FEELING AT A LOSS as she wandered the boardinghouse, Alex decided this was a fine time to indulge in a long, hot bath in the kitchen tub. Beulah was a wonderful watchdog, keeping the room clear of anyone else, and Alex was so delighted to have the time to indulge that she delighted in the soap and shampoo until her skin pruned.
But after her bath she grew restless again. Cody hadn't come back, though Beulah said that Brendan had come by for his medical bag, assuring her it was for a minor situation, and that they had everything under control.
Alex helped with household chores for a little while, then wandered into the parlor and sat down at the piano.
She thought about the times she had come here and played for her father. Even as a child, she'd been gifted, or so her father had said. She'd never parlayed her talent into a performing career, but she had discovered that she loved to teach, and had done her best to infuse her own love of music into children, and even the occasional adult, she had taken on as students in D.C.
But as much as she loved playing, and as passionate as she usually felt about music, today her etudes and sonatas fell flat on her ears. She switched to battle songs, and let her pent-up energy and anger run through her fingers onto the keys. When she at last grew weary and restless, she turned to see that the household had gathered behind her to listen. Only Levy was absent.
Her little audience clapped for her-just as they had done whenever her father had dragged them in to listen to her.
She stood, thanking them. "Where's Levy?" she asked.
"Target practice," Beulah said, then gave Bert's shoulder a swat with her dust cloth. "Let's get back to work. Soon enough Victory is going to be booming again, and we need to be ready."
As they left, Alex smiled. She wasn't sure that Victory, Texas, had ever actually "boomed."
Beulah might have been a mind reader. She suddenly stuck her head back inside the room and said, "You mark my words-that war will end, and displaced people will be heading West. Victory is destined to boom-if we can just keep it alive long enough."
After Beulah disappeared, Alex ran her fingers over the keys again and then rose. She couldn't stand being housebound. She had no intention of behaving foolishly, but it was broad daylight, and she couldn't bear the thought of being locked away from the sun. And not even Cody had suggested that everyone stay locked up by day.
She wondered what was going on down at the jail that was still keeping him busy.
Just as she started from the room, Bert came in. "Someone to see you, Miss Alex."
"An old friend."
She walked out to the entry, and there, standing straight and unwavering, not a glimmer of expression in his eyes to give away the reason for his visit, was Chief Tall Feather. Behind him stood two of his warriors.
"Chief Tall Feather," she said welcomingly, then walked over to him, and, despite the fact that he was standing so stiffly, she hugged him, just as she'd done since the first time she'd met him as a child.
She felt him soften as he held her briefly in return, before drawing away.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, looking past him to smile at his companions. "I thought you hated coming into town?"
"I had to see you," he said.
"Well, you're always welcome. What can I get you? I know you like coffee, and Beulah made some wonderful muffins this morning."
She saw one of the young warriors cast a hopeful glance, quickly concealed, in Tall Feather's direction. She took the chief's arm. "Please, come on back to the kitchen."
He went with her, saying something to his companions in swift Apache that Alex couldn't follow, but they, too, headed for the kitchen.
To Beulah's delight, they made swift work of the muffins. Then Tall Feather spoke to the warriors again, and they nodded gravely and went out to the front porch, apparently intending to stand sentinel until Tall Feather was ready to leave.
Alex led Tall Feather to the parlor so they could discuss the reason for his visit in private. There, seated in comfortable brocade chairs, the coffee service on a small table between them, Tall Feather at last seemed to relax.
"I'm delighted to see you here," Alex said. "My father valued your friendship, and you've always been like an uncle to me."
The chief let out a sigh. "I know there are those who claim that I or my men killed him, or perhaps a band of rogue Apache, but I have come to tell you that we loved him. We called him Thinking Owl, and we would never have done harm to your father."
She set a hand on his. "I know that. I never believed such tales. And now, I'm afraid, we know what kind of monster did kill my father."
Tall Feather looked away for a moment, and though he rarely betrayed emotion, she could tell that something was hurting him almost unbearably now.
"I have lost both a child and the fine warrior who loved her," he said.
"I'm so sorry."
He met her eyes then, his expression intense. "You must never go out at night," he said. "And you must believe what Cody Fox tells you. I have seen, and I know."
She nodded. "I'll be very careful. I swear."
"Good. Then I will leave you. I look forward to the time when you will come to us again. Head Woman is anxious to see you, as are all who know you."
"Soon," she promised him.
