Mark opened his eyes and groaned.
He'd been close. So damn close.
But he hadn't expected the trap, and that had been a serious-nearly fatal-mistake on his part. But when Deanna had screamed, he had known why. Pursuit had seemed the only possible option, even though he was working alone and had known Stephan had come with an army.
What Stephan's army didn't know was that their great leader didn't give a damn about any one of them; they were there to be sacrificed, and that was that. The more fools Stephan gathered around himself, the more fools he had to sacrifice along the way, security against his own capture or death.
It was actually a miracle, Mark thought, that he had managed to make it back.
He rolled, got out of bed and walked to the bathroom, where he stared at his face in the mirror.
He should have looked a hell of a lot worse. But he'd never given up his weapons. No matter how many hits he had taken after being led straight into an ambush, he'd kept hold of his weapons, weapons his opponents hadn't been prepared for.
Stephan had known, of course.
But his minions had no idea that Stephan knew his enemy, and so they had died for him.
Mark looked at his face in the mirror again, damning himself. There was no room for mistakes.
He had to get it together.
A shower would help.
It did. Half an hour later, he was showered, shaved and dressed, and he didn't look nearly as bad as he had. He was pulling a comb through his hair when there was a knock at his door.
He opened it to find Helen, from cottage three, standing there.
"Mark, you are here," she said breathlessly.
"Yes, what's wrong?" he asked her.
"I just thought you should know, one of the girls from next door was taken to the hospital this morning."
"Deanna?" he said, feeling his heart slam inside his chest.
She frowned. "Yes, how did you know?"
"I knew she'd been feeling a little off, that's all," he lied.
"Oh," Helen said, moving on to other things. "Heidi rode in the ambulance with her, and Janice and I dropped Lauren off at the emergency room. It's been a while.... I knocked earlier, but you didn't hear me."
"I sleep pretty soundly," he told her. "But thanks for everything. I appreciate the information."
"You're welcome." She smiled. "Oh, and your newspaper." She handed him the daily paper, which was delivered to each door every morning.
He saw the headline.
Second Day-Second Corpse
He thanked her again, then, after closing the door, threw the newspaper across the room. A few minutes later, he stepped outside, desperate to reach the hospital as quickly as possible.
Mistake number two.
He never saw it coming; he was too concerned about Deanna and the report of the second corpse.
And his attacker was prepared.
Whatever hit him, it was like a ton of bricks against his head.
As he crashed to the ground, he thought it must have been the broad side of an axe. A big one. Like a medieval battle axe. Then he passed out and didn't think about anything at all.
"We're moving over to this place," Lauren told Heidi.
"What?" Heidi asked, distracted.
Deanna had been given a room, but she had yet to regain consciousness. She was regaining color, though, and the doctors kept assuring them that she was going to be fine, but the next twenty-four hours were critical. Her blood levels had been so low that she was close to death, but the transfusions seemed to be turning the tide, and they believed a full and perhaps even speedy recovery was not only possible but likely.
She was in a private room, with a police guard in the hall.
It should have felt safe, Lauren thought, but it didn't.
"That cop, Lieutenant Canady, said we'd be safer moving to this place," Lauren explained to Heidi.
"What is it to him, where we stay?" Heidi demanded.
Lauren took a deep breath. "He's afraid we've been targeted," she explained. "By a lunatic."
"Maybe a lunatic who thinks he's a vampire," Lauren went on.
Heidi stared at her for a long moment in total disbelief, then started laughing. "Lauren, think about what you just said. A vampire? You've been reading too many freaky books."
"Deanna lost a lot of blood," Heidi explained gently. "She's sick. She must have been sick when we got here, and that caused her sleepwalking. She wasn't attacked."
"Heidi, Lieutenant Canady said we should move, and I want to," Lauren said firmly. "Look, one of the lieutenant's officers is apparently always at this place, and he considers it really safe. If we are being targeted, we should move. We don't want to put anyone else-like Janice or Helen-in danger, right?"
Heidi arched a brow, considering Lauren's words. "All right. Whatever you think. When do we move? I don't think we should both leave Deanna. Not now."
Lauren felt the same, but she didn't want to stay at the hospital all day, either. She decided to go back to Jackson Square later. She was going to find Susan, the fortune-teller, and shake her until she said something that made sense.
