"HERE, HERE, NOW!" Cole roared out above the din in the saloon.
Alex, sitting in the front row, sat back and sighed. Cole was getting irritated, while Cody, standing beside him, remained impassive.
It was just as Cody had expected. Half the town already believed that something evil and beyond anything they had ever thought of as normal was going on.
The other half thought the first half was crazy.
She saw Jim Green, the photographer and undertaker, who had insisted Cody lop the head off the corpse the night before, sitting quietly, as if oblivious to the commotion going on around him. Others, men and women, husbands and wives, friends, associates, and would-be lovers, were all arguing with one another at the tops of their voices.
"I suggest you all shut up and listen," Cody said suddenly. He didn't shout, but his voice rose above the sound of the crowd. "Your lives are at stake."
Silence fell. People stopped speaking and stared at him as if they'd been frozen in place. It would have been comical if the situation hadn't been so dire.
Of course, the whole meeting had been bizarre from the onset. It was taking place in the saloon-the brothel. Most of the women, the "ladies" of the town, were respectfully garbed, many in homespun cotton, their necklines high, shawls around their shoulders against the evening chill. The saloon girls, however, were in their working attire: dance hall dresses, plumed hats and very, very low decolletage. One woman-a blonde Alex hadn't met yet, a bit older than the others-was obviously wearing nothing more than a corset and garter belt beneath the velvet robe she had wrapped loosely around herself.
"The Yankees brought this down on us!" someone yelled. "They couldn't beat the Southern boys, so they came up with this instead...."
Cody's look changed to one of such incredulity that the room fell silent again. "The Yankees did not bring this down on us. But since there is a war in progress, and Texas is a Southern state, we have to realize that there will be no U.S. troops rushing down to help us, and the Confederacy hasn't a man to spare. But that doesn't matter. Whether you want to believe my words or not, I suggest you listen to what I have to say. Learn how to fight what we're up against. Never invite a stranger into your place-and be careful even when inviting friends in. Beware of changes in people's behavior, and above all, beware of dreams. Loved ones may come to you, trying to coax you out in the open. Don't go. Fortify your houses with garlic and crosses. And remember-"
"Are you saying those bandits are...vampires?" someone interrupted suddenly. Alex looked around the room and saw that it was the blonde in the robe she had noticed before.
"Not all of them, but I believe that, yes, some are. Vampires need the help of the living, because they are weak by day. They draw their strength from darkness and shadows and, of course, the blood of the living," Cody said.
The uproar started all over again.
Cody continued to speak, his voice once again ringing loud and clear above the din. "Bullets will wound them, but not kill them. To destroy this enemy, sever the head, and either impale the heart or cut it out."
Mrs. Madry, a widow who ran a small dress and tailor shop on the main street, cried out-and then swooned.
The men rushed around her.
But not one of them chastised Cody for indelicate speech.
"Lock your houses at night," he went on. "Stay in after dark. Hone stakes and keep them nearby so you're prepared for an attack. You can make stakes out of broom handles, rake handles, anything wooden. Gentlemen, practice your archery. Solid, sharp-tipped arrows well aimed can maim and even kill. Holy water-should you have any-is a premier weapon. It scalds and blisters the vampire's skin. If a known vampire doesn't react, that means he-or she," he added, his experience in New Orleans still fresh in his mind, "hasn't yet crossed the divide. It means he hasn't yet died and returned, and that there is a chance for his salvation."
The blond saloon girl spoke again.
"Is there any such thing as a good vampire?" she asked sweetly.
To Alex's surprise, Cody hesitated. "Not that I've come across," he said at last. "Certainly not Milo and his gang. It's a question I can't really answer, but for now, remember Brigsby and Hollow Tree. We all have to assume that anyone bearing the taint of vampirism is evil, and out to devour everyone around them." He paused and stared from person to person around the room.
"It's night now, and while you're all welcome to ponder my words, to believe or disbelieve everything I've said, whatever else you do, lock your doors-and prepare to fight."
He nodded to Cole, then walked toward the back of the room, where Brendan was leaning against the wall near the door-as if standing sentinel, ensuring that only those who'd been invited could enter.
"That's it, folks," Cole said. "Either Deputy Hinton or I will be in town at all times. Tomorrow we'll all start practicing our archery and taking shifts patrolling the streets in pairs. I'll have a schedule drawn up by ten."
