COLE DIDN'T SLEEP well during the night. He lay down to rest with a stake in his hands and his bowie knife beneath his pillow.
He knew that Brendan Vincent would be doing the same in his room.
But morning arrived without incident, and when he came downstairs, he discovered that Cody's newfound sister was in the kitchen with their hostess, Martha, setting out utensils for their breakfast, something Martha Graybow prepared wonderfully. Apparently Cody thought it a good idea to introduce them, lest Megan's presence in their rooms seem somehow untoward.
He instantly wanted to protect the woman-stand between her and Megan Fox and make sure that the young half-breed vampire wasn't about to pounce. Martha Graybow was a mature woman, but she had a beautiful, kind face, and Cody had a feeling that she wouldn't be a widow long, once the war was over.
If there were any men left.
Martha had apparently loaned their surprise guest clothing; that morning, Megan Fox was wearing a demure cotton day dress that displayed the sleekness of her slender, shapely form to perfection. Actually, she'd worn men's clothing well, too, but, this morning, she appeared as pure, sweet and innocent as a newborn angel. Her hair was quite gold, gold like her eyes.
So much like Cody's.
And yet so different. So sultry, even when she was looking innocent. Somehow.
You smell good. Good enough to eat.
He found it hard to admit even to himself, but her fangs were equally stunning. He didn't think he'd ever been able to say that before.
"Good morning, Sheriff," Martha said, her voice bright, her smile sincere.
"I'm only a sheriff in Texas, ma'am," he reminded her with a smile of his own. "Cole will do just fine, thank you."
"Well, then, Cole it is," Martha said, flushing. "And I'm Martha to my friends. We'll be dispensing with the 'Mrs. Graybow,' when you speak to me, young man, if you please."
"As you wish, Martha," Cole said.
He was standing close enough to Megan to hear her mutter beneath her breath. "Charming. Oh, so, charming."
He ignored her. Ignored her-while keeping a wary eye on her. Last night, Cody had suddenly seemed to embrace the young woman. Of course, Cody was happy. He had just married a beautiful woman, and now he was finding that he had a sister. He'd been alone in the world for years, and now he had a family.
Thing was, though it seemed Megan Fox was his sister, they had grown up far apart. She seemed like a loose cannon-an unknown quality in a world filled with many kinds of dangers.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" he asked Martha.
"Everything is all set to go." She used a handwoven pot holder to lift the heavy coffeepot from the stove and began to pour the brew into the cups at the table. Cole noted that there were settings for six, and he frowned. Martha always joined them, on the days when her children were off to school, at least, but he didn't know who the sixth setting was for. Then he heard a commotion out in the drive and hurried out the back door.
Cody was already standing at the edge of the drive that led to the renovated old carriage house. A carriage had just arrived.
"Alex!" Cody cried out with pleasure. He opened the carriage door and held out his arms. His wife leaped into them and Cody spun her around for a minute before drawing her to him in a warm embrace. They kissed, and Cody let her slide down to put her feet on the ground. He went to pay the driver, but the man tipped his hat.
"Taken care of, sir!" the driver said, delivering Alex's portmanteaus to the walk. "Where would you like these taken?"
"We'll get them, my good fellow," Cole said, stepping forward.
Alex smiled with delight and came to give him an enveloping hug, as well. He'd known Alex long before Cody had. Somehow, strangely, he'd forgotten that Alexandra was due that day. Chalk that one up to vampire-sister.
"So!" she said happily. Her brows knit suddenly as she looked around. "So?" she said again, a question in her eyes.
He turned. Megan Fox was there.
He cocked his head to the side. "Oh. Ah, Alex. That's Megan Fox. Your sister-in-law," he said mundanely.
Stunned, Alex stared at the girl, and then at Cody.
"We've just met," Cody said.
"Oh?" Alex inquired politely.
Cole bent slightly to whisper audibly to Alex, "Yes. She's just like Cody."
"I think we should go inside," Cody said.
"Martha's inside," Cole said pleasantly, getting Alex's bags. "But, by all means, let's."
