MRS. GRAYBOW'S ROOMING House on the edge of the mall was a pleasant place. Until the war it had just been the home of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Graybow.
But Arnie Graybow had been among the first to die at Manassas, and so now Martha Graybow, a thirty-two-year-old widow with two little mouths to feed, ran a boardinghouse. Mrs. Graybow and her brood, Artie and Marni, twelve and seven respectively, resided in the carriage house in back and to the left of the main house, otherwise empty now with the carriage and horses having long ago been sold. The main house itself consisted of five bedrooms upstairs, a lovely dining room, parlor, kitchen, pantry and music room downstairs. It was a fine and private temporary residence for vampire hunters.
As fortune would have it, Megan Fox was friends with Martha Graybow. They both hailed from Richmond. Once upon a time, Martha would babysit her when her mother had business at the bank, or would sometimes allow her to "help out" at the boardinghouse, though she'd been too young to be of any real assistance.
But, of course, Martha had no idea what Megan was up to nowadays. Martha, bless her, thought that Megan was just a fiery young woman, the kind that didn't swoon, that was happiest standing up against injustice. And indeed, Megan had faith, but she was pretty sure the world had a long way to go. One day there would be justice, and equality would exist. But not this way, not with the North decimating the South. Instead of shaming their brethren, the industrial North should have been figuring out ways to educate those in the South. But maybe she was wrong. Maybe half the planters were just greedy, and they didn't see anything equal in their darker brothers. Nothing about the war-despite the bloodshed, death and devastation-was cut-and-dried, or black-and-white. It was all gray and red-the color of the blood of all the Americans dying in the war, Yankee, Rebel, black man, white man, yellow, pink, dark or tan.
But she knew that a different war was also being waged. One that most of the world knew little about. Sometimes, she really wanted the entire world to know about it. Maybe they would stop fighting one another and face the true threat if they knew, but the words she had spoken to Cole were true: it was hard to prove the existence of the evil creatures to a large, disorganized populace to a satisfactory degree. The world wasn't ready to understand that the myths actually represented a very real part of the world.
And a part of her.
Cole Granger, the tall, sturdy, striking fellow who had nearly staked her, paced the room. His eyes were more than suspicious. He was thinking that he should have staked her.
Select-very select-Union troops had been called in for the cleanup of the prison fight. And so, now, there were four of them at the boardinghouse, and she sat on a chair in the center of the music room-the music room, rather than the parlor, which faced the street and afforded less privacy-seated very much as any prisoner of war might have been.
She was being questioned.
Cole kept pacing, trying to keep silent, and let Cody Fox take charge. She was attempting to explain to them all that she was Cody's sister. And it was interesting, of course, because she knew that Cody would certainly have told them all that he'd grown up without a sister, which would have been, in his mind, correct. They didn't know what she knew, of course, because she was Cody's younger sister-and she knew everything that their father had told their mother long after Cody had left. Still, she hadn't thought that it was going to be this difficult to explain.
But none of them had actually managed to sit quiet long enough for a nuanced discussion. She tried to remember the barrage of questions they had last voiced-in the order they had voiced them.
"No. Yes. No. And yes, and yes, I believe," she said, staring from one man to the next. Brendan Vincent first, older than the other two men and straight as a ramrod-a military man, possibly retired. His eyes showed age and knowledge; the hollow structure of his face betrayed pain even as the mobility of his mouth hinted at a kindness remaining despite the lessons of the world. Then there was Cody Fox. Her brother. He should easily believe her-apparently, the wheaten color of their hair had been their father's, along with the strange hazel-and-gold hue of their eyes. He had sharp eyes, ever watchful. And shouldn't he be able to sense their mutually other nature? And Cole Granger. Rock solid, with piercing blue eyes of a shade deep and dark blue, enigmatic. In contrast to the others, his hair was almost jet-black. Each of his limbs seemed muscled and toned, as did the breadth of his chest. He was evidently a physical man, one accustomed to constant movement-the look of a frontiersman, someone who met every challenge. His mouth was grim and one that had apparently forgotten all about trust or kindness. Maybe that wasn't true. He seemed to trust Cody Fox and Brendan Vincent.