The blonde stood. "What do you think about this ridiculous theory about vampires, Sheriff?" she asked.
"I think that Cody Fox and Brendan Vincent were the salvation of this town last night, and I'm willing to follow their directions until proved wrong," Cole said.
Alex found her eyes straying to the back of the room and Cody Fox. He was far too lean and rugged-looking to be considered beautiful, she thought. And yet, in her eyes, he was. His beauty was in his stance, his strength of character and his eyes, golden and hypnotic.
Too bad he was crazy.
She looked away.
She remembered peering into the mortuary last night, seeing the head of the dead man.
She felt numb. She didn't know what she believed. She herself had been arrested because of her visions. Most people didn't believe in visions any more than they did in vampires.
She wished she could have a vision now. See the future, see...salvation. Or...
Beulah was coming for her, with Bert keeping pace at her side.
"Come on, Miss Alex," the older woman said. "We're going to get inside right now and lock up, just like Cody said to. It may be a boardinghouse-but we're not letting any strangers in tonight, no sirree."
Alex rose to accompany her. At the door they met up with Levy, Jewell, Tess-and Cody and Brendan.
"Come on, all together now," Beulah said firmly.
"Yes, ma'am," Brendan said, grinning and tipping his hat to her.
As they walked, Alex caught Beulah's arm and leaned close to ask, "Who was that, Beulah? The blonde who kept speaking?"
Beulah started. "Oh, child, that's right. You don't know."
"Don't know what? Who is she?"
"That's your step-ma, Alex. Mrs. Linda Gordon. Looks like she made it back into town-and the saloon-just in time for the town meeting."
"THINK IT WAS TOO SOON?" Brendan asked Cody as they sat alone in the dining room. Having secured the boardinghouse for the night, they were sipping Beulah's coffee, laced with good shots of whiskey.
"Probably," Cody said, "but after today...Tall Feather is an Apache, and they believe in a ghost world, but even he didn't know how to prevent that young warrior from coming back to take his daughter. Now he will. Next time the townspeople here will conduct a more organized battle when Milo roars into town. Trouble is, we both know that there may be...folks out there who are tainted. Friends and relatives from those other towns who may be able to infiltrate here. Not everyone believes what I said tonight, but at least those who do will be on the lookout."
Brendan turned away, nodding, and Cody winced. They were here because Brendan hailed from Hollow Tree.
"I'm sorry," Cody said.
Brendan's jaw tightened, but he nodded, and turned back.
"We'll stop it. We'll put an end to it." He shook his head. "I'm not even looking for revenge. I simply want justice, and a return to a world of sanity." He let out a long sigh. "There's been too much insanity. This war...I joined up with the Union because I thought it was the right thing, even though I was from the South. Sorry-I know you're a Reb."
Cody shook his head ruefully. "I'm done with war, that's what I am. I grew up in a city where there were free men of every color, and good and bad doesn't have anything to do with the color of someone's skin. Slavery is wrong, no matter how you look at it. States' rights to make choices, well, that's another issue. It doesn't matter to me, though, because I was telling the truth when I said I'm done with war. I went to Harvard, I'm a doctor. I'd like to get into healing again, rather than killing. But...I guess we have to save folks before we can heal them."
He rose, gave Brendan a squeeze on the shoulder and started for the stairs. He had a feeling that Brendan needed some time alone.
Cody went on up the stairs feeling exhausted. It had been a long day. And a perplexing one. His mother had lived in Victory-or on her property not far from town, anyway-years ago, and then something had happened. She had always called it the night of the wolves.
But he knew-or at least he was pretty damned sure-what had happened.
So why had so many years gone by before things had gotten to this point, where whole towns were being attacked and wiped off the map?
As he neared the second landing, he felt a change in the air. Subtle, but there. He hesitated. He might be wrong.
But this wasn't the time to take chances.
He strode down the hall and threw open Alex Gordon's bedroom door.
The French doors to the balcony were open, the curtains billowing inward with the breeze. Alex, clad in a shimmering white nightgown, was standing out on the balcony. The night air lifted the gown so that it danced around her ankles, then fell back to hug her body. Her hair waved softly behind her, glowing in the moonlight.
