Chapter Nine

Some of them were familiar, at least by sight--people from town: the owner of the music store where Michael worked; a couple of nurses she'd seen at the hospital, who still wore brightly colored medical scrubs and comfortable shoes. The rest, Claire barely knew at all, but they had one thing in common--they were all scared.

An older, hardlooking woman grabbed Claire by the shoulders. "Thank God you're home," she said, and hugged her. Claire, rigid with surprise, cast Shane a whatthehell look, and he shrugged helplessly. "This damn house won't do anything for us. The lights keep going out, the doors won't open, food goes bad in the fridge--it's as if it doesn't want us here!"

And it probably didn't. The house could have ejected them at any time, but obviously it had been a bit uncertain about exactly what its residents might want, so it had just made life uncomfortable for the intruders instead.

Claire could now feel the airconditioning switching on to cool the overheated air, hear doors swinging open upstairs, see lights coming on in darkened areas.

"Hey, Celia," Shane said, as the woman let go of Claire at last. "So, what brings you here? I figured the Barfly would be doing good business tonight."

"Well, it would be, except that some jerks came in and said that because I was wearing a bracelet I had to serve them for free, on account of being some kind of sympathizer. What kind of sympathizer, I said, and one of them tried to hit me."

Shane lifted his eyebrows. Celia wasn't a young woman. "What did you do?"

"Used the Regulator." Celia lifted a baseball bat propped against the wall. It was old hardwood, lovingly polished. "Got myself a couple of home runs, too. But I decided maybe I wouldn't stay for the extra innings, if you know what I mean. I figure they're drinking me dry over there right now. Makes me want to rip my bracelet off, I'll tell ya. Where are the damn vampires when you need them, after all that?"

"You didn't take your bracelet off? Even when they gave you the chance?" Shane seemed surprised. Celia gave him a glare.

"No, I didn't. I ain't breaking my word, not unless I have to. Right now, I don't have to."

"If you take it off now, you may never need to put it on again."

Celia leveled a wrinkled finger at him. "Look, Collins, I know all about you and your dad. I don't hold with any of that. Morganville's an allright place. You follow the rules and stay out of trouble--about like anyplace, I guess. You people wanted chaos. Well, this is what it looks like--people getting beaten, shops looted, houses burned. Sure, it'll settle down sometime, but into what? Maybe no place I'd want to live."

She turned away from him, shouldered her baseball bat, and marched away to talk with a group of adults her own age.

Shane caught Claire looking at him, and shrugged. "Yeah," he sighed. "I know. She's got a point. But how do we know it won't be better if the vamps just--"

"Just what, Shane? Die? What about Michael, have you thought about him? Or Sam?" She stomped off.

"Where are you going?"

"To get a Coke!"

"Would you--"

"No!"

She twisted the cap off the Coke she'd retrieved from the fridge--which was stocked up again, although she knew it hadn't been when they'd left. Another favor from the house, she guessed, although how it went shopping on its own she had no idea.

The cold syrupy goodness hit her like a brick wall, but instead of energizing her, it made her feel weak and a little sick. Claire sank down in a chair at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands, suddenly overwhelmed.

It was all falling apart.

Amelie was calling the vampires, probably going to fight Bishop to the death.

Morganville was ripping itself in pieces. And there was nothing she could do.

Well, there was one thing.

She retrieved and opened four more bottles of Coke, and delivered them to Hannah, Eve, Shane, and--because it felt mean to leave her out at a time like this--Monica.

Monica stared at the sweating bottle as if she suspected Claire had put rat poison in it. "What's this?"

"What does it look like? Take or don't, I don't really care." Claire put it down on the table next to where Monica sat, and went to curl up on the couch next to Shane. She checked her cell phone. The network was back up again, at least for the moment, and she had a ton of voice mails. Most were from Shane, so she saved them to listen to later; two more were from Eve, which she deleted, since they were instructions on where to find her.

The last one was from her mother. Claire caught her breath, tears pricking in her eyes at the sound of Mom's voice. Her mother sounded calm, at least--mostly, anyway.

Claire, sweetie, I know I shouldn't be worrying but I am. Honey, call us. I've been hearing some terrible things about what's happening out there. Some of the people with us here are talking about fights and looting. If I don't hear from you soon--well, I don't know what we'll do, but your father's going crazy. So please, call us. We love you, honey. Bye.

Claire got her breathing back under control, mainly by sternly telling herself that she needed to sound together and completely in control to keep her parents from charging out there into the craziness. She had it more or less managed by the time the phone rang on the other end, and when her mother picked it up, she was able to say, "Hi, Mom," without making it sound like she was about to burst into tears. "I got your message. Is everything okay there?"

"Here? Claire, don't you be worrying about us! We're just fine! Oh, honey, are you okay? Really?"

"Honestly, yes, I'm okay. Everything's--" She couldn't say that everything was okay, because of course it wasn't. It was, at best, kind of temporarily stable. "It's quiet here. Shane's here, and Eve." Claire remembered that Mom had liked Monica Morrell, and rolled her eyes. Anything to calm her fears. "That girl from the dorm, Monica, she's here, too."

"Oh, yes, Monica. I liked her." It really did seem to help, which was not exactly an endorsement of Mom's character judging ability. "Her brother came by here to check on us about an hour ago. He's a nice boy."

Claire couldn't quite imagine referring to Richard Morrell as a boy, but she let it go. "He's kind of in charge of the town right now," she said. "You have the radio, right? The one we dropped off earlier?"

"Yes. We've been doing everything they say, of course. But honey, I'd really like it if you could come here. We want to have you home, with us."

"I know. I know, Mom. But I think I'd better stay here. It's important. I'll try to come by tomorrow, okay?"

They talked a little more, about nothing much, just chatter to make life seem kind of normal for a change. Mom was holding it together, but only barely; Claire could hear the manic quaver in her voice, could almost see the bright tears in her eyes. She was going on about how they'd had to move most of the boxes into the base ment to make room for all the company--company?--and how she was afraid that Claire's stuff would get damp, and then she talked about all the toys in the boxes and how much Claire had enjoyed them when she was younger.

Normal Mom stuff.

Claire didn't interrupt, except to make soothing noises and acknowledgments when Mom paused. It helped, hearing Mom's voice, and she knew it was helping her to talk. But finally, when her mother ran down like a springwound clock, Claire agreed to all the parental requirements to be careful and watch out and wear warm clothes.

Goodbye seemed very final, and once Claire hung up, she sat in silence for a few minutes, staring at the screen of her cell phone.

On impulse, she tried to call Amelie. It rang and rang. No voice mail.

In the living room, Shane was organizing some kind of sentry duty. A lot of people had already crashed out in piles of pillows, blankets, sometimes just on a spare rug. Claire edged around the prone bodies and motioned to Shane that she was going upstairs. He nodded and kept talking to the two guys he was with, but his gaze followed her all the way.

Eve was in her bedroom, and there was a note on the door that said DO NOT KNOCK OR I WILL KILL YOU. THIS MEANS YOU, SHANE. Claire considered knocking, but she was too tired to run away.

Her bedroom was dark. When she'd left in the morning, Eve's kindoffriend Miranda had been sleeping here, but she was gone, and the bed was neatly made again. Claire sat down on the edge, staring out the windows, and then pulled out clean underwear and her last pair of blue jeans from the closet, plus a tight black shirt Eve had lent her last week.

The shower felt like heaven. There was even enough hot water for a change. Claire dried off, fussed with her hair a bit, and got dressed. When she came out, she listened at the stairs, but didn't hear Shane talking anymore. Either he was being quiet, or he'd gone to bed. She paused next to his door, wishing she had the guts to knock, but she went on to her own room instead.

Shane was inside, sitting on her bed. He looked up when she opened the door, and his lips parted, but he was silent for a long few seconds.

"I should go," he finally said, but he didn't get up.

Claire settled in next to him. It was all perfectly correct, the two of them sitting fully dressed like this, but somehow she felt like they were on the edge of a cliff, both in danger of falling off.

It was exciting, and terrifying, and all kinds of wrong.

"So what happened to you today?" she asked. "In the Bloodmobile, I mean?"

"Nothing really. We drove to the edge of town and parked outside the border, where we'd be able to see anybody coming. A couple of vamps showed, trying to make a withdrawal, but we sent them packing. Bishop never made an appearance. Once we lost contact with the vampires, we figured we'd cruise around and see what was going on. We nearly got boxed in by a bunch of drunk idiots in pickup trucks, and then the vampires in the Bloodmobile went nuts--that call thing going off, I guess. I dropped them at the grain elevator--that was the biggest, darkest place I could find, and it casts a lot of shadows. I handed off the driving to Cesar Mercado. He's supposed to drive it all the way to Midland tonight, provided the barriers are down. Best we can do."

"What about the book? Did you leave it on board?"

In answer, Shane reached into his waistband and pulled out the small leatherbound volume. Amelie had added a lock on it, like a diary lock. Claire tried pressing the small, metal catch. It didn't open, of course.

"You think you should be fooling with that thing?" Shane asked. "Probably not." She tried prying a couple of pages apart to peek at the script. All she could tell was that it was handwritten, and the paper looked relatively old. Oddly, when she sniffed it, the paper smelled like chemicals.

"What are you doing?" Shane looked like he couldn't decide whether to be repulsed or fascinated.

"I think somebody restored the paper," she said. "Like they do with really expensive old books and stuff. Comics, sometimes. They put chemicals on the paper to slow down the aging process, make the paper whiter again."

"Fascinating," Shane lied. "Gimme." He plucked the book from her hands and put it aside, on the other side of the bed. When she grabbed for it, he got in her way; they tangled, and somehow, he was lying prone on the bed and she was stretched awkwardly on top of him. His hands steadied her when she started to slide off.

"Oh," she murmured. "We shouldn't--"

"Definitely not."

"Then you should--"

"Yeah, I should."

But he didn't move, and neither did she. They just looked at each other, and then, very slowly, she lowered her lips to his.

It was a warm, sweet, wonderful kiss, and it seemed to go on forever. It also felt like it didn't last nearly long enough. Shane's hands skimmed up her sides, up her back, and cupped her damp hair as he kissed her more deeply. There were promises in that kiss.