He rose, and she followed suit. As they walked to the front door, she asked him, "Have you seen John Snow and his family recently? I know the sheriff went out to his place, but so much was happening here that I never got the chance to ask if everything was all right."
"I haven't been there, but John Snow is no fool. Still, perhaps he needs to be warned of the danger. Talk to your new friends. Perhaps they should visit him."
"I'll do that, Tall Feather. I promise."
He left, and after she watched him and his warriors disappear down Main Street, she realized she could no longer stand to stay in the house.
It was time to get to know her stepmother.
THE CEMETERY WASN'T EVEN a mile from the town, inland from the river on high ground, and it rarely saw any excitement.
But when they arrived later that morning, it was obvious that something had been going on.
Staring at the cemetery with its poor wooden crosses and the scrub that passed for ornamentation, Cody felt a sense of dismay. Several graves looked as if they had been dug up again mere hours ago. And Amy Simpson's was one.
"Cody, over here."
Cody turned to see what Brendan was referring to and saw the scattered remains of a half-dozen small animals.
Some had been...gnawed down to the bone. Others were freshly decaying.
"What is it?" Cole asked, coming forward to join them.
"Milo is being...selective," Cody said, indicating the disturbed graves. "Bringing those he chooses into his fold, allowing them to join the band, if you will. When his chosen few awaken here, they do so with a hunger that burns inside them so fiercely that they can't stand it, but they don't know how to hunt. They have to learn. They might have devoured any innocent soul walking out here at night, but luckily, that hasn't happened-yet. When the dead awaken, they're disoriented. They start feeding on small animals, but they're afraid, so they either stay close to their graves or go looking for where they used to live. Evidently Amy has been wandering home, crying out for her mother. She was a child when she was taken, so she believes her mother can help her."
"Lord," Cole said softly. "Amy was a beautiful little girl. Sweet as sunshine. It broke her folks' hearts when she died. So how...how did he get to her?" he asked.
"I don't know. When we're done here, Brendan and I will pay a call on the Simpsons and see what we can find out," Cody said.
"Well, then, let's get started," Brendan suggested.
"Yes," Cody said. "Looks like we've got five of these things to deal with, so let's each take one and get this over with. I want to finish this business while the sun is high."
The disturbed graves were scattered, so Brendan headed to the west side of the cemetery, Cody to the south, and Dave and Cole toward the center.
Cody started digging. As he had expected, the earth was soft, and it wasn't difficult getting down to the coffin. He lifted the lid, which wasn't difficult, either. The seals had already been broken.
He found himself staring down at the face of an elderly man. He looked as if he had just died, and been laid out for his viewing. Cody could see why people had assumed the man had died of natural causes; he must have been over ninety. The rudimentary etching on the stone at the head of his grave read "Arthur Connelly, Revolutionary War, a True Hero."
At least the man had lived a long life after having fought for his country's independence, Cody thought as he reached for his stake and hammer.
Now the man would have his soul returned, as well.
He drove the stake into the man's heart. Arthur Connelly's eyes opened for a split second but never even had a chance to focus. The creature didn't cry out, only closed his eyes and began to decay.
Cody felt numb as he leaped out of the grave and closed the coffin.
Brendan's voice wasn't loud, but it still managed to sound urgent.
Cody stared in the direction Brendan indicated. Cole Granger had finished digging out Amy's grave and opening her coffin, but he clearly hadn't been prepared for what he had to do.
The sheriff was down in the dark earth with Amy and had taken the little girl into his arms.
Cody looked up to the sky. Old vampires could function in sunlight, though they weren't at their most powerful and were far more vulnerable than in the dark. But they could still rip out the throat of an unwary soul. Amy was a new vampire, but she had been made by one of the most powerful vampires Cody had encountered to date, so...
"Cole!" Cody shouted, and raced across the graveyard.
"She's so precious," Cole said, holding her as if to defend her from Cody. "Couldn't there have been a mistake? Maybe...she was buried alive and somehow managed to crawl her way out. Maybe-"
"Cole!" Cody yelled again.
Amy had awakened. Blue eyes instantly took on a burning red cast, and a look of vicious pleasure curved her lips. She started to draw them back, revealing her fangs.
Cody leaped down into the grave, ripping the girl from Cole's arms. Then he threw her down, pinning her with his foot, realizing suddenly that his stake and hammer were at the other grave. The girl thrashed with surprising power beneath him.
