Michelle Rowen

buy celexa | buy zithromax online | buy cipro online | buy nexium online | buy abilify online | buy clomid

BBB Cover

Blood Bath & Beyond

(An Immortality Bites Mystery #1)

August 7, 2012

NAL Obsidian
ISBN-10: 0451237641
ISBN-13: 978-0451237644

Sarah Dearly is adjusting to life as a fledgling vampire, satisfying her cravings at vampire-friendly blood banks. But when her fiance Thierry takes a job with the Ring—the secret council in charge of keeping vampires in line—Sarah’s about to get more than a taste of danger…

Being engaged to a centuries-old master vampire can be challenging—especially when he takes a job with the Ring. Thierry’s in for fifty years of nonstop travel and deadly risk. It’s enough to make any woman reconsider the wedding…any woman except Sarah, that is!

Traveling with him to Las Vegas for his first assignment, they encounter a child beauty pageant contestant from hell, as well as a vampire serial killer leaving victims drained of blood, potentially exposing the existence of vampires to the whole world. But when Thierry’s truly ancient history comes back to haunt him, and he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, it’s up to Sarah to clear his name before their immortal lives come to an end.

“A bloody hysterical paranormal mystery!” –New York Times Bestselling Author Victoria Laurie

4-1/2 star TOP PICK! “Rowen jumps from paranormal romance to paranormal mystery without skipping a beat…Here’s hoping Sarah will have many more adventures in her new series.”RT BookReviews

5 star TOP PICK! (Rowen makes) the transition from paranormal romance to paranormal mystery with ease. Her writing is sharp, witty and does not disappoint. The ending will delight both old and new fans, and leave you thirsting for the next installment. —Night Owl Reviews

Order from:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Chapters | Indiebound | Penguin.com


CHECK OUT THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS!!

The fangs don’t get nearly as much attention as you’d think.

Your average, everyday person doesn’t notice that they’re sharper than normal human canines. If they did, they’d have to deal with the possibility that vampires really exist. It’s a survival instinct on their part, culminating from centuries of living side by side with something they’d prefer to think of as a fictional predatory monster. Or, more recently, as an eternally sparkling teenager.

Real vampires make up approximately 0.1% of the population — that’s one in a thousand. So, worldwide, there are about six million vampires.

Humans just don’t see us. It does help that, despite what you might have heard, we can go outside into the sunshine on a lovely early June day like today without turning into a pile of ashes. We blend in with regular human society just fine and dandy.

It’s kind of like we’re invisible.

Someone bashed into me when I glanced down at the screen of my phone as I walked down the busy sidewalk.

“Hey!” the woman snarled. “Watch where you’re going, you dumb bitch!”

“Bite me,” I replied sweetly, then added under my breath, “Or I might bite you.”

She gave me the finger, stabbing it violently in my direction as if it were a tiny, flesh-colored sword.

Okay, maybe we’re not totally invisible.

I couldn’t help that I had a natural-born talent to rub people the wrong way. It had very little to do with me being a vampire and more to do with me just being . . . me. I liked to think it was simply part of my charm.

I looked bleakly at the phone again. No messages. No calls. It felt like everyone I knew had recently deserted me. It wasn’t far from the truth, actually. Last month, my parents had moved to Florida to a retirement community. Two weeks ago, my best male friend, George, had headed for Hawaii to open a surf shop after he won a small fortune in a local lottery. And now, my best girlfriend and her husband were in the process of moving to British Columbia so she could take a job in cosmetics management.

“We’ll totally stay in touch,” Amy said to me at the airport before she got on her flight an hour ago. I’d met her there to say a last good-bye.

I hugged her fiercely. “Of course we will.”

Her husband stood nearby, giving me the evil eye like he usually did. We’d never really gotten along all that well. You win some, you lose some. “Are you finished yet? We’re going to miss our flight.”

I forced a smile. “I’m even going to miss you, Barry.”

He just looked at his wristwatch.

Amy smiled brightly. “This is a new beginning, Sarah. For both of us. We have to embrace change.”

I hated change.

I did hope to see her again soon, not too far into the future.

The future was something I thought about a lot these days. After all, as a fledgling vampire, sired only seven months ago, I had a lot of future to look forward to. I just hoped it wouldn’t suck too much.

Yes, that was me. Sarah Dearly, immortal pessimist. I had to turn my frown upside down. Right now, I was so far down in the dumps that the raccoons had arrived and were starting to sniff around. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

It seemed as if new opportunities and new adventures had been presented to everyone but me, like they’d won the lottery — literally in one case — and I’d mistakenly put my ticket in the wash and now couldn’t even read the numbers.

“You look sad,” someone said.

I glanced over my shoulder, surprised to see a clown standing at the side of the street holding a bunch of balloons.

White makeup, poufy costume covered in colorful polka dots. Red hair. A hat with a fake flower springing out of it. Big red nose. The works.

It was like a bad omen. Clowns scared the crap out of me.