"Okay, red flag," he said. He hadn't let her go, but there was about a half an inch of air between their lips. Claire's whole body felt alive and tingling, pulse pounding in her wrists and temples, warmth pooling like light in the center of her body.

"It's okay," she said. "I swear. Trust me."

"Hey, isn't that my line?"

"Not now."

Kissing Shane was the reward for surviving a long, hard, terrifying day. Being enfolded in his warmth felt like going to heaven on moonbeams. She kicked off her shoes, and, still fully dressed, crawled under the blankets. Shane hesitated.

"Trust me," she said again. "And you can keep your clothes on if you don't."

They'd done this before, but somehow it hadn't felt so... intimate. Claire pressed against him, back to front under the covers, and his arms went around her. Instant heat.

She swallowed and tried to remember all those good intentions she'd had as she felt Shane's breath whisper on the back of her neck, and then his lips brushed her skin. "So wrong," he murmured. "You're killing me, you know."

"Am not."

"On this, you'll have to trust me." His sigh made her shiver all the way to her bones. "I can't believe you brought Monica back here."

"Oh, come on. You wouldn't have left her out there, all alone. I know you better than that, Shane. Even as bad as she is--" "The satanic incarnation of evil?"

"Maybe so, but I can't see you letting them get her and... hurt her." Claire turned around to face him, a squirming motion that made them wrestle for the covers. "What's going to happen? Do you know?"

"What am I, Miranda the teen screwedup psychic? No, I don't know. All I know is that when we get up tomorrow, either the vampires will be back, or they won't. And then we'll have to make a choice about how we're going to go forward."

"Maybe we don't go forward. Maybe we wait."

"One thing I do know, Claire: you can't stay in the same place, not even for a day. You keep on moving. Maybe it's the right direction, maybe not, but you still move. Every second things change, like it or not."

She studied his face intently. "Is your dad here? Now?"

He grimaced. "Truthfully? No idea. I wouldn't be surprised. He'd know that it was time to move in and take command, if he could. And Manetti's a running buddy from way back. This kind of feels like Dad's behind it."

"But if he does take over, what happens to Michael? To Myrnin? To any other vampire out there?"

"Do you really need me to tell you?"

Claire shook her head. "He'll tell people they have to kill all the vampires, and then, he'll come after the Morrells, and anybody else he thinks is responsible for what happened to your family. Right?"

"Probably," Shane sighed.

"And you're going to let all that happen."

"I didn't say that."

"You didn't say you weren't, either. Don't tell me it's complicated, because it isn't. Either you stand up for something, or you lie down for it. You said that to me one time, and you were right." Claire burrowed closer into his arms. "Shane, you were right then. Be right now."

He touched her face. His fingers traced down her cheek, across her lips, and his eyes--she'd never seen that look in his eyes. In anyone's, really.

"In this whole screwedup town, you're the only thing that's always been right to me," he whispered. "I love you, Claire." She saw something that might have been just a flash of panic go across his expression, but then he steadied again. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I do. I love you."

He said something else, but the world had narrowed around her. Shane's lips kept moving, but all she heard were the same words echoing over and over inside her head like the tolling of a giant brass bell: I love you.

He sounded like it had taken him completely by surprise--not in a bad way, but more as if he hadn't really understood what he was feeling until that instant.

She blinked. It was as if she'd never really seen him before, and he was beautiful. More beautiful than any man she'd ever seen in her entire life, ever.

Whatever he was saying, she stopped it by kissing him. A lot. And for a very long time. When he finally backed up, he didn't go far, and this look in his eyes, this intense and overwhelming need--that was new, too.

And she liked it.

"I love you," he said, and kissed her so hard he took her breath away. There was more to it than before--more passion, more urgency, more... everything. It was as if she were caught in a tide, carried away, and she thought that if she never touched the shore again, it would be good to drown like this, just swim forever in all this richness.

Red flag, some part of her screamed, come on, red flag. What are you doing?

She wished it would just shut up.

"I love you, too," she whispered to him. Her voice was shaking, and so were her hands where they rested on his chest. Under the soft Tshirt, his muscles were tensed, and she could feel every deep breath he took. "I'd do anything for you."

She meant it to be an invitation, but that was the thing that shocked sense back into him. He blinked. "Anything," he repeated, and squeezed his eyes shut.

"Yeah. I'm getting that. Bad idea, Claire. Very, very bad."

"Today?" She laughed a little wildly. "Everything's crazy today. Why can't we be? Just once?"

"Because I made promises," he said. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, and she felt a groan shake his whole body. "To your parents, to myself, to Michael. To you, Claire. I can't break my word. It's pretty much all I've got these days."

"But... what if--"

"Don't," he whispered in her ear. "Please don't. This is tough enough already."

He kissed her again, long and sweetly, and somehow, it tasted like tears this time. Like some kind of goodbye.

"I really do love you," he said, and smoothed away the damp streaks on her cheeks. "But I can't do this. Not now."

Before she could stop him, he slid out of bed, put on his shoes, and walked quickly to the door. She sat up, holding the covers close as if she were naked underneath, instead of fully clothed, and he hesitated there, one hand gripping the doorknob.

"Please stay," she said. "Shane--"

He shook his head. "If I stay, things are going to happen. You know it, and I know it, and we just can't do this. I know things are falling apart, but--" He hitched in a deep, painful breath. "No."

The sound of the door softly closing behind him went through her like a knife.

Claire rolled over, wretchedly hugging the pillow that smelled of his hair, sharing the warm place in the bed where his body had been, and thought about crying herself to sleep.

And then she thought of the dawning wonder in his eyes when he'd said, I love you.

No. It was no time to be crying.

When she did finally sleep, she felt safe.

8

Three hours later, they didn't know much more, except that nothing they tried to do to keep the vampires from leaving seemed to work, apart from tranquilizing them and locking them up in sturdy cells. Tracking those who did leave wasn't much good, either. Claire and Hannah ended up at the Glass House, which seemed like the best place to gather--central to most things, and close to City Hall in an emergency.

Richard Morrell arrived, along with a few others, and set up shop in the kitchen. Claire was trying to figure out what to do to feed everybody, when there was another knock at the door.

It was Gramma Day. The old woman, straightbacked and proud, leaned on her cane and stared at Claire from age faded eyes. "I ain't staying with my daughter," she said. "I don't want any part of that."

Claire quickly moved aside to let her in, and the old lady shuffled inside. As Claire locked the door behind her, she asked, "How did you get here?"

"Walked," Gramma said. "I know how to use my feet just fine. Nobody bothered me." Nobody would dare, Claire thought. "Young Mr. Richard! Are you in here?"

"Ma'am?" Richard Morrell came out of the kitchen, looking very much younger than Claire had ever seen him. Gramma Day had that effect on people. "What are you doing here?"

"My fool daughter's off her head," Gramma said. "I'm not having any of it. Move out of the way, boy. I'm making you some lunch." And she tapped her cane right past him, into the kitchen, and clucked and fretted over the state of the kitchen while Claire stood by, caught between giggles and horror. She was just a pair of hands, getting ordered around, but at the end of it there was a plate full of sandwiches and a big jug of iced tea, and everybody was seated around the kitchen table, except for Gramma, who'd gone off into the other room to rest. Claire had hesitantly taken a chair, at Richard's nod. Detectives Joe Hess and Travis Lowe were also present, and they were gratefully scarfing down food and drink. Claire felt exhausted, but they looked a whole lot worse. Tall, thin Joe Hess had his left arm in a sling--broken, apparently, from the brace on it--and both he and his rounder, heavier partner had cuts and bruises to prove they'd been in a fight or two.

"So," Hess said, "any word on where the vampires are heading when they take off?"

"Not so far," Richard said. "Once we started tracking them, we could keep up only for a while, and then they lost us."

"Aren't they hurt by the sun?" Claire asked. "I mean--"

"They start smoking, not in the Marlboro way, and then they start crisping," Travis Lowe said around a mouthful of turkey and Swiss. "The older ones, they can handle it okay, and anyway, they're not just charging out there anymore. They're putting on hats and coats and blankets. I saw one wrapped up in a SpongeBob rug from some kid's bedroom, if you can believe that. It's the younger vamps that are in trouble. Some of them won't make it to the shade if they're not careful."

Claire thought about Michael, and her stomach lurched. Before she even formed the question, Richard saw her expression and shook his head. "Michael's okay," he said. "Saw to it myself. He's got himself a nice, secure jail cell, along with the other vampires we could catch before it was too late. He's not as strong as some of the others. He can't bend steel with his bare hands. Yet, anyway."

"Any word on--" Claire was wearing out the question, and Richard didn't even let her finish it.

"No sign of Eve," he said. "No word from her. I'd try to put a GPS track on her phone, but we'd have to bring the cell network up, and that's too dangerous right now. I've asked the guys on the street to keep an eye out for her, but we've got a lot of things going on, Claire."

"I know. But--" She couldn't put it into words, exactly. She just knew that somewhere, somehow, Eve was in trouble, and they needed to find her.

"So," Joe Hess said, and stood up to look at a blownup map of Morganville taped to the wall. "This still accurate?" The map was covered in colored dots: blue for locations held by those loyal to Amelie; red for those loyal to Bishop; black for those burned or otherwise put out of commission, which accounted for three Founder Houses, the hospital, and the blood bank.

"Pretty much," Richard said. "We don't know if the vampires are leaving Bishop's locations, but we know they're digging in, just like Amelie's folks. We can verify locations only where Amelie's people were supposed to be, and they're gone from just about every location we've got up in blue."

"Where were they last seen?"

Richard consulted notes, and began to add yellow dots to the map. Claire saw the pattern almost immediately. "It's the portals," she said. "Myrnin got the portals working again, somehow. That's what they're using."

Hess and Lowe looked blank, but Richard nodded. "Yeah, I know about that. Makes sense. But where are they going?"

She shrugged helplessly. "Could be anywhere. I don't know all the places the portals go; maybe Myrnin and Amelie do, but I don't think anybody else does." But she felt unreasonably cheered by the idea that the vampires weren't out wandering out in the daylight, spontaneously combusting all over the place. She didn't want to see that happen to them... not even to Oliver.