He led the way, then carried Alex's bags upstairs while she hugged the hostess. Alex knew Martha from when she'd lived in D.C., right at the outbreak of the war. She'd been engaged once before, prior to meeting Cody; her fiance had perished at the first route at Manassas, a battle for which people had actually taken carriages out to the fields to witness the entertainment-until they had seen how bloody and devastating that entertainment would become.
When Cole came back downstairs, Brendan, Cody and Alex were at the table. Martha was still fussing over Alex, and Megan was busy setting large platters of fluffy scrambled eggs, bread and heated dried beef with gravy on the table.
"My journey was fine, and without incident," Alex was saying as Cole took a seat on the other side of the table. "Long, of course, but you all know how long it can be. My papers were in order, and though we passed through different checkpoints, with soldiers on both sides stopping us for identification, I wasn't detained at any point."
"Dear, dear, it's only going to get worse," Martha said. "They say that Lee is planning another invasion into the North."
"He's the world's finest general!" Megan said, her adoration for the man evident.
Cole himself admired Lee. Still, he'd never been sure that the general's determination to invade the North had been a wise choice and he'd been right-the Battle of Gettysburg had been a massive boon to the North and a horror for the South. But he figured the general had been weary of the battles being fought on Southern soil. Every battle cost the people of a region-it devastated the land, and it meant feeding tens of thousands of soldiers with the South's own stores, which couldn't last forever.
He noted then that Martha looked at Megan and gave her a knowing nod.
It occurred to him then that their hostess had known their surprise guest even before Cody had brought them together. For the time he'd keep his silence-and a careful watch on both women. There had been as many young women swept up with the war effort as there had been young men, and he knew that loyalties in war could be passionate, sometimes out of control. But his team's work wasn't about the known war, and he didn't want anyone's loyalties getting in the way of what had to be done.
"You two are looking mighty suspicious," Brendan said, voicing Cole's thoughts out loud.
"Suspicious? Regarding breakfast?" Megan asked.
"You're just looking mighty suspicious," Brendan told her. "And it's time to take heed to the truth of what has happened. The South will lose. General Lee was beaten back bad at Gettysburg, and the knots around the Confederacy are drawing tighter all the time."
"But that hasn't been the way of the entire war," Megan pointed out. "The South has won many-"
"Antietam Creek cannot be considered a win by anyone," Cole heard himself say, though he had meant to stay out of the argument. "Fifty-thousand Americans dead. That's not a win for anyone in my book."
Megan looked at him, quiet.
"Now, now, please!" Martha said, drawing out a chair to join them at last. Cole, Cody and Brendan stood quickly to assist her, but she raised a hand and slid into her own seat. "We're trying to have a nice civil breakfast here, and there's going to be no talk of the war, if you all don't mind. Not one of us here can solve it, that's the simple truth, and it's the arguing that got us all into it from the get-go, so... My, my! Cole, have you been in Washington before? Can you see how it's changed? My, my, from sleepy little place to giant industrial city in just a matter of a few years. And the construction going on! Why, President Lincoln has seen to it that the work on the Capitol Building continues. It will go up-he is determined."
Brendan Vincent was quite taken with Martha Graybow. "Indeed, dear lady. The city grew by nearly sixty-thousand souls in just a few years, so it did. Imagine this marshland becoming such a cultural center."
They were still in the process of finishing the meal when a knock sounded from the front door. Cody nodded at Cole and they both excused themselves, Cody holding back while Cole stepped to the door.
"Cole Granger, are you asking me in? Or leaving a lady on the steps?" said a mischievous voice on the other side.
And Lisette Annalise, actress by trade and newly minted agent of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, had arrived.
Cole opened the door with a smile on his face. "Why, Miss Annalise, no man in his right mind would leave you waiting anywhere," he replied, inviting her in with a flourish. Cole had met her briefly years earlier when she had been performing in Faint Heart Never Won Fair Ladies on the Western circuit. She was a young Jenny Lind, a stunning, petite woman with the voice of an angel. Lisette had most recently telegraphed Cole, having heard about the success his town of Victory, Texas, had in fighting off a ruthless gang of outlaws.
