"We shouldn't have left him," Lauren argued.
They were standing on the edge of the Square. A nearby sign advertised the Pontalbo Museum. A Civil War cannon stood behind a fence, just to her right. If she looked across the green, she could see the statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback.
If she looked around, she could see a world that was normal in every way.
Jonas turned to her, shaking his head sadly. "We had to leave him. Don't you see? He would have been more vulnerable if you had stayed. He would have had to defend you."
She looked at him. He looked like a regular guy. And yet she knew he was anything but.
She had just seen him materialize from shadow.
He was a vampire.
She inadvertently took a step back.
He groaned. "I was ready to give my life for you back there," he said softly. "Why are you afraid of me? You can trust me, you know."
She frowned, shook her head, and then spoke ruefully. "You do realize I still think I'm insane for believing that vampires exist, don't you? Trusting a vampire may take a bit of effort."
"If people only knew how many totally decent vampires actually walk among them," he began.
"Vampires aren't exactly known for their good works," she pointed out, then looked toward the alley again, her concern growing. "Where did they go? How did they disappear so quickly?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. All I do know is that I have to watch out for you until Mark reappears," he said firmly.
She couldn't help but look anxiously toward the alley again. "What should we do?" she asked.
"We should go to the hospital," he said.
She frowned. "You want me to let you into Deanna's room?"
"I swear to you, I'm not the one who hurt her and I never would. I give you my word."
"Forgive me, but I'm not sure about trusting the word of a vampire."
"I was ready to die for you," he reminded her again, sounding genuinely hurt.
"Maybe that was just a ploy," she said. "Maybe you're on Stephan's side, and you're just stringing us all along."
"Look. What he wants is you. That's pretty evident. And he might have had you, right then and there. I'm pretty sure the only reason he didn't just swoop right in and take you is that he thrives on the chase."
"Why not chase us right into the Square? What could these people have done against a host of vampires?"
He shook his head. "If everyone believed-no, knew-that vampires are real, that they exist right here alongside you in what you think of as your safe little world, they'd try exterminat them. Us.. The good and the bad. The good would die first, because they try not to hurt other people. Then you'd be left with the bad. And the bad could turn the tide enough to kill everything. You have to realize that there is an entire underworld out there. Some people sense it. Some even know that it exists. Some people, like Sean Canady, know it and know they need our help in the fight for human safety. If Stephan had carried his battle into the Square, if enough people had seen him and been attacked, the truth would have been revealed and a real war would be on. A blood bath. Creatures like Stephan exist because they prey on what human beings consider to be real fears. If he tires of his victims and decides not to accept them as members of his flock, he decapitates them and discards their bodies. When he came here, he began throwing them in the Mississippi." He hesitated for a moment. "Once there was an entire hierarchy system, a code of vampire law. A vampire could only create three more of his own kind each century. There was-is-even a...a king if you will. Of course, there were always monsters who broke the law, and their behavior threatened exposure for everyone. They were dealt with by their own, or occasionally by a vampire hunter or a guardian. This king, actually resides here, in New Orleans."
"Then where the hell is he?" Lauren demanded.
"Out of the country, apparently." He shook his head. "Look, I came here because of Lucian, the king. He leads an alliance of those who work against evil and believe that they can find redemption and be part of a better world. I swear to you, what I'm saying is the truth."
It couldn't be.
It could. Either that, or she was suffering from the most real and ridiculous delusion that had ever plagued a person.
"Please. Let's go to the hospital and wait there for Mark. I'm sure he'll come find you. I ran into him earlier, when he was looking for you here in the Quarter."
"Was he with Heidi? My...our other friend."
"No. She must be back at the hospital."
Lauren was afraid. Afraid to trust him and equally afraid not to. It was night. If she got into a taxi with him...
"Shall we get a cab?" he suggested.
"I swear to God-and I do believe in Him-that I am not going to bite the taxi driver and kidnap you," he said.
Deanna had told her that there were two. One who was evil. Stephan. And Jonas?
She looked around the Square. Bourbon Street would still be buzzing, but the artists here were closing up. The guitar player was already gone.
"All right," she said. "But I need to warn you. I'm wearing a cross."
He smiled. "So am I."
As they walked to the through street, she asked him, "How is it you can wear a cross?"
He offered her a shy smile. "Because I'm not evil. Because I have no desire to harm anyone."
"So...the fact that they're evil makes crosses holy water poison to the others?"
"Of course," he said. "It makes sense if you think about it."
They found a taxi, but even as they climberd in, Lauren still felt nervous. She was worried, as well. Worried about Mark.