Well, maybe to Oliver, sometimes. But not today.

The three men stared at her for a few seconds, then went back to studying the map, talking about perimeters and strategies for patrols, all kinds of things that Claire didn't figure really involved her. She finished her sandwich and walked into the living room, where tiny, wizened little Gramma Day was sitting in an overstuffed wing chair with her feet up, talking to Hannah. "Hey, little girl," Gramma Day said. "Sit yourself."

Claire perched, looking around the room. Most of the vampires were gone, either confined to cells or locked away for safety; some, they hadn't been able to stop. She couldn't seem to stop anxiously rubbing her hands together. Shane. Shane was supposed to be here. Richard Morrell had said that they'd arranged for the Bloodmobile to switch drivers, and that meant Shane would be coming soon for his rest period.

She needed him right now.

Gramma Day was looking at her with distant sympathy in her faded eyes. "You worried?" she asked, and smiled. "You got cause, I expect."

"I do?" Claire was surprised. Most adults tried to pretend it was all going to be okay.

"Sure thing, sugar. Morganville's been ruled by the vampires a long time, and they ain't always been the gentlest of folks. Been people hurt, people killed without reason. Builds up some resentment." Gramma nodded toward the bookcase. "Fetch me that red book right there, the one that starts with N."

It was an encyclopedia. Claire got it and set it in her lap. Gramma's weathered, sinewy fingers opened it and flipped pages, then handed it back. The heading said, New York Draft Riots, 1863.

The pictures showed chaos--mobs, buildings on fire. And worse things. Much, much worse.

"People forget," Gramma said. "They forget what can happen, if anger builds up. Those New York folks, they were angry because their men were being drafted to fight the Civil War. Who you think they took it out on? Mostly black folks, of all things. Folks who couldn't fight back. They even burned up an orphanage, and they'd have killed every one of those children if they'd caught them." She shook her head, clicking her tongue in disgust. "Same thing happened in Tulsa in 1921. Called it the Greenwood Riot, said black folks were taking away their business and jobs. Back in France, they had a revolution where they took all those fancy aristocrat folks and cut their heads off. Maybe it was their fault, and maybe not. It's all the same thing: you get angry, you blame it on some folks, and you make them pay, guilty or not. Happens all the time."

Claire felt a chill. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, you think about France, girl. Vampires been holding us all down a long time, just like those aristocrats, or that's how people around here think of it. Now, you think about all those folks out there with generations of grudges, and nobody really in charge right now. You think it won't go bad on us?"

There weren't enough shudders in the world. Claire remembered Shane's father, the fanatical light in his eyes. He'd be one of those leading a riot, she thought. One of those pulling people out of their houses as collaborators and turncoats and hanging them up from lampposts.

Hannah patted the shotgun in her lap. She'd put the paintball gun aside--honestly, it wasn't much use now, with the vampires missing in action. "They're not getting in here, Gramma. We won't be having any Greenwood in Morganville."

"I ain't so much worried about you and me," Gramma said. "But I'd be worried for the Morrells. They're gonna be coming for them, sooner or later. That family's the poster children for the old guard."

Claire wondered if Richard knew that. She thought about Monica, too. Not that she liked Monica--God, no--but still.

She thanked Gramma Day and walked back into the kitchen, where the policemen were still talking. "Gramma Day thinks there's going to be trouble," she said. "Not the vampires. Regular people, like those people in the park. Maybe Lisa Day, too. And she thinks you ought to look after your family, Richard."

Richard nodded. "Already done," he said. "My mom and dad are at City Hall. Monica's headed there, too." He paused, thinking about it. "You're right. I should make sure she gets there all right, before she becomes another statistic." His face had tightened, and there was a look in his eyes that didn't match the way he said it. He was worried.

Given what Claire had just heard from Gramma Day, she thought he probably ought to be. Joe Hess and Travis Lowe sent each other looks, too, and she thought they were probably thinking the same thing. She deserves it, Claire told herself. Whatever happens to Monica Morrell, she earned it.

Except the pictures from Gramma Day's book kept coming back to haunt her.

The front door banged shut, and she heard Hannah's voice--not an alarm, just a welcome. She spun around and went to the door of the kitchen... and ran directly into Shane, who grabbed her and folded his arms around her.

"You're here," he said, and hugged her so tightly that she felt ribs creak. "Man, you don't make it easy, Claire. I've been freaking out all damn day. First I hear you're off in the middle of Vamptown; then you're running around like bait with Eve--"

"You're one to talk about bait," Claire said, and pushed back to look up into his face. "You okay?"

"Not a scratch," he said, and grinned. "Ironic, because I'm usually the one with the battle scars, right? The worst thing that happened to me was that I had to pull over and let a bunch of vampires off the bus, or they'd have ripped right through the walls. You'd be proud. I even let them off in the shade." His smile faded, but not the warmth in his eyes. "You look tired."

"Yeah, you think?" She caught herself on a yawn. "Sorry."

"We should get you home and catch some rest while we can." He looked around. "Where's Eve?"

Nobody had told him. Claire opened her mouth and found her throat clenching tight around the words. Her eyes filled with tears. She's gone, she wanted to say. She's missing. Nobody knows where she is.

But saying it out loud, saying it to Shane, that would make it real, somehow.

"Hey," he said, and smoothed her hair. "Hey, what's wrong? Where is she?"

"She was at Common Grounds," Claire finally choked out. "She--"

His hands went still, and his eyes widened.

"She's missing," Claire finally said, and a wave of utter misery broke over her. "She's out there somewhere. That's all I know."

"Her car's outside."

"We drove it here." Claire nodded at Hannah, who'd come in behind Shane and was silently watching. He acknowledged her with a glance; that was all.

"Okay," Shane said. "Michael's safe, you're safe, I'm safe. Now we're going to go find Eve."

Richard Morrell stirred. "That's not a good idea."

Shane spun on him, and the look on his face was hard enough to scare a vampire. "Want to try and stop me, Dick?"

Richard stared at him for a moment, then turned back to the map. "You want to go, go. We've got things to do. There's a whole town of people out there to serve and protect. Eve's one girl."

"Yeah, well, she's our girl," Shane said. He took Claire's hand. "Let's go."

Hannah leaned against the wall. "Mind if I call shotgun?"

"Since you're carrying one? Feel free."

Outside, things were odd--quiet, but with a suppressed feeling of excitement in the air. People were still outside, talking in groups on the streets. The stores were shut down, for the most part, but Claire noticed with a stir of unease that the bars were open, and so was Morganville's gun shop.

Not good.

The gates of the university had opened, and they were issuing some kind of passes to people to leave--still sticking to the emergency drill story, Claire assumed.

"Oh, man," Shane muttered, as they turned down one of the streets that led to the heart of town, and Founder's Square--Vamptown. There were more people here, more groups. "I don't like this. There's Sal Manetti up there. He was one of my dad's drinking buddies, back in the day."

"The cops don't like it much, either," Hannah said, and pointed at the police cars ahead. They were blocking off access at the end of the street, and when Claire squinted, she could see they were out of their cruisers and arranged in a line, ready for anything. "This could turn bad, any time. All they need is somebody to strike a match out there, and we're all on fire."

Claire thought about Shane saying his father was coming to town, and she knew he was thinking about that, too. He shook his head. "We've got to figure out where Eve might be. Ideas?"

"Maybe she left us some clues," Claire said. "Back at Common Grounds. We should probably start there."

Common Grounds, however, was deserted, and the steel shutters were down. The front door was locked. They drove around back, to the alley. Nothing was there but trash cans, and--

"What the hell is that?" Shane asked. He hit the brakes and put the car in park, then jumped out and picked up something small on the ground. He got back in and showed it to Claire.

It was a small white candy in the shape of a skull. Claire blinked at it, then looked down the alley. "She left a trail of breath mints?"

"Looks like. We'll have to go on foot to follow it."

Hannah didn't seem to like that idea much, but Shane wasn't taking votes. They parked and locked Eve's car in the alley behind Common Grounds and began hunting for skull candies.

"Over here!" Hannah yelled, at the end of the alley. "Looks like she's dropping them when she makes a turn. Smart. She went this way."

After that, they went faster. The skull candies were in plain sight, easy to spot. Claire noticed that they were mostly in the shadows, which would have made sense, if Eve was with Myrnin or the other vampires. Why didn't she stay? Maybe she hadn't had a choice.

They ran out of candy trail after a few blocks. It led them into an area where Claire hadn't really been before-- abandoned old buildings, mostly, falling to pieces under the relentless pressure of years and sun. It looked and felt deserted.

"Where now?" Claire asked, looking around. She didn't see anything obvious, but then she spotted something shiny, tucked in behind a tippedover rusty trash can. She reached behind and came up with a black leather collar, studded with silver spikes.

The same collar Eve had been wearing. She wordlessly showed it to Shane, who turned in a slow circle, looking at the blank buildings. "Come on, Eve," he said. "Give us something. Anything." He froze. "You hear that?"

Hannah cocked her head. She was standing at the end of the alley, shotgun held in her arms in a way that was both casual and scarily competent. "What?"

"You don't hear it?"

Claire did. Somebody's phone was ringing. A cell phone, with an ultrasonic ringtone--she'd heard that older people couldn't hear those frequencies, and kids in school had used them all the time to sneak phone calls and texts in class. It was faint, but it was definitely there. "I thought the networks were down," she said, and pulled her own phone out.

Nope. The network was back up. She wondered if Richard had done it, or they'd lost control of the cell phone towers. Either one was possible.

They found the phone before the ringing stopped. It was Eve's--a red phone, with silver skull cell phone charms on it--discarded in the shadow of a broken, leaning doorway. "Who was calling?" Claire asked, and Shane paged through the menu.

"Richard," he said. "I guess he really was looking for her after all."

Claire's phone buzzed--just once. A text message. She opened it and checked.

It was from Eve, and it had been sent hours ago; the backlog of messages was just now being delivered, apparently.