Some loathed her fellow "Pinks," as they were called. Some thought that they were a viable private enterprise. But there was no denying that war changed everything, and the Pinkertons were becoming a true power. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency had been founded in Chicago by Allan Pinkerton as a private security agency for rich and important businessmen and their interests. As president-elect, Lincoln himself had hired them, which tended to mean that Lisette would mention, almost right from the beginning of any encounter, that she'd met the man and admired him greatly, both of them enjoying the theater.
Cole liked Lisette, and he admired her. But she sometimes frightened him, as well. Her passion verged on fanaticism, and he'd never met a fanatic who could think with a straight head.
Overjoyed to see his old friend, Cole stepped out and quickly caught up with her about Victory, some common acquaintances and their business in the capitol.
"This is our contact?" Cody asked, suddenly appearing in the doorway, barring the way to the rear of the house.
"Yes, I'm sorry, forgive me," Cole said, making the introductions.
Cody and Lisette exchanged greetings cordially but with some tension about them. "Did you tell her about Megan?" Cody asked Cole.
"Not yet," Cole said.
"Ah," Cody said, expressing what seemed to be the key sentiment of the moment.
Lisette had dark brown eyes and auburn hair, and flyaway eyebrows that rose in question.
"Cody discovered a long-lost sister just last night," Cole explained.
"Megan," Cody said.
"A sister?" Lisette said, her lips pursing into a bow. "Does that mean...?"
"Yes," Cole said simply.
"Come along in, we'll be suspicious out here," Cole said, and gestured all into the house.
"Oh, of course. But I'm suspicious of this sudden sister already," Lisette said, which Cole couldn't help but smile at.
In the kitchen, introductions and greetings went around again. Martha was thrilled to meet Lisette. She had seen her perform onstage long ago in Richmond. Lisette was charming and said that she'd be performing in Washington soon.
"I find it so difficult these days, with so many soldiers out dying on the fields," Lisette said.
"Oh, but you entertain those left behind at home. You help them bear the hours while their loved ones are away!" Martha said enthusiastically.
"Just how is it that you know each other?" Megan asked sweetly. Her eyes glittered gold, though she smiled as she asked the question.
"Well, Cole and I go back a long way," Lisette said. She cast Cole a warm glance and lingered over the words, inviting all types of speculation as to what that exactly meant. "He wrote that he'd be here. May I ask you the same, Miss Fox? I'm always surprised that so many Southerners are enjoying a Union capital."
"I had word that Cody would be in Washington. I was anxious to meet my brother."
"Ah, yes, nothing like a little teasing sibling rivalry!" Lisette said.
Maybe it was natural that Lisette should subtly suggest that Megan Fox wasn't here with the noblest of intentions, to insinuate to those who understood the undertone that Megan might possibly hold an agenda that involved infesting the capital with the plague-and thus getting the Union to capitulate to the South.
To her credit, Megan was composed. "Rivalry? Oh, Miss Annalise, I wouldn't dream of attempting any form of rivalry with my brother. I've been hoping to meet him for so long! No, miss, I assure you, I shall do nothing but follow in my brother's wake, and hope to be so fine a-being."
"How utterly charming," Lisette said. She rose from her position at the table, smiling graciously. "Would you please forgive us? In these dreadful times of war, we never know when we will meet. Cole and I would like to take a bit of a walk." She smiled at him, blinking, as if she were about to burst into tears-as if there were far more between them than there had ever been. She was the ultimate actress.
Megan quickly and awkwardly rose, as well. "How nice! How very lovely. Yes, yes, the two of you must up and away for a lovely stroll. Pity the streets are little but mud and the dust flying about is terrible, but I'm sure you'll have a charming walk, so sweet when time is precious and two people are together."
One woman wanted his company, another was evidently more than anxious to get rid of him. He needed to see the one, and he was afraid to take his eyes off the other.
