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’d started dating Paul Simms a few months after we moved to the Hollow. The assistant coach of the Half-Moon Hollow High football team, Paul was one of those good old-fashioned guys who believed in holding hands and having an actual conversation before engaging in sexual activity. We were exclusive for almost a year. We did all of the things couples on the “happily ever after” track did. I met his parents. I stopped wearing rose oil because it made his nose itch. He stopped cutting his own hair. We exchanged house keys and dresser-drawer space. I knew how he ordered his pancakes at the Coffee Spot. He knew not to touch the freezer chocolate stash, ever. He was a good guy, a keeper, one of those genuinely sweet men a girl dreams of building a life with.

But in the end, we wanted different things. He couldn’t imagine living anywhere but the Hollow, whereas I could see keeping my geographical options open. Paul wanted someone who was going to cheer at his beer-league softball games and really care about the outcome of the UK basketball season. I bought tickets to see a touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he looked like I’d suggested an evening of chain-saw juggling. He wanted a house full of kids, while I was tepid-to-undecided on the issue. And despite the fact that he worked around teenagers all day, he never quite warmed to Gigi. When he talked about our life together, discussion of cohabitation, marriage, and kids was always framed as “after Gigi leaves for college. ” There was something wrong about that.

So we parted ways, or at least, that was the plan. We had a cordial, friendly breakup, and we were proud of ourselves for handling it in such a mature fashion. Until a few weeks later, when Paul’s grandmother died, and he came to me for solace. And a month later, on the anniversary of my parents’ accident, he returned the favor for me. We developed a bad habit of turning to each other for comfort when we were sad, lonely, or just plain horny. The next morning, we’d realize what a huge mistake we’d made (again) and not speak for weeks, or we’d give dating another shot, only to break it off (again) a few days later and start the cycle all over again. It was a weird, naked trap that I couldn’t seem to climb out of.

Three months earlier, I’d realized what a bad example I was setting for Gigi and slowly but surely whittled Paul out of my life. No phone calls. No texts. Blocked on Twitter. Defriended on Facebook. It was the social-media equivalent of an Amish shunning, although technically, he hadn’t “wronged” me in any way. And he hadn’t noticed for nearly three months, which in itself was a pretty good reason to stop sleeping with him.

“I just don’t want to see you hurt, Iris. ”

“Geeg, there’s no chance of me being hurt. Those sorts of feelings aren’t involved anymore. Really. ”

“So you’re having sex with him because he happens to be there,” she said dryly.

“First of all, that hasn’t happened in months. And second, consider some context, please. The way you’re saying it sounds slutty and wrong. It’s not like I’m jumping some poor unsuspecting UPS guy. ”

She snorted. “Yes, UPS occasionally delivers. ” When I shot her a bewildered look, she rolled her eyes and added, “If the orgasms were real, you wouldn’t be so tense all the time. ”

“That’s not tr—” I stopped when she leveled me with that wry blue gaze. I threw my hands up. “Two out of three, OK? Two out of three of them are real. That’s not that bad. Meat Loaf even sang a song about it. ”

She leveled me with the patented, infuriating “I am Gigi, I see all” look.

I groaned. “Look, I don’t have time to devote to dating. I have to work. I have to take care of the house and do my penance at the concession stand to fulfill my obligation to a certain someone’s volleyball booster club. And I have to do my best parenting imitation so social services doesn’t reassign you to some nice missionary family. Case in point, you seem to be eating microwave popcorn for dinner. ”

“Corn’s a vegetable,” she protested. “And butter’s dairy, so that’s half of a balanced meal. ”

“Well, that explains your C in health and nutrition,” I muttered. “Anyway, the bottom line is that sometimes, I miss Paul. He was good to me, if nothing else. With him, I don’t have to …”

“Make an effort? Expect to be treated like a girlfriend and not a convenient warm body?”

“That’s not fair. I relinquished the title of girlfriend voluntarily. Why am I talking to you about this?” I spluttered. “I actually have something important to talk to you about. Something more important than my sad—”

“Pathetic,” she interjected.

“Love life,” I finished wryly. “You know, searing insight at your age just comes across as snotty, Gladiola Grace. ”

“Hey, hey, no using the birth name. That’s a clear violation of the sisterly trust. ” She cringed, poking me in the ribs.

“Paul is not here, but someone is in the house, and until I’m sure that it’s safe, I think you need to stay at a friend’s. ”

“Well, that was a sudden shift in conversation,” she deadpanned. “What do you mean, you don’t know whether it’s safe? Iris, what’s going on? This cloak-and-dagger drama isn’t you. You are Iris, patron saint of rational behavior. ”

“I know, I know. And I’m not trying to be dramatic. All I can say is that it’s necessary. ”

“For how long?” Gigi demanded.

“I don’t know. ”

She scowled. “You think I have friends whose parents will let me move into their houses indefinitely?”

“Not indefinitely,” I assured her. “Just a week or so. ”

I heard a shuffling noise behind me. Cal was ambling through the living room, looking like he was recovering from a three-day bender. “Hangover” was still a pretty good look for him, all rumpled and rough. His hair was mussed, and his fangs were down. Snapping out of my ogling of the undead, I dashed to the window to pull the shades and pulled a packet of donor Type A from the fridge.