“Sad? Who me?” I said warily, slipping my phone back in my shoulder bag. “Nah, I’m just melancholy today. There’s a difference, you know. Please don’t murder me.”

“Somebody needs a happy happy balloon to make her happy happy.” He handed me a yellow ribbon tied to a shiny red balloon. I looked up at it.

“Yes,” I said. “This will make all the difference in the world. Thank you so much. Now life is happy happy for me again.”

The clown glared at me. “No reason to be sarcastic, lady.”

“I don’t need a reason.”

“The balloon’s five bucks.”

“Three.”

“Four.”

“Sold.” I grinned, then fished into my purse and pulled out the money. “Thanks so much, Bozo.”

“It’s Mr. Chuckles.”

“Whatever.”

The balloon did cheer me up more than I would have guessed. It reminded me of going to the National Exhibition with my mother every fall when I was a kid. Popcorn, cotton candy, hot dogs, and balloons. High-calorie memories with a little bit of helium and latex thrown in for good measure. Those were good times.

I’d needed the walk to clear my head. My head was officially cleared, so I returned to the huge luxury townhome I shared with my fiancé and let myself in.

Immediately, I sensed there was something different there. A big clue to this was the large black suitcase placed by the front door.

I heard Thierry on the phone, speaking French to someone. He was fluent, since he was originally from France centuries ago.

Yes, my fiancé was significantly older than me — by about six hundred years or so.

Some of the words I understood:

“Aujourd’hui,” which I knew meant today.

“Seul,” which meant alone.

“D’accord,” which meant alrighty.

“Importante” . . . well, that one didn’t really need a translator.

Thierry entered the front foyer with his phone pressed to his left ear. He stopped when he saw me standing there gaping at him.

À bientôt, Bernard.” He slipped the phone into the inside pocket of his black suit jacket. “Sarah, I was about to call you. I’m glad you’ve returned.”

He didn’t have an accent. His English was flawless, since he’d spoken it for at least five hundred years.

Thierry de Bennicoeur appeared to be in his midthirties. He was six feet tall, had black hair that was usually brushed back from his handsome face, and piercing gray eyes that felt like they could see straight through you clear to the other side. He always dressed in black Hugo Boss suits, which wasn’t the most imaginative wardrobe choice, but looked consistently perfect on him anyway. He was, in a word, a total fox. Even after all the time we’d spent together, there was no doubt in my mind about that.

Some people perceived him to be cold and unemotional, but I knew the truth. That facade was for protection only. Down deep, Thierry was fire and passion. Only . . . it was really down deep. Most people would never see that side of him and I was okay with that. I had the rock on my finger that proved I had seen the fire and hadn’t been burned yet.

However, I had to admit, that suitcase was causing a few painful sparks to fly up in my general direction.

“What’s going on?” I asked cautiously. “What’s with the luggage?”

“I have to go somewhere.”

“Where? And . . . when?”

The line of his jaw tightened. “I’ve been called upon to meet with someone about important Ring business in Las Vegas.”

The Ring was the vampire council. Thierry was the original founder of the organization that tracked any potential vampiric issues worldwide and did what they could to neutralize them. He’d left a century ago after dealing with some personal issues and he hadn’t looked back since. The Ring had carried on without his input or influence.

“What business?” I asked.

“I’ve been offered a job with them. One I can’t decline.”

My eyes widened. “What kind of job?”

“Consultant.”

“What do you mean, you can’t decline it?”

He hesitated. “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“Who were you just talking to, Don Corleone?”

He raised a dark eyebrow. “His name is Bernard DuShaw. He was the most recent of several people I’ve spoken with over the last couple of hours. It’s his position I would be taking over now that he’s retiring.”

I thought of my parents settling in to Florida’s sand and sunshine now that they’d reached their retirement years. “He’s immortal, isn’t he? He doesn’t ever have to retire.”

“After a contracted term with the Ring, one is permitted to leave to pursue other interests if one wishes to. He wishes to.”

I tried to breathe normally. Contrary to one of many popular myths about vampires, we needed to do that regularly. “Okay. Well, the universe does work in mysterious ways. I guess this isn’t a bad thing. I think you’d be a great asset for them. Keep them from making any mistakes or judging anyone too harshly without a proper assessment. So . . . you’re going today to meet with Bernard about this job?”

“Yes.”

“And when will you be back?”

“Perhaps you should sit down, Sarah.”

“I don’t want to sit down.” My anxiety spiked. “You are coming back, aren’t you?”

His expression tensed. “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe I’ll be returning to Toronto. The position calls for constant travel. I won’t be able to stay in one place for very long during my term as consultant.”

I tried to absorb all of this, but it was too much all at once. “How long is a term?”

He didn’t speak for a moment. “Fifty years.”

I just looked at him, momentarily rendered speechless by this unexpected news. Silence stretched between us.

His gaze moved to my balloon. “What’s this?”

My mouth had gone dry. “My happy happy balloon. I got it from a clown named Mr. Chuckles.”

