I woke up, which was a pleasant surprise all on its own. I was blinking up into an electric light set in a ceiling. I was alive, and I wasn't in the dungeon. Good things to know.
Why should it surprise me that I was alive? My fingers caressed the rough, knobby fabric of the couch I was lying on. There was a picture hanging over the couch. A river scene with flatboats, mules, people. Someone came to stand over me, long yellow hair, square-jawed, handsome face. Not as inhumanly beautiful as he had been to me before, but still handsome. I guess you had to be handsome to be a stripper.
My voice came out in a harsh croak. "Robert."
He knelt beside me. "I was afraid you wouldn't wake up before dawn. Are you hurt?"
"Where . . ." I cleared my throat and that helped a little. "Where am I?"
"Jean-Claude's office at Guilty Pleasures."
"How did I get here?"
"Nikolaos brought you. She said, 'Here's your master's whore.' " I watched his throat work as he swallowed. It reminded me of something, but I couldn't think what.
"You know what Jean-Claude has done?" I asked.
Robert nodded. "My master has marked you twice. When I speak to you, I am speaking to him."
Did he mean that figuratively or literally? I really didn't want to know.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
There was something in the way he asked it that meant I shouldn't feel all right. My throat hurt. I raised a hand and touched it. Dried blood. On my neck.
I closed my eyes, but that didn't help. A small sound escaped my throat, very like a whimper. Phillip's image was burned on my mind. The blood pouring from his throat, torn pink meat. I shook my head and tried to breathe deep and slow. It was no good. "Bathroom," I said.
Robert showed me where it was. I went inside, knelt on the cool floor, and threw up in the toilet, until I was empty and nothing but bile came up. Then I walked to the sink and splashed cold water in my mouth and on my face. I stared at myself in the mirror above the sink. My eyes looked black, not brown, my skin sickly. I looked like shit and felt worse.
And there on the right side of my neck was the real thing. Not Phillip's healing bite marks, but fang marks. Tiny, diminutive, fang marks. Nikolaos had...contaminated me. To prove she could harm Jean-Claude's human servant. She had proved how tough she was, oh, yeah. Real tough.
Phillip was dead. Dead. Try the word over in your mind, but could I say it out loud? I decided to try. "Phillip is dead," I told my reflection.
I crumbled the brown paper towel and stuffed it in the metal trash can. It wasn't enough. I screamed, "Ahhh!" I kicked the trash can, over and over until it toppled to the floor, spilling its contents.
Robert came through the door. "Are you all right?"
"Does it look like I'm all right?" I yelled.
He hesitated in the doorway. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"You couldn't even keep them from taking Phillip!"
He winced as if I had hit him. "I did my best."
"Well, it wasn't good enough, was it?" I was still screaming like a mad person. I sank to my knees, and all that rage choked up my throat and spilled out my eyes. "Get out!"
He hesitated. "Are you sure?"
"Get out of here!"
He closed the door behind him. And I sat in the floor and rocked and cried and screamed. When my heart felt as empty as my stomach, I felt leaden, used up.
Nikolaos had killed Phillip and bitten me to prove how powerful she was. I bet she thought I'd be scared absolutely shitless of her. She was right on that. But I spend most of my waking hours confronting and destroying things that I fear. A thousand-year-old master vampire was a tall order, but a girl's got to have a goal.
The club was quiet and dark. There was no one there but me. It must have been after dawn. The club was hushed and full of that waiting silence that all buildings get after the people go home. As if once we leave, the building has a life of its own, if only we would leave it in peace. I shook my head and tried to concentrate. To feel something. All I wanted was to go home and try to sleep. And pray I didn't dream.
There was a yellow Post-it note on the door. It read, "Your weapons are behind the bar. The master brought those, too. Robert."
I put both guns in place and the knives. The one I had used on Winter and Aubrey was missing. Was Winter dead? Maybe. Was Aubrey dead? Hopefully. Usually it took a master vampire to survive a blow to the heart, but I'd never tried it on a five-hundred-year-old walking corpse. If they took the knife out, he might be tough enough to survive it. I had to call Catherine. And tell her what? Get out of town, a vampire is after you. Didn't sound like something she'd buy. Shit.
