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     The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires, p.9

       part  #1 of  Half Moon Hollow Series  by  Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
Page 9


I tried to keep the ogling to a minimum, for my own dignity’s sake. But his stomach tapered down from his hips into a solid V, something I’d only seen on the covers of those men’s health magazines … which I read for the articles.

My eyes strayed south. A couple of times.

I’m only human.

My charge, however, was not human. And he would probably wake up soon either to vomit or to snack on me. So I needed to wrap up the sponge bath and go do some work that was not related to Mr. Sensitive Upchuck Reflex. I did have other clients, and I couldn’t exactly tell them that I was neglecting their needs because I’d brought a stray vampire home with me. It might give them ideas.

I set myself back to my task, carefully scrubbing the drying blood from the strange little valleys between his abdominal muscles, the dip of his navel. His skin was feeling warmer, softer, nearly human, as I worked down his body. The blood clung to the little hairs trailing toward his hips. I lifted the sheet to wipe it away and squeaked.

Somehow I had forgotten that he was naked. Clenching my eyes shut, I dropped the sheet.

Think of the money, my brain scolded itself. Wait, no, don’t think of the money; that can’t be right.

I tucked the sheet around his hips and grabbed a towel to mop up the excess water. I pressed it to Cal’s chest and felt a strong hand close around my wrist. A wry, rumbling voice said, “I don’t know what exactly you expect from this arrangement, Miss Scanlon. But I have no interest in providing additional services in exchange for my time here. ”

I was confused. Did he just imply that I was some sort of predatory spinster? I was feeling less guilty about whacking him on the nose.

I yanked my arm out of his grip. I smiled acidly at him. “I’m sure you think this is a real treat for me, but let me assure you that I have no interest in you or your … vampire package. ”

I was proud that I was able to string together such a cogent, haughty-sounding rebuttal. But a tiny, insistent voice in my head noted that I was, in fact, interested in his vampire package; otherwise, I wouldn’t keep looking at it.

He grinned, almost loopily, like a hausfrau who’d had too many glasses of wine at a book-club meeting. “Really? Because I detect a nice, tangy note of feminine arousal in the room. And I don’t think it’s coming from me. ”

I leaned closer than was probably advisable when dealing with an out-of-sorts creature of the night. I growled. “I know vampires are supposed to be the Space Mountain of the sexual carnival. But I have made it a point not to become directly involved in anything in your world, and that includes …”

“Behaving in the manner of a deranged howler monkey?” he offered blandly, cocking his head to the side and studying my face.

I dropped my head in defeat, groaning. “Gigi. ”

“Your eyes are such a lovely shade of blue,” he said, tilting my chin so he could stare up at me. I blushed, busying myself with putting away the wet washcloth. And then he had to ruin it by squinting and asking, “Have you always had four of them?”

“Four what?”

“Eyes. ”

“Hey, are you OK?” I asked, placing a hand against his cheek. His skin felt clammy, damp, like my own after a fever had broken.

Vampires weren’t supposed to get fevers.

“Cal?”

Waving his hand in front of his face, as if he’d never seen his own fingers before, he asked, “Where was I?”

“Howler monkeys. ”

He gave me a lopsided grin. “It was the last thing I heard before I …”

“Passed out,” I supplied.

He frowned. “Vampires don’t pass out. ”

“They do if they’ve been poisoned and severely weakened. ”

He narrowed his eyes at me. “You enjoy pointing that out, don’t you?”

I smirked, and his own lips curled at the sight of it. “A little. ”



When Cal inevitably dozed off again, I checked my calendar. I had a few deliveries to make the next day, not to mention picking up Ms. Wexler’s dry-cleaning and meeting the contractor who was installing a sizable blood chiller in Mr. Kraznov’s kitchen pantry.

I had three missed calls from clients, not to mention an obscene number of e-mails. Working my way through the requests, complaints, and demands, I took notes and filed them in my day planner. I made lists and a to-do spreadsheet.

Still, if he didn’t improve, I wasn’t comfortable leaving Cal alone in the house while I went to work. He wasn’t well. What if he got worse or threw up on something irreplaceable? I doubted he would be amused if he woke up unattended. He would probably consider it a violation of our verbal contract.

I was going to have to call my backup—Jolene Lavelle, a friend of Jane’s who sometimes filled in for me. Jolene, a stay-at-home mother of twins, was happy to have a reason to leave the house during the day. And riding around in the car was the only way she could get her babies to nap in the afternoons. It was a win-win.

Crap.

Jane.

I’d planned Jane Jameson’s wedding to her sire, Gabriel Nightengale, the year before. A recently turned librarian who’d opened an occult bookshop, she was a handy reference for new vampires in the area, and it was always interesting to see what sort of mess she’d created for herself.

For instance, on the night of her wedding, she was kidnapped by an angry redneck bent on revenge. I spent several hours coaxing her family into staying at the wedding site by opening the bar early, creative use of charades, and finally, hiding as many purses as I could within the depths of Jane’s house so they couldn’t leave. I endured passive-aggressive insults, threats of an “ass whipping,” and several attempts to recruit me into selling Tupperware. And that was just from Jane’s cousin Junie.

