Blood Cross Chapter 6

I'd rather be shot, stabbed, or chewed on

I grabbed the laptop, stalked to the master bath, and shut the door. Lighting candles so I could see in the dark room, I sat on the toilet seat, thinking. What had I gotten myself into?Crap . Online, I searched calendar sites for one that listed the phases of the moon.

The full moon was two days away. Relief poured through me. I was safe.

Mate, Beast demanded.

"No," I said. "Not Bruiser."

Beast sent a rush of sexual energy through my brain and suddenly I had a mental image of Rick, naked, spread out on a bed like dessert. There were claw scars across his chest, pale against his golden skin, and his tattoos almost glowed - a mountain lion and a bobcat on one shoulder and big bloody cat claws on the other. "Not him, either," I muttered.

Thanks to the natural gas, I had a long hot shower, during which I washed my hair and did all the fun things a girl did before a formal party . . . and a date. . . . I followed it with a long cold shower, during which I argued with Beast about my sex life. The conversation ended in a draw, and when I left the bathroom, the walls still steamy because the exhaust fan didn't work, I looked more presentable, nails polished, legs and pits shaved, skin all slathered with good-smelling cream, and brows plucked. As soon as I shifted again, I'd lose all the results of the effort, so I didn't get gussied up often. But it felt really good when I did. As I primped, the smell of slow-cooking steak wafted in under the door, making my stomach rumble with hunger.

I braided my hip-length black hair and left it hanging down my back, wet and still dripping. Throwing on jeans and a tee, I made my way through the house. The sound of a man's laughter stopped me in the entry. Bruiser? No. Rick LaFleur. And Angelina.

Molly, murmuring baby talk, was upstairs and I wondered why she had left Rick with Angie. Then I smelled dirty diaper, and I knew exactly what had happened.

Moving with the silence of my kind, I stopped outside the open kitchen doorway. Rick was turned to the side, so he couldn't see me, and I paused, studying him. Rick hadn't been to the house since he was mauled. Though pale, he looked good sitting in the kitchen, holding one of Angelina's dolls as she leaned against the arm of his chair.

"And I have a redheaded Martha, and a blond Rachael who wears a long dress like a princess, and two brown-headed dolls, Sally and Mary, butKa Nvsita is my favorite biscause Aunt Jane gived her to me, and biscause she gots black hair like Aunt Jane and is a Indian."

"She kinda looks like your aunt Jane too," Rick said.

"Nuh-uh. The real Aunt Jane is Chur'kee and her skin is browner, but she has scars and yellow eyes, andKa Nvsita doesn't. I'm gonna ask Santa Claus for another Chur'kee doll this winter, except that Santa Claus isn't real. Did you know that?" she whispered, looking from the doll to the cop. "It's a secret. I know lots of secrets."

"Like what?" Rick asked, his gaze focusing down on the little girl.

"Like names and stuff. And how to make oatmeal. And how to start the war - "

"Just like a cop to ask personal questions of a child, grilling her away from her parent, and doing it while sounding all innocent," I said.

Rick looked up, caught in the act and not even trying to look ashamed. "Oops," he said, not sounding at all contrite. His eyes traveled at a slow, leisurely pace from my feet to my gold nugget necklace dangling over my shirt, to my face. "But no need to be envious. I'd like to hear your secrets too. All of them."

I wasn't completely certain that it was a sexual come-on; it could have been just a cop crack, but combined with the look, I had a feeling it was more.Fresh meat , Beast thought at me. I laughed at her comment and Rick thought I was laughing at his. Angie smiled at us grown-ups, laughing for no reason she could see, and trotted out of the room.

"Why are you here, Rick?" I crossed my arms and leaned against the door frame.

"No power at my house. No TV. The batteries in my iPod are dead. No lights. No electricity for the stove. I knew you had gas for cooking. So I brought an early dinner."

He smiled slowly, showing very white teeth. "Steak that was going bad in my fridge.

With fresh greens from the farmer's market, and flowers" - he pointed to the bunch of daisies and sunflowers in a milk pitcher - "and double-baked potatoes I picked up at Mario's." He pointed at a foam cooler near the fridge. "Molly already seasoned and wrapped the steaks in foil and tucked them in the oven with your . . . beef jerky." The last two words were said with a clear distaste. Seemed Rick didn't care much for jerky.

