Vampire Crush Page 10

"This night is shaping up to be better than I could have ever imagined," he says. "Two for one! Bingo!"

"Vlad, this is destructive behavior," Marisabel says sternly before her voice starts to wobble. "Let's just go home. Please, let's just go home."

"Be quiet!" Vlad roars. When Marisabel continues to plead for them to leave, he stalks toward her and begins to yell. "Always telling me not to kill when you should keep your mouth shut!" he roars. "If I have to hear your voice for one more second I am going to put a stake through your heart. And then you'll be dust. Dust."

While he's distracted, I grab the small dome of Lindsay's shoulder and shake it. "Lindsay, I think we should make a break for it."

She swings her head toward me, and even though her eyes are worried, her face is still slack. "Legs. Problem," she says simply, just as I realize that the clearing has gone deathly silent.

A rough hand scrapes at my chin. Vlad yanks my face up to meet his gaze, his gray eyes dancing with the thrill of what he's about to do. He lowers his mouth to my ear. It smells sweet, but where I expect to feel the ghosting of breath on my cheek, there is none. I clutch Lindsay tighter.

"You are probably wondering what is happening, and why it is happening to you," Vlad says smoothly. "I suppose I can invite you into our little world now, Sophie, considering you're about to exit yours."

"You're vampires," I manage to choke out. I swear to God, I will not leave this world to a lecture by Vlad.

For a moment he looks nonplussed. "That saves time, I suppose," he says, right before his fingers clamp down on my chin like tiny vises, imprisoning my mouth and strangling my scream before it even starts. He begins to maneuver us backward, pushing forward until we hit the scratchy trunk of a tree. I launch an awkward kick at his legs. The next thing I know his foot is grinding down on my toes, shooting a bolt of searing pain zipping up to my knee. One of my arms is trapped in Lindsay's; he pins the other to my side. I can barely see the trees anymore around his amused face.

There is no hope of escape. My breathing turns ragged, a change that makes Vlad's face light up with amusement. He gives a sympathetic tsk.

"It will not last for long," he assures me, his voice light and informative as though this is a theme park. "After a few minutes your vision will start to fade and then you will just be . . . no more." He presses his face forward until all I can see are his blond brows and dark eyes. "Look into them. It will be better for you in the end."

I know that I need to turn away, but I can't. It's easier to do what he says, to give in. I look into his eyes, studying the darker rings of gray as I wait to be hypnotized, to see flashing lights or feel a ripping sensation tear through my head. I feel a light breeze on my skin . . . I feel my toes throbbing from where Vlad's foot still presses down . . . I feel a cramp in my arm where Lindsay's weight sits heavy and immobile . . . but nothing else.

It takes me a few moments to realize that Vlad is no longer pinning me to tree. Instead he is looking at me with an incredulous expression that lasts three seconds before his face transforms into a snarl and he lunges for my neck. Squeezing my eyes shut, I scream into Vlad's hand. There are two slivers of glass in my neck, buried so deep that there is no hope of ever digging them out.

A shout cuts through the pain, and then I'm falling onto the ground and pulling Lindsay along with me. We collapse into a pile. Lindsay's knee jabs into the curve of my hip, and I'm staring up at the sky, full of airplane trails and the shadowy suggestion of stars just starting to pop out. I find my hand in our tangle of limbs and bring it to my neck. Hot, sticky liquid covers my fingers.

From my left come the sounds of a fight. I roll my head to the side to see if I'm in danger of being trampled, but it causes my head to spin, and I have to squeeze my eyes shut until it stops. When I open them again I see Vlad, on his back, fangs bared. And James - wonderful, wonderful James - is on top of him, fangs also bared.

Hallucinating, I'm hallucinating. I blink my eyes three or four times to get the crazy out of them. Before I can look again, I feel Lindsay sit up to my right, and then her hands beneath my back, lifting me up. My neck feels too weak to support my head, and it thuds onto her shoulder. Bobble-head Sophie, I think, and giggle. Her palm smacks my cheek several times before she succeeds in pushing my head back up.