His lips curved at the edges. “I thought you were going to the airport.”

“I did.”

“You stopped by a circus on the way home?”

“Thierry,” I said sharply. “What is going on? How can you just leave? Fifty years? It sounds like a prison sentence, not a new job. Are you saying . . . are you saying that –” I didn’t want to speak my thoughts aloud. After everyone else I loved put thousands of miles between me and them, perhaps I should have expected this. But I hadn’t. This was a complete and total shock.

Everyone was leaving me. And now Thierry was joining the list.

“Sarah –”

“I heard you on the phone. You said seul, which means you’re going alone.”

“That’s what they want. This job requires focus and twenty-four/seven availability. I assumed you wouldn’t want to travel so much, never knowing where you’re going next. There’s a great deal of uncertainty involved with this job.”

“This job that you can’t say no to for some mysterious reason. A job that you’re going to be doing for half a century all by yourself with no prior warning.” I crossed my arms tightly. Everything about this made me ill. “You know, maybe this job came at just the right time for you to change your mind about being with –”

“Please don’t finish that sentence.” He took me by my shoulders, gazing fiercely into my eyes. “All I want is for you to be happy, don’t you know that by now?”

I swallowed hard. “The clown thought a balloon would make me happy.”

“And did it?”

“For a couple minutes.”

He looked up at it. “It is a nice balloon.”

“Screw the balloon.” My throat felt so tight it was difficult to speak.

Thierry’s and my path hadn’t been an easy one, not since the very first moment we met. It wasn’t every day a twenty-eight-year-old fledgling hooked up with a six-hundred-year-old master vampire — we were so completely different in temperament and personality it was frequently glaring and often problematic. But we had and it felt right, yet somehow I knew, down deep, that it might not last forever. Forever was a very long time when you’re a vampire.

Just because I knew it, didn’t mean my heart didn’t break into a million pieces at the thought of losing him.

I tried to compose myself as much as possible after realizing that someone else I cared about would be moving away from me. This, though . . . this stung even more than saying good-bye to Amy. This felt permanent. Forever.

I wanted to be cool about getting dumped for a “job he couldn’t refuse,” but I wasn’t sure if I had it in me.

“I get it, Thierry. You don’t want to be distracted by someone who has a tendency to get into trouble at the drop of a hat. I can take a hint. I’m a liability. You want me to stay here.”

He let out a small, humorless laugh. “What I want is irrelevant. Can you honestly say you’d leave behind your life here in Toronto, everything you’ve ever known and most of your possessions, in order to accompany me on a job that will be frequently boring for you; one that you’ll never know where your true home is?”

I stared up at him. “Are those rhetorical questions?”

“No, they’re real questions.” His brows drew together. “Would you come with me if I asked you to?”

I let go of the balloon, which floated up to the high ceiling of the front foyer before catching on a sharp crystal from the chandelier. It popped on contact.

I grabbed the lapels of his black jacket. “In a heartbeat.”

Something I rarely saw slid behind his gray eyes then, something warm and utterly vulnerable. “Then I suggest you pack a bag. Our flight leaves in three hours.”

I looked at him, stunned. “Our flight?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d be open to this abrupt change, but I did purchase you a ticket just in case.”

My heart lifted. “You’re so prepared. Just like a Boy Scout.”

“I try.” A smile played at his lips. “I just hope that this trip doesn’t make you change your mind about me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” My smile only grew wider before faltering just a little. “But I thought they wanted you to come alone. Won’t they give you a hard time about this?”

“If they want me for this job, then they will get my fiancée as well. They’ll just have to deal with it.” He took my face between his hands. “I love you, Sarah. Never doubt it.”

He kissed me and I couldn’t think of any happy happy balloon that could make me this happy happy.

Change was good. I liked change.

 

Chapter 2

There’s something important that should be known about me. Despite being an immortal vampire, I’m deathly afraid of flying. It’s too bad that it’s the best and quickest way to get anywhere worth going. The flight to Las Vegas was traumatic. And turbulent. And long. And I think I nearly injured Thierry’s hand as I nervously clawed at it during half the flight, but we landed before too much damage occurred.

Once he’d managed to escape my death clutch as the plane taxied toward the Vegas airport, he was immediately on his phone again, taking a call from someone — probably this Bernard DuShaw guy — about more details to do with this trip. I sat in my seat and relearned how to breathe before applying some lip gloss to offset the sickly green tinge my skin had taken on for the last four and a half hours.

Being on the ground was a very good thing, and I was thrilled to be in Las Vegas for this unexpected but exciting trip.

We would be staying in a suite at the Bellagio, a stunning hotel and casino right in the middle of the Vegas Strip. The one with the Italian theme and the dancing fountains out front. Our tab was being picked up by the Ring and I was more than happy to let them do the picking. It was a gorgeous hotel — the lobby took my breath away as we stepped through the entrance doors with our luggage. Marble floors, floor-to-ceiling columns, Italian archways, and a beautiful sculpture attached to the ceiling of thousands of colorful crystal flowers, which was the artistic focal point of the lobby.