"Cozy," I said, hiding a grin.

"Nice toes," he said back.

I looked down and tapped my toes on the floor in a riffling motion. The nails were painted bloodred with gold flecks in the polish. My fingernails were painted with clear, and filed short. My stomach rumbled with hunger. Looked as though we had company for dinner.

"I also thought we might pick a day to work on our bikes," he said. "Yours sounded a bit rough last time I heard it."

"You ride a Kow-bike. I ride a Harley. Different tools - metric versus standard."

"Sometimes different tools make for a lot of fun."

Okay. Definitely sexual innuendo that time. I grinned at him and shook my head. For a gal who had been out of circulation for a few years, I was getting a lot of attention. Too bad they were cop, blood-servant, and angry vamp. I'd be lucky to survive. "Better make it later in the week. I got to get all girlied up for a party tonight. I'm guessing that grease under my pretty nails would clash with my dress."


"Yeah. Down in the Warehouse District at the Old Nunnery?" I made it a question, because I didn't know where the Warehouse District was or what the Nunnery was, but neither sounded like someplace I should dress up for. "Given by Clan Rousseau."

Rick's brows went up a fraction. "Oh yeah?" At my nod, he said, "You need a date? Or maybe backup?"

"I have an escort," I said, "but thanks."

"Okay. Keep my cell number handy. If you need backup, call. And if you don't need me for backup, call anyway. I'd love to debrief you on that."

"I'm not interested in being debriefed. But I might be persuaded to share some things."

Just then Angie pattered back in and climbed straight up into Rick's lap. "Uncle Ricky, what's debeefing?"

"Angie Baby," Rick said, adopting one of Angelina's nicknames. I wondered when he had heard us use it. "A debriefing is when nosy cops ask nosy questions about things most people think they got no business knowing."

Angie dropped her hands and looked at me. "Like Uncle Ricky asking me about you?"

I looked at Rick, who had the grace to give me an embarrassed half grin and a small shrug. A lock of black hair fell over his brow, vaguely Elvis-like. My heart did a little pitter-patter. The man was too good looking for my own good.

"Yes, Angie, like that," I said. I handed Angelina her doll, took her up in my arms, and carried her to the stairs. "Scoot upstairs. Help your mama with Little Evan. I need to talk to Ricky-Bo."

"Okay, Aunt Jane."

Angelina's feet tapped up the stairs. When she was out of earshot, I turned to Rick.

Sweetly, I said, "If you chat up my godchild again without either her mother or me present, I'll hurt you."

Amused, Rick sat back and spread one arm out over the back of the chair beside him in an expansive posture. "You threatening a cop?" Black eyes glinting, his other hand unconsciously curled in to touch his chest, tracing the scars that had to be there.

I let my smile go, not hiding under the pretense of geniality. "Yep. I dropped you in one move the last time you needed a lesson. Angie is off-limits and you know it. That was low."

He nodded slowly. "Yeah. It was. I took advantage of a situation that fell into my lap, and I shouldn't have. I'm sorry. I won't do it again."

I wasn't expecting an apology. My estimation of the man went up a notch. Men who had the capacity to apologize - and who knew the right words with which to do it -

were few and far between. I'm not a whiz at social situations, and an apology wasn't something I was emotionally prepared to deal with. "Okay," I said, sounding far less gracious than he. Voices and the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs were about to put a stop to our conversation, thankfully.

Rick glanced at the empty doorway. "So, who's your escort tonight?" he asked quickly.

"George Dumas."

Rick's eyes went wide just as Molly and the kids entered the room, effectively ending the chat. But I could see the sharpened interest in his gaze and I knew the subject would come up again. Soon. Rick was professionally interested in George. And I had to wonder why.

The rest of the day went by fast and I found myself enjoying it, even knowing that Rick was hanging around to see what would happen when my "date" arrived. The temps heated up in the un-air-conditioned house, the world all muggy and sweaty, despite the windows Molly threw open. The smell of slow-cooked beef built and poured out into the steamy day. The four of us played kiddie board games and Go Fish with Angie until she fell asleep, exhausted from the heat, and then we played Hearts until our supper of slow-cooked steaks and double-stuffed potatoes.