It read, 911 @ GERMANS. Claire showed it to Shane. "What is this?"

"Nine one one. Emergency message. German's--" He looked over at Hannah, who pushed away from the wall and came toward them.

"German's Tire Plant," she said. "Damn, I don't like that; it's the size of a couple of football fields, at least."

"We should let Richard know," Claire said. She dialed, but the network was busy, and then the bars failed again.

"I'm not waiting," Shane said. "Let's get the car."

9

The tire plant was near the old hospital, which made Claire shudder; she remembered the deserted building way too well. It had been incredibly creepy, and then of course it had also nearly gotten her and Shane killed, too, so again, not fond.

She was mildly shocked to see the hulking old edifice still standing, as Shane turned the car down the street.

"Didn't they tear that place down?" It had been scheduled for demolition, and boy, if any place had ever needed it...

"I heard it was delayed," Shane said. He didn't seem any happier about it than Claire was. "Something about historic preservation. Although anybody wanting to preserve that thing has never been inside it running for their life, I'll bet."

Claire stared out the window. On her side of the car was the brooding monstrosity of a hospital. The cracked stones and tilted columns in front made it look like something straight out of one of Shane's favorite zombiekilling video games. "Don't be hiding in there," she whispered. "Please don't be hiding in there." Because if Eve and Myrnin had taken refuge there, she wasn't sure she'd have the courage to go charging in after them.

"There's German's," Hannah said, and nodded toward the other side of the street. Claire hadn't really noticed it the last time she'd been out here--preoccupied with the whole notdying issue--but there it was, a fourstory square building in that faded tan color that everybody had used back in the sixties. Even the windows--those that weren't broken out--were painted over. It was plain, big, and blocky, and there was absolutely nothing special about it except its size--it covered at least three city blocks, all blind windows and blank concrete.

"You ever been inside there?" Shane asked Hannah, who was studying the building carefully.

"Not for a whole lot of years," she said. "Yeah, we used to hide up in there sometimes, when we cut class or something. I guess everybody did, once in a while. It's a mess in there, a real junkyard. Stuff everywhere, walls falling apart, ceilings none too stable, either. If you go up to the second level, you watch yourself. Make sure you don't trust the floors, and watch those iron stairs. They were shaky even back then."

"Are we going in there?" Claire asked.

"No," Shane said. "You're not going anywhere. You're staying here and getting Richard on the phone and telling him where we are. Me and Hannah will check it out."

There didn't seem to be much room for argument, because Shane didn't give her time; he and Hannah bailed out of the car, made lockthedoor motions, and sprinted toward a gap in the rusted, sagging fence.

Claire watched until they disappeared around the corner of the building, and realized her fingers were going numb from clutching her cell phone. She took a deep breath and flipped it open to try Richard Morrell again.

Nothing. No signal again. The network was going up and down like a yoyo.

The walkietalkie signal was low, but she tried it anyway. There was some kind of response, but it was swallowed by static. She gave their position, on the off chance that someone on the network would be able to hear her over the noise.

She screamed and dropped the device when the light at the car window was suddenly blocked out, and someone battered frantically on the glass.

Claire recognized the silk shirt--her silk shirt--before she recognized Monica Morrell, because Monica definitely didn't look like herself. She was out of breath, sweating, her hair was tangled, and what makeup she had on was smeared and running.

She'd been crying. There was a cut on her right cheek, and a forming bruise, and dirt on the silk blouse as well as bloodstains. She was holding her left arm as though it was hurt.

"Open the door!" she screamed, and pounded on the glass again. "Let me in!"

Claire looked behind the car.

There was a mob coming down the street: thirty, forty people, some running, some following at a walk. Some were waving baseball bats, boards, pipes.

They saw Monica and let out a yell. Claire gasped, because that sound didn't seem human at all--more the roar of a beast, something mindless and hungry.

Monica's expression was, for the first time, absolutely open and vulnerable. She put her palm flat against the window glass. "Please help me," she said.

But even as Claire clawed at the lock to open it, Monica flinched, turned, and ran on, limping.

Claire slid over the front seat and dropped into the driver's seat. Shane had left the keys in the ignition. She started it up and put the big car in gear, gave it too much gas, and nearly wrecked it on the curb before she straightened the wheel. She rapidly gained on Monica. She passed her, squealed to a stop, and reached over to throw open the passenger door.

"Get in!" she yelled. Monica slid inside and banged the door shut, and Claire hit the gas as something impacted loudly against the back of the car--a brick, maybe. A hail of smaller stones hit a second later. Claire swerved wildly again, then straightened the wheel and got the car moving more smoothly. Her heart pounded hard, and her hands felt sweaty on the steering wheel. "You all right?"

Monica was panting, and she threw Claire a filthy look. "No, of course I'm not all right!" she snapped, and tried to fix her hair with trembling hands. "Unbelievable. What a stupid question. I guess I shouldn't expect much more from someone like you, though--"

Claire stopped the car and stared at her.

Monica shut up.

"Here's how this is going to go," Claire said. "You're going to act like an actual human being for a change, or else you're on your own. Clear?"

Monica glanced behind them. "They're coming!"

"Yes, they are. So, are we clear?"

"Okay, okay, yes! Fine, whatever!" Monica cast a clearly terrified look at the approaching mob. More stones peppered the paint job, and one hit the back glass with enough force to make Claire wince. "Get me out of here! Please!"

"Hold on, I'm not a very good driver."

That was kind of an understatement. Eve's car was huge and heavy and had a mind of its own, and Claire hadn't taken the time to readjust the bench seat to make it possible for her to reach the pedals easily. The only good thing about her driving, as they pulled away from the mob and the falling bricks, was that it was approximately straight, and pretty fast.

She scraped the curb only twice.

Once the fittest of their pursuers had fallen behind, obviously discouraged, Claire finally remembered to breathe, and pulled the car around the next right turn. This section of town seemed deserted, but then, so had the other street, before Monica and her fan club had shown up. The big, imposing hulk of the tire plant glided by on the passenger side--it seemed like miles of featureless brick and blank windows.

Claire braked the car on the other side of the street, in front of a deserted, rusting warehouse complex. "Come on," she said.

"What?" Monica watched her get out of the car and take the keys with uncomprehending shock. "Where are you going? We have to get out of here! They were going to kill me!"

"They probably still are," Claire said. "So you should probably get out of the car now, unless you want to wait around for them."

Monica said something Claire pretended not to hear--it wasn't exactly complimentary--and limped her way out of the passenger side. Claire locked the car. She hoped it wouldn't get banged up, but that mob had looked pretty excitable, and just the fact that Monica had been in it might be enough to ensure its destruction.

With any luck, though, they'd assume the girls had run into the warehouse complex, which was what Claire wanted.

Claire led them in the opposite direction, to the fence around German's Tire. There was a split in the wire by one of the posts, an ancient curling gap half hidden by a tangle of tumbleweeds. She pushed through and held the steel aside for Monica. "Coming?" she asked when Monica hesitated. "Because, you know what? Don't really care all that much. Just so you know."

Monica came through without any comment. The fence snapped back into place. Unless someone was looking for an entrance, it ought to do.

The plant threw a large, black shadow on the weedchoked parking lot. There were a few rustedout trucks still parked here and there; Claire used them for cover from the street as they approached the main building, though she didn't think the mob was close enough to really spot them at this point. Monica seemed to get the point without much in the way of instruction; Claire supposed that running for her life had humbled her a little. Maybe.

"Wait," Monica said, as Claire prepared to bolt for a brokenout bottomfloor window into the tire plant. "What are you doing?"

"Looking for my friends," she said. "They're inside."

"Well, I'm not going in there," Monica declared, and tried to look haughty. It would have been more effective if she hadn't been so frazzled and sweaty. "I was on my way to City Hall, but those losers got in my way. They slashed my tires. I need to get to my parents."' She said it as though she expected Claire to salute and hop like a toad.

Claire raised her eyebrows. "Better start walking, I guess. It's kind of a long way."

"But--but--"

Claire didn't wait for the sputtering to die; she turned and ran for the building. The window opened into total darkness, as far as she could tell, but at least it was accessible. She pulled herself up on the sash and started to swing her legs inside.

"Wait!" Monica dashed across to join her. "You can't leave me here alone! You saw those jerks out there!"

"Absolutely."

"Oh, you're just loving this, aren't you?"

"Kinda." Claire hopped down inside the building, and her shoes slapped bare concrete floor. It was bare except for a layer of dirt, anyway--undisturbed for as far as the light penetrated, which wasn't very far. "Coming?"

Monica stared through the window at her, just boiling with fury; Claire smiled at her and started to walk into the dark.

Monica, cursing, climbed inside.

"I'm not a bad person," Monica was saying--whining, actually. Claire wished she could find a twobyfour to whack her with, but the tire plant, although full of wreckage and trash, didn't seem to be big on wooden planks. Some nice pipes, though. She might use one of those.

Except she really didn't want to hit anybody, deep down. Claire supposed that was a character flaw, or something.

"Yes, you really are a bad person," she told Monica, and ducked underneath a lowhanging loop of wire that looked horrormovie ready, the sort of thing that dropped around your neck and hauled you up to be dispatched by the psychokiller villain. Speaking of which, this whole place was decorated in Early PsychoKiller Villain, from the vast soaring darkness overhead to the lumpy, skeletal shapes of rusting equipment and abandoned junk. The spray painting--decades of it, in layered styles from Early Tagger to cuttingedge gang sign--gleamed in the random shafts of light like blood. Some particularly unpleasant spraypaint artist had done an enormous, terrifying clown face, with windows for the eyes and a giant, open doorway for a mouth. Yeah, really not going in there, Claire thought. Although the way these things went, she probably would have to.

"Why do you say that?"

"Say what?" Claire asked absently. She was listening for any sound of movement, but this place was enormous and confusing--just as Hannah had warned.

"Say that I'm a bad person!"

"Oh, I don't know--you tried to kill me? And get me raped at a party? Not to mention--"

"That was payback," Monica said. "And I didn't mean it or anything."