Worried about Deanna.
She kept her distance in the cab, and Jonas didn't pressure her, and they reached the hospital without incident. She started to pay, but Jonas insisted on covering it.
When they reached Deanna's room, Bobby was at the door. "Sweet Jesus, there you are!" he exclaimed, holding her for a minute. Then he drew back. "Where's Mark?" He looked over her shoulder at Jonas, arching a brow.
"Mark is...otherwise engaged," she murmured, then introduced the two men before looking past Bobby into the room. Stacey was in a chair near the bed, and Heidi was there, too, sitting as straight as a ramrod, wearing a frown of irritation.
"What's wrong with Heidi?" she asked quickly.
Bobby looked unhappy. "I guess you never spoke with Mark."
"No. Not really." There were too many people in the hallway and beyond who might hear their conversation for her to explain what had happened.
Jonas, ignoring everyone else, walked to Deanna's bedside. He took her hand and stared at her, and he was either as concerned as he claimed or a fabulous actor, Lauren thought.
"What's wrong with Heidi?" she repeated, returning her attention to Bobby.
He dropped his voice to a whisper. "She's been tainted."
"Tainted?" she asked, but her heart sank. She was pretty sure she knew what that meant without a lengthy explanation. "How?" she asked.
Bobby shrugged unhappily. "Um...well, I guess she let him in."
"Oh, God. Then...?"
"She isn't really all that...ill. I think we can deal with it," Stacey said, rising and walking over to join them. "I just have to get her to Montresse House. She needs to be guarded. Kept safe from...from bringing more harm to herself."
Stacey fell silent as a nurse walked into the room. She had a sour face and was clearly not pleased to see all of them. "This is a hospital room, not a bar on Bourbon," she said irritably. "Please keep it to two visitors."
"We can take care of Heidi if you want to stay here with Deanna," Bobby said.
Lauren hesitated. That meant she would be left alone with Deanna-and Jonas.
He seemed desperately sincere. Did she dare trust in him?
Did she have a choice?
And anyway, weren't Bobby and Stacey practically strangers, as well?
Bobby's cell phone rang as she hesitated. The nurse gave him a disapproving look and started to lecture him on the hospital's prohibition against cell phones, but he just flashed his badge at her and took the call. When he flicked his phone close, he looked at her authoritatively.
"We'll be leaving shortly. Lieutenant Canady is on his way in, and we won't leave until he gets here."
The nurse looked at him disapprovingly, sniffed and departed.
Bobby looked at Lauren. "Mark is at Sean's place," he told her.
He and Stacey sat down to wait, and Heidi continued to sit in silence, as well, staring at the window as if she could see out of it, despite the fact that the curtains were drawn.
There was no way out of the fact that he'd behaved rashly, Mark thought.
Far too rashly.
But what the hell else could he have done, under the circumstances?
At the very least, Lauren was safe. He had to believe that. Had to believe that Jonas could be trusted. The other man had taken quite a blow.
But could it all have been an act?
It was a small point compared to the fact that, once again, Stephan had escaped. The violence of their fight had taken them down several streets, and when Stephan had managed to pull his disappearing act, Mark had found himself staggering onto Bourbon Street, where the cops had found him. He had assumed-correctly-that they would think he was a drunk who had been involved in a barroom brawl.
When they had argued over whether to arrest him or take him to a hospital, he had convinced them to call Sean Canady instead.
Canady had collected him and taken him back to his own home, where, Maggie had patched up his wounds, even though he had assured her that he was going to be all right. He had been worried sick about Lauren, but Canady had quickly gotten hold of Bobby Munro and found out that she and Jonas were safely at the hospital.
When he had started to rise, Canady had stopped him.
"You need to recover. Give yourself time."
"You have to. Or you'll be worthless."
That was true.
"Look, I'll going to the hospital myself," Sean said. "You stay here and get your strength back."
"We have a great guest room upstairs," Maggie told him. "You can lie down and rest now that you're patched up and you've had something to eat."
They were right. He felt suddenly grateful to have met them.
So he agreed, though he still felt frustrated and useless as he watched Sean leave.
Maggie sat with him while he lay down. "I realized after we met the other day that I'd seen you before," she told him after a minute.
He looked at her. Studied her and thought about where he was. "Yeah, I guess you have."
She smiled. "You're originally from here."
"Near here," he agreed. He shook his head. "I don't get it, though. You were a vampire. And you're certain that you're not anymore?"