"She's got a sarcastic mouth on her, that's for sure," Cole said.
"Yeah. That could mean some proof that she's Cody's sister," Brendan commented.
Cody's gaze turned on Brendan, ever so slightly dry and indignant.
Cole Granger was suddenly hunched down in front of her. "Who are you really, and what were you doing there?" he demanded quietly. But even when his words were soft, they felt deep enough to fill any room.
She inhaled deeply, refusing to be intimidated by the man.
"I'm Cody Fox's sister, Megan Fox. You can ask me a million times, and I will give you the same answer. There is none other to give," she said, staring back at him.
"I don't have a sister," Cody said harshly.
"Well, yes, you do, and it's me. Oh-and there might be others out there, too. Our father is out there, still, I believe. I know about you, and I'm sorry you know nothing about me. My mother actually looked for you for many years and discovered that you were in New Orleans. But you were gone by the time I managed to get there."
Cody glanced at his friends, a glance that assured her that he might be starting to believe her.
"Anyone might have researched Cody Fox," Cole Granger said. He was still directly in front of her, and his proximity was unnerving. The man seemed to have iron in his jaw, and she wasn't sure that he'd yet blinked since the interrogation began. If she didn't have a certain inner sense that she'd developed as a child, she might have thought he was one of...whatever she and Cody were.
A unique kind of "half-breed."
"And you just happened to be at the prison tonight?" Brendan Vincent asked, his words filled with doubt.
"Nothing just happens. I knew Cody was there. And if a Texas sheriff can be found in Washington, D.C., right now, there's obviously something going on. Of course, absent even those indicators, I knew already. I was sent by the government," Megan explained.
Brendan Vincent snorted-very rudely-she thought. "We were sent by the government-I know that. And I know that you weren't."
She stared at him coldly. "There are two governments in this country right now, sir. I realize that you prefer not to recognize the second, but it does exist."
She thought that he would pull his gun then and there. He refrained because Cody had lifted a hand. "Brendan, come on, we all know that we don't take sides in this."
"She's taking a side!" Brendan protested.
Cole continued to stare at her.
The whole thing was bizarre. Cole Granger was a Texas sheriff. Her half brother had hailed from New Orleans. From the research she had done, she was pretty sure that Brendan Vincent hailed from Texas himself, though he was clearly U.S. military through and through. But, then again, Lincoln had asked the South's major asset-General Robert E. Lee-to lead the Union troops. Lee had suffered long and hard while making his decision, but in the end he had thought himself a Virginian above all else. The war was a horrible tangle of loyalties, with half the boys on the bloody fields not sure of exactly what it was that they fought for.
With a pang, she remembered her mother's words.
The war itself is wrong. Doesn't matter, we're all losers in this debacle. Time, talk and the legislature should have taken precedence over the use of arms, and now...well, we have dead boys everywhere.
She'd loved her mother. Loved her so much. Her look at the world around her, and her ability to discover the truth, no matter how many layers of opinion and variation were piled upon it.
"No. I'm not taking a side. Any more than you are," Megan told Brendan.
Megan hesitated again. "All right. I'm from Virginia. I grew up in Richmond."
"The capital of the Confederacy," he said, nodding, as if that immediately meant she had fallen in from the skies.
"Brendan," Cody protested. "I was in New Orleans, and you came after me. And you're not even on active duty these days."
Ah! So the man who seemed to think of himself as the Stars and Stripes wasn't even official.
"Please, I don't know who is right and who is wrong anymore, really," Megan said. "And I can't do a damned thing about the fact that the two sides are just going to continue to shred one another to pieces until the agony becomes too great and someone on high is brought down into the dust and realizes that it has to end. I am here with the...consult of a government, but it has nothing to do with which government has the right to which piece of land. And if I'm touchy on the subject, well, I am from Virginia. But I wasn't asked to come here because of that-or because the South wishes to cause any harm to guards, prisoners, soldiers, nurses, visitors.... It's not to stage a mass escape. It's not for any reason of warfare." She looked at the three men, and then softly added, "Accepted warfare, that is."