Megan was Cody's sister. And Cody certainly knew the score.
"Of course, Lisette," Cole said. "The streets are not so bad here-the house is not on a direct march line for the troops coming and going into and out of town. Let's do stroll."
"You will excuse us?" Lisette asked Martha, her beautiful smile all encompassing as she looked around the room.
They left by way of the rear door, the carriage entrance.
When they came around the front, Cole saw a sad-looking young woman standing on the front walk, an envelope and a clipboard in her hands. He started toward her.
"Cole, just walk, she'll come," Lisette said, taking his arm.
"She'll come? Who is she?"
"It's just Trudy."
"Who is just Trudy and why is she standing there?" he demanded.
Lisette sighed. "She's my assistant. The agency seems to think I need one, but I loathe being followed around. Luckily, she's a little mouse and stands wherever I tell her."
"You had her just standing outside while you came into the house?" Cole asked.
"Well, outside and around the corner. I wanted some time alone with you. Besides, it's her job. She serves me. And she's paid to do it," Lisette said, waving a hand dismissively in the air.
She might be a mouse-a paid mouse-but Cole didn't intend to be that rude. He walked over to the woman, extending his hand. "How do you do, Trudy? I'm Cole Granger."
The young woman flushed and nervously shook his hand. "I'm fine, thank you, sir. How do you do?"
"Well enough, thank you. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Lisette slipped her arm through his. "Come. I have things to discuss with you." She moved ahead. Trudy waited, then followed them at a distance.
Lisette didn't speak at first as they walked from the house toward the mall, all manner of men and women moving past them, many of them soldiers. Though it had grown immensely and was a bevy of storage, manufacturing, industry and all things associated with war, there was still something inviting about the Union capital. The president spoke daily with his constituents-and his enemies-in the White House. He took his carriage out daily, often with his Mary, and despite the fact that there were those who despised him for the war, Lincoln was a man of the people. Cole had only seen him at a distance and heard him speak to crowds; Alexandra Fox knew him. She had been arrested for knowing what she shouldn't have known once because Alex had her own special gift. Her dreams could be prophetic. And she had tried to stop a battle, which had meant that she had found herself arrested for espionage. Lincoln had stepped in. They were friends.
Alex was no form of monster, as Cody sometimes called himself. But she was a different person. She had those dreams, or dream-visions. Alex often said that it might just be intuition, her senses warning her of what was to come.
She had never-she had assured Cole once-ever seen what the war would become.
"This is extremely distressing," Lisette said, when they had come to the Mall at last, looking to make sure that Trudy was still a good distance behind them. The great expanse divided the streets and had been designed as park area-though it was now most often muddy terrain where troops drilled-and it finally seemed to afford Lisette some sense that they were isolated enough to speak freely. They stood in front of the Castle, the first building of the Smithsonian Institution, where even now, in the midst of the war, the work of scientists went on. James Smithson had never set foot in the United States, but the country's dream of democracy had appealed to him, and he'd bequeathed the funds to an ideal. While troops drilled, business went on, and so the museum and the Mall were dreams and ideals loved by the people, constants amid chaos.
"This?" Cole asked.
"Megan Fox," Lisette said.
"We didn't bring her. She found us last night at the prison."
"Convenient. Are you certain that she hadn't been in the prison?"
"She had several chances to inflict damage on us and she didn't," Cole said. "She seemed to be fighting with us."
"Seemed!" Lisette said.
Cole listened to the sounds of the street, children still being children, playing on doorsteps and in patches of grass, carriage wheels running over potholes, line riders avoiding those potholes and even the rustle of fabric as ladies picked up their cumbersome skirts to cross the streets.
"Seemed?" Lisette repeated sharply.
"Look," Cole said. "I'm here with Cody and Brendan on a mission. I'm not here as part of a war. Cody says that she's his sister, and that's that in my book. I don't believe she's here on a sinister quest to rid the country of Union forces by setting forth a league of vampires. Take the war out of this when you're speaking to me, or I'm done."