"Oh, Lord, yes. Sometimes I'm glad, but sometimes...sometimes I wish I could do a few of the things I used to do. But I have Sean, and we have our family. I've never heard of this kind of reversal happening with anyone else, but...my case was different." She rose and walked around the room restlessly. "It was all so long ago, but my father and some of his friends killed the vampire who created me while he was still in the process of turning me. That kept me from actually dying, and I think that somehow made the difference. But Sean and I have good friends who are in mixed marriages. And as Sean told you, Jessica Frasier, who owns Montresse House, is a vampire, and though they aren't married, her partner is a guardian, as ancient as she is, who's sort of like an angel of death against evil vampires. It's a crazy world, huh?"
"What do you think about Jonas?" he asked her.
"You said he fought Stephan," she reminded him.
"Yes, but...I just worry about leaving Deanna and the others alone with him."
"Don't worry. Sean will be at the hospital soon. You've got to rest. I'll leave you alone now, so you can get some sleep."
She was right. He needed his strength.
He closed his eyes.
When Sean Canady arrived, so clearly the voice of authority, Lauren couldn't help but be glad he was there.
She felt far more secure. His faith in Bobby and Stacey became hers. She watched while they escorted Heidi from the room, promising to keep an eagle eye on her.
Jonas didn't move from Deanna's sid, sticking so close that. there was no way for Lauren to actually get near her. But there was also no way she was leaving her. Not even if Sean Canady was the one sitting guard.
However, the rest of the night passed without incident.
She discovered that she had fallen asleep when the nurse came in at the crack of dawn to change the IV and check on Deanna's vital signs.
Lauren felt a hand on her shoulder. It was Sean Canady. "Come on. I'm taking you home."
"I can't leave her," she whispered, indicating Jonas.
"Yes you can. Bobby is on duty. He'll sit right here in the room, and he won't be alone."
She looked over Sean's shoulder, to the very attractive, auburn haired woman standing behind him. She introduced herself as Maggie Canady, Sean's wife.
"I swear, your friend will be safe," she vowed.
Lauren was exhausted and knew she really did need to sleep. She might be insane to be so trusting, but if she didn't accept these people, she might as well lie down and die then and there. They were all she had.
The sun was out as Sean drove her back to Montresse House. Birds were singing. Pretty ones, in beautiful colors.
He let her off at the end of walk.
"Aren't you coming in?" she asked him.
He shook his head. "Stacey knows you're here. Look, she's got the door open already."
"You have to work?"
He looked away. "I have an autopsy to attend," he said wearily.
"The second girl who was found in the Mississippi?" she asked.
He paused for a moment, then handed her a newspaper from the back seat. She saw the headline as he spoke.
"Third victim," he said briefly.
"It's like...one a night," she murmured.
Sean shrugged. "Actually, it could be worse. Stephan Delansky is apparently keeping his minions in check and killing just enough to make sure that law officials up and down the Mississippi wind up chasing their tails."
"He has to be stopped," Lauren said.
"Yes, he does. But not by you, especially not now. Go get some sleep," he told her.
She started to exit the car, then paused. "Mark?"
"Mark will be all right. Go on in."
She obeyed at last. Stacey was waiting for her at the door, and w2hen Lauren entered, Stacey stepped outside, waved to Sean, then looked around-upward. Seemingly satisfied that no one was there, she followed Lauren inside and closed the door.
"Coffee's on," she told Lauren. "Except maybe you don't want coffee. It would just keep you up. But I made waffles, and they're delicious. Eat, grab a shower, curl up and get some sleep."
"What about Heidi?" Lauren asked her.
"Heidi's doing well. I gave her a sedatives, enough to keep her out for a while. She won't be doing any communicating until she's had some time to get rid of the...infection."
Lauren looked around warily. "How do you know that, er...evil can't get in?"
Stacey laughed. "Take a good look around. See the planters? We water them very carefully-with holy water. And if you if you take a good look at the way the windows are constructed, you'll see that the beams are crosses. There's also garlic powder worked into some of the molding. Trust me, we have any number of protective devices here. Of course, you still have to be careful."
Stacey led the way to the kitchen, reached into the microwave and produced a plate for Lauren. "Sit down. Eat."
Lauren discovered that she was famished, and the waffles were as delicious as Stacey had promised. "Are we safe by day?"
"Safer," Stacey said. "Vampires-good and evil-are at their greatest strength at night. And I sincerely doubt Stephan will attack by day. He's not some idiotic young vampire, out to feed his way through the city. Not that many would be that stupid-this being the home of the Alliance."
"What?" Lauren said.
Lauren frowned, shaking her head. "So Jonas was telling the truth."