Cole remained hunkered down in front of her.
"So, who sent you?" he asked.
She paused. She wasn't at all sure he was going to believe her. "It doesn't matter. I was sent by a Confederate general, one who's seen what an outbreak can do," she said at last.
"And how are you so familiar with outbreaks?" Cole asked.
She inhaled. "The Battle of Fredericksburg."
"What about it? You were there? You're in the army, of course," Cole said drily.
She stood, angry, and glad to see that she nearly knocked him down. He was quick, though, and regained his balance to stand, as well. She turned away from him, talking to Cody Fox and Brendan Vincent. "There was a time when I was a conveyor of information."
"A spy?" Cody asked.
She shrugged. "All of us are caught in this."
"There was a time-no more?" Brendan asked. The older man was perplexed. A loyal Unionist, he had apparently come to terms with his need for Cody; he would come to terms with her as well, eventually.
She shook her head. "This is-this is something that goes beyond war."
"Go on," Cody said.
"The Battle of Fredericksburg was horrible, truly devastating-"
"A complete route of the Union," Brendan interrupted. "And yet you say 'horrible.'"
"A Southern soldier was so agonized by Union losses that he brought water to the wounded Federal soldiers on the field," she said. "Sergeant Richard Kirkland, from South Carolina, didn't even bother with a flag of truce-he had to alleviate the suffering. The men whispered that Lee, watching from the heights, commented, 'It is well that war was so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.' The point I am making is that the battle itself and the aftermath were so strewn with blood, it was difficult to notice one man's agony or death.... Or even that of several men."
Cole, now with his arms crossed over his chest, was frowning and seemed to understand what was going on. Completely.
"When was the vampire attack?" he asked.
She didn't mean to do so, but she shivered, remembering. "It was cold," she began. "December, and cold. And the men on the field screamed and cried. Many of us then went out to see what we could do. I was with a fellow who'd had his leg destroyed by shrapnel. That's when I heard the first scream-a scream so different.... I turned, and I saw the...the man. Darkness was falling, dusk was all around and at first I was confused. I thought it merely someone in a greatcoat who had come to help the wounded, as well. But that scream came again. More chilling than anything before...and I heard quick movement and then the sucking sound...and I looked around. One of our medics-a man who had not been wounded-protested, demanding to know what was going on. And then one of them fell upon him, and he screamed...."
Megan paused. Cole's expression had not changed during any of this. "I knew then. But there were several of them, and the men on the field weren't really listening to me. I'm sure they thought I was crazy and that whenever they delivered pistol shots into the chest of one of the creatures, it would stay down. But I knew. And I was armed. I was able to take down three of the four I counted. But it was insane on the field! Those who witnessed the event and survived were certain that the opposing troops had somehow risen to fight one another again."
"The Battle of Fredericksburg was a while back," Cody said.
"We've been chasing this for a long time," Megan said. "Through many battles. But the thing is-now it's all come here. For me, Fredericksburg was the beginning. We think we have the situation under control, and then...there's a new outbreak. Recently, after the Battle of the Wilderness, things grew worse." She drew a deep breath. "There were dead and wounded from both Rebel and Union armies, and we know that some of ours were taken...and that a few of the officers were taken to the prisoner-of-war facility where we met tonight. I'd already been sent North when word came that there were 'riots' going on at the prison. And so I...I came. I'd heard as well, of course, that I might at last find my long-lost brother among those sent in."
"How did you hear that?" Cody asked, frowning.
She laughed. "No major feat of intelligence. People are whispering about it on the streets. And, I believe, it will remain nothing more than whispering. Most people mock the idea of anything outside the ordinary. Cody, you're simply known as an excellent man at taking down a horde of unruly men, and Cole Granger-" she paused, turning to stare at the man, hoping that she had all her dignity about her as she did so "-Cole Granger is famous, or infamous, for being the best man to maintain law in a wild frontier town. And, naturally, Brendan Vincent, it's long known that you're a staunch Unionist-despite being a Southerner from one of the Texas towns recently annihilated...by 'outlaws,' of course, they say."