"Which makes it all so much better. Look, can we not bond? I'm busy. Seriously. Shhhh." That last was to forestall Monica from blurting out yet another injured defense of her character. Claire squeezed past a barricade of piledup boxes and metal, into another shaft of light that arrowed down from a highup broken window. The clown painting felt like it was watching her, which was beyond creepy. She tried not to look too closely at what was on the floor. Some of it was animal carcasses, birds, and things that had gotten inside and died over the years. Some of it was old cans, plastic wrappers, all kinds of junk left behind by adventurous kids looking for a hideout. She didn't imagine any of them stayed for long.

This place just felt... haunted. Monica's hand grabbed her arm, just on the bruise that Amelie's grip had given her earlier. Claire winced.

"Did you hear that?" Monica's whisper was fierce and hushed. She needed mouthwash, and she smelled like sweat more than powder and perfume. "Oh my God. Something's in here with us!"

"Could be a vampire," Claire said. Monica sniffed.

"Not afraid of those," she said, and dangled her fancy, silver Protection bracelet in front of Claire's face. "Nobody's going to cross Oliver."

"You want to tell that to the mob of people chasing you back there? I don't think they got the memo or something."

"I mean, no vampire would. I'm Protected." Monica said it like there was simply no possibility anything else could be true. The earth was round, the sun was hot, and a vampire would never hurt her because she'd sold herself to Oliver, body and soul.

Yeah, right.

"News flash," Claire whispered. "Oliver's missing in action from Common Grounds. Amelie's disappeared. In fact, most of the vampires all over town have dropped out of sight, which makes these bracelets cute fashion accessories, but not exactly bulletproof vests or anything."

Monica started to speak, but Claire frowned angrily at her and pointed off into the darkness, where she'd heard the noise. It had sounded odd--kind of a sigh, echoing from the steel and concrete, bouncing and amplifying.

It sounded as if it had come out of the clown's dark mouth.

Of course.

Claire reached into her pocket. She still had the vial of silver powder that Amelie had given her, but she was well aware that it might not do her any good. If her friendvampires were mixed in with enemyvamps, she was out of luck. Likewise, if what was waiting for her out there was trouble of a human variety, instead of bloodsuckers...

Shane and Hannah were in here. Somewhere. And so--hopefully--was Eve.

Claire eased around a tattered sofa that smelled like old cats and mold, and sidestepped a truly impressive rat that didn't bother to move out of her way. It sat there watching her with weird, alert eyes.

Monica looked down, saw it, and shrieked, stumbling backward. She fell into a stack of ancient cartons that collapsed on her, raining down random junk. Claire grabbed her and pulled her to her feet, but Monica kept on whimpering and squirming, slapping at her hair and upper body.

"Oh my God, are they on me? Spiders? Are there spiders?"

If there were, Claire hoped they bit her. "No," she said shortly. Well, there were, but they were little ones. She brushed them off Monica's back. "Shut up already!"

"Are you kidding me? Did you see that rat? It was the size of freaking Godzilla!"

That was it, Claire decided. Monica could just wander around on her own, screaming about rats and spiders, until someone came and ate her. What. Ever.

She got only about ten feet away when Monica's very small whisper stopped her dead in her tracks.

"Please don't leave me." That didn't sound like Monica, not at all. It sounded scared, and very young. "Claire, please." It was probably too late for being quiet, anyway, and if there were vampires hiding in German's Tire Plant, they all knew exactly where they were, and for that matter, could tell what blood type they were. So stealth didn't seem a priority.

Claire cupped her hands over her mouth and yelled, very loudly, "Shane! Eve! Hannah! Anybody!"

The echoes woke invisible birds or bats high overhead, which flapped madly around; her voice rang from every flat surface, mocking Claire with her own ghost.

In the whispering silence afterward, Monica murmured, "Wow, I thought we were being subtle or something. My mistake."

Claire was about to hiss something really unpleasant at her, but froze as another voice came bouncing through the vast room--Shane's voice. "Claire?"

"Here!"

"Stay there! And shut up!"

He sounded frantic enough to make Claire wish she'd stuck with the whole quiettime policy, and then Monica stopped breathing and went very, very still next to her. Her hands closed around Claire's arm, squeezing bruises again.

Claire froze, too, because something was coming out of the mouth of that painted clown--something white, ghostly, drifting like smoke....

It had a face. Several faces, because it was a group of what looked like vampires, all very pale, all very quiet, all heading their way.

Staying put was not such a great plan, Claire decided. She was going to go with run away.

Which, grabbing Monica's wrist, she did.

The vampires did make sounds then, as their quarry started to flee--little whispering laughs, strange hisses, all kinds of creepy noises that made the skin on the back of Claire's neck tighten up. She held the glass vial in one hand, running faster, leaping over junk when she could see it coming and stumbling across it when she couldn't. Monica kept up, somehow, although Claire could hear the tortured, steady moaning of her breath. Whatever she'd done to her right leg must have hurt pretty badly.

Something pale landed ahead of her, with a silent leap like a spider pouncing. Claire had a wild impression of a white face, red eyes, a wideopen mouth, and gleaming fangs. She drew back to throw the vial... and realized it was Myrnin facing her.

The hesitation cost her. Something hit her from the back, sending her stumbling forward across a fallen iron beam. She dropped the vial as she fell, trying to catch herself, and heard the glass break on the edge of the girder. Silver dust puffed out. Monica shrieked, a wild cry that made the birds panic again high up in heaven; Claire saw her stumble away, trying to put distance between herself and Myrnin.

Myrnin was just outside of the range of the drifting silver powder, but it wasn't Myrnin who was the problem. The other vampires, the ones who'd come out of the clown's mouth, leaped over stacks of trash, running for the smell of fresh, flowing blood.

They were coming up behind them, fast.

Claire raked her hand across the ground and came up with a palm full of silver powder and glass shards as she rolled up to her knees. She turned and threw the powder into the air between her, Monica, and the rest of the vampires. It dispersed into a fine, glittering mist, and when the vampires hit it, every tiny grain of silver caught fire.

It was beautiful, and horrible, and Claire flinched at the sound of their cries. There was so much silver, and it clung to their skin, eating in. Claire didn't know if it would kill them, but it definitely stopped them cold.

She grabbed Monica's arm and pulled her close.

Myrnin was still in front of them, crouched on top of a stack of wooden pallets. He didn't look at all human, not at all.

And then he blinked, and the red light went out in his eyes. His fangs folded neatly backward, and he ran his tongue over pale lips before he said, puzzled, "Claire?"

She felt a sense of relief so strong it was like falling. "Yeah, it's me."

"Oh." He slithered down off the stacked wood, and she realized he was still dressed the way she'd seen him back at Common Grounds--a long, black velvet coat, no shirt, white pantaloons left over from his costume. He should have looked ridiculous, but somehow, he looked... right. "You shouldn't be here, Claire. It's very dangerous."

"I know--"

Something cold brushed the back of her neck, and she heard Monica make a muffled sound like a choked cry. Claire whirled and found herself facetoface with a redeyed, angry vampire with part of his skin still smoking from the silver she'd thrown.

Myrnin let out a roar that ripped the air, full of menace and fury, and the vampire stumbled backward, clearly shocked.

Then the five who'd chased them silently withdrew into the darkness.

Claire turned to face Myrnin. He was staring thoughtfully at the departing vamps.

"Thanks," she said. He shrugged.

"I was raised to believe in the concept of noblesse oblige," he said. "And I do owe you, you know. Do you have any more of my medication?"

She handed him her last dose of the drug that kept him sane--mostly sane, anyway. It was the older version, red crystals rather than clear liquid, and he poured out a dollop into his palm and licked the crystals up, then sighed in deep satisfaction.

"Much better," he said, and pocketed the rest of the bottle. "Now. Why are you here?"

Claire licked her lips. She could hear Shane--or someone--coming toward them through the darkness, and she saw someone in the shadows behind Myrnin. Not vampires, she thought, so it was probably Hannah, flanking Shane. "We're looking for my friend Eve. You remember her, right?"

"Eve," Myrnin repeated, and slowly smiled. "Ah. The girl who followed me. Yes, of course."

Claire felt a flush of excitement, quickly damped by dread. "What happened to her?"

"Nothing. She's asleep," he said. "It was too dangerous out here for her. I put her in a safe place, for now."

Shane pushed through the last of the barriers and stepped into a shaft of light about fifty feet away. He paused at the sight of Myrnin, but he didn't look alarmed. "This is your friend as well," Myrnin said, glancing back at Shane. "The one you care so much for." She'd never discussed Shane with Myrnin--not in detail, anyway. The question must have shown in her face, because his smile broadened. "You carry his scent on your clothes," he said. "And he carries yours."

"Ewww," Monica sighed.

Myrnin's eyes focused in on her like laser sights. "And who is this lovely child?"

Claire almost rolled her eyes. "Monica. The mayor's daughter."

"Monica Morrell." She offered her hand, which Myrnin accepted and bent over in an oldfashioned way. Claire assumed he was also inspecting the bracelet on her wrist.

"Oliver's," he said, straightening. "I see. I am charmed, my dear, simply charmed." He hadn't let go of her hand. "I don't suppose you would be willing to donate a pint for a poor, starving stranger?"

Monica's smile froze in place. "I--well, I--"

He pulled her into his arms with one quick jerk. Monica yelped and tried to pull away, but for all his relatively small size, Myrnin had strength to burn.

Claire pulled in a deep breath. "Myrnin. Please."

He looked annoyed. "Please what?"

"She's not free range or anything. You can't just munch her. Let go." He didn't look convinced. "Seriously. Let go."

"Fine." He opened his arms, and Monica retreated as she clapped both hands around her neck. She sat down on a nearby girder, breathing hard. "You know, in my youth, women lined up to grant me their favors. I believe I'm a bit offended."

"It's a strange day for everybody," Claire said. "Shane, Hannah, this is Myrnin. He's sort of my boss."

Shane moved closer, but his expression stayed cool and distant. "Yeah? This the guy who took you to the ball? The one who dumped you and left you to die?"

"Well... uh... yes."

"Thought so."

Shane punched him right in the face. Myrnin, surprised, stumbled back against the tower of crates, and snarled; Shane took a stake from his back pocket and held it at the ready.

