Chasing daybreak, p.25
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       Chasing Daybreak, p.25

           Ranae Glass
 

  The guard left me in some kind of office, which I assumed belonged to Xavier, with a bottle of water and a golden chenille blanket draped over my shoulders. As soon as I was alone, I could think again. I’d never had a panic attack before, but I could imagine that was what they felt like. I hated feeling out of control; it made me feel so weak. Using a bit of my water and the corner of the blanket, I carefully wiped the dark mascara stains from my face, praying that no one had witnessed my little meltdown. Especially Shane and Xavier. I hated the idea that Shane might feel sorry for me. I also hated the idea that Xavier might see me as a simpering, needy human.

  My dad was a cop. The rule in the house when I was growing up was always, Don’t cry unless you’re bleeding. Sometimes not even then. The fact that I’d let my emotions get the better of me was equal parts disturbing and embarrassing.

  No one would blame me, not after the week I’d had. Fires, dead bodies, long-lost sisters, werewolves, and of course, all the vampire nonsense, were all contributing factors, I told myself. It wasn’t just Shane leaving that had shaken me. It was everything, my whole life. I’d held it all at bay for so long that at the first emotional crack in the wall, it had all come flooding out.

  Swimming back to my full faculties, I took a long drink of water, tossed the blanket off, and rose to wander around the room. I admired the photographs on the walls. Some were in color but most were black and white or sepia.

  The one that caught my eye above all the others was one of Xavier with, if I wasn’t mistaken, Amelia Earhart. They were both dressed in 1940’s aviator chic, complete with leather pilot’s jackets and goggles, but what really struck me was the smile on his face. It was a real smile, the kind that lights up your eyes, the kind of smile that makes other people smile, too. The expression illuminated his already-handsome face.

  I’d seen Xavier pretending to be human, but in the picture, all traces of his vampire nature were gone. I mean, if I didn’t know he was much older than that, I might have thought from looking at the picture that he was human. It wasn’t the uncomfortable fake-human act he’d put on for me. It was sincere. Honest. I wondered if he could still do that, let his guard down and just smile. I assumed it was something vamps lost with age, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe they had to be hard and cold because of the world they lived in, not because they lost the ability to do, to be anything else. Reaching out, I traced his image with my fingertip.

  “That was the year I learned how to fly.”

  I jumped at Xavier interrupting my thoughts. “Oh, God,” I yelped. “You can’t sneak up on me like that!”

  I turned to see him leaning against the doorjamb, legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded over his chest. His costume—Did you still call it a costume if it’d been part of your wardrobe once?—reminded me of a cross between a pirate and David Bowie in Labyrinth, all ruffles and golden embroidery. He looked hot with a capital H, but then, what else was new?

  “So, you knew Amelia Earhart?” I asked pointing to the picture.

  “I did. She was an amazing woman and a good friend.”

  “Do you know what really happened to her?” I asked jokingly.

  His body tensed for a second, then relaxed again, but his tone was cold when he said, “She crashed and died.”

  Apparently, not a joking matter to him. In an effort to get my foot out of my mouth, I said, “I’m sorry you lost such a good friend.”

  He shrugged. “Such is the definition of a mortal life.”

  There wasn’t much to say to that, so I just nodded.

  Xavier reached out a hand as if to touch the frame, but he paused short. “You humans are so very fragile and so very unique, like snowflakes.”

  His voice was soft, uncurling in my head like a flower blossoming. Part of his vamp tricks, I figured. Still, it was soothing, and that made it hard to care.

  “Who’s this?” I pointed to a more recent picture of Xavier standing beside a young man in a black graduation gown.

  I wasn’t trying to be nosy. Part of me just wanted to keep the conversation going in a direction away from work and death. Avoidance could be such a blessing sometimes.

  “That is Devon Shannon, my last human relative. He graduated from MIT last spring.”

  “He’s very handsome.” I said, and I meant it. He looked a great deal like Xavier might have as a human.

  “Yes, he takes after my sister, his great-great-great-great-grandmother. She would be proud.”

  “You seem proud, too.”

  Xavier nodded, looking away. “I am.”

  “So, is he going to be chosen?”

  Xavier’s eyes darkened. “No. No, he will live out his life as he’s meant to.”

  I was two-for-two in the scraping a nerve department. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to assume. It’s just that I figured you’d be glad to have him as part of the Conclave family.”

  “Conclave is a family in many ways. But nothing can replace blood. You see, if Devon turns, my family line dies out.”

  I smiled to lighten the mood. “So are all vampires this big on family, or is it just you?”

  “It is my one great regret. That I never had the opportunity to have a family, children of my own. You’d be amazed how things that seem to matter so little in the blush of youth can come to haunt you as time passes.”

  His voice was so sad, so haunted. I wanted to reach out, to comfort him in some small way, but I didn’t know how. Some things you couldn’t make better with pretty words and hugs. Some things you just had to accept and move on from.

