It was all going wrong, and Morganville was burning--parts of it, anyway.
Claire stood at the windows of the Glass House and watched the flames paint the glass a dull, flickering orange. She could always see the stars out here in the Middle of Nowhere, Texas--but not tonight. Tonight, there was--
"You're thinking it's the end of the world," a cool, quiet voice said behind her.
Claire blinked out of her trance and turned to look. Amelie--the Founder, and the baddest vampire in town, to hear most of the others tell it--looked fragile and pale, even for a vampire. She'd changed out of the costume she'd worn to Bishop's masked ball--not a bad idea, since it had a stakesized hole in the chest, and she'd bled all over it. If Claire had needed proof that Amelie was tough, she'd certainly gotten it tonight. Surviving an assassination attempt definitely gave you points.
The vampire was wearing gray--a soft gray sweater, and pants. Claire had to stare, because Amelie just didn't do pants. Ever. It was beneath her, or something.
Come to think of it, Claire had never seen her in the color gray, either.
Talk about the end of the world.
"I remember when Chicago burned," Amelie said. "And London. And Rome. The world doesn't end, Claire. In the morning, the survivors start to build again. It's the way of things. The human way."
Claire didn't particularly want a pep talk. She wanted to curl up in her warm bed upstairs, pull pillows over her head, and feel Shane's arms around her None of that was going to happen. Her bed was currently occupied by Miranda, a freakedout teenage psychic with dependency issues, and as for Shane . . .
Shane was about to leave.
"Why?" she blurted. "Why are you sending him out there? You know what could happen--"
"I know a great deal about Shane Collins that you don't," Amelie interrupted. "He's not a child, and he has survived much in his young life. He'll survive this. And he wishes to make a difference."
She was sending Shane into the predawn darkness with a few chosen fighters, both vampire and human, to take possession of the Bloodmobile: the last reliably accessible blood storage in Morganville.
And it was the last thing Shane wanted to do. It was the last thing Claire wanted for him.
"Bishop isn't going to want the Bloodmobile for himself," Claire said. "He wants it destroyed. Morganville's full of walking blood banks, as far as he's concerned. But it'll hurt you if you lose it, so he'll come after it. Right?"
The severe, thin line of Amelie's mouth made it clear that she didn't like being secondguessed. It definitely couldn't be called a smile. "As long as Shane has the book, Bishop will not dare destroy the vehicle for fear of destroying his great treasure along with it."
Translation: Shane was bait. Because of the book. Claire hated that damn book. It had brought her nothing but trouble from the time she'd first heard about it. Amelie and Oliver, the two biggest vamps in town, had both been scrambling to find it, and it had dropped into Claire's hands instead. She wished she had the courage to grab it from Shane right now, run outside, and toss it in the nearest burning house to get rid of it once and for all, because as far as she could tell, it hadn't done anybody any good, ever--including Amelie.
Claire said, "He'll kill Shane to get it." Amelie shrugged. "I gamble that killing Shane is far more difficult than it would appear."
"Yeah, you are gambling. You're betting his life."
Amelie's ice gray eyes were steady on hers. "Be clear on this: I am, in fact, betting all our lives. So be grateful, child, and also be warned. I could concede this fight at any time. My father would allow me to walk away--only me, alone. Defeated. I stay out of duty to you and the others in this town who are loyal to me." Her eyes narrowed. "Don't make me reconsider that."
Claire hoped she didn't look as mutinous as she felt. She pasted on what was supposed to be an agreeable expression, and nodded. Amelie's eyes narrowed even more.
"Get prepared. We leave in ten minutes."
Shane wasn't the only one with a dirty job to do; they were all assigned things they didn't particularly like. Claire was going with Amelie to try to rescue another vampire--Myrnin. And while Claire liked Myrnin, and admired him in a lot of ways, she also wasn't too excited about facing down--again--the vampire holding him prisoner, the dreadful Mr. Bishop.
Eve was off to the coffee shop, Common Grounds, with the justaboutasawful Oliver, her former boss. Michael was about to head out to the university with Richard Morrell, the mayor's son. How he was supposed to protect a few thousand clueless college students, Claire had no idea; she took a moment to marvel at the fact that the vampires really could lock down the town when they wanted. She'd have thought keeping students on campus in this situation would be impossible--kids phoning home, jumping in cars, getting the hell out of Dodge.