She should tell the cops about Susan, she thought grimly. But tell them what? She didn't want the cops to think that she herself was crazy. There was nothing concrete to tell them. Best to talk to Susan first.
Lauren leaned forward. "All right, for now, you get going. Pack up our things. If you need to take a walk, shake off the hospital for a bit do it, then come back. Okay?"
"I guess," Heidi said. She looked at the bed where Deanna lay, motionless and still ashen compared to anyone who was up and walking. She rose, and touched her friend's forehead. "She's cool," she murmured. "Warm enough, though," she added quickly. "This morning, she was like ice." She looked across the bed at Lauren. "I'm so worried about her," she said.
"So am I."
"Was this all my fault somehow?" Heidi asked.
"No. Definitely not," Lauren assured her. "And she's going to be fine. That's what all the doctors have said."
Heidi stared across the room. "That's what they said about my dad, too. Right before he died of a second heart attack." She looked worriedly at Lauren. "I don't want to leave her right now. You go, okay?"
"Okay. I'll be as quick as possible," Lauren assured her.
Heidi offered her a weak smile. "Hey, both of us sitting around here doesn't make much sense. I'll get out later. And this way you have to do all the work of packing us up." She smiled weakly.
"No problem. See you soon." Lauren smiled back, then left.
Mark came to slowly but didn't open his eyes. He tried to feel his surroundings first.
He was sitting up. Tied to a chair, wrists bound tightly behind his back.
He was not at a police station.
The temperature was pleasant, thanks to air-conditioning.
There was no noise, but someone was in the room with him; he could feel it. It wasn't Stephan, though. It wasn't a vampire at all.
His head was pounding.
He inhaled and exhaled, trying to ease the pain.
"You hit him too hard," someone whispered. The voice was feminine, soft. Concerned.
"I needed him unconscious."
He almost jerked up, giving away the fact that he was conscious. He knew the voice. Lieutenant Sean Canady.
He went on listening, trying to ascertain just where he was.
"Sean, you could have killed him."
"Maggie, quit worrying. This guy is pretty tough."
"You don't even know that he's guilty of anything."
"I do know that he knows what's going on around here."
He listened, trying to determine if there was anyone else in the room. But after several seconds of concentrating on his senses, he was certain no one else was with them.
He checked the ropes at his wrists, flexing imperceptibly, testing their strength.
He definitely wasn't under arrest. Things might be different in Louisiana, but so far it wasn't legal for the cops to crack your skull and tether you to a chair at a remote location.
He straightened, opening his eyes.
Canady was in a chair, facing him. A very attractive woman with brilliant eyes and dark auburn hair was standing by his side, her hand resting on his shoulder. Canady was wearing a tailored shirt and light jacket; the woman looked as if she had just returned from the gym.
He stared at Canady for a moment, then looked around.
Attic. They were in an attic. A big attic-they were in a big house. He recognized the architecture; his own home had been built in a similar style. They were out on plantation row somewhere, he decided, and this house was at least two-hundred years old.
He arched a brow slowly at Canady and the woman. "I take it I'm not exactly under arrest," he said.
"Not officially. Not yet."
He waited, doing his best to hide his movements as he worked at the rope binding his wrists. Of course, Canady had a gun. Canady, he was certain, just about always carried a gun. Glock? Smith and Wesson? Whatever the cop was packing, his jacket covered it.
Mark, however, was certain that the gun was there.
"Your home?" he inquired.
Canady nodded. He didn't look particularly angry. He was more wary. And speculative.
"Hello," the woman said. "I'm Maggie."
"I'd thank you for having me in, but..."
"What are you up to here in town," Canady asked.
Mark lowered his head for a moment, stunned to find a half-smile on his lips. He felt almost as if he had walked into an old Western, and the sheriff was about to tell him to be on his horse, skedaddling, by sunset.
"I went to see you, if you recall," Mark said.
"To tell me there are vampires in New Orleans," Canady replied.
"I know who your murderer is. Trust me, if he's not doing the killing himself, he's responsible for it," Mark told him.
His hands were almost free.
"This man, Stephan," Canady said.
"Yes," Mark agreed.
"So you're saying there are real vampires in New Orleans," Canady said.