I must have appeared like a typical awestruck tourist as we walked across the floor toward the reception desks to check in. We were surrounded by scores of other people and the buzz of activity and conversation. I was having a visual overload at everything around me, and my gaze remained fixed on the flowers above my head. I really should have brought a camera.

“Stand back, Sarah.” Thierry’s hand tightened on my waist.

I tore my attention away from the lobby ceiling as he pulled me to my left toward a column. It was then I noticed that while we were arriving at the hotel . . . someone else was leaving.

On a stretcher.

A shiver went through me at the sight of a white sheet draped over the occupant’s head, which meant he wasn’t being rushed anywhere but the morgue.

As the paramedics came within a few feet of us, the top of the white sheet snagged under the front wheel of the stretcher and pulled away, revealing the face and shoulders of the man beneath.

Yes, that was a dead person, all right — and definitely not something I saw every day. On the heels of my warm and elated feeling from arriving at the beautiful hotel, this particular sight made my blood run cold in my veins. Especially when I saw something unmistakable on the dead man’s throat.

This man hadn’t died from having a heart attack at the roulette table, that was for sure.

The paramedic hurriedly covered up the body again and they departed through the main doors toward the waiting ambulance with its lights flashing.

“Was that a vampire attack?” I asked under my breath. “Or am I just seeing things?”

“You’re not seeing things.” Thierry’s voice was low enough that no one else around us would overhear.

His calm tone surprised me. “You sound like you almost expected to see something like that. Did you?”

He nodded. “When we landed, Bernard called to fill me in on a new situation the Ring is dealing with here. Very recently, there have been a few incidents just like this. Humans with puncture marks on their throats, drained of blood, left in public places. I didn’t think it would be quite this public, though.”

My stomach lurched. “A few incidents?”

He took my hand in his. “It’s nothing to worry about. It’s part of the reason the Ring exists in the first place, to help police those who step out of line and allow their thirst to rule their behavior. But vampire-related murders like this are rarely so public.”

Nothing to worry about. Sure.

You might expect that a vampire like me would relish the very thought of blood and death. Well, you would be wrong. I couldn’t help but cringe at seeing a human used as an unwilling chew toy like that. Blood, in my humble opinion, should be procured at a local “blood bank” — businesses where the red stuff flowed for a set price courtesy of paid human donors. If that made me a fanged wimp who didn’t hang with the cool kids, then so be it.

Vampires like me preferred to get their drink of choice from humane sources, rather than some random victim in an alleyway. That was messy as well as completely evil.

Vampires weren’t evil.

Actually, let me rephrase that. Most vampires weren’t evil.

Just like humans, we had some bad eggs in the basket. If you were evil as a human, then you were still evil as a vampire. No major personality change happened after a vamp acquired his or her fangs — unless there was a spell or a curse involved. At least, that had been my experience so far.

“Is that why Bernard called you? Are you supposed to investigate these murders, too?” I asked uneasily, eyeing the crowd in the lobby. Some of the people seemed disturbed by the passing stretcher a minute ago, but most were going on with their day like they hadn’t even noticed.

“No, I’ve been given another assignment. Bernard is here to head the separate investigation personally. He has a source with the Las Vegas CSI team he’s meeting with as we speak.”

“I think I prefer the TV version.” The whole situation had given me an incredibly uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach, which had very little to do with the turbulent flight here.

I gazed out of the glass doors as the ambulance drove away. “Welcome to Las Vegas, huh? That poor guy.”

“Humans are delicate creatures.” Thierry squeezed my hand reassuringly. “Try to put it out of your mind, Sarah. This unpleasantness won’t come anywhere near you, I promise.”

Humans were delicate. I had been delicate. There might be a lot of negative things about being a vampire, but at least I wasn’t quite as breakable as I’d once been.

I decided to do exactly as Thierry suggested and try my best to put the blood-free dead body out of my head as much as possible as we checked in. The woman behind the registration desk eyed my tall, dark, and handsome fiancé appreciatively before glancing at me with some obvious disdain. I made sure to subtly flash her my engagement ring so she knew I had every right to be standing next to him — and that she should, very kindly, back off.

I never said I wasn’t petty.

On the way to the elevator, we walked past a poster on an easel that caught my attention.

“Hey, check it out,” I said. “They have one of those child pageants going on here. Like that reality show with the toddlers who wear tiaras.”

“Does this interest you?” Thierry asked.

“Not really. It just always struck me as strange — putting lipstick, a wig, and a fake tan on a little kid. It’s like they’re a thirty-year-old stuck in a toddler’s body.”

“It’s very much like that, actually.” He nodded at the poster. “This is the case Bernard’s officially handing off to me.”

I looked at him. “Seriously? What kind of case is it?”

“One of the contestants is a vampire.”