I walked out into the soft white light of dawn. The street was empty and awash in that gentle morning air. The heat hadn't had time to creep in. It was almost cool. Where was my car? I heard footsteps a second before the voice said, "Don't move. I have a gun pointed at your back."
I clasped my hands atop my head without being asked. "Good morning, Edward," I said.
"Good morning, Anita," he said. "Stand very still, please." He stood just behind me, gun pressing against my spine. He frisked me completely, top to bottom. Nothing haphazard about Edward; that's one of the reasons he's still alive. He stepped back from me, and said, "You may turn around now."
He had my Firestar tucked into his belt, the Browning loose in his left hand. I don't know what he did with the knives.
He smiled, boyish and charming, gun very steadily pointed at my chest. "No more hiding. Where is this Nikolaos?" he asked.
I took a deep breath and let it out. I thought about accusing him of being the vampire murderer, but now didn't seem to be a good time. Maybe later, when he wasn't pointing a gun at me. "May I lower my arms?" I asked.
He gave a slight nod.
I lowered my arms slowly. "I want one thing clear between us, Edward. I'll give you the information, but not because I'm afraid of you. I want her dead. And I want a piece of it."
His smile widened, eyes glittering with pleasure. "What happened last night?"
I glanced down at the sidewalk, then up. I stared into his blue eyes and said, "She had Phillip killed."
He was watching my face very closely. "Go on."
"She bit me. I think she plans on making me a personal servant."
He put his gun back in his shoulder holster and came to stand next to me. He turned my head to one side to see the bite mark better. "You need to clean this bite. It's going to hurt like hell."
"I know. Will you help me?"
"Sure." His smile softened. "Here I was going to cause you pain to get information. Now you ask me to help you pour acid on a wound."
"Holy Water," I said.
"It's going to feel the same," he said.
Unfortunately, he was right.
I sat with my back pressed against the cool porcelain of the bathtub. The front and side of my shirt was clinging to me, water-soaked. Edward knelt beside me, a half-empty bottle of Holy Water in one hand. We were on the third bottle. I had thrown up only once. Bully for me.
We had started with me sitting on the edge of the sink. I had not stayed there long. I had jumped, yelled, and whimpered. I had also called Edward a son of a bitch. He didn't hold it against me.
"How do you feel?" he asked. His face was utterly blank. I couldn't tell if he was enjoying himself or hating it.
I glared up at him. "Like someone's been shoving a red-hot knife against my throat."
"I mean, do you want to stop and rest awhile?"
I took a deep breath. "No. I want it clean, Edward. All the way.'
He shook his head, almost smiled. "It is customary to do this over a matter of days, you know."
"Yes," I said.
"But you want it all in one marathon session?" His gaze was very steady, as if the question were more important than it seemed.
I looked away from the intensity of his eyes. I didn't want to be stared at right now. "I don't have a few days. I need this wound clean before nightfall."
"Because Nikolaos will come visit you again," he said.
"Yes," I said.
"And unless this first wound is purified, she'll have a hold on you."
I took a deep breath and it trembled. "Yes."
"Even if we clean the bite, she may still be able to call you. If she's as powerful as you say she is."
"She's that powerful and more." I rubbed my hands along my jeans. "You think Nikolaos can turn me against you, even if we clean the bite?" I looked up at him then, hoping to be able to read his face.
He stared down at me. "We vampire slayers take our chances."
"That wasn't a no," I said.
He gave a flash of smile. "It wasn't a yes, either."
Oh, goody, Edward didn't know either. "Pour some more on, before I lose my nerve."
He did smile then, eyes gleaming. "You will never lose your nerve. Your life, probably, but never your nerve."
It was a compliment and meant as one. "Thank you."
He put a hand on my shoulder, and I turned my face away. My heart was thudding in my throat until all I could hear was my blood pulsing inside my head. I wanted to run, to lash out, to scream, but I had to sit there and let him hurt me. I hate that. It had always taken at least two people to give me injections when I was a child. One person to man the needle and one to hold me down.
Now I held myself down. If Nikolaos bit me twice, I would probably do anything she wanted me to. Even kill. I had seen it happen before, and that vampire had been child's play compared to the master.