"Sean," Maggie murmured.
"Maggie, let him spell it out."
Mark shook his head and stared at the two of them. He let out a sigh. "Yes, I'm saying there are real vampires in New Orleans. There's real danger out there. And I'm not it."
Mark frowned. Maggie Canady was staring at him as if she believed every word he was saying, even if her husband remained skeptical.
"You've got to let me go," Mark said. "I went to you to warn you."
"Where were you last night?" Canady asked skeptically.
Mark let out a sigh. "Battling a vampire." He decided to lay all his cards on the table. "Stephan is here. He's after Lauren Crow. I'm not sure if it's because he wants to torment me, or if he has some deep-seated psychological need to find Katie again."
"Katie?" Canady repeated.
"She was a woman he and I once knew," Mark said quietly. "I didn't know anything about vampires then. I would have laughed at the very suggestion-until I went to Kiev with Katie. I met her here in New Orleans, but she was from Kiev, and she wanted to be married in one of the castles there. She had known Stephan...before. I believe he followed her here, and then back to Kiev. He tried to lure her away from me, but she came back."
"Where is this Katie now?" Sean asked.
Maggie and her husband exchanged looks.
"I've been trailing Stephan since I got here, but I know he's been close ever since. I ran into Lauren Crow in a bar. I thought I'd seen a ghost, she's so much like Katie," he told them.
"Deanna's the one who was attacked," Canady said.
Mark frowned, and a new sense of urgency raced through his veins. He was free of the ropes, but he didn't want to fight if he didn't have to.
"I'm telling you..." He hesitated, taking in a deep breath, then letting it go. "Vampires exist, and Stephan is one of the most evil of them. Not only that, I believe he has a small army with him. I've tangled with a few of them. If you don't listen to me, if you don't help me, we're in for a serious slaughter."
"Let him go, Sean," Maggie said softly.
"You believe me?" he asked.
"Of course we believe you. Don't we, Sean?"
He stared at the woman. It was a miracle.
"You...you're willing to believe in vampires?"
She tossed back a length of deep auburn hair. "Of course I believe in them. I once was one. And we have several friends who are vampires right now. There are ways to survive with killing and turning innocents...." She sighed. "Sean has convinced your friends to move to Montresse House, by the way. It's owned by a vampire named Jessica, but she and some of the others have gone overseas to deal with a situation in Africa. Sean, please let him go." She gently touched her husband's arm. "We know he's telling the truth."
Lauren felt sorry and a little bit guilty checking out of their bed and breakfast, and she didn't say that they were moving on; she let their hostess think they had simply decided to go home early.
And it was time to go home. Past time. But they couldn't leave until Deanna could travel.
Packing up their things to move was a pain-both Deanna and Heidi were the type to throw everything everywhere. She actually tried to work on being annoyed; it kept her mind off the strange events happening around her.
When she had everything together, she lugged it all out to the curb and called for a taxi.
The driver, who mostly spoke an unidentifiable foreign language, was definitely not happy that he had to pack his car with so much stuff just so one person could travel a few blocks.
She impatiently promised him a big tip.
The address on the card she had been given went with a house on Bourbon Street, one she had never seen before. There was a lawn, along with a pool in back; there were trees, flowers and a winding path. The gate was wrought iron.
The house itself stood back from the street and resembled a Southern plantation with its handsome porch.
The taxi driver deposited Lauren and her bags on the sidewalk.
When she tried to explain that she needed help getting to the door, he pretended not to understand English at all, just took his money and drove off.
But no sooner had he disappeared than she saw the front door to the house open. A slim woman of about five-foot-three appeared on the porch and hurried down the walkway.
She was followed by a cop. Lauren had seen him before; he was the officer who had been with Lieutenant Canady in the alleyway behind the bar.
He in turn was followed by Big Jim the sax player.
"Hey!" the woman called cheerfully. "I'm Stacey Lacroix. Lauren, right? Sean called about you. Come in. Come in. We'll grab all this stuff." She might have been tiny, but she seemed like a small whirlwind of energy. "Oh, and this is Bobby Munro," she said, introducing the cop.
"We've kind of met," Bobby said with a lopsided smile.
"In the alley," Lauren said. "Hello, again. I'm Lauren Crow."