I glanced at the colorful poster with shock this time. “That is messed up.”

“It’s also against the Ring’s rules. It’s possible that she’s unaware of this, but she has to be told. It’s my job to learn her history, find out when she was sired, and who exactly was responsible for turning a child. Also, she must be made aware that public spectacles involving children that never age could only draw the attention of vampire hunters and put her life in danger.”

I took this all in. “And what happens to the vamp responsible for siring her?”

“Whoever it was — if they’re still alive — will be dealt with.”

I grimaced. “That doesn’t sound pleasant.”

“It won’t be. But that isn’t up to me. That goes to another department.” His jaw tensed. “Enforcement.”

Just the sound of it chilled me. “What a fun job you’ve acquired, Thierry. Death, mayhem, sequins. Sign me up.”

He reached down to take my hand again. “It’s much better now that you’re with me.”

“Sweet talker.” I grinned, but my smile faded as I glanced at the poster again. “So what happens to the little vamp herself?”

“She’ll be asked not to take part in these public displays in the future. Like I said, it could attract hunters. Her life, and the lives of her fellow contestants, could be in danger.”

That caused a fresh churning in my gut. “That would be a very bad thing.”

“Yes, it would.” Thierry glanced at his watch. “There’s a little time to settle in. We’re meeting Bernard and his wife, Laura, for dinner at eight o’clock.”

First time I heard about this, which wasn’t a surprise to me at all. Thierry wasn’t exactly what I’d call the most “forthcoming with details” guy I’d ever met in my life.

“Bernard has a wife? That’s interesting.”

“They’re a lot like us, Bernard and Laura. Bernard’s a master vampire and Laura’s a fledgling. She was sired only a few years ago.”

“Okay, now I’m very interested to meet them,” I said.

A “master” vampire was just another way of saying that, despite the attractive exterior, he’d been around a long, long time.

“I think you might get along. After all, you have a great deal in common.”

I liked the sound of this a lot. It was the chance to meet someone living a parallel life to mine. Thierry and I were still engaged, not married, but I hoped to tie the proverbial knot soon. The trouble was, picking a date that would have all my loved ones — both human and vampire — in one place at the same time was proving to be a challenge now that everyone had scattered to the far corners of the earth.

I glanced down at my engagement ring, which was absolutely gorgeous. Three carats. Princess cut. Flawless in every possible way.

I wondered how big Laura DuShaw’s ring was.

#

Six carats?” I held her hand and stared at the monstrous diamond with disbelief. “Wow, it’s incredible.”

She smiled. “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”

Laura reminded me of myself more than I would have thought possible. She even looked like she could be my sister, with her shoulder-length dark brown hair and hazel eyes that mirrored my own. However, she wore more makeup than I did and her clothes looked a bit more designer and custom-made. I used to have a serious obsession for clothes and shoes, but had toned that down a lot lately. I’d had to run away from a whole lot of vampire hunters and I’d come to the quick realization that this was much easier to do when not wearing four-inch stiletto heels — although I was wearing a pair right now.

I still enjoyed shopping, and being romantically involved with someone with cash to spare, I could do it every day if I wanted to, but it had lost some of its flavor for me. And now that I’d agreed to live exclusively out of a suitcase for the foreseeable future, I wasn’t in much of a hurry to stock up on new threads.

But I could admire those who did. And their threads.

As for Laura’s husband, Bernard . . . he was a very handsome man. Thierry told me on the plane ride here that he was a little over three hundred years old and, in his youth, had even been associated with Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. Thierry warned me not to bring up Marie Antoinette’s name in conversation since it was a touchy subject for Bernard. As if I would. My knowledge of the French queen went about as far as knowing she said something about “let them eat cake,” and Kirsten Dunst had played her in the movie version.

Thierry was the history expert in our relationship, not me. Of course, he’d learned everything not from books but by living through it all firsthand — from the Black Death and beyond.

Just as Laura looked a lot like me, Bernard looked a lot like Thierry. He had dark hair, pale eyes — although Bernard’s were green, not gray — and expensive suits with clean lines. Tall and lean, with an air of authority and an edge of power about him, this man wasn’t a pushover.

He had a softer side, I was sure. I wondered if it had taken Laura as much digging and sheer pigheaded stubbornness to find Bernard’s as it had taken me to find Thierry’s.

A typical restaurant dinner for vampires included wine and coffee, which were consumed, and plates of food, which were not. I used to wait tables in university. I’d often retrieved full plates of food at the end of the meal that looked only picked at, but it never raised any red flags for me. Everyone seemed to be on a diet at any given time. It didn’t necessarily mean I’d been serving a table full of vampires.

But maybe I had been.

“If you’ll excuse us,” Bernard said, rising from the table after the untouched dessert plates were cleared away. He, unlike Thierry, had a strong French accent. He fixed both Laura and myself with a charming smile. “Thierry and I have some business to discuss. We’ll be outside by the pool to get some fresh air.”