When she found out about my “heroics” in dealing with her relatives, Jane pledged her eternal friendship to me—which takes on a whole new meaning when it’s coming from a vampire. Funny, brilliant, and just awkward enough to make my job interesting, she was one of the few brides I actually wanted to maintain contact with after the ceremony. I went into her shop, Specialty Books, on occasion just to touch base. And there had been a few movie nights, a disastrous excursion to a night spa, and a failed attempt to start a book club. We never managed to get the book discussion going because Jolene got distracted by the snacks.

And because Jane had signed on as one of my day-walker clients, I’d delivered a case of Faux Type O to her house a week before. Jane, her husband, Gabriel, and her recently turned teenage protégé, Jamie, drank it on a regular basis. Cal said that most of the affected bottles had been reclaimed by the Council, but what if a bad one got mixed in with her delivery? What if she drank it around her very human friend Zeb? Or Jolene or their twins? Or God forbid, her living family members? I couldn’t risk my friend getting hurt or hurting someone she cared about over something as stupid as vampire PR.

On quiet feet, I crept toward the far side of the house. Glancing down the hallway and listening for sounds of stirring from Cal’s room, I surreptitiously dialed Jane’s number. On the other end of the line, I heard a yawn and a string of curses while Jane bobbled her cell and dropped it on the nightstand before finally putting it to her ear. “Yello?”

“Jane, it’s Iris. ”

“Iris?” she mumbled. “Did you get the Q-tips out of the VCR?”

“Jane, wake up!”

“M’wake,” she muttered. “I feel the urge to reach through the phone and smack you, which means I’m awake. ”

“Right back at you. Look, I can’t really talk right now, but I need you to do me a favor. Don’t drink any synthetic blood. Throw anything that you have in the house away. Tell Dick and Andrea to do the same. ”

“You know, you’re the second person this week to give me dietary advice,” Jane said, yawning loudly.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you know Jamie’s dating Ophelia, from the Council? She came by the house with a whole case of donor blood the other day. Said she wanted Jamie to eat better and was worried that synthetic blood wasn’t fulfilling his dietary needs. That’s not unusual, because she frequently implies that I’m not properly parenting him. What was weird was that she insisted on dumping out my entire supply of Faux Type O down the drain. ” Jane paused for a long yawn. I could hear Gabriel murmuring in the background. “I take it this is not just a conspiratorial campaign to keep me from getting all chunky postmarriage?”

“I can’t say. ”

“Well, if I’ve learned anything since being turned, it’s that when people offer you cryptic, half-assed advice for your own good, you should follow it to the letter,” she said, snorting loudly.

“Just promise me you won’t buy any more. Stay on donor blood until further notice. And I know you’re not really a live feeder, but maybe you should consider contracting with a blood surrogate for a while. I have contact information for a couple of them in the area, very discreet, healthy—”

“Can we stay away from arrangements that sound like you’re engaging in human trafficking for me?”

“Jane. ”

I could hear her voice muffled by the pillow she was burying her face in. “OK, I’m going back to sleep now. I will follow your vague, unhelpful advice, as is my lot in life. I’ll call Andrea tonight. ”

“Good girl. Sleep tight. ” I hung up the phone and felt a bit better about my participation in these bizarre vampiric shenanigans. I was contemplating a cup of chamomile tea when I heard a voice behind me.

“You’re not very good at following instructions, are you?”

I turned to find Cal standing behind me, leaning heavily against the door frame. He looked exhausted, drained, but I supposed that sleeping in such a weird pattern for the last day had screwed up his internal clock. As it was, he was barely standing but still looked irritated enough that he could take my head off with little provocation or physical effort.

He was wearing a pair of navy sweatpants that barely covered his hips, hugging that well-defined V that I’d found so fascinating just a few hours before. Now I could barely look at it, look at him. His eyes were trained so intently on me that I was afraid I would freeze, like a mouse in front of a stalking cobra. The crown molding was suddenly downright captivating.

I stepped back against the counter as he stumbled into the room, glaring at me. His skin was still pale but tinged a dull pink. His eyes were glassy and bright, as if a fever was raging through his system. He stopped just in front of me, lurching forward, bracing his hands on the countertop on either side of my hips.

He snarled. “I told you not to tell anyone. Did you think that meant ‘except for the people you deem special enough to tell’?”

I fought the instinct to shrink back like a caged animal. I stood ramrod-straight, eyes trained on his. “My friend Jane lives with two other vampires, so there’s quite a bit of bottled blood circulating through their fridge. She works in a shop where humans visit every day. She has contact with her family. Would you rather she hurt someone she cares about? That would leave you with a considerable PR mess on your hands, wouldn’t it? I’m doing you a favor. ”

“The tainted blood was quietly, quickly tracked down and accounted for. There are no more tainted bottles on the shelves. You would have known that if you’d asked. ”

“So why did Ophelia switch out Jamie’s blood?”

“Ophelia’s paranoid and overprotective of her boyfriend. ” He growled, bristling at my admittedly prissy tone. “So next time, instead of using your own judgment, I would rather you do what I ask you to, particularly when it was such a reasonable request. I would like to be able to trust you. ”
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