The lights went on and off a dozen times as city utility workers tried to get the system back up and running, but before dusk they went off. And stayed off. Again. We made do with candles and lamps, but were running low on supplies. If the electricity didn't come on and stay that way, I'd have to motor around soon for lamp oil and more candles if such could be found. Five minutes after the sun set behind the cloud bank left over from Ada, my cell rang. The number in the display was Bruiser's.

Rick watched as I took the call on the side porch. He'd been chatting happily to Molly about eighties bands, but now he had an ear half-cocked my way, trying to listen in.

Speaking softly, I said, "What's up, Bruiser?"

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"Yellowrock. A woman will be there with a gown in half an hour. I'll pick you up at ten. Be ready. Be unarmed."

"You're such a charmer."

"You, on the other hand, are a bloody, sodding pain in the ass," he said equably. I often forgot that Bruiser wasn't American by birth, and then his accent would peek out, he'd use a term or phrase that sounded so very British, and I'd remember. The call clicked off and I chuckled as I returned to the kitchen.

I looked at Rick. "This is going to get seriously girlie. Maybe you should take a hike."

"I have sisters, and they always need a man's perspective when it comes to formals.

You gals tend to get all froufrou, with ruffles and flowers and lace and stuff, instead of calves and cleavage - the important parts. I'll stay."

He said the last two words in such a way that I thought it might take monumental rudeness or a lot more muscles than I was supposed to have to cart him bodily from the house. I shrugged. "Suit yourself. Butruffles ? Do Ilook like a ruffles kinda gal?"

Rick just grinned. I spent the time cleaning up the dirty kitchen and washing dishes.

Rick picked up a drying towel and put things back where they had been, which told me something about the cop or raised new questions - either he was observant, with total recall, or he had been in my kitchen before.

The woman with the dress showed up in a panel van thirty-two minutes after Bruiser's call, knocked once, imperiously, and when I opened the door, strode into the house as if she were here to take over my life.

"Madame Melisende," she said, as if the name was vastly important, popped a card into my hand, and looked over the ground floor of the house. "This will do," she said of the living room. To Molly, she said, "You. Bring lamps." And strode back into the night, leaving behind the scent of numerous vamps. Which was weird.

Molly looked at me, grinned with some secret amusement, and went to gather and light more hurricane lamps. Rick tossed the damp dishtowel over his shoulder, sat back in a wing chair, and crossed his legs as if for a great entertainment. His expression just missed being teasing, which set my hackles up. Rick and Molly seemed to have an idea what was about to happen.

When Madame Melisende came back in, she was trailed by a little human assistant with a clipboard, glasses, and stringy hair. Mousey would have been the simplest description of the assistant, but Madame Melisende herself defied simple words. I looked at the card she had given me, which assured me that she wasMadame Melisende, Modiste du les Mithrans. She was mostly human, about five feet tall, white-haired, and steely-eyed.

She looked seventy, had to be at least a hundred, had the energy of a twenty-year-old, and carried that smell of multiple vamps, like a blood-junkie. Which brought out all my curious instincts, though I couldn't think of a way to ask why she smelled as she did.

Humans can't smell vamps, or at least not the way I can.

Most blood-servants carry the scent of only one vamp, the result of the bonding that takes place over time. A blood-servant and vamp stay together for decades, the servant providing a safe and constant supply of blood, emotional stability, and other services -

those which might, in a human household, be fulfilled by lovers, employees, and paid servants - services that the pair mutually agree upon, in return for a living wage and tiny sips of vamp blood. The sips keep the servants younger, healthier, and assure a long and vigorous life, assuming that they survive any rages, grieving, or other mental snaps by the vamp.

A blood-slave has a similar, but more casual, arrangement and may be passed around within a clan, therefore smelling like multiple vamps, but usually only one clan. Blood-junkies were a big step below, making themselves available at parties for most anything the vamps wanted, from a quick meal to a quick lay. They were the blood addicts of the vamp world, and a growing, call girl-type business in cities that catered to vamp travelers. Only a blood-junkie smelled like multiple vamps from multiple clans.