He went to her as quickly and quietly as he could, then stopped behind her. Just then she lifted her arms, as if embracing the wind or perhaps something she saw within it, whatever power of matter and mind that was calling to her.
He was just in time.
"Alex!" he said sharply.
She didn't even seem to hear him.
He slipped his arms around her, pulling her back. She was compliant, as if she had no strength left, as he lifted her into his arms, then closed the doors carefully, rearranging the strings of garlic around them.
Garlic couldn't keep her inside, and it didn't even work to keep all vampires out, being most effective against the young.
But something told him it was no young vampire coming after Alexandra Gordon, though from what Brendan had told him and what he'd seen the other night, Milo did like to send his underlings to carry out his orders. Especially if he sensed danger to himself.
He carried Alex to her bed and laid her down. Her eyes were open, though still a little glassy. She smiled at him, a beautiful, full-blown, seductive smile. Irresistibly erotic. She squirmed on the bed, arching her back, thrusting her hips.
Her gown was far too thin.
And then she wrapped her arms around him.
Her eyes were open, but she was in a trance of some sort, he thought. Hypnotized, seduced-definitely not awake and conscious and acting of her own free will.
And her arms were still around him.
Tempting, so tempting...
"Alex, go to sleep," he said.
Her arms tightened and she drew him downward. He tried to keep his balance, but as he braced himself, his hand brushed her skin, and then her breast. He was made of flesh and blood, just like any man, and a jolt went through him, wicked lightning, an arousal like nothing he had felt in years...or maybe forever.
He straightened quickly. He was who he was, and he was on a mission. And if she couldn't accept the truth he told her about others-she was certainly never going to understand who he was.
What he was.
Swallowing hard, clenching his jaw, he straightened. "Alex, you need to sleep. I'll be right next door to keep you safe."
He made it to the foot of the bed, then paused, looking down at her. Her eyes had closed. The strength of his will had penetrated her mind. In this, at least, he was more powerful than Milo.
He couldn't help but linger for a moment. She looked like a princess from some fairy tale, caught in the pale moonlight that sifted through the fabric of the drapes. Her hair was strewn about the pillow, and though her expression was angelic, her body, every curve outlined by the delicate white fabric of her nightgown, was anything but.
He turned away and opened the connecting door to his own room. After a long last look, he stepped through and lay down, fully clothed, on his own mattress. When at last he slept, it was only lightly. True, he needed rest.
But he needed to listen more.
Alex believed that she was strong. And she was a fighter, beyond a doubt. She just didn't yet know how to fight a battle that had been begun without her knowledge against an enemy she didn't even believe in.
A LEX AWOKE WITH THE oddest feeling. As if she had been...active during the night.
She sat up, looking around the room.
The garlic strands were in place, the curtains hanging undisturbed. The French doors were closed-but then, she had seen to it herself that they were closed and locked.
She rose, stretched, and then noticed her feet.
They had been clean when she'd gone to bed. And now...
She lifted her right foot. It wasn't filthy-not as if she had been walking out in the garden. But there was dirt on it, and she never went to bed with dirt on her feet, because-she hated to get it on her sheets.
A sense of dread filled her, along with a full body blush as someone knocked on the connecting door to the next room.
It could only be one person.
She dived toward the trunk at the foot of her bed and the dressing gown that lay there. She slipped the gown around her shoulders just as he called out to her, his voice holding an edge of anxiety.
She smoothed her hair back as the door opened and stared at him, wondering just what had gone on during the night.
Her dream hadn't been a dream. It had been a vision. But visions were always of what might be. They were a warning, and the future could still be changed.
Had it changed?
"We have to talk," he told her gently.
He took a seat at her dressing table, staring at her. "I'm truly sorry if I was harsh with you yesterday. I was frightened."
"You? Frightened? I don't believe you. I don't believe you're ever frightened," she said.
He smiled. "Am I afraid of death? Not particularly, though I do love living. And am I afraid of facing my enemies? No, because an enemy must always be faced or the battle is lost before it begins. But I can be afraid, I assure you."
She was still for a moment, and then nodded. "All right, apology accepted. I suppose I might have been a bit hostile in return."
She lowered her eyes but allowed herself a careful smile as she sat at the foot of the bed to face him.
"Do you know what happened last night?" he asked her gravely.
She felt as if her stomach were falling to the floor.
