing to my bedhead.

Gigi shuddered delicately. “My point is that oversleeping and frizz usually mean that Napoleon has invaded once again. And then I find him in your bathrobe making frozen waffles in our kitchen. ”

I frowned. We’d talked about her none-too-subtle nickname for Paul, who tended to be sensitive about his below-average height. Well, I’d talked about it. Gigi had promised to “try” not to use it.
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