"No!" Claire jumped between them, waving her hands. "No, honest, it's not like that. Calm down, everybody, please."

"Yes," Myrnin said. "I've been staked quite enough today, thank you. I respect your need to avenge her, boy, but Claire remains quite capable of defending her own honor."

"Couldn't have said it better myself," she said. "Please, Shane. Don't. We need him."

"Yeah? Why?"

"Because he may know what's going on with the vampires."

"Oh, that," Myrnin said, in a tone that implied they were all idiots for not knowing already. "They're being called. It's a signal that draws all vampires who have sworn allegiance to you with a blood exchange--it's the way wars were fought, once upon a time. It's how you gather your army."

"Oh," Claire said. "So... why not you? Or the rest of the vampires here?"

"It seems as though your serum offers me some portion of immunity against it. Oh, I feel the draw, most certainly, but in an entirely academic way. Rather curious. I remember how it felt before, like an overwhelming panic. As for those others, well. They're not of the blood."

"They're not?"

"No. Lesser creatures. Failed experiments, if you will." He looked away, and Claire had a horrible suspicion.

"Are they people? I mean, regular humans?"

"A failed experiment," he repeated. "You're a scientist, Claire. Not all experiments work the way they're intended."

Myrnin had done this to them, in his search for the cure to the vampire disease. He had turned them into something that wasn't vampire, wasn't human, wasn't--well, wasn't anything, exactly. They didn't fit in either society.

No wonder they were hiding here.

"Don't look at me that way," Myrnin said. "It's not my fault the process was imperfect, you know. I'm not a monster."

Claire shook her head.

"Sometimes, you really are."

Eve was fine--tired, shaking, and tear streaked, but okay. "He didn't, you know," she said, and made twofinger pointy motions toward her throat. "He's kind of sweet, actually, once you get past all the crazy. Although there's a lot of the crazy."

There was, as Claire well knew, no way of getting past the crazy. Not really. But she had to admit that at least Myrnin had behaved more like a gentleman than expected.

Noblesse oblige. Maybe he'd felt obligated.

The place he'd kept Eve had once been some kind of storage locker within the plant, all solid walls and a single door that he'd locked off with a bent pipe. Shane hadn't been all that happy about it. "What if something had happened to you?" he'd asked, as Myrnin untwisted the metal as though it were solder instead of iron. "She'd have been locked in there, all alone, no way out. She'd have starved."

"Actually," Myrnin had answered, "that's not very likely. Thirst would have killed her within four days, I imagine. She'd never have had a chance to starve." Claire stared at him. He raised his eyebrows. "What?"

She just shook her head. "I think you missed the point."

Monica tagged along with Claire, which was annoying; she kept casting Shane nervous glances, and she was now outright terrified of Myrnin, which was probably how it should have been, really. At the very least, she'd shut up, and even the sight of another rat, this one big and kind of albino, hadn't set off her screams this time.

Eve, however, was less than thrilled to see Monica. "You're kidding," she said flatly, staring first at her, then at Shane. "You're okay with this?" "Okay would be a stretch. Resigned, that's closer," Shane said. Hannah, standing next to him with her shotgun at port arms, snorted out a laugh. "As long as she doesn't talk, I can pretend she isn't here."

"Yeah? Well I can't," Eve said. She glared at Monica, who glared right back. "Claire, you have to stop picking up strays. You don't know where they've been."

"You're one to talk about diseases," Monica shot back, "seeing as how you're one big, walking social one."

"That's not pot, kettle--that's more like cauldron, kettle. Witch."

"Whore!"

"You want to go play with your new friends back there?" Shane snapped. "The really pale ones with the taste for plasma? Because believe me, I'll drop your skanky butt right in their nest if you don't shut up, Monica."

"You don't scare me, Collins!"

Hannah rolled her eyes and racked her shotgun. "How about me?"

That ended the entire argument.

Myrnin, leaning against the wall with his arms folded over his chest, watched the proceedings with great interest. "Your friends," he said to Claire. "They're quite... colorful. So full of energy."

"Hands off my friends." Not that that statement exactly included Monica, but whatever.

"Oh, absolutely. I would never." Hand to his heart, Myrnin managed to look angelic, which was a bit of a trick considering his LordByrononabender outfit. "I've just been away from normal human society for so long. Tell me, is it usually this... spirited?"

"Not usually," she sighed. "Monica's special." Yeah, in the shortbus sense, because Monica was a head case. Not that Claire had time or inclination to explain all the dynamics of the MonicaShaneEve relationship to Myrnin right now. "When you said that someone was calling the vampires together for some kind of fight--was that Bishop?"

"Bishop?" Myrnin looked startled. "No, of course not. It's Amelie. Amelie is sending the call. She's consolidating her forces, putting up lines of defense. Things are rapidly moving toward a confrontation, I believe."

That was exactly what Claire was afraid he was going to say. "Do you know who answered?"

"Anyone in Morganville with a blood tie to her," he said. "Except me, of course. But that would include almost every vampire in town, save those who were sworn through Oliver. Even then, Oliver's tie would bind them in some sense, because he swore fealty to her when he came to live here. They might feel the pull less strongly, but they would still feel it."

"Then how is Bishop getting an army? Isn't everybody in town, you know, Amelie's?"

"He bit those he wished to keep on his side." Myrnin shrugged. "Claimed them from her, in a sense. Some of them went willingly, some not, but all owe him allegiance now. All those he was able to turn, which is a considerable number, I believe." He looked sharply at her. "The call continued in the daytime. Michael?"

"Michael's fine. They put him in a cell."

"And Sam?"

Claire shook her head in response. Next to Michael, his grandfather Sam was the youngest vampire in town, and Claire hadn't seen him at all, not since he'd left the Glass House, well before any of the other vamps. He'd gone off on some mission for Amelie; she trusted him more than most of the others, even those she'd known for hundreds of years. That was, Claire thought, because Amelie knew how Sam felt about her. It was the storybook kind of love, the kind that ignored things like practicality and danger, and never changed or died.

She found herself looking at Shane. He turned his head and smiled back.

The storybook kind of love.

She was probably too young to have that, but this felt so strong, so real....

And Shane wouldn't even man up and tell her he loved her.

She took a deep breath and forced her mind off that. "What do we do now?" Claire asked. "Myrnin?"

He was silent for a long moment, then moved to one of the paintedover firstfloor windows and pulled it open. The sun was setting again. It would be down completely soon.

"You should get home," he said. "The humans are in charge for now, at least, but there are factions out there. There will be power struggles tonight, and not just between the two vampire sides."

Shane glanced at Monica--whose bruises were living proof that trouble was already under way--and then back at Myrnin. "What are you going to do?"

"Stay here," Myrnin said. "With my friends."

"Friends? Who, the--uh--failed experiments?"

"Exactly so." Myrnin shrugged. "They look upon me as a kind of father figure. Besides, their blood is as good as anyone else's, in a pinch."

"So much more than I wanted to know," Shane said, and nodded to Hannah. "Let's go."

"Got your back, Shane."

"Watch Claire's and Eve's. I'll take the lead."

"What about me?" Monica whined.

"Do you really want to know?" Shane gave her a glare that should have scorched her hair off. "Be grateful I'm not leaving you as an afterdinner mint on his pillow."

Myrnin leaned close to Claire's ear and said, "I think I like your young man." When she reacted in pure confusion, he held up his hands, smiling. "Not in that way, my dear. He just seems quite trustworthy."

She swallowed and put all that aside. "Are you going to be okay here? Really?"

"Really?" He locked gazes with her. "For now, yes. But we have work to do, Claire. Much work, and very little time. I can't hide for long. You do realize that stress accelerates the disease, and this is a great deal of stress for us all. More will fall ill, become confused. It's vital we begin work on the serum as quickly as possible."

"I'll try to get you back to the lab tomorrow."

They left him standing in a fading shaft of sunlight, next to a giant rusting crane that lifted its head three stories into the dark, with pale birds flitting and diving overhead.

And wounded, angry failed experiments lurking in the shadows, maybe waiting to attack their vampire creator.

Claire felt sorry for them, if they did.

The mobs were gone, but they'd given Eve's car a good battering while they were at it. She choked when she saw the dents and cracked glass, but at least it was still on all four tires, and the damage was cosmetic. The engine started right up.

"Poor baby," Eve said, and patted the big steering wheel affectionately as she settled into the driver's seat. "We'll get you all fixed up. Right, Hannah?"

"And here I was wondering what I was going to do tomorrow," Hannah said, taking--of course--the shotgun seat. "Guess now I know. I'll be hammering dents out of the Queen Mary and putting in new safety glass."

In the backseat, Claire was the human equivalent of Switzerland between the warring nations of Shane and Monica, who sat next to the windows. It was tense, but nobody spoke.

The sun was going down in a blaze of glory in the west, which normally would have made Morganville a vampire friendly place. Not so much tonight, as became evident when Eve left the dilapidated warehouse district and cruised closer to Vamptown.

There were people out on the streets, at sunset.

And they were angry, too.

"Shouty," Eve said, as they passed a big group clustered around a guy standing on a wooden box, yelling at the crowd. He had a pile of wooden stakes, and people were picking them up. "Okay, this is looking less than great."

"You think?" Monica slumped down in her seat, trying not to be noticed. "They tried to kill me! And I'm not even a vampire!"

"Yeah, but you're you, so there's that explained." Eve slowed down. "Traffic."

Traffic? In Morganville? Claire leaned forward and saw that there were about six cars in the street ahead. The first one was turned sideways, blocking the second--a big van, which was trying to back up but was handicapped by the third car.

The trapped passenger van was vampiredark. The two cars blocking it in were old, battered sedans, the kind humans drove.

"That's Lex Perry's car, the one turned sideways," Hannah said. "I think that's the Nunally brothers in the third one. They're drinking buddies with Sal Manetti."

"Sal, as in, the guy out there rabblerousing?"

"You got it."

And now people were closing in around the van, pushing against it, rocking it on its tires.

Nobody in their car spoke a word.