Oh, dear God, no!
She looked up at him with dread. He was waiting for her to speak. "I-I might have an idea. I-" She broke off, wincing. "I sometimes...have visions of...things that will happen, might happen. I was arrested once because of them. Although, I met President Lincoln because of that, and he's a wonderful man. I feel so sorry for his wife, though. She's-"
"Alex," he interrupted softly.
She blushed and stopped talking. She didn't normally babble, but she certainly was babbling now. She forced herself back on topic.
"I have an idea, and it has something to do with what you were saying at the town meeting. I confess, I'm not sure I believed you then, or maybe even now, and I don't remember anything that happened last night after I went to bed. But the vision I had before...it was beautiful. The night was so perfect. I got up and went out on the balcony, as if someone had entered my mind the way you said...they could, and even though all I was doing was standing there, I felt as if I were being caressed, as if I were somehow being...I don't know, cradled, cared for...I can't really explain." She paused and saw that he was watching her gravely. She couldn't tell if he believed her, but at least he wasn't mocking her.
"Then you were there," she said. "You drew me back into the bedroom, and you told me to go to sleep."
"You can't let him into your dreams, or your conscious mind, either," he said.
"I...never meant to. And by him...you mean Milo?"
"Yes, that's who I believe is behind all of this."
She let out another breath, looking downward once again. "So you...saved me from him last night?"
"Yes," he said calmly.
"My pleasure. Truly."
The intensity with which he said it scared her a little. She looked up at him again quickly and cleared her throat.
"You, um, brought me in and told me to go to sleep, right? And...I did."
The slow grin that teased his lips was genuinely charming, and yet it made her want to smack him. She realized immediately that he wasn't going to give her a straight answer.
He wanted to see her squirm a bit.
Surely that meant that everything that had happened was innocent, didn't it?
"Yes, you slept," he said. "After the incident, of course."
"I mean, I didn't...you didn't..."
"Didn't what?" he asked innocently, but then he turned serious. "Here's the thing that you need to think about, and I hope it scares you, because it should. He was out there somewhere. His power was working. You were his for the taking. You would have done anything he told you to do. Anything. The only reason you are still here and still you is because I found you and brought you back inside before he could take full control of you."
Alex crossed her arms defensively over her chest. "I understand. And I am afraid. I need...I need you to teach me how to be strong."
"You already know how," he said. "You're already strong, and now that you've seen and you believe, your mind will take over and fight. You'll be all right. And I'll be here to make sure of it."
She blushed again, looking away. "But-"
He rose, cutting her off. "I'll let you get dressed. I'm afraid it's going to be another long day."
He started for the connecting door. He was already dressed-down to the gun belt riding low on his hips and the railroad duster that discreetly held a variety of weapons.
And he was smirking.
"Bastard," she told him.
His smile broadened, and he left her.
BEULAH HAD SET UP BREAKFAST in the kitchen, and everyone sat down to eat together. The meal started off grimly, with everyone focused on the dangers they had escaped in the night and those that were yet to come.
But Jewell and Tess were too full of life to stay de pressed for long, and they quickly grew flirtatious and silly. Beulah looked on like a proud mother, Bert shook his head in wonder at the craziness, and even Levy smiled now and then.
Poor Levy, Cody thought. He still looked like a haunted man.
At one point Cody glanced over and met the stable man's eyes.
"You doing okay?" he asked.
Levy nodded and straightened his shoulders. "I'm going to practice my archery today. I never was much of a shot with a gun, but when I was a boy, we actually hunted with bows and arrows. I was decent as a child, and now I'm going to learn to aim true."
"Good for you," Cody said. "I'm sure you'll do fine."
He smiled at Levy, who trembled slightly but managed to smile back.
It was while they were all sipping the last of their coffee that the knock came at the front door.
Every one of them froze, and Cody thought they were all a lot more spooked than he had imagined.
"I'll go," he said.
He strode down the hallway, looking through the glass pane in the top of the door before opening it.
"Dave," Cody said. "Come on in. We're just finishing our coffee."
"Can't come in, Cody," Dave said. "Sheriff Granger needs you over at the jail."
"You've got someone in jail?" Cody asked.
Dave shook his head. "Sorry, I mean the office. No one in jail. Not even the usual drunks. But Dolores Simpson is there, with her husband, and she's acting weird, and he's upset, and...well, you've got to come. I just don't know how to tell this story."