"Stop giggling like an idiot and look," she whispers, amazement coloring her voice as she grabs my chin and pivots my head toward what's happening on my other side. Amazement with a heaping side dish of terror.

James and Vlad are now on their feet, glaring at each other.

"Leave them alone, Vlad."

"I fear it's too late for that," Vlad says cheerfully. "They know."

"Think. This will jeopardize your search. Two missing girls will draw a lot of attention. People will be scared, panicked."

"I do not care about people," Vlad scoffs.

"You should. They will be looking for you while you're looking for her. And then you will never find her. And then there will be no Danae."

This gives Vlad pause. Folding his arms across his chest, he tilts his head to the side and wipes at the corners of his mouth in a way that I might have called fastidious if he hadn't just been chewing on my neck.

"Perhaps you are right," he says cautiously, studying his fingers, which glisten with blood in the low evening light. He waves a hand toward where Lindsay and I huddle on the ground. "But how do you propose I clean up this . . . misunderstanding? I suppose I can wipe their minds, but that will make me even more drained, which is the reason I was going to risk eating them in the first place!" he finishes, shaking his head as if to say, "What conundrums I get myself into!"

"I'll do it," James says quickly. "I'll take care of it."

Vlad's eyebrows arch in surprise. "Really? You had given me the impression that you felt yourself above this . . . How did you say it? Ah yes, 'vampire stuff.'"

Even though I've seen the fangs, I still gasp. Or more appropriately, I suck in a large amount of air that leaves me coughing and sputtering. When I raise my eyes, James is looking at me with an emotion I can't place.

He turns back to Vlad. "I said I'll take care of it."

For a second Vlad seems appeased, like we're a set of problems he's just been told won't be on the pop quiz. But then his eyes narrow. "You like that one."

"Which one?"

"Sophie. The black-haired one."

James's expression is unreadable. "Are you kidding? She's a pain in the neck. I just want to make sure nothing gets in the way of you finding your girl," he says. "Then I stay here, and you go, just like we said."

"We also said that you would help search if I allowed you to wander off and live on your own," Vlad says, "and yet I believe this is the first day you've appeared."

"I'm here now," he insists. "Let me prove that I want to help."

Vlad purses his lips, debating the merits of letting us go. "Very well, then," he says finally. "You may have another chance to prove yourself. But when I reintroduce myself, I expect them not to know who I am."

"Understood," James says, walking over to yank us onto our feet. We might as well be made out of Styrofoam for the amount of effort it costs him. He pushes us in front of him and tells us to march forward.

It takes forever for us to reach my Jeep, or at least it feels like it does. No one speaks for several seconds until Lindsay says, weakly, that she doesn't think she should drive. The whole time we've been standing here, she hasn't moved her eyes from James.

James turns to me. "Can you drive?" he asks, eyeing my neck, which is still bleeding. Is it my imagination or do I see a flicker of interest in his gaze? With every second I don't respond, James's face grows more concerned. "Sophie - "

"I can drive," I say.

He gives a sharp nod. "Then take Lindsay and go home, lock your doors, and stay inside. I'm going to stay here until Vlad leaves."

"But - "

"Please. He doesn't always keep his word. I want to tell him that I've already done it, so he doesn't think about it tonight."

I know I've been dismissed, but there's something that I need to say. "Thank you."

For a second I think he looks hopeful, like he's relieved that things haven't changed that much, before his expression becomes inscrutable once again. "We'll talk later," he says before turning to face the wall of trees.

Chapter Eight

I drive like a maniac. Any cops unlucky enough to be caught in my path would be justified in thinking that I had a blood alcohol level in the "legally dead" range. But even as I race through yellow lights and tear through the suburbs, Lindsay says nothing besides a few curt directions that bring us to a white ranch with red shutters and a mailbox shaped like a rooster.

I unlock the passenger-side door, and the click echoes in the silence. She doesn't get out, just sits, staring straight ahead with her hands clenched in her lap as the front porch light throws her profile into stark relief. Her mouth twitches like she's trying to figure out where to start.