  “You wanted to talk to me?” I asked, breaking the uncomfortable silence that was quickly developing.

  “I do. Please.” He motioned to the chair across from the desk. Unlike his other office, this desk held only a stack of old books and a notepad with a pen tucked into the spiral coil binding it.

  I sat, taking another sip of water, and waited for him to speak. He’d called this little meeting after all.

  “I was born in Southern Louisiana in 1793. My father was a wealthy Spanish merchant, and my mother was his French mistress. After I was born, my father abandoned us. My mother took a job as a seamstress for another wealthy family and was quickly looked upon by the man of the house. My sister was born later that year. It was just the three of us for so long. We lived on scraps, whatever we could beg or steal. When I was fifteen, I took a job on a pirate ship captained by Jean Laffite. I always intended to go home after making my fortune on the high seas. But years passed and I grew selfish. I never forgot about them, I simply made excuse after excuse until…” He paused, his face distant as if lost in the memory. “One day, we were in port and I was a brazen youth of twenty-two by then. A beautiful woman glanced at me. She was obviously wealthy, her clothes were the finest, and her hair hung in rich, perfect, ebony curls. She invited me with her eyes the way only a woman can. I intended to bed her and rob her. What she had in mind for me was much worse. I became a vampire that night.”

  “Why are you telling me this?” I asked softly.

  As he spoke, I could see the careful façade he’d built around himself begin to crack. His voice shook slightly, and his eyes were haunted, as if the ghosts of his past were hovering in front of him.

  “You are a smart woman, Isabel,” he began, resting his arms on the desk.

  “Um, thanks?”

  “And talented. And beautiful.” He smiled, and I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “I understand that Shane was your espoused, but now things are…platonic?”

  I nodded, completely thrown off by where the conversation was headed.

  “Yet tonight, he has joined us. I know that causes you some distress.” He leaned forward. “So I must ask. Do you still love him?”

  I let out the breath I’d been holding and laughed. “Yes, in some ways. I think I hate him a little, too,” I added in all honesty. “But he’s important to me.”

  “Important how?”

  “Important enough that if you guys hadn’t p
ut Irena down after what she did, I would have. Important enough to kill for, to die for. He’s…” I struggled for a way to make him understand “… family.”

  “Like a brother? Perhaps an uncle?” he asked, his voice dead serious.

  It was enough to raise my hackles. “Okay, what’s the deal?” I asked flatly, folding my hands in my lap. “What does any of this matter? What’s done is done.”

  “I ask because I wish to woo you.”

  “Woo what?” I asked, confused.

  He sighed. “Woo. I would like to—how is it said now? Hook up.” Xavier’s eyebrows raised almost playfully, his face softened and hopeful with a half-smile.

  I stood up so quickly that the chair fell over behind me. “Hold it right there. If you think there is any chance in hell of you and me having sex, you’re crazy.”

  He stood up as well and walked toward me, every movement slow and deliberate. Flipping the strands of ebony hair from his face, he revealed his piercing, sky-blue eyes. His skin was pale and smooth, his lips pale pink and thin. His face was thin but chiseled, high cheekbones and one tiny dimple that I knew would appear only when he smiled. But he wasn’t smiling now; he was looking at me with hungry desire from under his dark lashes.

  “Why? Do you find me so repulsive?” He leaned in so our bodies were nearly touching. With one finger, he stroked my cheek, sending an army of shivers across my skin. He smelled like copper pennies and the night after a rainstorm. When he leaned forward slowly, gently pressing his lips against mine, I didn’t stop him.

  It had been a very long time since a man had touched me like that, and as if on instinct, my body rose to meet him. The blood rushed to my face, flushing me so hard I could feel it like flames on the tips of my ears. He slipped one hand behind me, his fingers splayed across the small of my back. The other hand moved down the line of my body, resting on my thigh for only a moment before traveling again.

  I gasped, part in surprise, part in raw, consuming need. As of their own accord, my hands wandered too, one clutching the back of his neck, the other slowly caressing its way down his chest to the hard bulge of his pants.

  All at once, I came back to myself, as if crashing back to earth after soaring above it for far too long. It was more embarrassment than physical pain, but the throbbing between my legs was deep and achy.

  I took a step back and put my hands up, as if that simple, stupid, human gesture could hold him at bay. “I’m sorry, but this can’t happen.”

  His face fell, like he’d never been rejected before, making me feel instantly guilty. “I mean, you’re a good-looking guy, sure. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to hook up with you.”

  “But you are emotionally compromised. Perhaps I could make you feel better.”

  He reached out and grazed my cheek with his fingers, which I promptly slapped away. Okay, maybe not promptly. I did have time to notice the cool, soft texture of his skin. Then I slapped his hand away.

  “First of all, I’m not emotionally compromised, you dick,” I said, fighting the urge to wipe my eyes to be sure I’d removed all traces of my earlier tears. “Second, that’s not how it works. You don’t just jump in the sack with someone because you think they’re cute.”