Except the vampires controlled the phone lines, cell phones, the Internet, the TV, and the radio, and cars either died or wrecked on the outskirts of town if the vampires didn't want you to leave. Only a few people had ever gotten out of Morganville successfully without permission. Shane had been one. And then he'd come back.
Claire still had no idea what kind of guts that had taken, knowing what was waiting for him.
"Hey," Claire's housemate Eve said. She paused, arms full of clothes--black and red, so they'd almost certainly come out of Eve's own Gothheavy closet--and gave Claire a quick onceover. She'd changed to what in Eve's world were practical fighting clothes--a pair of tight black jeans, a tight black shirt with red skull patterns all over it, and stompy, thicksoled boots. And a spiked black leather collar around her throat that almost dared the vampires, Bite that!
"Hey," Claire said. "Is this really a good time to start laundry?"
Eve rolled her eyes. "Cute. So, some people didn't want to be caught dead in their stupid ball costumes, if you know what I mean. How about you? Ready to take that thing off?"
Claire looked down at herself. She was honestly surprised to realize that she was still wearing the tight, garish bodysuit of her Harlequin costume. "Oh, yes." She sighed. "Got anything without, you know, skulls?"
"What's wrong with skulls? And that would be a no, by the way." Eve dumped the armload of clothing on the floor and rooted through it, pulling out a plain black shirt and a pair of blue jeans. "The jeans are yours. Sorry, but I sort of raided every body's stash. Hope you like the underwear you have on; I didn't go through your drawers."
"Afraid it might get you all turned on?" Shane asked from over her shoulder. "Please say yes." He grabbed a pair of his own jeans from the pile. "And please stay out of my closet."
Eve gave him the finger. "If you're worried about me finding your porn stash, old news, man. Also, you have really boring taste." She grabbed a blanket from the couch and nodded toward the corner. "No privacy anywhere in this house tonight. Go on, we'll fix up a changing room."
The three of them edged past the people and vampires who packed the Glass House. It had become the unofficial campaign center for their side of the war, which meant there were plenty of people tramping around, getting in their stuff, who none of them would have let cross the threshold under normal circumstances.
Take Monica Morrell. The mayor's daughter had shed her elaborate Marie Antoinette costume and was back to the blond, slinky, pretty, slimy girl Claire knew and hated.
"Oh my God." Claire gritted her teeth. "Is she wearing my blouse?" It was her only good one. Silk. She'd just bought it last week. Now she'd never be able to put it on again. "Remind me to burn that later." Monica saw her staring, fingered the collar of the shirt, and gave her an evil smile. She mouthed, Thanks. "Remind me to burn it twice. And stomp on the ashes."
Eve grabbed Claire by the arm and hustled her into the empty corner of the room, where she shook out the blanket and held it at arm's length to provide a temporary shelter.
Claire peeled off her sweatsoaked Harlequin costume with a whimper of relief, and shivered as the cool air hit her flushed skin. She felt awkward and anxious, stripped to her underwear with just a blanket held up between her and a dozen strangers, some of whom probably wanted to eat her.
Shane leaned over the top. "You done?"
She squealed and threw the waddedup costume at him. He caught it and waggled his eyebrows at her as she stepped into the jeans and quickly buttoned up the shirt.
"Done!" she called.
Eve dropped the blanket and smiled poisonsweet at Shane.
"Your turn, leather boy," she said. "Don't worry. I won't accidentally embarrass you."
No, she'd embarrass him completely on purpose, and Shane knew it, from the glare he threw her. He ducked behind the blanket. Claire wasn't tall enough to check him out over the top--not that she wasn't tempted--but when Eve lowered the blanket, bit by bit, Claire grabbed one corner and pulled it back up.
"You're no fun," Eve said.
"Don't mess with him. Not now. He's going out there alone."
Eve's face went still and tight, and for the first time, Claire realized that the shine in her eyes wasn't really humor. It was a tightly controlled kind of panic. "Yeah," she said. "I know. It's just--we're all splitting up, Claire. I wish we didn't have to do that."
On impulse, Claire hugged her. Eve smelled of powder and some kind of darkly floral perfume, with a light undertone of sweat.
"Hey!" Shane's wounded yell was enough to make them both giggle. The blanket had drooped enough to show him zipping up his pants. Fast. "Seriously, girls, not cool. A guy could do serious damage."
He looked more like Shane now. The leather pants had made him unsettlingly hotmodel gorgeous. In jeans and his old, faded Marilyn Manson Tshirt, he was somebody downtoearth, somebody Claire could imagine kissing.