The van rocked harder. The tires spun, trying to pull away, but it tipped and slammed over on its side, helpless. With a roar, the crowd climbed on top of it and started battering the windows.

"We should do something," Claire finally said.

"Yeah?" Hannah's voice was very soft. "What, exactly?"

"Call the police?" Only the police were already here. There were two cars of them, and they couldn't stop what was happening. In fact, they didn't even look inclined to try.

"Let's go," Shane said quietly. "There's nothing we can do here."

Eve silently put the car in reverse and burned rubber backing up.

Claire broke out of her trance. "What are you doing? We can't just leave--"

"Take a good look," Eve said grimly. "If anybody out there sees Princess Morrell in this car, we've all had it. We're all collaborators if we're protecting her, and you're wearing the Founder bracelet. We can't risk it."

Claire sank back in her seat as Eve shifted gears again and turned the wheel. They took a different street, this one unblocked so far.

"What's happening?" Monica asked. "What's happening to our town?"

"France," Claire said, thinking about Gramma Day. "Welcome to the revolution."

Eve drove through a maze of streets. Lights were flickering on in houses, and the few streetlamps were coming on as well. Cars--and there were a lot of them out now--turned on their headlights and honked, as if the local high school had just won a big football game.

As if it were one big, loud party.

"I want to go home," Monica said. Her voice sounded muffled. "Please."

Eve looked at her in the rearview mirror, and finally nodded.

But when they turned down the street where the Morrell family home was located, Eve slammed on the brakes and put the car into reverse, instantly.

The Morrell home looked like the site of another of Monica's infamous, unsupervised parties... only this one really was unsupervised, and those uninvited guests, they weren't just there for the free booze.

"What are they doing?" Monica asked, and let out a strangled yell as a couple of guys carried a big plasma television out the front door. "They're stealing it! They're stealing our stuff!"

Pretty much everything was being looted--mattresses, furniture, art. Claire even saw people upstairs tossing linens and clothing out the windows to people waiting on the ground.

And then, somebody ran up with a bottle full of liquid, stuffed with a burning rag, and threw it into the front window.

The flames flickered, caught, and gained strength.

"No!" Monica panted and clawed at the door handle, but Eve had locked it up. Claire grabbed Monica's arms and held them down.

"Get us out of here!" she yelled.

"My parents could be in there!"

"No, they're not. Richard told me they're at City Hall."

Monica kept fighting, even as Eve steered the car away from the burning house, and then suddenly just... stopped.

Claire heard her crying. She wanted to think, Good, you deserve it, but somehow she just couldn't force herself to be that cold.

Shane, however, could. "Hey, look on the bright side," he said. "At least your little sister isn't inside."

Monica caught her breath, then kept crying.

By the time they'd turned on Lot Street, Monica seemed to be pulling herself together, wiping her face with trembling hands and asking for a tissue, which Eve provided out of the glove box in the front.

"What do you think?" Eve asked Shane. Their street seemed quiet. Most of the houses had lights on, including the Glass House, and although there were some folks outside, talking, it didn't look like mobs were forming. Not here, anyway.

"Looks good. Let's get inside."

They agreed that Monica needed to go in the middle, covered by Hannah. Eve went first, racing up the walk to the front door and using her keys to open it up.

They made it in without attracting too much attention or anybody pointing fingers at Monica--but then, Claire thought, Monica definitely didn't look much like herself right now. More like a bad Monica impersonator. Maybe even one who was a guy.

Shane would laugh himself sick over that if she mentioned it. After seeing the puffy redness around Monica's eyes, and the shattered expression, Claire kept it to herself.

As Shane slammed, locked, and dead bolted the front door, Claire felt the house come alive around them, almost tingling with warmth and welcome. She heard people in the living room exclaim at the same time, so it wasn't just her; the house really had reacted, and reacted strongly, to three out of four of its residents coming home.

Claire stretched out against the wall and kissed it. "Glad to see you, too," she whispered, and pressed her cheek against the smooth surface.

It almost felt like it hugged her back.

"Dude, it's a house," Shane said from behind her. "Hug somebody who cares."

She did, throwing herself into his arms. It felt like he'd never let her go, not even for a second, and he lifted her completely off the ground and rested his head on her shoulder for a long, precious moment before setting her gently back on her feet.

"Better see who's here," he said, and kissed her very lightly. "Down payment for later, okay?"

Claire let go, but held his hand as they walked down the hallway and into the living room of the Glass House, which was filled with people.

Not vampires.

Just people.

Some of them were familiar, at least by sight--people from town: the owner of the music store where Michael worked; a couple of nurses she'd seen at the hospital, who still wore brightly colored medical scrubs and comfortable shoes. The rest, Claire barely knew at all, but they had one thing in common--they were all scared.

An older, hardlooking woman grabbed Claire by the shoulders. "Thank God you're home," she said, and hugged her. Claire, rigid with surprise, cast Shane a whatthehell look, and he shrugged helplessly. "This damn house won't do anything for us. The lights keep going out, the doors won't open, food goes bad in the fridge--it's as if it doesn't want us here!"

And it probably didn't. The house could have ejected them at any time, but obviously it had been a bit uncertain about exactly what its residents might want, so it had just made life uncomfortable for the intruders instead.

Claire could now feel the airconditioning switching on to cool the overheated air, hear doors swinging open upstairs, see lights coming on in darkened areas.

"Hey, Celia," Shane said, as the woman let go of Claire at last. "So, what brings you here? I figured the Barfly would be doing good business tonight."

"Well, it would be, except that some jerks came in and said that because I was wearing a bracelet I had to serve them for free, on account of being some kind of sympathizer. What kind of sympathizer, I said, and one of them tried to hit me."

Shane lifted his eyebrows. Celia wasn't a young woman. "What did you do?"

"Used the Regulator." Celia lifted a baseball bat propped against the wall. It was old hardwood, lovingly polished. "Got myself a couple of home runs, too. But I decided maybe I wouldn't stay for the extra innings, if you know what I mean. I figure they're drinking me dry over there right now. Makes me want to rip my bracelet off, I'll tell ya. Where are the damn vampires when you need them, after all that?"

"You didn't take your bracelet off? Even when they gave you the chance?" Shane seemed surprised. Celia gave him a glare.

"No, I didn't. I ain't breaking my word, not unless I have to. Right now, I don't have to."

"If you take it off now, you may never need to put it on again."

Celia leveled a wrinkled finger at him. "Look, Collins, I know all about you and your dad. I don't hold with any of that. Morganville's an allright place. You follow the rules and stay out of trouble--about like anyplace, I guess. You people wanted chaos. Well, this is what it looks like--people getting beaten, shops looted, houses burned. Sure, it'll settle down sometime, but into what? Maybe no place I'd want to live."

She turned away from him, shouldered her baseball bat, and marched away to talk with a group of adults her own age.

Shane caught Claire looking at him, and shrugged. "Yeah," he sighed. "I know. She's got a point. But how do we know it won't be better if the vamps just--"

"Just what, Shane? Die? What about Michael, have you thought about him? Or Sam?" She stomped off.

"Where are you going?"

"To get a Coke!"

"Would you--"

"No!"

She twisted the cap off the Coke she'd retrieved from the fridge--which was stocked up again, although she knew it hadn't been when they'd left. Another favor from the house, she guessed, although how it went shopping on its own she had no idea.

The cold syrupy goodness hit her like a brick wall, but instead of energizing her, it made her feel weak and a little sick. Claire sank down in a chair at the kitchen table and put her head in her hands, suddenly overwhelmed.

It was all falling apart.

Amelie was calling the vampires, probably going to fight Bishop to the death.

Morganville was ripping itself in pieces. And there was nothing she could do.

Well, there was one thing.

She retrieved and opened four more bottles of Coke, and delivered them to Hannah, Eve, Shane, and--because it felt mean to leave her out at a time like this--Monica.

Monica stared at the sweating bottle as if she suspected Claire had put rat poison in it. "What's this?"

"What does it look like? Take or don't, I don't really care." Claire put it down on the table next to where Monica sat, and went to curl up on the couch next to Shane. She checked her cell phone. The network was back up again, at least for the moment, and she had a ton of voice mails. Most were from Shane, so she saved them to listen to later; two more were from Eve, which she deleted, since they were instructions on where to find her.

The last one was from her mother. Claire caught her breath, tears pricking in her eyes at the sound of Mom's voice. Her mother sounded calm, at least--mostly, anyway.

Claire, sweetie, I know I shouldn't be worrying but I am. Honey, call us. I've been hearing some terrible things about what's happening out there. Some of the people with us here are talking about fights and looting. If I don't hear from you soon--well, I don't know what we'll do, but your father's going crazy. So please, call us. We love you, honey. Bye.

Claire got her breathing back under control, mainly by sternly telling herself that she needed to sound together and completely in control to keep her parents from charging out there into the craziness. She had it more or less managed by the time the phone rang on the other end, and when her mother picked it up, she was able to say, "Hi, Mom," without making it sound like she was about to burst into tears. "I got your message. Is everything okay there?"

"Here? Claire, don't you be worrying about us! We're just fine! Oh, honey, are you okay? Really?"

"Honestly, yes, I'm okay. Everything's--" She couldn't say that everything was okay, because of course it wasn't. It was, at best, kind of temporarily stable. "It's quiet here. Shane's here, and Eve." Claire remembered that Mom had liked Monica Morrell, and rolled her eyes. Anything to calm her fears. "That girl from the dorm, Monica, she's here, too."

"Oh, yes, Monica. I liked her." It really did seem to help, which was not exactly an endorsement of Mom's character judging ability. "Her brother came by here to check on us about an hour ago. He's a nice boy."

Claire couldn't quite imagine referring to Richard Morrell as a boy, but she let it go. "He's kind of in charge of the town right now," she said. "You have the radio, right? The one we dropped off earlier?"

"Yes. We've been doing everything they say, of course. But honey, I'd really like it if you could come here. We want to have you home, with us."

"I know. I know, Mom. But I think I'd better stay here. It's important. I'll try to come by tomorrow, okay?"