Madame Melisende smelled like a blood-junkie minus the lingering smell of sex. So, weird, but not really worth worrying about.

The woman pushed me into position in the middle of the room, looking me over. She made little humming noises as she walked around me, repositioning me as she moved, arms outstretched, then down, feet together, then apart. Satisfied, she took measurements at waist, bust, midriff, above my bust, hips, butt, shoulders, arm length, and in-seam, calling them out as the assistant took notes.

When she was done, Madame Melisende took the clipboard, studied it a moment, then looked at me as if passing judgment. She said in an outraged French accent, "Hmmph.

You are Amazon. However shall I accouter you in the designated time?" she demanded.

A hot, embarrassed flush shot through me. Rick whooped. Molly tittered.

Though I was brought up in a Christian children's home and was raised to know better, I glared at Melisende when I said, "It's okay, lady. I'm pretty sure I can't afford you anyway. So you can just take a hike. Besides, I have a dress."

"Let me see thisdress you claim to have," she said with an acerbic sniff.

She followed when I marched into my room and took the dress out of my hand even before I got it out of the closet. I followed her back into the light. She held it up and gaped. "Mon Dieu. This is dreadful, more dreadful than I can speak." And then she let out a stream of French and threw the dress across the room.

Beast leaped into my eyes. Molly's eyes bugged out; Rick's amusement faded to be replaced by something very still and thoughtful. My voice dropped an octave. "That's my only dress."

Unperturbed by whatever the others saw in my eyes, Madame Melisende drew herself up to her full nearly five feet in height. "Good!Du chiffon. Des dechetes! " And she spat a bunch of words to her assistant, who scurried outside.

"That. Is. My only. Dress," I said again, hearing the growl in my voice.

"No. It is not." She sniffed again. "Now you will have three proper dresses, and I will take the rag away with me, never to be seen again. And when les Mithrans ask you tonight who accouter you as a queen on the throne, you will tell them Madame Melisende. And the elders and old ones will, at last, return to me as they should."

The last statements brought me up short. The assistant came back in through the front door and piled dresses up on the couch, and went back out and came back in again with more dresses while I interpreted her comments. The woman, imperious and demanding, needed . . . help? She had lost some of her clientele? I was about to ask for clarification when Madame Melisende raised her eyes to mine and commanded, "Strip."

Rick howled with laughter. Molly giggled.

"Get out," I told Rick. Still laughing, throwing the dressmaker and me amused, delighted looks, he left, boots clomping. I closed the blinds, locked the door, and stripped. And became a dressmaker's dummy. The next half hour was pure torment as I tried on dress after dress, looked over each one in the bedroom mirror, and started to like it, only to hear the dragon queen disparage it totally. I actually quit looking in the mirror to see if I had an opinion. My preferences didn't count. Madame Melisende finally chose three dresses, brought in a portable sewing machine, and started altering.

I slipped into a robe, fell on the sofa, draped myself across the long seat, and accepted a cup of hot tea from a laughing Molly. I closed my eyes. "I'd rather be shot, stabbed, or chewed on by a rogue vamp," I whispered to her, "than go through being fitted for a formal gown again."

Molly just chortled as she settled near me on the wing chair Rick had vacated. "It does you good to be a girl once in a while," she said. "Besides, now you need a new hairdo."

I groaned. Molly laughed again, but this time I was sure I heard the timbre of a torturer in the tone. Minutes later, I was sitting on a stool while Molly brushed my hair and braided it with tiny gold beads before gathering it all up and wrapping the braids around my head in an elegant do that caught the light. Then she started in on the makeup.

It was worse than I ever expected. I hated it. It was torture, no matter how good Molly said I looked. Molly made my eyes stand out like Cleopatra's, dusted something on my skin that made it glisten like gold dust, and put enough mascara on me to weigh down my lids. And she wouldn't let me look over the work - kept turning me away from the mirror with a firm hand. I could have muscled her for my own way, but Molly is my friend and she was having too much fun for me to simply stomp out.