Lisette had her hands on her hips as she stared at him; no one would mistake them for lovers at that point.
"I forget. You're one of them," she said. "Texas!" She nearly spit out the word.
"Humanity," he said flatly. "Look, are you going to tell me where we stand and what's needed, or are you going to spout political rhetoric?"
"The South will lose!"
He lowered his head for a minute. "Yes. Eventually. The blockades grow tighter, and for every Federal killed, another steps off a ship from another country, barely speaking English, ready to die like a canary sent into the coal mine of freedom. I'm done talking, Lisette. Tell me what you want, but, please, make no more references to the evil of Texas and my brethren. Just tell me where we are with the trauma at hand."
She pursed her lips with displeasure. "You did well last night. Extremely well. But we know that a number of the creatures escaped."
"Have you seen the paper this morning?"
He shook his head. "No."
She reached into her bag and produced the morning's newspaper, unfolding it so that he could see the headline-Murder on Florida Avenue.
He took it from her hands and read the article. A Joshua Brandt, his wife, mother and two servants had been found dead. The bodies, white as sheets, had been discovered strewn about the house.
BREAKFAST HAD LONG been cleared away. Martha had gone to be with her children. Alex had tactfully taken Brendan for a "constitutional" walk. And Megan sat with Cody in the parlor, sensing what was coming next.
"You knew about me all your life?" he asked her.
She shook her head. "No, not all my life. But I knew about my father. Well, when I was young, my mother would tell me that he'd been a wonderful man, but that he didn't stay long in one place. That he...that he had a quest in life, and that his quest was important and undertaken for the sake of all humanity. I never saw our father. I was born in North Carolina, where my mother had friends. I would tell the children that I played with at parties and so on that my father was a great man, but when I was about six, I think, one of the older boys told me that my father was a drifter and I was a bastard. Shortly after, we moved to Richmond, my mother married a fine man named Andrew Jennison and my life went on from there."
She had barely finished speaking when the door opened and Cole stepped in. The woman, Lisette Annalise, was not with him. Megan had to admit she was glad. She didn't like Cole Granger and she liked him less alongside the actress who seemed to think she was the Army of the Potomac.
Cole looked at them then closed the door carefully. He walked over to Cody, placing a newspaper on his lap.
"What is it?" she asked.
"The plague at the prison might have been stopped, but we didn't get them all," he replied.
Megan stood and hurried over to Cody's side, brushing past the solid granite that was Cole Granger, and looked down at the giant headline on the newspaper.
"At least it's not-Battlefield at Antietam, at Gettysburg, the Wilderness...Tens of Thousands Dead," she said weakly, looking for something positive to say.
"How many do you think made it out?" Cody asked Cole.
"Can't be many. But even one is enough."
Cody exhaled. "Well, hopefully, the ones who escaped were new, young vampires that will need rest by daylight. But where?" he asked softly, frowning.
"St. Paul's, Rock Creek-Prospect Hill?" Megan suggested. The former, a Colonial church, had quite an impressive burial ground. The latter was a large expanse, fairly new, but with many plots sold. "Oak Hill Cemetery? And beyond. The law stipulated not so long ago that new interments had to be outside the city line...but there are crypts and vaults in the oldest churches, as well. Most likely new vampires would find rest in a cemetery-I don't think they'd be able to endure the burn of trying to sleep within an actual house of worship."
"My bet is on Prospect Hill," Cody said. "It is all hallowed ground, but many who would have been buried there perished on battlefields far away, and their remains were never returned."
"Though Prospect Hill is German-American," Cole noted, "I remembered reading a small article on it the day it was consecrated."
"Yes, but many bought plots there," Megan said.
Cody stood and looked at them with determination. "We'll flag down a carriage," he said. "It's not walking distance." He was thoughtful and then shook his head wearily. "Oak Hill is possible, too-its natural landscape lends itself to many places where a vampire might find enclosures in which to rest."
"And if one of the older, seasoned vampires survived, he might have a place already set up...anywhere," Megan said.