Thierry nodded. “Bernard is kind enough to give me some tips on how best to present myself tomorrow when I meet with Ms. Corday.”

The miniature pageant vamp. That should be an interesting meeting.

“Take lots of notes,” I suggested.

“I’ll do that.” He brushed his hand against mine as he got up from his seat, and then he and Bernard left Laura and me at the table.

“Bernard brought some Cuban cigars to share with Thierry,” Laura told me. “He wants to celebrate.”

“Nothing says congrats on your retirement like illegal tobacco.”

I took a sip from my glass of red wine. As a vampire I couldn’t eat anything solid, but I’d never had much of a problem with alcoholic beverages. Some vampires could still eat normal food; however, I’d noticed this was rare. They were the freaks, not me.

At least, that’s how I liked to think of it.

“Have you been to Vegas before?” Laura asked.

“Never. I always wanted to, but never got around to it until now. You?” I’d butter her up with small talk before we got into the real nitty-gritty details of hers and Bernard’s relationship and how that information could benefit me in the future.

“Yes. But I don’t like it here very much.” Laura leaned back in her seat and ran her perfectly manicured index finger along the edge of her wineglass.

“No? Why not?”

“Oh, I’ve been here too many times to count — many memories . . . good and bad ones. Plus, with the murders this week, it’s not exactly safe for our kind to spend too much time here at the moment.”

I cringed at the reminder of what I’d seen earlier in the lobby. “How many murders have there been?”

Her expression tensed and her gaze swept the crowded restaurant. “I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it. Bernard didn’t bring it up during dinner because he didn’t want to upset anyone, but I’m sure that’s one of the things he’s talking to Thierry about in private right now. There have been six humans who’ve turned up dead in the last week here on the Strip — one a day, including the one found in the Bellagio casino today. All were drained of blood and had fang marks on their necks.”

Six! That was definitely more than a few. “Thierry mentioned to me that Bernard has a source with the police?”

She nodded. “He knows it’s an out-of-control vampire who’s willing to expose the rest of us to get his next meal. Frankly, I think he’s trying to make a statement by being so public about it.”

Most vampires didn’t drink blood directly from humans, so they didn’t run the risk of leaving a dead body lying about. This was a huge no-no — and one enforced by the Ring. Killing humans = BAD.

Vampires were to keep low profiles and not risk exposing themselves to humans at large. It was bad enough having scores of hunters looking to put a stake through our hearts, let alone having the entire world alerted to our existence.

“Why would he do it on purpose?” I asked. “That makes zero sense.”

Her red, glossy lips thinned and she counted off on her manicured fingers. “Troublemaker. Attention hound. Sociopath. You name it. He definitely came to the right town if he wants some attention. However, if Bernard finds out who it is, he has the authority to stake him on sight.”

I shuddered. This would be Thierry’s job as soon as Bernard officially handed it off to him — staking dangerous vampires if they needed staking. “Let’s hope that happens soon.”

She raised her glass. “To a job well-done.”

“I’ll definitely drink to that.” We clinked glasses and I took a sip. Actually, it was more like a glug as I drained my glass completely in a couple swallows.

“Now, Sarah,” Laura began. “Let’s talk about something more pleasant than nasty Ring business and murders. I’d love to know how you and Thierry met.”

A subject that also involved violence and blood loss, so it really wasn’t quite as much of a shift in conversation as she might think.

The truth was that I’d been sired by a vampiric blind date against my will, and when I tried to run away from the hunters who’d killed him shortly after, so they wouldn’t do the same to me, I found Thierry standing on the edge of a bridge. Weary of his centuries of living, he’d been about to stake himself and let his remains fall into the river below. Instead, we decided to save each other.

Such a fairy tale.

I chose not to share it without excessive editing. “I was out for a jog late one night and our paths happened to cross.” I shrugged. “The rest is history. How about you?”

She took a sip from her cappuccino the waiter just delivered. “My original sire abandoned me and I had to find my way on my own, which was very difficult as I’m sure you know. One night, Bernard and I passed each other in Central Park and our eyes met. It sounds cliché, but it was love at first sight. Now we get to spend the rest of our lives together.”

So she wasn’t with her original sire, either. We had more in common than I thought. “Have you had any problems with the age difference between you two?”

Enough chitchat, already, I thought. Let the valuable grilling commence.

She was quiet for a moment, but a wistful smile played at her lips. “I’d be lying if I said no. Bernard has so much history behind him, he’s seen and experienced so much. Sometimes I worry that I’m not enough for him, that my human ways might start to wear at his patience too much. That he won’t find them as charming as he did in the beginning.”

That sounded painfully familiar.

She continued, “I’ve said this to him, but he tells me that it’s not true. That he loves me just as I am. We’ve been together for five years and every year is better than the last.” She glanced at me. “Do you feel that way toward Thierry?”

“Well, in the beginning I felt very uncertain” –my grip tightened on my empty wineglass– “to say the least. He tried to avoid me and make me think that he didn’t care about me. He was very convincing, actually.”