All three men were quiet, staring at her. She hadn't really lied; people were whispering on the streets. She hadn't explained just how far up in the Southern echelon it was known that something beyond the absolute horror of warfare was going on. She didn't want to-certainly not now. She wasn't trusted as it was. Cody was trusted; she was not. They surely knew what he was. And Cody had been with the Southern army-until his wounds had sent him home to New Orleans, held firmly in Union hands. All this, and still they trusted him but not her.
Cole set a hand on her upper arm, spinning her around to look at him, still the skeptic. She stared at the hand. He stared back at her; he didn't let go.
"What?" she asked icily.
"Why didn't you try to contact us first?"
A knock at the back door stalled any answer she might have been able to dream up.
"Keep her here-I'll get it," Cody said.
"Well?" Cole asked as Cody walked to the door.
"Why didn't you contact us?" he asked. "Why did you chance going into that prison alone? How did you get into that prison alone?"
"I think Cody can answer that for you."
"I think you should answer the question for me, right now."
But before she could pretend to answer, she was suddenly swung about and pulled hard against his chest; he had a large, long-fingered hand clamped over her mouth.
She heard Martha Graybow speaking. "Cody, is everything all right? I saw you all come in, and then I noticed that you still have lights on. It's so late, and you fellows never came for your supper, so I was worried."
Martha. She should call out to Martha, and Martha could vouch for her. But then again, what good would that do? None-it could only do harm! Brendan Vincent was a diehard-if he knew that she knew Martha, he might decide that Martha was a Southern spy!
She held still and waited, tempted to bite Cole Granger's hand.
She somehow refrained.
If she were to bite him...
"Everything is fine, Martha, thank you. We did have a late night-you heard about the trouble at the prison. Well, it's all over now and we're just sitting with a bit of whiskey and winding down," Cody said.
"Oh, thank goodness. I do worry about you boys."
Martha, beautiful, sweet Martha. She hadn't wanted her husband to go off. She had known she would become a widow.
"Boys?" Cody said with a laugh. "I'll have to tell Brendan. He'd appreciate that."
"You young men!" Martha corrected.
"Thank you for your concern. We're fine. And we won't forget breakfast, Martha, I promise you."
The door closed. Megan gave a good hard kick backward, getting Cole Granger in the shin. He tensed but didn't let go.
"I don't think I like your sister much, Cody," he said, easing his hold then and pressing her firmly away.
She turned and stared at him, it was becoming increasingly difficult to remain calm in the face of this irritating man. "You don't know how lucky you are that I'm a temperate and reasonable woman," she said pleasantly.
"Oh, you can get worse than this?" Cole inquired.
But her temper had flared. She drew back her lips and let out a hissing sound, displaying the fangs she could summon within seconds. She felt they were really quite beautiful...not that that was the effect she was going for here.
"Holy, Jesus!" Brendan Vincent cried, jumping back.
Cole Granger held his ground.
"Don't make a move!" Cody warned.
She smiled sweetly, retracting her fangs. "If I'd wanted to hurt anyone here, Cody Fox, I could have bitten off the ever-so-charming Sheriff Granger's fingers just moments ago. Don't you get it? What is the matter with you? Why don't you believe me? I'm your sister-your half sister, your father's daughter!" she said, praying again for patience and control.
Brendan Vincent stared at Cody. "She could be any bloodsucking monster out there," he cautioned. "She could have found out things about you. God knows-there is a war going on. She could be here to kill us all in our sleep. I say we stake her right now."
"Now, now, hold up," Cole said, arms crossed over his chest as he walked around her. "She did fight with us at the prison. And look close. She and Cody have the same eyes."
"I'm not getting that close," Brendan said.
Cole smiled at that. "She could have killed us a few times already, if that had been her intent. Well, maybe she couldn't have killed Cody."
"Well, maybe you should have just staked her at the prison," Brendan muttered.