  “Then how is it done?” he asked earnestly.

  I shrugged. “You, you know, woo. You go to dinner and movies and get to know each other. It’s called dating.”

  He raised an eyebrow. “That seems like a waste of time. I want you. I can see that you want me. I can hear your pulse speed up when you look at me—feel your body tense when I touch you. Why should we bother dating?”

  “We don’t date. I don’t date vampires. Or sleep with them. Ever.”

  “Because you think we are monsters?” His question was a husky whisper.

  “No. I knew I could never have a life with Shane after he was turned. Not because he was a monster, but because we were suddenly on two different paths. I had—have—a plan for my life. I wanted to be a teacher, to get married, raise a family. I wanted a husband, a partner I could grow old with. I wanted to watch my grandchildren play in Battery Park.

  “I still want those things,” I admitted, taking another step back.

  It was my plan. Even though the first part hadn’t worked out so well, it didn’t mean I couldn’t have the rest.

  “I see. And those were things he could no longer give you.”

  “Exactly.”

  “But what does any of that have to do with sex?”

  Although his voice was seductive again, it had less of an effect on me that time. I shook my head.

  “I’m not one of those girls who just has sex with whoever. I want to be with someone I love, to give myself to someone I want to be with forever.” I bit my lip as the last words left my mouth, but then continued quickly, “I’m sure there are lots of girls who’d be happy to have a roll in the hay with you.” I pointed my thumb back toward my chest. “Just not this one.”

  Xavier took a step back and looked at me with his head tilted, like I’d just done a magic trick or something, and he was trying to figure it out. “Very well. I’m sorry if I offended you.”

  I waved it off. “It’s fine. I’m going home now.”

  “But, I think I would still like to woo you. You are a most fascinating woman, Isabel.” He lowers his voice to a dry whisper, “And you taste like strawberries and champagne.”

  I rolled my eyes. “Seriously, please don’t. I have enough on my plate right now.”

  He smiled, the dimple appearing, “That’s not a no.”

  I wasn’t sure if I just didn’t have the energy to correct him or if somewhere deep down, I liked the idea of being pursued by a good-looking guy, even if nothing would ever come of it.

  Before I walked out the door, I added over my shoulder, “Look after Shane, okay?”

  “I will,” he promised.

  Taking him at his word, I nodded and left the room. I hadn’t made it as far as the front door before a scream and a crash drew me back to the ballroom. I kicked off my heels and ran full out, hiking up the hem of my gown as I moved.

  The crowd had parted, and the music stopped. Mercy was screaming. Shane was lying on the floor, blood pouring out of his mouth as he heaved. The man who’d sat beside Xavier during the ceremony was standing over Shane, wiping a gouge in his neck with a handkerchief.

  “What happened?” I screamed at Mercy.

  Seeing me, her face twisted in rage. “This is your fault!” She pointed her finger in my face.

  I skidded on my knees to a stop in front of Shane. He’d made it to all fours and was spitting blood onto the floor as his whole body convulsed.

  Xavier must have come up behind me because I heard him demand, “Explain.”

  Ahnarra answered. “Sir, the neonate said something to Gerard about a dead human. Gerard told Shane to leave the detective to him, and Shane attacked him.”

  Even as he barked orders, Xavier grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up, tossing me like a rag doll to one of the guards. “Get Ms. Stone home. Clear out all the humans. Gerard, Ahnarra, Shane, to my office.” I started to protest, but he turned to me. “This is a Conclave matter.” Over his shoulder, he added, “And Mercy, clean this mess up.”

  “You promised to look after him,” I reminded him quietly.

  Mercy shot Xavier a look of shock, and then of insolence, but said nothing. I smiled over the shoulder of the guard who was carrying me toward the door. As I was being hauled off, I saw Shane rise to his feet, blood still dripping from his chin. He gave me a subtle nod, letting me know he was all right. For now at least.

  This was what Shane wanted, I told myself. Mercy being put in her place was just a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day. Shane would be in deep trouble, that much I knew, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. He’d have to hold his own with his new ‘family.’ As much as I wanted to help, I knew I couldn’t.

  The guard put me down at the door, letting me walk to the car m
yself. A few flashbulbs went off, but they quickly recognized me as a mere human and turned their attention to the more exotic vampire guard. They shouted at him, everything from “How’s the party?” to “How can you justify your existence?” Without Shane on my arm, I was no longer newsworthy.

  I slid as gracefully as possible into the shiny, black stretch limo, the noise from the crowd outside going from a deafening roar to barely audible. Suddenly, it was my wedding day all over again. In that silent car, it felt like someone had punched a hole in my chest. I wasn’t sure if it was just the emotions from that night or the devastation from that miserable day so long ago seeping back into my soul, but I’d never felt so alone in my entire life.

  “Where to, Miss?” the driver asked, snapping me out of my pity party.

  “Take me home.”

 
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