"And this is Big Jim Dixon, best jazz sax player in all fifty states," Stacey interjected.
"That's an exaggeration," Jim Dixon said, taking her hand. "And we've kind of met, too."
"At the bar," she said. "And I think I saw you playing in a funeral procession the other day," she said.
"That was me," he agreed, and easily lifted one of the heaviest bags.
Despite the welcoming tone in Stacey's voice and the ease of her introductions, she looked around uneasily as she grabbed the canvas tote bag that was Deanna's carry-on.
So much for it being difficult getting everything up to the house; with the four of them, it would only take one trip.
But before heading up the walk, Lauren found herself pausing, looking around as Stacey had done.
The sky seemed to have taken on an ashen color, and clouds suddenly billowed darkly and menacingly overhead.
Birds suddenly took flight over the house.
"Let's go in," Stacey urged.
Lauren sensed a sudden urgency in the air, though it was unspoken. Big Jim was already halfway to the house. She followed quickly.
The place was wonderful. She fell in love with it the minute she stepped inside. She thought that it must be very old, which wasn't unusual for the area, but it had been meticulously maintained and restored. The bannister was polished and gleaming. Woven rugs lay over the hardwood floors. A grandfather clock chimed as they entered, and a crystal chandelier cast a warm glow over the entry.
"My desk is back there in the hall," Stacey explained. "I'll have you sign in after you've seen your rooms. The owner is out of the country right now, but I think you'll be happy with your accommodations. We hadn't actually planned to have guests right now, but when Sean called...well, I could hardly say no. At least you'll have lots of room."
Bobby Munro and Big Jim were already heading up the elegant stairway. Stacey locked the front door and followed. Lauren trailed behind her.
The stairs led to a long hallway that stretched in either direction. "Guest rooms to your left," Stacey advised, looking back. "There's a balcony that extends across the back, with a wonderful view of the pool. There's only one rule here. You don't ask anyone in, anyone at all-ever-unless you check with me first. It's Jessica's rule-she's the owner-and we all abide by it."
Stacey was looking back at her with a smile, but there was something strange about the way she spoke. As if it the rule, if broken, could cause dire consequences. Like a carriage turning back into a pumpkin. Or worse.
"It's a beautiful house," she said politely.
"Yes, it is, isn't it?"
Big Jim and Bobby were just emerging from one of the guest rooms. "Don't know where you want what, exactly," Big Jim said. "We just put it all in the one room."
"I understand that there are three of you," Stacey said, "but one friend is in the hospital and the other-Heidi, is it?-will also need a place tonight. Anyway, this is you, Heidi is right there, and if and when you need a room for your other friend, she'll be right across the hall."
"I'm not sure we need quite so much room," Lauren murmured. The door to the bedroom she'd been assigned was still open, and the room was huge. There was a massive bed, a desk, French doors that led to the balcony, a wardrobe twice her size, and lots of space in between.
Stacey shrugged. "It's a big house. We make use of it when we can."
"Downstairs," Bobby offered, "you'll find the kitchen toward the back." He smiled, watching her closely. "I'm here most of the time when I'm not working." He took Stacey's hand. "We're engaged."
"Congratulations," Lauren said.
"I live in the caretaker's cottage out back. I don't really take care of anything, though, I just live there," Big Jim said.
"And Bobby is a cop, you know," Stacey said.
"Yes, I do."
Were the cops here sane? Lauren wondered.
The ones she had met so far had all seemed to study her as if she weren't quite right in the head. Then again, at least, they took her reasonably seriously, seriously enough to station an officer outside Deanna's door at the hospital.
"I really think you'll love the room," Stacey said, gesturing for Lauren to step inside. Her pride in the house was evident.
Lauren did love it. It was exquisite, from the polished wood of the nineteenth-century dresser and bed posts, to the cherrywood desk and antique floral pattern on the bedspread. She hesitated, wondering if, no matter how highly Lieutenant Canady thought of the safety of the place, she could afford it. But before she could mention her reserves, Stacey mentioned a price per room per night that was absurdly low.
"How on earth can you afford to do business that way?" Lauren couldn't help asking.
"Oh, Jessica doesn't actually make her living running Montresse House," Stacey explained. "She's a psychologist, plus she has family money. She closes this place whenever she chooses."