He turned. Brendan was hurling a stake in his direction. Cody caught it and slammed it into the girl's chest with all his might.
Little Amy Simpson went still at last.
Cole stared down at her with horror, then turned to Cody, his eyes wide with horror. "Sweet Jesus, this is all for real."
Cody gripped the sheriff by the shoulders. "You're a good man, Cole. You don't want to see evil in what was once innocent, but this is turning into an epidemic. You can't let them trick you, can't let your heart take over from your mind. This is going to be hard on you, because-you know all these people. But God help me, Sheriff, I don't want to be staking you, but if I have to? I won't hesitate." He met Cole's eyes and held the stare until the other man stiffened. "This can't happen again."
Cole stared back at him, green eyes flashing. "It won't. I'm the sheriff, and I know my business, but you'll have to forgive me for finding it hard to stake a child in the heart. You may have nothing but ice in your veins, but that was a child I knew."
Cody nodded. Cole Granger was as tightly wound as a piano wire, and his jaw was locked hard.
It was like the first time the friend next to you on a battle line was suddenly blown to bits, Cody thought. You'd have to be made of stone to take it in stride.
Cole bent down and severed Amy's head. Proving his point, Cody thought, and looked down at his boots, wincing. He shouldn't have allowed Cole to be the one to dig up Amy's grave.
No, maybe it was better this way. Now Cole would be prepared for anything. And anything just might come their way.
"Oh, hell!" Dave suddenly cried out.
He was standing by the last of the disturbed graves and looking over at them with his face a sickly shade of green.
"What is it?" Cole demanded, leaping out of Amy's grave and rushing toward his deputy, though he looked as if he'd been run over by an entire wagon train himself.
Dave didn't answer, so Cody walked over to join the two men.
The customary wooden cross had been erected over the grave, along with a stone marker-in this case a large rock, probably dredged up from the river-with crude writing on it.
Cody looked down at the grave marker, and his heart sank when he saw the name scratched on the stone.
Eugene Alexander Gordon.
And below that:
Beloved Father, Best Friend and Philosopher
Dearly Missed, But God and His Angels
Shall Shelter Such a Man
Cody nodded. "Let's hurry this up and get things over with."
They worked together to quickly widen the hole, and then Cody jumped down to stand beside the coffin.
The seal was broken, as he'd expected.
He threw open the lid and was hit by an almost physical wave of shock.
The coffin was empty.
A LEX DIDN'T EVEN CONSIDER telling Beulah where she was going. The other woman wouldn't have been happy about her visiting the saloon, stepmother or not.
It was past midday, but as she entered the room and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, it seemed to her that both the dining area and bar were empty, very strange for that time of day. Jigs was not at the piano, and none of the girls were around.
Suddenly a head popped up from behind the bar. It belonged to Roscoe Sheen, the bartender. He had been there for as long as she could remember.
Except that he hadn't been around the other night.
"Roscoe," Alex said, trying to cover the fear that had jolted through her at his abrupt appearance.
"Why, Miss Alex. I heard you'd come home. Welcome home." Roscoe was old, tawny-colored and strong. She was pretty sure that he was a mix of every race known to man. He had a broad smile and kind eyes, and he worked the bar so Gerald Sweeney, who owned the place, could spend his time "auditioning" the girls.
Roscoe came out from around the bar and shook her hand, but she stepped back as soon as she could. "Good to see you, Roscoe. I've been in here twice since I got back, but I hadn't seen you yet."
He didn't blush or look away. "I wasn't here the night the outlaws came. I was out at my daughter's farm for a few days. Just got back in town this afternoon." He scuffed his shoe along the floor. "I heard about the town meeting, and I have to say, all this talk of vampires sounds plumb crazy to me. But I'm fond of living and willing to do whatever it takes to keep this place afloat, on account of I'm hoping to buy it from Sweeney one of these days." He rolled up one of his sleeves. "As glad as I am to see you, Alex, I don't think you came over here to have a chat with me. What's up?"
"I heard my father's widow works here," she said.
Roscoe's smile froze in place. "Linda."
"Right. And I'd very much like to meet her."
"Hey, honey! Good to see you," someone called from the upstairs railing. Alex looked up as Sherry Lyn, the tall brunette who had been there for years, waved down to her.
Sherry Lyn had evidently just woken up. She was in short silk pajamas that revealed the shapely length of her legs and had thrown a feathery robe around her shoulders. Clearly she didn't much care who saw what part of her anatomy.