"We'll just keep searching. We'll start with Prospect Hill, move on to Oak Hill...and go from there."
Cole nodded in agreement. "The surviving attackers must be found, but we also must get into the hospital morgue where the remains of the deceased were taken. Quickly. I don't want to wait for nightfall-better that we handle the situation now."
"All right," Cody began. "Brendan will come with me. We'll start on the cemeteries. You can bring Megan-"
"What? Oh, no," Cole said.
"You know, cowboy," Megan said, irritated, "one day, you'll be grateful to have me at your side, when your weakness is shown to be great next to those you choose to pursue."
"I know my business. You ask your brother. I learned to hold my own the hard way," Cole said. "Why, I nearly killed you last night."
"Oh, no, you did not," Megan corrected him. "I could have killed you, but instead, I saved your skin. You were with Cody. And then I offered you my services."
"You were at my mercy," Cole said softly.
"All right, stop!" Cody said. "Cole, you come with me, and I'll send Megan and Brendan-"
"No! I know she's technically on our side, but you're not going to risk Brendan going with her," Cole said.
"It's early enough," Megan said. "And, Cody, you're a trained medical doctor. It will make sense if we both go to the hospital. Then, we'll go to the cemeteries together. We are talking vast tasks at each location. The hospitals are huge, and-"
"Even the morgue area will house many," Cole interrupted quietly.
"I think, since resources are limited, the murdered family might be kept separately," Megan concluded. "In the morgue area, but separate from those who have died of their battle wounds, or of disease."
"All right. We go together. Cole-Megan is my sister," Cody said.
"One you've known for less than twenty-four hours," Cole pointed out.
Megan moved toward the door. "Sheriff Granger, we need to leave. You may come-or not. As you see fit. But I am going."
She wasn't sure what he said; it was beneath his breath. She didn't think that it was good. She didn't much care.
"I need my coat," he said. "You'll wait."
"I'll get Brendan and my medical bag," Cody said.
Cole was heading to the rear, for the hooks by the kitchen door, to retrieve his railway frock coat.
It was a long coat. Megan thought that it was also probably well supplied-with stakes, a mallet and a number of sharp knives. With his height and the length of the coat, his heavy supply of armor might not be noted beneath its folds.
She made it out the door first, walking purposely for the street and seeking a carriage to hail. Cole was right behind her, towering over her and lifting his hand high as he hurried her along. Just as Cody and Brendan caught up to them, a carriage for hire pulled alongside them and Cole asked that they be delivered to the Lincoln General Hospital. The four of them climbed in, Brendan being the one to first appear the gentleman and hand her up the footstep so that she might take a seat.
In short time, they reached the hospital. It was immense, founded in 1862 because of the staggering number of war injuries and diseases that plagued the soldiers. When they set foot at the emergency arrivals area, it seemed that the place was nothing but chaos, which was good for their purposes. Cole had a letter of authority from the Pinkertons-who were ostensibly investigating the mysterious murders-and a grim medic, hurrying from one tent to another, directed them to the far rear of the encampment.
"Did we really need all four of us for such a task?" Brendan grumbled, wincing as they walked past a pile of amputated limbs. "My dear!" he added, pulling Megan close to him. "These are not sights really fit for a lady."
"How kind, sir. But I've been on many a battlefield."
"I'm sure you have," Cole said.
"Where is your actress-Amazon warrior friend, Sheriff?" Megan asked sweetly. "Wouldn't she have better directed us on this mission?"
"Miss Annalise is a superb actress and songstress, in the city to warm the hearts of the injured and those working on the home front, and even those just waiting, raising their children," Cole said pleasantly. "She is otherwise occupied by her very important work."
Megan tried to restrain from an unladylike snort. She did manage to suppress the sound to a barely audible sniff.