And she did imagine, just like that. It was, as usual, heartracingly delicious.
"Michael's going out, too," Eve said, and now the tension she'd been hiding made her voice tremble. "I have to tell him--"
"Go on," Claire said. "We're right behind you."
Eve dropped the blanket and pushed through the crowd, heading for her boyfriend, and the unofficial head of their strange and screwedup fraternity.
It was easy to spot Michael in any group--he was tall and blond, with a face like an angel. As he caught sight of Eve heading toward him, he smiled, and Claire thought that was maybe the most complicated smile she'd ever seen, full of relief, welcome, love, and worry.
Eve crashed straight into him, hard enough to rock him back on his heels, and their arms went around each other.
Shane held Claire back with a touch on her shoulder. "Give them a minute," he said. "They've got things to say." She turned to look at him. "And so do we."
She swallowed hard and nodded. Shane's hands were on her shoulders, and his eyes had gone still and intense.
"Don't go out there," Shane said.
It was what she'd been intending to say to him. She blinked, surprised.
"You stole my paranoia," she said. "I was going to say, Don't go. But you're going to, no matter what I say, aren't you?"
That threw him off just a little. "Well, yeah, of course I am, but--"
"But nothing. I'll be with Amelie; I'll be okay. You? You're going off with the cast of WWE Raw to fight a cage match or something. It's not the same thing."
"Since when do you ever watch wrestling?"
"Shut up. That's not the point, and you know it. Shane, don't go." Claire put everything she had into it.
It wasn't enough.
Shane smoothed her hair and bent down to kiss her. It was the sweetest, gentlest kiss he'd ever given her, and it melted all the tense muscles of her neck, her shoulders, and her back. It was a promise without words, and when he finally pulled back, he passed his thumb across her lips gently, to seal it all in.
"There's something I really ought to tell you," he said. "I was kind of waiting for the right time."
They were in a room full of people, Morganville was in chaos outside, and they probably didn't have a chance of surviving until sunrise, but Claire felt her heart stutter and then race faster. The whole world seemed to go silent around her. He's going to say it.
Shane leaned in, so close that she felt his lips brush her ear, and whispered, "My dad's coming back to town."
That so wasn't what she was hoping he'd say. Claire jerked back, startled, and Shane put a hand over her mouth. "Don't," he whispered. "Don't say anything. We can't talk about this, Claire. I just wanted you to know."
They couldn't talk about it because Shane's father was Morganville's most wanted, public enemy number one, and any conversation they had--at least here--was in danger of being overheard by unfriendly, undead ears.
Not that Claire was a fan of Shane's father; he was a cold, brutal man who'd used and abused Shane, and she couldn't work up a lot of dread for seeing him behind bars . . . only she knew that Amelie and Oliver wouldn't stop at putting him in jail. Shane's father was marked for death if he came back. Death by burning. And while Claire wouldn't necessarily cry any big tears over him, she didn't want to put Shane through that, either.
"We'll talk about it," she said.
Shane snorted. "You mean, you'll yell at me? Trust me, I know what you're going to say. I just wanted you to know, in case--"
In case something happened to him. Claire tried to frame her question in a way that wouldn't tip their hand to any listening ears. "When should I expect him?"
"Next few days, probably. But you know how it is. I'm out of the loop." Shane's smile had a dark, painful edge to it now. He'd defied his dad once, because of Claire, and that meant cutting the ties to his last living family in the world. Claire doubted his dad had forgotten that, or ever would.
"Why now?" she whispered. "The last thing we need is--"
"He's not help. He's chaos!"
Shane gestured at the burning town. "Take a good look, Claire. How much worse can it get?"
Lots, she thought. Shane, in some ways, still had a rosecolored view of his father. It had been a while since his dad had blown out of town, and she thought that Shane had probably convinced himself that the guy wasn't all that bad. He was probably thinking now that his dad would come sweeping in to save them.
It wasn't going to happen. Frank Collins was a fanatic, carbomb variety, and he didn't care who got hurt.
Not even his own son.
"Let's just--" She chewed her lip for a second, staring at him. "Let's just get through the day, okay? Please? Be careful. Call me."
He had his cell phone, and he showed it to her in mute promise. Then he stepped closer, and when his arms closed around her, she felt a sweet, trembling relief.
"Better get ready," he said. "It's going to be a long day."