"Are we the only guests right now?"
"We have another gentleman arriving later," Stacey said. "If you're ready, I'll sign you in downstairs."
"I have to go to work, but I'm usually here at night," Bobby said. "Nice to meet you for real."
"And I should get to the club," Big Jim said.
"Nice to see you both again," Lauren told them, as they waved and started down the stairs.
She felt a moment of unease as she watched them go. Did they know too much about her, and were they a little too friendly? And what about that rule? Don't let anyone in.
Was it weird?
Oh, hell. What could be weirder than everything that was already going on? A gorgeous man had all but abducted her so he could tell her there were vampires in New Orleans. Deanna was in a hospital, receiving transfusions after sleepwalking and maybe being attacked. Tall-dark-and-handsome had disappeared, chasing after a shadow in the darkness, and a police lieutenant had ordered that Deanna's room be protected.
"I can sign in right now, if you like," she said to Stacey, shrugging off her worriesome thoughts. "In fact, I need to get moving."
"Of course," Stacey said.
It had all started with the fortune-teller, Lauren thought. And as soon as she finished signing in, she was going to find the woman and get a few answers.
Heidi had already been through three magazines. She had studied Modern Bride, reading up on the lastminute traumas that could lead to a problematic wedding, and moved on to People. Then she had looked through Time.
Deanna hadn't moved. She lay in her bed like Sleeping Beauty, stunning and sound asleep, awaiting her true love's kiss.
Why didn't she wake up?
Heidi took a moment to feel sorry for herself. She was with her best friends in a place they all loved, where they should have been having the time of their lives. Barry was at home with his crazy brothers and his friends. Nothing like a group of attorneys when they decided to cut loose. She thought about calling him, then decided that he'd be working now, and she never wanted to be one of those women who had to call a man just for reassurance.
No, they were fine. Deanna was getting the best care possible for...
Whatever this was.
Lauren would be back soon. One day, they would all look back on this experience as something that had brought them closer. And she had certainly never wanted her wedding or her bachelorette getaway to be boring.
She set down her magazine, stood, stretched, then smoothed Deanna's hair off her forehead. The nurse had been in just a few minutes ago, readjusting the IV, taking Deanna's vital signs. Everything was as good as it was going to get until her friend actually woke up.
Heidi walked to the door and peeked into the hallway.
A uniformed officer was sitting in a chair, reading the newspaper.
She went back to the chair and sat down. The chair could be converted into a bed. Either she or Lauren would probably stay in it through the night. For now, though, it was just a comfy chair.
"Mind if I turn on the television?" she said aloud. The sound of her own voice spooked her, and it wasn't as if Deanna cared whether she turned on the television or not.
She found the remote attached to the bed, but she could arrange the cord so she could control the set from her chair. She found a talk show on. She wasn't particularly fond of talk shows, but she couldn't find anything she actively wanted to see.
She closed her eyes and leaned back in the chair. As the voices droned on, she realized that she was actually kind of tired.
Fine. It wasn't as if she had company. She let herself drift off.
A few minutes later, she had the sensation that she was dreaming of being in a strange place. It was as if a man came on the television and began talking directly to her. A very good looking man. She wasn't usually swayed by looks or charm, though she recognized them, of course. She was madly in love, but it was still possible for her to recognize when another male was handsome and charming.
But she found that this man had her full attention. She was certain that she was dreaming, but in her dream, she smiled. He was teasing her, flirting with her, and she found herself responding. He had very dark hair, and a very...manly face. And a very hypnotic voice. She wasn't sure what he was saying, exactly, but she felt flushed. Strange. He had a voice that seemed to...touch her. Excite her.
How very silly...
It seemed that she was growing warmer. As if she could almost feel the brush of fingers against her inner thighs.
It was just a dream, she thought. She was closing in on her wedding day, and somewhere deep inside she was just having just a few minutes of completely understandable panic.
After all, she was giving up other men forever, hence this erotic dream about a man on the television.
But now he was telling her to get up. To go to the window and let him in.
Of course, she wasn't really doing it. Seriously, what man came to a hospital window? And how could she really be up and opening it, letting him in...?
Letting him do things to her.
While Deanna lay comatose on the bed.