She didn't like Lisette Annalise. She was sure that the woman would happily propel enough bombs to obliterate the entire South, heedless that it would kill countless innocents and take out half the Northern troops, all in her determination to exterminate her enemies. Did Cole realize that? she wondered. It hadn't taken any great intellectual mind to realize that the woman was a Northern spy, working with the Pinkertons. Though Cody had not told her so directly during Cole's absence, he hadn't denied her query about the woman, either.
A soldier suddenly barred their way. "What business have you here?" the man demanded. "If you're seeking the body of your kin, you've passed the tent where the latest casualties lie."
"I'm here under a matter of government concern," Cody said, and Cole produced their letter of authority.
The soldier nodded, looking a little white. "Dr. Mansfield examined the bodies earlier. I shall conduct you and remain with you throughout your own examination, sir."
Megan knew that her part in the charade was at hand.
"Oh!" she whispered suddenly.
Making sure that she was far enough from the men, she brought the back of her hand to her eyes and pretended to waver.
"Miss!" the soldier cried, rushing forward to catch her before she could fall.
"Oh, thank you!" she cried, circling her arms around him. "I don't know what's come over me! I've nursed men on the fields.... I just need...perhaps a bit of water."
"My poor dear sister!" Cody said, starting forward.
Cole caught him by the shoulder. "Dr. Fox, we've been asked to make a report as soon as possible on the condition of the poor family!"
"Indeed," Cody said, distressed.
"I have the young lady," the soldier said, now staring at Megan with something like puppy love in his eyes. "Be brief, please. I am ordered to watch over the corpses-God knows why. They are certainly not going to rise and fight the Union. And who would seek to steal a corpse-and besides there are thousands on the battlefields. There are sons in the family, but they are in the field. Oh, just hurry, sir, and do what examining it is that is necessary. I will see to the young lady. My officer's tent is just there...." He pointed.
"Oh!" Megan said again, clinging to him.
"Dear girl! Dear girl!" he said. And barely aware of the others, he helped her as she leaned hard against him, and they walked to the officer's tent. She glanced back over her shoulder just once, smiling at the trio of men. She noticed Cole looking back at her, appearing amused.
THE OBVIOUS FACTOR regarding the corpses was their color.
Or lack thereof.
"White" was the term used, and yet they weren't really white at all. They appeared to be a pale, opaque shade of yellow-pearl, and they seemed hollow, as if they had never been human at all.
Cole noted immediately that in addition to the massive trauma apparent on their necks, their throats had been neatly slit as well, though long after the blood had been drained. The perpetrators had been savage, making no tiny pinprick point in the throats of their victims, but tearing at them like rabid dogs. Young vampires, yes. And maybe an older one, hastily trying to cover their tracks.
Cody looked at the victims, laid out on the ground, covered in poor, unbleached cotton sheets, bearing the muddy look of the ground where they lay.
Cots would have been saved for the living.
Joshua Brandt had been a man of perhaps fifty or sixty years; even in death, he had a furrowed brow. His wife was thin, probably pale in life as well, her face portraying the wrinkled countenance of a life that had been long lived. Brandt's mother was long, excruciatingly thin, and probably soon for death even without the vampire's kiss. The servant girl was young and had been pretty; her hands were callused. There had been a male servant as well, an older man, bearing signs of stooped shoulders from a long life of labor. The bodies had only received cursory inspections and thus remained fully clothed.
"The heads, or stakes?" Cole asked Cody with sadness in his voice.
"Stakes, beneath the shirts and bodices," Cody said.
Cole hunkered down and reached into his coat for a long, narrow, honed stake and his mallet. He paused before looking down then discovered that he was poised above the body of the young servant girl. She looked peaceful, young and lovely.
To his surprise, her eyes opened. She looked at him and smiled, and he paused again. Then he saw that something in her eyes was registering cunning and evil intent.
He hammered the stake into her heart just as her lips drew back and saliva dripped off her fangs. He sat back, trembling slightly. She had changed quickly. And in daylight.
Cody had already dispatched Joshua Brandt and his mother; Brendan had made a quick, clean disposal of Mrs. Brandt. They both looked at him without words.
We all know that you never hesitate, their silent glances seemed to say.