"Just give me a minute to tell the others where I'm going," Cody said, and turned to walk back to the kitchen, then stopped short. The others had followed him en masse and were hovering just a few feet away.
"Brendan, would you come with me? Everyone else, please go about your lives normally. Just be careful who you let into the boardinghouse, and make sure you're inside by sunset." He stared at Alex, who blushed prettily, but nodded.
"Who is Dolores Simpson?" Cody asked as he and Brendan accompanied Dave down the street.
"She and her husband, Bill, have one of the larger farms, just a few miles outside town. They've taken in orphaned children for years, not to mention they've had just about a litter of their own. One of their daughters died recently-consumption, we're pretty sure. She didn't come out once her folks decided they knew what was ailing her."
They had reached the door of the sheriff's office, and Cody stopped and looked meaningfully at Brendan.
Brendan arched an eyebrow and asked Dave, "How long ago was this?"
"A month back, maybe. They're still mourning, that's for sure. Anyway, Cole thinks you've got to hear the Simpsons out. He seems to think it's mighty important."
They entered the office. A thin woman was sitting in the chair next to Cole's desk, a handkerchief in her hands. It was evident that she had been crying. She was probably about forty, and once she had been very pretty. Her hair was streaked with white, but rather than detracting from her appearance, it only seemed to add to her character. Cody thought she had the look of a gentle soul who had lived a life of hard work, only to reach a place of terrible sadness. A man who had to be her husband, Bill, was perched on the edge of Dave's desk, across the room. He, too, was thin. He had a bulldog face, pleasant, worn and, now, concerned.
"Ah, Cody, Brendan," Cole said, rising. "I'd like you to meet the Simpsons, Dolores and Bill. Bill caught Dolores out on their front porch last night. When he asked her what she was doing there, since everyone had been told to stay inside at night, she said she had gone out because Amy, their daughter-who passed away recently-was calling to her."
Cody shook Bill Simpson's hand, then hunkered down by Dolores.
She looked at him with tear-reddened eyes.
"They think I'm crazy, but I'm not. I heard her calling to me."
Cody took her hands. "Mrs. Simpson, lots of folks think I'm crazy, too, but I'm not. And you have to listen to me. I warned you last night that you might hear loved ones calling to you, didn't I?" When she nodded, he went on. "If it happens again, you mustn't listen."
"Our daughter is dead," Bill Simpson said harshly. "Our beautiful daughter is dead. And that's that."
Dolores started to cry again. "You don't understand. It was Amy, and Amy is not evil. By the grace of God, Amy is out there somewhere, and I have to find her and let her in. Maybe she's cold and lonely, afraid. Maybe the evil men are after her."
Cody stood. "Mr. Simpson, I'm a medical doctor. I'd like to give your wife a small dose of laudanum. She needs some rest, to sleep long and deeply."
"Thank you," Bill Simpson said gratefully.
"I'll get your bag from the boardinghouse," Brendan said.
Cody nodded his thanks to Brendan, then knelt down by Dolores again. Instead of trying to convince her that she was mistaken about Amy, he asked her about her other children. They had two boys and two girls of their own, and four more they'd adopted after most of the travelers on a wagon train died of smallpox.
Brendan returned with the bag, and Cody gave Bill a small bottle of laudanum and instructions for dispensing it.
Bill thanked him, then said, "Come on, Dolores. We have to get home. And you need to think about the other children. They need us, and our strength, right now, too. All right, dear?"
Dolores looked at him vaguely. "I'm so tired, Bill."
"I know. But Dr. Fox here has given us something so you can get to sleep."
Dolores looked over at Cody. "You're very kind."
"And you're going to be fine," he assured her.
Bill Simpson took his wife's arm and led her to the door, while Cody warned him that the laudanum was just to help her through this troubled time, and that he should watch for signs of growing dependence on the drug.
When the door closed behind them, Cody turned to the sheriff.
"Where is Amy buried?" he asked.
"In the cemetery just yonder, of course," Cole told him, then frowned. "Why?"
"Because we're going to dig her up," Cody said.
"What?" Cole demanded, shocked.
"Don't worry. It should be easy. I'm willing to wager that the ground will be soft-and that her coffin will already have been opened."