Cody had moved closer. Megan stood very still, watching him as he resurveyed her, head to toe. Admittedly, she wasn't particularly well dressed. One didn't pick one's finest ball gown for a romp with ravenous killing machines in a prison yard. She wore a simple tailored blouse, vest, form-hugging, knee-length jacket, men's breeches and boots.
But he wasn't looking at her attire, she knew.
His gaze rose at last so that his eyes met hers. Fire and ice. They were the same hazel and green color of his own, a color that seemed like gold. She wore it well. Her eyes were fascinating, compelling-mesmerizing. Or so her admirers had told her.
Cody touched her hair, drawing his fingers through it. Suddenly, he smiled. "Let me see those fangs again."
She flushed, looking at the others. "Cody, it makes your friends uncomfortable."
"My friends know exactly what I am. They just want you to be the same, and nothing worse."
She allowed her fangs to show once again.
Yes, she was half vampire. Go figure. Her father seemed to have a steady ability to propagate. It wasn't like all the things that she'd read about vampires, but then again, who really knew anything about them?
"What else did your mother say about my father?" Cody asked.
"It's really a long story...."
"A long story, Cody," Cole Granger spoke up from behind her brother, coming forward. "I personally find long stories wonderfully intriguing." To her astonishment, he paused, gripped her chin and looked into her mouth-at her receding fangs. He looked at her mouth and studied her teeth and fangs as if he were looking at the quality of a horse he was considering for purchase.
Oh, she was tempted to bite.
Oh, so tempted.
She restrained. He was pushing her. He knew that a bite wouldn't turn him into an uncontrolled maniac. Nor would a single bite kill him.
He was trying to see if she would snap-if she was capable of control.
She pretended boredom. And strangely, surprisingly, she discovered that she liked something about him....
It was his scent, she realized. He smelled of leather and musky soap, of the night air and of something more subtle and deep and alluring. Horses, whiskey...and himself.
God, she loved the smell of a man who had bathed. These days, it didn't seem there were many of those. God knew that many a man's uniform, worn day in and day out as the war dragged on, reeked to high heaven. Well, this fellow wasn't a soldier. He was a sheriff, in a town, with a house most likely.
"We are always ready to be entertained by a story, and yet I find myself wondering not about any story, but rather what thoughts are prowling through that little mind," Cole said.
She blinked. There was certainly no chance she intended to have a deep and philosophical discussion with this man.
No matter how delicious he smelled.
She smiled. "I was actually thinking, sir, that you smell quite good."
Cody burst out with a laugh.
Brendan even grinned. "Good thing you do enjoy lathering away in a tub, Cole."
She couldn't help herself. She allowed her smile to deepen. "Good enough to eat," she said sweetly.
She was surprised when Cody came to her defense, though he spoke too coldly. "Give it up. You're not going to bite anyone, rip anyone's throat out or devour their blood. Gentlemen, please do say hello to my sister. Oh, and please do return the use of her jaw back to her."
"How have you come to that determination?" Brendan asked. Cole hadn't even looked at Cody. He'd released her jaw, of course, but he was still studying her with those eyes of his, pure blue ice.
She almost flinched when Cody reached out to touch her, lifting a small strand of hair away from her neck. She had a tiny mark there. Not dark, but rather a light, tiny, almost heart-shaped birthmark.
"I bear the same mark," he said quietly.
"You do? Really? I never noticed it," Brendan said, frowning. "But then, I'd not have noticed it on the young lady if you hadn't pointed it out, and you wear your hair long around your ears, Cody, and-oh, my. Well. If you say you both have the same mark..." he finished lamely.
Cody had pulled his own hair back to prove the point.
Cole walked across the room, taking a seat at the piano bench. He folded his hands prayer fashion, in thought.
"Cole," Brendan said. "It appears the young lady is telling the truth."
Cody turned to look at him. "That's all?"
"Congratulations. You have a sister," Cole said. "That really solves nothing at all."
Cody grinned. "And that means...?"
"It means," he said with his long, deep drawl, "that we know she's your sister. Whether or not we can trust her? Well, that remains to be seen."