"Hi, Sherry Lyn," she said.
"What are you doing here?" the other woman asked.
"She came to meet Linda," Roscoe answered for her.
"That makes sense," Sherry Lyn said, still staring down at Alex.
"Is she here? I saw her last night, but I didn't find out who she was till after we'd left."
"I think she's around," Sherry Lyn said, shrugging. "I don't rightly know for sure. We've all taken to locking our doors after...after our gentlemen callers have left," she said. "Come on up. I'll show you to Linda's room."
"Thank you," Alex said. She had been in the saloon several times before, but she'd never climbed the stairs to the quarters where the fancy ladies conducted their business, and she felt awkward and just a little bit excited to be doing so now.
"Come on, sugar," Sherry Lyn said, smiling broadly, and for a moment it was as if she'd become a young and mischievous girl once again. "We don't bite, Alex, you know that." She frowned. "Sorry. Bad choice of words."
Alex shook her head and smiled, wondering why, if her father had to fall in love with one of the girls at the saloon, it couldn't have been Sherry Lyn. The brunette had a gentle soul. She'd once used her savings to help out a young man from a nearby ranch, and people had speculated that they might marry.
But Alex had heard that he'd gone off to war and hadn't come back. Not even in a box. His remains were lying somewhere in Northern Virginia.
Sherry Lyn shivered when Alex reached her. "Vampires...Do you really think Milo is a vampire? I mean, trust me, honey, you don't need to be a vampire to be a monster. I've met my share of folks through the years, and I've known some real monsters who were pure human."
"I believe you," Alex told her.
"Right there, honey. That's Linda's door," Sherry Lyn said, then knocked loudly on it.
A voice responded imperiously, "Yes? What is it?"
"Visitor for you, Linda," Sherry Lyn said.
"I don't receive visitors at this time of day," Linda called back.
"It's your stepdaughter," Sherry Lyn said dryly.
A second passed, and then the door flew open. Linda ignored Sherry Lyn and stared at Alex, then smiled slowly.
"I'll leave you two to get acquainted," Sherry Lyn said.
Alex murmured a thank-you as the other woman walked away with a swish of silk.
Linda was attractive, she had to admit. Older, like Sherry Lyn, but tall, shapely, and with a handsome, character-filled face. Alex wasn't certain that Linda would ever be considered beautiful, but, beyond a doubt, she was interesting.
"So you're Eugene's daughter, come home from the big city," Linda said, standing in the door of her darkened room, the only light sifting past the edges of the heavy damask drapes. Like Sherry Lyn, she was dressed in a robe, hers decorated with pink-dyed plumage, and very little else. She didn't seem the least bit embarrassed about her skimpy attire, either, as she flung out an arm dramatically and said, "Come on in, have a seat."
The only possibilities were Linda's bed-quite rumpled-and the chair sitting in front of her dressing table.
Alex chose the chair.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to impose, or to arrive too early," Alex said.
Linda sat on the bed. "I've always been a late riser-always. I've hated mornings for as long as I can remember. But then, my mother was a whore. I was born in a whorehouse just outside of Dallas, and I've always kept whores' hours. I managed to get some education because my father was in the city government, and paying my mother kept her from telling his wife about me."
"I see," Alex said.
"Oh, I doubt if you see anything at all-no offense." She looked up at the ceiling for a moment. "Your father was quite a man. I can only imagine what it was like, growing up as his child, in a world filled with respect."
"Did you love my father?" Alex asked, deciding that the other woman's bluntness gave her carte blanche to be equally blunt.
"Did I love Eugene?" Linda repeated. "Yes. Does that make you happy? I mean, you can hardly be angry that he married. He left an ironclad will. The house is yours. His effects are yours. He did leave me a little money, though. He wanted me to choose a different lifestyle," she said with a sad smile.
"Did he not leave you enough?" Alex asked. "He left me the boardinghouse, but surely you know, as he would have, that I'd be happy if you made it your home."
Linda laughed, but not unpleasantly. She actually reached out and stroked Alex's face. "You truly are his child. So earnest and compassionate. Alexandra, your father left me enough money to make a choice, and I've made my choice. While he was alive and we were together, I did my best to live the life your father chose. But he's gone now, and though you may not understand it, I like this life, Alex. I like men. While your father was alive, I was content with him. But I have no intention of being an upright and lonely widow, trying to fit in with the so-called decent folk, all the while knowing they're talking about me behind my back."