"That was a mean thing you did," she says. The car is warm, but she's shivering.

Whatever I was expecting - and it was something along the lines of "Vampires are real and they want our braiiinnns, omigod, omigod, omigod" - it wasn't this.

"I know. You have every reason to hate me," I say, undoing my seat belt and twisting to face her. "But right now there are more important things to - "

"Stop!" she yells, close to tears. "I don't want to talk about that, I want to talk about this. I know you view me as your competition, okay? I view you as mine, too. But not in a way that would ever make me sabotage you by manipulating a guy who likes me to not give you an interview. By the way, your boyfriend's a vampire, so . . . nice going there."

I swallow a snotty response about James not being my boyfriend. "Really, Lindsay, we need to talk about what we're going to do."

"He almost killed me," she blurts. "I was almost murdered by a vampire. I can't . . . I can't understand that. I don't want to understand that." She takes a ragged breath. "I thought we were friends."

It takes me a second to realize that she means her and me. "We are friends," I say weakly.

"No," she says, hard enough to make me flinch. "I mean, I've tried to be yours. And since you didn't seem to show as much disdain for me as you do for everyone else, I thought you were trying to be mine, too." She reaches down to wrestle with the buckle of her seat belt, but it doesn't stop her tirade. "I mean, do you ever wonder why you have no friends?"

"I have friends."

"Not people you talk to sometimes," she insists. "Friends. Like, come-over-and-do-something-with-me-on-Friday friends. It's not that people don't like you, there's just a wall. A know-it-all, too-good-for-everything wall that keeps people from getting close. Although, after today, who knows if they should." She wipes at her mottled cheeks and then pushes open her door. "Anyway, thanks so much for the ride home, and give James my gratitude. Then tell him that I'm making up everything about him for the article, because I want him to stay away from me. You too," she says and then runs inside without a backward glance.

When I get home there's a small violet envelope resting at the foot of the front door. Inside I find a magazine page whose ragged edges suggest it was ripped out with quite a bit of rage. "Are You a Good Friend?" the quiz asks. Scribbled across it in what I pray is red nail polish is one word: "No."

I start to cry. You would think this would have happened sometime closer to my brush with death, but this is the tipping point. Because Violet is right - I am a horrible friend who will not only lead you to your doom in the forest, but will also unwittingly hold hands with your ex-boyfriend. The front door opens as I am wiping sloppy tears off my cheeks.

"You know that you are supposed to call if you're going to be later than - ," my dad starts but then stops when he sees my face. "Are you hurt? What's wrong?"

"I'm fine," I sniffle. He's wearing the clothes that mean he's about to tinker with something in the garage: an old pair of corduroy pants and a flannel shirt that he still tucks in. It makes him look both dignified and woodsy, like a professor at a school for lumberjacks. Overcome by a wave of affection, I drop my backpack with a thud and lurch toward him for a hug. "I didn't mean to be late."

I've taken him by surprise. "It's okay. Marcie and I are just a little on edge. Your sister came home screaming that her life was over. Marcie's up there with her now. I think it has to do with that boy she was dating."

Caroline. I had forgotten all about her. "They broke up," I say. "I promise you that it's for the best."

"I trust your judgment on that." Dad shoves his hands in the pockets of his corduroys and peers at me quizzically. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Just a bad day."

I can't tell if he's bought it. He just studies me for a few more seconds and then pats me on the back before telling me that he'll be in the garage if I need to talk.

I find Marcie and Caroline in her bedroom. They sit on her pink bedspread surrounded by a coterie of stuffed animals, three of which are currently being strangled in Caroline's arms. If Grover were not already blue, he would be now. Her head is buried in a pillow that rests in Marcie's lap. It may prevent Caroline's wails from coming out clearly, but it doesn't dim the sorrow. Marcie is gently stroking her hair, adding an understanding "I know" at every pause. When she sees me at the door, she holds a finger to her lips.

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