“But you were stubborn and you let him know that you loved him.”

“I was rather adamant about it. If ‘adamant’ is another word for questionably intelligent.”

“And you convinced him.”

“Eventually I can wear just about anyone down.” I gave her a grin. “I’m tenacious like that.”

“And now you’ve agreed to leave your home behind and join him in his travels.” At my nod, she touched my hand. “It might seem like a difficult transition, but I think you’ll do just fine.”

That remained to be seen. “What’s it like as the wife of someone who works for the Ring?”

“Honestly? It’s incredibly boring. But I find ways to occupy myself.”

“How? Do you help Bernard with his job?”

“Oh, no. I wouldn’t want to get in his way. But I like to go shopping. Have my hair done.” She slid her fingers through her beautiful blowout. “I get a manicure twice a week. Weekly massages. Pedicures. I go to the theater frequently. I attend auctions and charity events. And I have many friends in most major cities. It helps to fill my time when Bernard is too busy.”

Something about her rundown didn’t sit all that well with me. I’d been hoping for a life with a little more purpose to it than personal maintenance and random entertainment. “So you’re saying that being the wife of someone in Bernard’s position gives you the liberty to enjoy an eternal life of leisure.”

Laura’s smile widened. “It beats slaving away at a desk job. I did that for too many years to count.”

“Yeah, me too.” But at least working for a paycheck gave me a reason to get up in the morning.

“Things are better now. Much better.” She squeezed my hand. “You’ll get used to it. And if you really don’t like traveling so much, you can always take an apartment somewhere. Then you can fly out and meet Thierry for a week or two at a time.”

I pondered that. “It doesn’t sound like much of a marriage.”

“Which is the reason I choose to be by Bernard’s side whenever he needs me. I try to support him as much as I possibly can and the least I can do is make sure I always look as good as possible. I think he appreciates that.”

I nodded, but still felt a bit queasy from the direction of this conversation. “I guess there are lots of options.”

Although…I wasn’t sure I was really totally on board with the idea of going shopping every day for the rest of forever as my main raison d’être. This was not something I would have said a year ago — non-stop shopping and beauty salons would have been right up my alley then. Funny how some things change.

We chatted for a while longer, but I wasn’t getting any meaty answers to my questions like I’d wanted, which was disappointing. It was difficult to dig down through Laura’s layers. That is, if she even had any beyond what was visible on the surface. I learned nothing that helped give me true insight on what my future with Thierry held, now that our relationship had taken a new Ring-inspired direction.

But Bernard and Laura . . . well, they were us. Both in looks and position. Maybe I needed to accept that and be happy about it instead of always seeing the glass half-empty.

Frankly, I could use a manicure. My cuticles were currently a disaster.

After silence fell between us and I’d personally finished the bottle of wine right down to the very last drop, we decided to look for the men. I followed Laura out of the swanky restaurant and down marble-swathed hallways until we reached the exit to lead us to the pool and courtyard area, but objects in my peripheral vision blurred as I thought through everything she’d told me.

A life of leisure. No reason to have a job. It all replayed in my mind again and again like an iPod set on replay.

All my adult life, I’d had jobs that didn’t pay much — personal assistant, waitress, bartender. I’d still been figuring out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when that life had changed forever with one unexpected bitten neck.

Searching for meaning in my life had me constantly wandering into dead ends. Every time I thought I’d found the right thing for me, something happened to mess it up. Maybe I’d never find my perfect vocation. Maybe this was my destiny — to be exactly like Laura. I supposed there were worse things to aspire to. She seemed happy enough.

I never would have predicted my destiny would be to become Thierry’s well-dressed, wisecracking sidekick as we traveled the world making sure vampires at large behaved themselves. If I could be useful, then that was one thing, but if he did his thing and I went off and had fake nails applied every other day like Laura — well, that was way different.

I didn’t want to be just a hanger-on who didn’t contribute anything to our relationship other than letting him know what designer shoes I’d bought on sale that day. I had doubts that . . .

Well, let’s just say I had doubts. Big, ugly, slimy ones. I’d hoped that speaking with Laura would help alleviate them, but it had just made them that much bigger, uglier, and slimier.

It was warm outside and there was a light breeze. The stars were bright and the moon hung heavy in the clear sky. A few people lounged leisurely on the deck, soaking up the beautiful evening. The courtyard’s landscaping was painstakingly manicured to a leafy and floral perfection. It felt like I was walking through the huge backyard of a well-populated Mediterranean villa. I think I could live very happily here if given the option. Plus, the poolside bar was a definite bonus — even though it was currently closed for the day.

“There they are,” Laura said, after we’d walked a slow circle around the pool.

The men stood next to a stone railing near the pool on the opposite side, where I assumed they were enjoying the stinky cigars. As we drew closer, however, I realized with surprise that they weren’t having a calm conversation about the toddler pageant or Thierry’s assignment here.