The water trickled down my skin and hit the bite mark like molten gold, scalding through my body. It was eating through my skin and bone. Destroying me. Killing me.
I shrieked. I couldn't hold it. Too much pain. Couldn't run away. Had to scream.
I was lying on the floor, my cheek pressed against the coolness of it, breathing in short, hungry gasps.
"Slow your breathing, Anita. You're hyperventilating. Breathe, slow and easy, or you're going to pass out."
I opened my mouth and took in a deep breath; it wheezed and screamed down my throat. I was choking on air. I coughed and fought to breathe. I was light-headed and a little sick by the time I could take a deep breath, but I hadn't passed out. A zillion brownie points for me.
Edward almost had to lie on the floor to put his face near mine. "Can you hear me?"
I managed, "Yes."
"Good. I want to try to put the cross against the bite. Do you agree or do you think it's too soon?"
If we hadn't cleansed the wound with enough Holy Water, the cross would burn me, and I'd have a fresh scar. I had been brave above and beyond the call of duty. I didn't want to play anymore. I opened my mouth to say, "No," but it wasn't what came out. "Do it," I said. Shit. I was going to be brave.
He brushed my hair away from my neck. I lay on the floor and pressed my hands into fists, trying to prepare myself. There is no real way to prepare yourself for somebody shoving a branding iron into your neck.
The chain rustled and slithered through Edward's hands. "Are you ready?"
No. "Just do it, dammit."
He did. The cross pressed against my skin, cool metal, no burning, no smoke, no seared flesh, no pain. I was pure, or as pure as I started out.
He dangled the crucifix in front of my face. I grabbed it with one hand and squeezed until my hand shook. It didn't take long. Tears seeped from the corners of my eyes. I wasn't crying, not really. I was exhausted.
"Can you sit up?" he asked.
I nodded and forced myself to sit, leaning against the bathtub.
"Can you stand up?" he asked.
I thought about it, and decided no, I didn't think I could. My whole body was weak, shaky, nauseous. "Not without help."
Edward knelt beside me, put an arm behind my shoulders and one under my knees, and lifted me in his arms. He stood in one smooth motion, no strain.
"Put me down," I said.
He looked at me. "What?"
"I am not a child. I don't want to be carried."
He drew a loud breath, then said, "All right." He lowered me to my feet and let go. I staggered against the wall and slid to the floor. The tears were back, dammit. I sat in the floor, crying, too weak to walk from my bathroom to my bed. God!
Edward just stood there, looking down at me, face neutral and unreadable as a cat.
My voice came out almost normal, no hint of crying. "I hate being helpless. I hate it!"
"You are one of the least helpless people I know," Edward said. He knelt beside me again, draped my right arm over his shoulders, grabbed my right wrist with his hand. His other arm encircled my waist. The height difference made it a little awkward, but he managed to give me the illusion that I walked to the bed.
The stuffed penguins sat against the wall. Edward hadn't said anything about them. If he wouldn't mention it, I wouldn't. Who knows, maybe Death slept with a teddy bear? Naw.
The heavy drapes were still closed, leaving the room in permanent twilight. "Rest. I'll stand guard and see that none of the bogeys sneak up on you."
I believed him.
Edward brought the white chair from the living room and sat it against the bedroom wall, near the door. He slipped his shoulder holster back on, gun ready at hand. He had brought a gym bag up from the car with us. He unzipped it and drew out what looked like a miniature machine gun. I didn't know much about machine guns, and all I could think of was an Uzi.
"What kind of gun is that?" I asked.
What do you know? I had been right. He popped the clip and showed me how to load it, where the safety was, all the finer points, like it was a new car. He sat down in the chair with the machine gun on his knees.
My eyes kept fluttering shut, but I said, "Don't shoot any of my neighbors, okay?"
I think he smiled. "I'll try not to."
I nodded. "Are you the vampire murderer?"
He smiled then, bright, charming. "Go to sleep, Anita."
I was on the edge of sleep when his voice called me back, soft and faraway. "Where is Nikolaos's daytime retreat?"
I opened my eyes and tried to focus on him. He was still sitting in the chair, motionless. "I'm tired, Edward, not stupid." His laughter bubbled up around me as I fell asleep.