And, yes, he knew. But he also knew that in Victory, Texas, they had let some of the changed retain their strange new existences. But they knew those they had allowed this for. It might have been possible that someone as young as this girl would awaken and search for a way to appease her hunger without attacking humans, but that would have been an amazing rarity.
He nodded, and though he felt tremendous pain again, he pulled down on the worn shirt of the older male servant and made quick work with his stake and mallet. A slight shudder seemed to escape the man.
There was no blood.
Cole pulled the man's shirt back into position.
They had completed their task.
The three of them rose, carefully seeing that the dead were covered again in their poor shrouds, and left them in peace. They headed for the helpful officer's tent. Orderlies, nurses, doctors and civilians who had come to see what comfort and aid they could possibly give patients were hurrying about in different directions bearing water, medical bags, alcohol, bandages and surgical instruments. As they walked, despite the stream of humanity, Cole heard someone crying out pathetically for help. He found himself pausing despite himself and the mission that still lay before them.
"Go on," Cody said. "We'll get Megan."
He followed the sound of the cries. They were coming from a tent that must have held at least thirty cots. There were four nurses or attendants, but they were all moving as quickly as possible. Men lay about in bloody bandages. Some had stumps for legs. Some were covered with sheets that quickly soaked blood from wounds that refused to completely mend.
He heard the cry again and passed by a wounded soldier who did nothing but stare blankly ahead. And then he found the victim crying so pitiably.
He looked about for a makeshift camp table and found a pitcher of water and a glass, poured some from the first to the latter and came down on one knee by the soldier's cot. He noted the man was still in uniform, a strange one at that.
"Where are you wounded, sir?" Cole asked, moving to lift the man's head.
The fellow's eyes took on a strange light. He smiled suddenly.
And opened his mouth.
Cole had never moved so quickly in his life, reaching into his coat, finding a stake. He couldn't bother with the mallet but had to depend upon his own strength and positioning between the ribs.
He laid himself hard against the man, trying to hide his deed with the mass of his shoulders and back.
The man's jaw locked in an open position. The eyes glazed slowly. The fangs retracted even more so.
Almost shaking, Cole withdrew slowly, secreting the stake back into the inner pockets of his coat. He realized he was still gripping the water in his free hand.
"Sir! What is happening there?" An orderly or doctor, standing behind him now, demanded.
He drew back, shaking his head. "I'm afraid I came too late, Doctor. This man is gone."
Cole stood, rising to his full height, meeting the doctor's gaze. For a moment, he was afraid the man might to challenge him.
But the doctor just shook his head. "Cover the poor boy then. God knows, we can't save them all, try as we will."
The doctor was too busy to tarry long. Cole hurried from the tent, scouring the faces and bodies of the others in the tent ward as he did so.
The "plague" here was bad.
No one else was crying out in the same way, though, and Cole moved on.
He should have known. He should have known from the sound of the cry that it had been a moan of an unnatural hunger.
He'd heard the cry often enough before.
And he had fallen for the plea of the hungry, thirsty, desperate new vampire despite all that he knew.
They needed to be doubly wary now.
He found Cody, Brendan and Megan still with the officer who had been charged to deal with the current, imminent danger.
He found himself looking at Megan, who was politely thanking the officer and apologizing for the time she had taken. The man was smitten, of course. The officer was young, and the war had probably taken him far from those he loved. Having a pretty young woman like Megan needing his attention was probably something he would remember and dream about in the long days and nights to come.
Poor boy. He didn't know.
Megan turned to look at Cole as he arrived among them. He felt a slight trembling in his length, a heat, a tension in his body.
She was a stunning woman with her perfect face and mesmerizing golden eyes. And she, perhaps more so than even Lisette Annalise, was quite an amazing actress.
That, he told himself, was something he was going to have to remember at all times. Especially now that she seemed to be doing such a superb job of joining in with them.
Especially now that it seemed Cody had accepted her, and even Brendan seemed to be falling for the beauty and sweetness of her spirit and...