It was late when Madame Melisende and her nameless assistant were done stitching, hemming, letting out, and taking in. They stuffed me into a dress, brought in all the lamps, and led me, my eyes closed, to the full-length mirror. Molly, the madame, the mouse who had no name I'd heard, and a sleepy-eyed Angelina, woken just for the final show, gathered around. In total silence. And I opened my eyes. I stood there in my one good pair of black dancing heels, wearing only my gold nugget as jewelry, the dress slithering around me like, like, like nothing I had ever felt before, I stared at myself in the bedroom mirror.

I gaped. Turned. "Holy . . . uh . . . moly," I whispered, in deference to Angie. I looked like a million bucks. A stylish, high-maintenance, girly, sophisticated million bucks.

The heels added three inches to my six feet in height. The silk knit dress started at my instep and rose in a loose sheath to my hips, which were banded by satin to my midriff in a tight cummerbund look. Above that wide band was a plunging neckline, the deep V

crisscrossed with satin strips, the halter top strap a satin band about an inch thick. Oh -

and the slash up my left leg, which made me look totally hot, was perfect for dancing. I did a little dance step, which showed an unseemly amount of thigh. "Perfect," I said, thrilled despite myself.

Beast nudged herself into my thoughts.Prey clothes . She sent me an image of two cats reflected in a pool of still, black water in a clearly amorous position, the full moon over their shoulders, the male scent-marking the female by rubbing his jaw over her head and ears. Instantly I recalled the photograph of Leo and Katie, in their own clearly amorous position. Beast purred happily.

I sighed quietly so that Madame Melisende couldn't hear. A nameless feeling tremored along my skin, lifting the fine hairs. I smoothed the dress along my body. I wasn't wearing my own underwear. The madame had cut mine from me and tossed them into the garbage with a "One does not ruin the lines of a creationavec les culottes . Foolish girl." And she had tossed me a body smoother that looked like a torture device. I had cussed under my breath while pulling on the nearly invisible wisp of discomfort. But the dressmaker was right. The smoother was perfect, and the dress would have been ruined by panty lines.

I smoothed my hands along my sides again, feeling the prickly sensation of Beast rolling over and stretching in my mind. Sex. It was the feeling of sex.

This full moon was going to be difficult.

A single knock sounded at the door and I looked at a clock. Which was totally wrong, thanks to Ada. Molly checked through the windowed door, chuckled evilly, threw me a look, and opened the door. Rick walked in, boots loud in the quiet room. He searched the space and found me. And stopped dead.

"Good Lord Almighty," he breathed.

Molly laughed delightedly, Madame Melisende chortled with pride, and Angie clapped her hands together. "Aunt Jane is a beautemous princess," she said.

I smelled his reaction. Rick thought I looked hot. For some reason, that made me feel confident and shy all at the same time, and my palms started to sweat. I brazened it out.

"Not bad, eh? For a vamp killer?" I glanced at the madame and added, "No offense to your clients."

She sniffed, glanced at her watch, and said, "Monsieur Pellissier's servant will arrive in eight minutes." She made a little hand-sweeping motion to the mouse, who jumped up from her perch at the sewing machine, began gathering all the discarded dresses, and carting them outside. The madame hung my two other new dresses in my empty closet and turned to leave, giving me the once-over, and tucking a handful of her cards into my palm. "For the inquiries. By appointment only." She sniffed one last time and went back out the door the way she had entered, as if she owned the place, the mouse scurrying behind her.

I whirled, showing a lot of leg and nearly as much cleavage. Rick sat down. As much to conceal his reaction as to keep out of the way. Molly took Angie by the hand and closed the door on the last of the fashion show. The van roared off into the very dark night.

Before Rick had a chance to say anything more about me in my dress, new headlights pulled in front of the house, the sound of an engine idling through the open windows. I had left a thigh sheath on the toilet, and while Molly went to the door, I strapped the weapon Bruiser had denied me to the back of my thigh, making sure that neither the knife hilt nor the sheath showed. Then I eased a slender blade into my hair and tucked several wooden stakes into my braids like hair sticks. A small cross I sheathed in a lead-lined packet and shoved it into the bottom of the V of the neckline. The dress held it nicely in place, and the lead would keep it from glowing by accident.

I had gone unarmed into the presence of multiple vamps once before. Not gonna happen again. With a final twirl to make sure the knife sheath didn't show beneath the fabric, I took a deep breath and listened.
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