No. There was nothing calm about the furious expression on Thierry’s face.

I gasped out loud when he grabbed hold of the front of Bernard’s crisp white shirt and shook him violently.

“I swear I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch,” Thierry snarled, loud enough to get the attention of a dozen people in the area.

I’d very rarely heard such rage in his voice before and cold fear sliced through me. He looked like he wanted to rip Bernard’s throat out. I raced up to them and grabbed his arm. “Thierry! What are you doing?”

Thierry’s livid expression froze and his gaze flicked to me. He let go of Bernard as if the other vampire had suddenly burst into flames. Bernard brushed off the front of his suit.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Thierry.” He seemed calm, but his pale green eyes flashed with anger and his French accent seemed even thicker than before. “I wish we could have come to a better understanding. This, however, isn’t over yet. You know that.”

Laura rushed to her husband’s side, her gaze now guarded and fearful as she glanced at Thierry. She slid her arm around Bernard’s and began directing him off the patio.

“Good night, Sarah,” she said tightly, with a quick flick of a look toward me.

After they left, Thierry’s hands curled over the railing. His shoulders looked extremely tense.

“So . . . I’d heard that there were celebration cigars being passed around out here.” I tried to ignore the curious stares we received from others out by the pool. “Were they the exploding kind? I know you’re not a big fan of practical jokes.”

His face was rigid, but he didn’t look at me. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“What was that all about? I thought you two were friends.”

He snorted softly. Whatever boiling anger had been in his expression a minute ago had settled down to a simmer. “We have some unpleasant history between us that raised its ugly head tonight, I’m afraid.”

“Anything you want to share?”

His brow furrowed. “You needn’t worry yourself about this.”

“About my fiancé uttering random death threats? Who, me worry?”

“I lost control of myself for a moment there.”

“Which doesn’t ease my mind at all. Thierry, you are the poster boy for control — unless there’s a serious problem. What is it? Tell me.”

He reached down and took my hand in his. “There’s no problem. Bernard and I won’t have to see each other again after tomorrow, so any future conflict will be avoided.”

“I think that’s a good idea.”

“I agree. How did your talk go with Laura after we left?”

I eyed him. “Changing the subject, are we?”

His lips twitched a little as if he wanted to smile. “Is it that obvious?”

“Uh-huh.” He seemed to have calmed down. I had no idea what had set him off, but I probably wouldn’t find out. Not from him, anyway. Thierry’s secretive nature was annoying sometimes, but for now I’d let it go. “Laura gave me the details about how I will be of help to you in your new job. It involves a great deal of salon time and having perfect hair and fingernails at all times.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Does that interest you?”

“Not particularly. I mean, I like to keep up a fairly shiny appearance, but I’d rather it not be my full-time job if I can help it. I’d rather . . . uh, help you. I mean, if that’s even allowed.”

He didn’t seem surprised or disturbed to hear of Laura’s intense salon commitment. “Allowed?”

I thought things through for a moment as we stood there in silence. “Can I come with you when you talk to the little pageant vamp?”

“Do you really want to?”

“We could play good cop and bad cop.” I actually smiled at the picture that presented. “I’ll be the bad cop.”

That made him grin as well. “Sounds interesting.”

I faltered a little, uncertain about the job and how it could possibly involve someone who had no experience with this sort of thing. Also, Laura specifically said she didn’t get in Bernard’s way. “Unless . . . I mean, unless you’d prefer I’m not involved. If it’s not okay with you –”

“It’s very okay with me. In fact, I think it’s an excellent idea.” He studied my face for a moment. “You would be a great help to me in dealing with a situation like this. You have a way about you that helps put people at ease. Alone, I might scare her.”

“You, scary? Nah. Well . . . good. So we’ll talk to her together — and nobody has to get scared.” I felt elated that he wanted me by his side for this without it being the least bit awkward between us. Then I sobered. “You know what’s scary? The vampire serial killer. Laura and I talked about it a bit. Six victims so far! Do you think it’s going to be a huge problem for the Ring to handle?”

He shook his head. “Between Bernard and the local police, it’ll be taken care of swiftly. The worst it will do is draw more interested hunters to the area. Just be vigilant, Sarah.”

“I put the v into vigilant.” Despite the nasty aura of danger around the city and seeing Thierry snap at Bernard, I felt pretty good about everything. “So, unless you have any other death threats to utter tonight . . . or celebration cigars to smoke . . .”

“I think I’ve met my quota for the day. For both.”

“Then let’s rest up so we can chat with Little Miss Sunshine tomorrow.”

He smiled. “See? You’re already an asset to this job. You’re keeping me on schedule.”

“I was a personal assistant in my previous life, you know.”

Thierry hadn’t told me what Bernard had said to upset him so much, but I didn’t suppose it really mattered. When you’d lived as long as Thierry had, you ended up racking up enemies much like poker chips. When face-to-face with those enemies, you had to know when to play another hand and when to cash out.

Viva Las Vegas.

#