They talked a little more, about nothing much, just chatter to make life seem kind of normal for a change. Mom was holding it together, but only barely; Claire could hear the manic quaver in her voice, could almost see the bright tears in her eyes. She was going on about how they'd had to move most of the boxes into the base ment to make room for all the company--company?--and how she was afraid that Claire's stuff would get damp, and then she talked about all the toys in the boxes and how much Claire had enjoyed them when she was younger.

Normal Mom stuff.

Claire didn't interrupt, except to make soothing noises and acknowledgments when Mom paused. It helped, hearing Mom's voice, and she knew it was helping her to talk. But finally, when her mother ran down like a springwound clock, Claire agreed to all the parental requirements to be careful and watch out and wear warm clothes.

Goodbye seemed very final, and once Claire hung up, she sat in silence for a few minutes, staring at the screen of her cell phone.

On impulse, she tried to call Amelie. It rang and rang. No voice mail.

In the living room, Shane was organizing some kind of sentry duty. A lot of people had already crashed out in piles of pillows, blankets, sometimes just on a spare rug. Claire edged around the prone bodies and motioned to Shane that she was going upstairs. He nodded and kept talking to the two guys he was with, but his gaze followed her all the way.

Eve was in her bedroom, and there was a note on the door that said DO NOT KNOCK OR I WILL KILL YOU. THIS MEANS YOU, SHANE. Claire considered knocking, but she was too tired to run away.

Her bedroom was dark. When she'd left in the morning, Eve's kindoffriend Miranda had been sleeping here, but she was gone, and the bed was neatly made again. Claire sat down on the edge, staring out the windows, and then pulled out clean underwear and her last pair of blue jeans from the closet, plus a tight black shirt Eve had lent her last week.

The shower felt like heaven. There was even enough hot water for a change. Claire dried off, fussed with her hair a bit, and got dressed. When she came out, she listened at the stairs, but didn't hear Shane talking anymore. Either he was being quiet, or he'd gone to bed. She paused next to his door, wishing she had the guts to knock, but she went on to her own room instead.

Shane was inside, sitting on her bed. He looked up when she opened the door, and his lips parted, but he was silent for a long few seconds.

"I should go," he finally said, but he didn't get up.

Claire settled in next to him. It was all perfectly correct, the two of them sitting fully dressed like this, but somehow she felt like they were on the edge of a cliff, both in danger of falling off.

It was exciting, and terrifying, and all kinds of wrong.

"So what happened to you today?" she asked. "In the Bloodmobile, I mean?"

"Nothing really. We drove to the edge of town and parked outside the border, where we'd be able to see anybody coming. A couple of vamps showed, trying to make a withdrawal, but we sent them packing. Bishop never made an appearance. Once we lost contact with the vampires, we figured we'd cruise around and see what was going on. We nearly got boxed in by a bunch of drunk idiots in pickup trucks, and then the vampires in the Bloodmobile went nuts--that call thing going off, I guess. I dropped them at the grain elevator--that was the biggest, darkest place I could find, and it casts a lot of shadows. I handed off the driving to Cesar Mercado. He's supposed to drive it all the way to Midland tonight, provided the barriers are down. Best we can do."

"What about the book? Did you leave it on board?"

In answer, Shane reached into his waistband and pulled out the small leath erbound volume. Amelie had added a lock on it, like a diary lock. Claire tried pressing the small, metal catch. It didn't open, of course. "You think you should be fooling with that thing?" Shane asked.

"Probably not." She tried prying a couple of pages apart to peek at the script. All she could tell was that it was handwritten, and the paper looked relatively old. Oddly, when she sniffed it, the paper smelled like chemicals.

"What are you doing?" Shane looked like he couldn't decide whether to be repulsed or fascinated.

"I think somebody restored the paper," she said. "Like they do with really expensive old books and stuff. Comics, sometimes. They put chemicals on the paper to slow down the aging process, make the paper whiter again."

"Fascinating," Shane lied. "Gimme." He plucked the book from her hands and put it aside, on the other side of the bed. When she grabbed for it, he got in her way; they tangled, and somehow, he was lying prone on the bed and she was stretched awkwardly on top of him. His hands steadied her when she started to slide off.

"Oh," she murmured. "We shouldn't--"

"Definitely not."

"Then you should--"

"Yeah, I should."

But he didn't move, and neither did she. They just looked at each other, and then, very slowly, she lowered her lips to his.

It was a warm, sweet, wonderful kiss, and it seemed to go on forever. It also felt like it didn't last nearly long enough. Shane's hands skimmed up her sides, up her back, and cupped her damp hair as he kissed her more deeply. There were promises in that kiss.

"Okay, red flag," he said. He hadn't let her go, but there was about a half an inch of air between their lips. Claire's whole body felt alive and tingling, pulse pounding in her wrists and temples, warmth pooling like light in the center of her body.

"It's okay," she said. "I swear. Trust me."

"Hey, isn't that my line?"

"Not now."

Kissing Shane was the reward for surviving a long, hard, terrifying day. Being enfolded in his warmth felt like going to heaven on moonbeams. She kicked off her shoes, and, still fully dressed, crawled under the blankets. Shane hesitated.

"Trust me," she said again. "And you can keep your clothes on if you don't."

They'd done this before, but somehow it hadn't felt so... intimate. Claire pressed against him, back to front under the covers, and his arms went around her. Instant heat.

She swallowed and tried to remember all those good intentions she'd had as she felt Shane's breath whisper on the back of her neck, and then his lips brushed her skin. "So wrong," he murmured. "You're killing me, you know."

"Am not."

"On this, you'll have to trust me." His sigh made her shiver all the way to her bones. "I can't believe you brought Monica back here."

"Oh, come on. You wouldn't have left her out there, all alone. I know you better than that, Shane. Even as bad as she is--"

"The satanic incarnation of evil?"

"Maybe so, but I can't see you letting them get her and... hurt her." Claire turned around to face him, a squirming motion that made them wrestle for the covers. "What's going to happen? Do you know?"

"What am I, Miranda the teen screwedup psychic? No, I don't know. All I know is that when we get up tomorrow, either the vampires will be back, or they won't. And then we'll have to make a choice about how we're going to go forward."

"Maybe we don't go forward. Maybe we wait."

"One thing I do know, Claire: you can't stay in the same place, not even for a day. You keep on moving. Maybe it's the right direction, maybe not, but you still move. Every second things change, like it or not."

She studied his face intently. "Is your dad here? Now?"

He grimaced. "Truthfully? No idea. I wouldn't be surprised. He'd know that it was time to move in and take command, if he could. And Manetti's a running buddy from way back. This kind of feels like Dad's behind it."

"But if he does take over, what happens to Michael? To Myrnin? To any other vampire out there?"

"Do you really need me to tell you?"

Claire shook her head. "He'll tell people they have to kill all the vampires, and then, he'll come after the Morrells, and anybody else he thinks is responsible for what happened to your family. Right?"

"Probably," Shane sighed.

"And you're going to let all that happen."

"I didn't say that."

"You didn't say you weren't, either. Don't tell me it's complicated, because it isn't. Either you stand up for something, or you lie down for it. You said that to me one time, and you were right." Claire burrowed closer into his arms. "Shane, you were right then. Be right now."

He touched her face. His fingers traced down her cheek, across her lips, and his eyes--she'd never seen that look in his eyes. In anyone's, really.

"In this whole screwedup town, you're the only thing that's always been right to me," he whispered. "I love you, Claire." She saw something that might have been just a flash of panic go across his expression, but then he steadied again. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I do. I love you."

He said something else, but the world had narrowed around her. Shane's lips kept moving, but all she heard were the same words echoing over and over inside her head like the tolling of a giant brass bell: I love you.

He sounded like it had taken him completely by surprise--not in a bad way, but more as if he hadn't really understood what he was feeling until that instant.

She blinked. It was as if she'd never really seen him before, and he was beautiful. More beautiful than any man she'd ever seen in her entire life, ever.

Whatever he was saying, she stopped it by kissing him. A lot. And for a very long time. When he finally backed up, he didn't go far, and this look in his eyes, this intense and overwhelming need--that was new, too.

And she liked it.

"I love you," he said, and kissed her so hard he took her breath away. There was more to it than before--more passion, more urgency, more... everything. It was as if she were caught in a tide, carried away, and she thought that if she never touched the shore again, it would be good to drown like this, just swim forever in all this richness.

Red flag, some part of her screamed, come on, red flag. What are you doing?

She wished it would just shut up.

"I love you, too," she whispered to him. Her voice was shaking, and so were her hands where they rested on his chest. Under the soft Tshirt, his muscles were tensed, and she could feel every deep breath he took. "I'd do anything for you."

She meant it to be an invitation, but that was the thing that shocked sense back into him. He blinked. "Anything," he repeated, and squeezed his eyes shut.

"Yeah. I'm getting that. Bad idea, Claire. Very, very bad."

"Today?" She laughed a little wildly. "Everything's crazy today. Why can't we be? Just once?"

"Because I made promises," he said. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, and she felt a groan shake his whole body. "To your parents, to myself, to Michael. To you, Claire. I can't break my word. It's pretty much all I've got these days."

"But... what if--"

"Don't," he whispered in her ear. "Please don't. This is tough enough already."

He kissed her again, long and sweetly, and somehow, it tasted like tears this time. Like some kind of goodbye.

"I really do love you," he said, and smoothed away the damp streaks on her cheeks. "But I can't do this. Not now."

Before she could stop him, he slid out of bed, put on his shoes, and walked quickly to the door. She sat up, holding the covers close as if she were naked underneath, instead of fully clothed, and he hesitated there, one hand gripping the doorknob.

"Please stay," she said. "Shane--"

He shook his head. "If I stay, things are going to happen. You know it, and I know it, and we just can't do this. I know things are falling apart, but--" He hitched in a deep, painful breath. "No."

The sound of the door softly closing behind him went through her like a knife.

Claire rolled over, wretchedly hugging the pillow that smelled of his hair, sharing the warm place in the bed where his body had been, and thought about crying herself to sleep.

And then she thought of the dawning wonder in his eyes when he'd said, I love you.

No. It was no time to be crying.

When she did finally sleep, she felt safe.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

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