"Linda, I would never let anyone-"
Linda burst into laughter, then sobered quickly. "I'm so sorry-I know you mean well. And I see that you are outraged by injustice, just like your father. Thing is, I'm reckoning the North will win this war and laws will change, but not people. It takes decades for people to change. And you know what? They may accept white, black, any religion, Northerner, Southerner-but the world is never going to accept whores into the ranks of decent folks. My time with your father was good, but it's over and I've made my choice. But I thank you, and I'm glad to have met you."
Alex stood up. "I'm glad to have met you, too. And if I can ever do anything..."
"Thank you, but you go on now. This isn't a fit place for you to be."
"Just remember that you're welcome at the boardinghouse anytime."
Linda nodded, and Alex decided she had gone as far as she could go. She hadn't much liked the woman the night before, but now she was far more impressed. And happy. At least she felt that her father had enjoyed Linda's companionship-and, though she certainly didn't want to dwell on it, Linda's sensuality-during his last days.
But how the hell had he died?
The door to the boardinghouse was locked when she got back, but she had brought her key and let herself in.
The house was quiet. She could hear the old grandfather clock in the parlor ticking away the time, but nothing else.
"Beulah? Bert?" she called as she made her way to the back of the house and into the kitchen.
"Oh!" she exclaimed.
The bathtub was occupied once again.
Cody Fox was staring at her. His head leaned easily back against the wooden rim, and his knees were bent, allowing his long frame to fit within the confines of the tub.
The heat of the water created a rising mist of steam around him.
His flesh was deeply bronzed and sleek. Moisture shone on the muscled contours of his chest and arms.
She should have apologized for her error, and backed away, but she didn't. Couldn't. She simply stood there, staring, her mouth frozen in an O.
He stared at her, then smiled slowly and said, "I gather you're enjoying the view. In any case, this is your house, after all, so please do come on in. Don't mind me."
She knew he expected her to blush and go running. Well, it wasn't going to happen. Something about his superior tone really irritated her. He'd enjoyed taunting her this morning, making her wonder just exactly what had occurred during the night, and now it was her turn to make him sweat.
She wasn't easily cowed. After all, she had just paid a visit to the whorehouse.
She shut her mouth and sauntered on in, taking a glass from the cabinet and setting it down while she primed the pump over the sink. "Mr. Fox, I hope you'll excuse me for saying so, but you do seem fond of flattering yourself. I can't say I'm all that interested in your...natural state."
She filled her glass and turned casually, leaning back against the counter and staring at him with casual disinterest. "I trust you had a good day?"
His smile seemed sad for a moment. "I believe we're moving in the right direction, yes."
She grew serious herself, frowning. "How do we make a move in the right direction? Help will never come from anywhere else. And Milo Roundtree and his group of...of vampires will be back, won't they?"
"Yes, eventually, they will."
"So how on earth do we ever stop them?" she asked.
"Perhaps, my dear Miss Gordon, you'd be kind enough to pass me a towel," Cody said.
She saw the towel Beulah had apparently left for him, lying on the table. She reached for it and handed it to him, trying not to look down and to keep her gaze casual.
She wished that her heart weren't beating quite so hard. Or that she didn't feel so tempted not only to look at him but to touch the sleekness of his skin.
Honestly, it was his eyes, she thought, that she'd first found so arresting. And then, of course, the lean contours of his face, the strength of his jaw. And she found his grin charming, despite herself. Not to mention that he was strong and brave and had twice saved her life.
His muscles rippled as he rose, discreetly wrapping the towel around his waist as he did so.
She was unsurprised to see that her assessment had been completely correct. He was a handsome man, deeply tanned, tall and ruggedly muscled.
And she was standing too close.
Far too close.
Not to mention that she slept far too near him...
Suddenly she was overwhelmed by longing. She wanted to be held by him, and she wanted...more.
But just what "more" consisted of, she wasn't sure. She barely knew him, and yet she had never met anyone-even her fiance-who fascinated and compelled her more.
"Excuse me," she said, her tone as dignified as she could make it. "Please excuse my intrusion. I'll leave you alone to dress."
With those words, she mustered her pride and departed at last. As she walked out, she was afraid that she would hear him laughing at her.
She was relieved when she didn't.
And somehow she knew that he watched her until she shut the door and he couldn't see her anymore.