"That there is an alliance of...shall we say...other worldly beings who make their home here? Yes. Unfortunately, Stephan knew right when to hit this area. Almost everyone's away. I just hope they'll return in time."
"Don't be afraid. Mark clearly knows his enemy. And Sean and Maggie-well, no one knows more than they do. It's really too bad that Jessica's partner, isn't here. Guardians are...are ancient and because of that, they're powerful. Very few...people have survived since the middle ages. Look, it's all right. Sean's officers are more than capable of handling vampires. I mean, he doesn't give classes on fighting vampires, 101, or anything like that. There are just some guys on his squad who naturally...know. It's not so difficult, really. If you have believe in a higher power, you believe in good. If you believe in good, you have to believe in evil. I'm sorry. I'm getting very complicated here, and you probably just want to get some sleep. Would you like more waffles?"
"What?" Lauren realized she'd been drowsing and had barely heard whatever Stacey was saying.
"Waffles. Would you like more waffles? You've cleaned your plate."
"Oh, no, thank you. They were delicious. I guess...I guess I'll just peek in on Heidi and then get some sleep myself, if that's okay?"
They went upstairs, where Stacey opened one of the bedroom doors. Heidi was soundly sleeping, cradling a stuffed Teddy bear.
"Bobby won it at the fair," Stacey explained.
"Nice. Thank you," Lauren told her.
"No prob. Call me if you need me," Stacey said, heading back downstairs.
First things first. In her own room, Lauren took a long, hot shower after realizing just how...grimy she was. The thought that the specks of soot on to her flesh and in her hair were the remnants of evil beings was not a pleasant one. She scrubbed herself vigorously, then repeated the process.
At last, though, sated from the waffles, clean and warm, she practically crashed down on her bed, images spinning through her mind. Vampires. Shadows. Darkness. Bats. Amorphous shapes that solidified in the night. Terrible things. Evil creatures....
Mark last night.
She curled into the mattress. Mark was all right. Sean Canady had assured her that he was fine. Safe.
At last she slept.
And later...he came to her.
She thought she was dreaming at first. That she heard his voice because she longed to hear it. That he was touching her, his fingers running through her hair, because she wanted to be touched.
She realized that he was really there, at her side. Blue eyes deep as midnight, yet brilliant as the day. The contours of his face as rugged and strong as ever, but the look in his eyes so tender.
Then he was kissing her.
Lips moving on hers, coaxing, powerful. His hands sliding over her, cupping her breasts, traveling down to her hips.
She wasn't dreaming. He was with her.
Making love to her.
And, oh, God, it was good.
She curled into his arms, returned his kisses with searing wet ardor, broke away, kissed and teased and laved his flesh. Somehow the nightgown she had donned after her shower was gone. Somehow his naked flesh was erotically close to her own. She felt the hardness of his arousal against her, the vitality of him, the pressure of his muscles and movement. The drapes were drawn, only a touch of the sun entering, and it seemed he was bathed in gold. It was as if real fire emanated from her when he touched her, that the elements themselves combined to arouse and seduce her.
She had never known such a lover. He had clearly decided to go slow. She had met his first caress so easily, only to discover she was firmly pressed back again and again, that he wanted to stroke each niche and curve of her, the brush of his fingers followed by the pressure and caress of his lips and tongue. He traced a slow pattern on her flesh, making her ache and writhe as he moved from her throat to her collarbone, breasts, midriff, belly, thighs...until he delved intimately between them, driving her to a point of madness, a point of searing climax...and then took her there again.
His lips were forceful, his entire body thrusting in a way that seemed to penetrate her every pore, even her very mind. She thought she might well die as she arched against him, seeking more and more and more of him, or at the very least that she would go mad. But then the sweet delirium of climax burst upon her again, and his flesh against her flesh, their hearts thundering, pulses racing, breathing coming in gasps of wind....
Then dying down.
She didn't lie quietly at his side, waiting for the wonder to subside. Instead she sat up, staring at him, frowning, worried. "You're all right?" she asked anxiously.
"I thought I was much more than that, actually," he teased.
She almost hit him.
"I'm serious. You escaped him, but you were hurt. How in God's name...?"
"I'm all right," he said quietly. "Really."
She hopped up, comfortable with him, heedless of her nudity, anxious to see him clearly and assure herself that he really was completely well.
She turned on the light and went back to his side, then searched him head to toe, anxiously, with her eyes, with her touch.
"You...you're not even bruised."
"I'm tough," he told her. "Worn, rugged and tough," he added with a soft laugh.
"I was so worried when you didn't come back."