I shoved it into his hands while ushering Gigi toward the door. There was no way to get Gigi out without opening the back door and exposing Cal to direct sunlight. But if he lunged for us, I was willing to yank it open.

Cal barely paid any attention to her, instead slumping against the blue-tile breakfast bar and reluctantly slugging back the cold donor blood. Keeping Gigi behind me, I put another bottle into the microwave to warm it.

“What the—what’s going on, Iris? Th-that is not Paul. ” Gigi spluttered.

“He followed me home,” I said, deadpan. “Can we keep him?”

Gigi eyed the tousled dark hair and the broad shoulders. She smirked and opened her mouth to speak.

“Don’t finish that thought, whatever it is,” I told her, my finger in her face.

“Who is this person?” Cal asked, his voice sleep-roughened and gruff.

“This is my sister. Gigi, this is my client, Cal. Just Cal, like Cher, with fewer plastic parts. He ran into a little trouble last night and had to stay here. It’s just a temporary situation. ”

“That you can’t tell anyone about,” Cal added hoarsely, his voice hovering on the edge of intimidation but not quite making it.

“That you can’t tell anyone about,” I echoed, nodding.

Gigi’s eyes shifted between the two of us. “OK. Cal, can I ask what you’ve done to my sister?”

Now it was Cal’s turn to splutter. “I haven’t done anything to her!”

An impish light flickered in Gigi’s eyes. “Well, then, I’m sort of sad for her. ” She ignored the indignant hiss from my side of the counter.

“How much to make her go to her room and stop talking to me?” Cal asked.

While I gaped at his rudeness, Gigi coughed a rather obvious “douchebag!” into her fist. I caught her eye and shook my head emphatically. Douche-coughing someone with superhearing was not a responsible choice.

Gigi rolled her eyes and cleared her throat. “I meant, how did you persuade my sensible, hyperrational sister to let you move in, even temporarily, without a plan or an end date or a chore chart?”

“Money,” Cal muttered, sipping his blood. “I’m always surprised by what people will do for money. ”

Gigi’s oceanic eyes widened in alarm. She whirled on me. “I thought you said we were doing OK!”

I shot a significant look at Cal, who was oblivious to the distress he’d just caused my anxiety-prone sister. “We are doing OK,” I insisted. “This will just help us build a little cushion between OK and good. ”

Cal snorted, taking another drink. “It should be a bit more than a little cushion. I’m sure it will let your sister take care of all the little things she’s been neglecting around the house. ” At my indignant gasp, he added, “It’s nothing to take personally. Most start-up businesses don’t show a profit before—”

“Gigi, would you mind going upstairs while I discuss a few things with our guest?”

My thin, forced smile made Gigi flinch. She turned to Cal. “You’re in for it now. The last time she smiled like that, she told off Mary Anne Gilchrist’s mom for piercing my ears without permission. I don’t know what she said, but Mrs. Gilchrist turned white as a—”

“Gigi!”

She huffed and rolled her eyes. “You know I’m going to listen at the door, right?”

“Go upstairs and pack a bag. ”

Gigi sighed and stomped up the steps to make a point. The point being that she was a big, adolescent pain in my butt.

“Do me a favor,” I said, rounding on Cal. “Keep your opinions about my house and my financial status to yourself. Gigi worries. ”

My icy tone made Cal’s brows arch. I could see the protest forming on his lips, but instead of objecting, he said, “Excuse me. I wasn’t thinking. ”

I nodded curtly. “How are you this afternoon?”

He sat heavily on a bar stool near the counter and leaned close to the giggling-caterpillar cookie jar. It struck me as a little funny, this big, manly vampire all docile and grumpy in our admittedly feminine kitchen. “Weak. Nauseated. Like I could fall back into my daytime sleep at any moment. I only came up to get more blood. The trip up the basement steps took an alarming amount of effort and concentration. ”

“I could put a cooler in your tent, if you’d like. It would save you some trouble. But are you sure it’s a good idea to drink more blood if you’re sick to your stomach?” His brow crinkled. Clearly, he didn’t understand my question. I’m guessing it had been a while since he’d had a tummy ache. “When humans are nauseated, they usually avoid eating so they don’t throw up. ”

“Yes, but I’m not human,” he responded snidely, as if the implication was insulting.

I ignored the haughty tone. “Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, considering the surroundings. ”

I chose to ignore that, too.

“What is this?” Cal inquired, looking up at the hanks of herbs hanging from the ceiling to dry.

“Cuttings, from my garden. Lavender, chamomile, mint. I like making my own herbal teas, sachets, potpourri, that sort of thing. And Gigi gets heat rash sometimes. Lavender baths help. ”

His eyes narrowed at me. “You seem to know an awful lot about plants. ”

I scoffed. “Yeah, that’s right, I poisoned you. I’m part of a mass antivampire conspiracy. And then, after I tampered with your blood, I snuck back to the scene of the crime, stumbled over your unconscious body, and took you back to my house, all so I could become your domestic servant. I am obviously the greatest criminal mastermind since Ponzi. ”

He snorted but didn’t say anything further. I let the kitchen steep in silence for a few beats. Cal didn’t seem to be doing much better than the day before. His hands shook slightly as they gripped the donor blood. His shoulders were slack, as if he had trouble lifting the weight of his head.
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