He reached up, his eyes on hers as he touched her cheek. "You were worried? So was I. Trusting Jonas wasn't easy."
"He took me straight to the Square."
He nodded, looking down for a moment. "Sean had told me he was pretty sure the guy was decent."
"Deanna...liked him," she murmured.
"Yeah, well, I guess he was there at the right time last night," he said. "Still...I don't like it. The thing is, though, I have to find Stephan's hideout. His lair."
Lauren frowned. "You're certain that he has...a lair?" she asked slowly.
"Well, excuse me if I'm asking silly questions, but...accepting that vampires exist is still new to me. So...does he have a coffin somewhere? Native earth and all that?"
He was looking at the ceiling, his expression serious, and he gave no hint that she was asking something bizarre. "It's not as complicated as you think. He has native earth somewhere. A place where he can go to rest...to heal, if he's wounded. But he has to have a place large enough for his followers, togo." He turned and looked at her, suddenly almost angry. "Where the hell did you go last night? Why did you leave the hospital? You know it's not safe for you to be out alone."
She was startled by the question. And though she didn't know why, she didn't want to tell him the whole truth.
"I...I thought it might be important to find the fortune-teller."
He frowned. "The woman in your sketch?"
"Did you find her?"
"No." Why had she lied? She wasn't sure. Then she knew. Susan had given her that paper, the copy of whatever she had found at the library, and Lauren realized that she wanted to read it herself. To see if it was something that made some kind of sense. Her meeting with the woman had been unnerving.
She felt very guilty about the lie, however, so, without prompting, she began to explain. "I don't think I ever told you. I...I saw Stephan in her crystal ball. The night we arrived, Heidi and Deanna wanted to have our fortunes told. Susan had a little tent and a crystal ball. And when I looked into it, Stephan appeared."
His expression grave, he asked, "Why didn't you tell me this before?" He was still angry, she realized, but trying to keep his temper leashed.
"I'm sorry-but you didn't exactly seem sane at first."
"But since then..." He closed his eyes, shook his head. She could almost hear the grating of his teeth.
He sat up, then rose, reaching for his pants. "So that's when and how he found you," he said quietly. "I'll see if I can find the woman. See what else she may be able to tell us. And you-you have to be extremely careful. No-I mean no-wandering off on your own. Please, Lauren, I'm begging you."
She nodded, watching him. "He's killed again, you know. They found a third body in the river."
He swore, pulling up his jeans. "He has to be found. And stopped," he said grimly.
"What do I do...what can I do, about Deanna? And Heidi," she added.
"Stacey will know how to manage Heidi. I imagine she's already acting a great deal more like herself already."
"So being seduced, bitten...doesn't automatically make you become...a vampire?" she asked.
He shook his head. "You become a vampire when the kill is complete," he said. "Unless you're staked. Or beheaded."
"How can there be so many vampires and only three murders? I mean...don't they need to feed?"
He slipped into his shirt. "They can feed on many things. Rats, small animals...and a good glut can last a very long time. I'm sure, if we checked the surrounding area, we'd find that a few blood banks had been ransacked." He hesitated. "Stephan is a monster. Cruel, power-hungry, and he thrives on the pain and torment he causes others. But in the end...he wants to live. He wants me to die, because I'm an enemy who has been on his trail for a long, long time. But he wants you first-and he wants me alive to see it. Maybe he believes he can seduce you, that you'll live a long and happy-and bloodthirsty-unlife together. Maybe he only wants you because he knows he can cut me to the quick again. Maybe it's both. I can tell you this, though. He's using Deanna and Heidi to torment you, to get to you. And I have to stop him."
He went still when he finished speaking.
She frowned. "What is it?"
He groaned. Suddenly, instead of buttoning his shirt he was pulling it off again. The jeans fell to the floor.
And then he was back beside her, eyes meeting hers, fingers caressing her hair.
"I need to go," he murmured.
"But not yet. Not just yet."
Nor could she let him go. They were both fevered, hasty, making love with a fierce and desperate passion.
She was falling in love, she thought. With his face.
With his hands.
Not just in love with being in love, with making love. No, with a man.
She barely knew him.
She had to believe that she knew enough.
She ceased to think. She soared; she reveled in sensation. Together, they were cataclysmic, explosive. She could not get close enough to him.
Her heart pounded; her breathing rasped; her flesh was slick and wet; and the moment of culmination was shattering and sweet.
In the end, he held her close for a moment and sighed deeply. Then he was up and gone.
And she was left alone with her thoughts, to if what she felt could be real or was only a dream.
A dream...when all else was a nightmare.