Vampire Crush Page 19

"I'll take that as a compliment," she chirps and tosses it at me. "No, try it on," she orders when I make to leave. "We're not the same size. You might have to be happy with the flower-power boobs."

Reluctantly, I step behind the door and do a quick Clark Kent. After tying the top around my neck, I step out to show Caroline. She makes a face.

"It would be nicer if you weren't clutching your jeans and T-shirt over your chest like a big weirdo. Drop them," she orders. I unclench my fingers, letting my clothing shield fall to the ground. "That actually looks really nice on you, Sophie. Who knew T-shirts could hide that much boobaliciousness?" All of a sudden she squints. "It would look better with a tan and fewer freckles, but, well, you know . . ."

"Yes. I know." I pick up my wrinkled black T-shirt and drag it over my head before thanking her for the bikini.

She waves a hand in front of her face. It's a throwaway gesture, but I can sense she's starting to think about the injustice of my invitation, her non-invitation, and a world gone topsy-turvy. She chatters to make up for the tension as she goes to wrestle a purse from the mound of bags that line her closet floor.

"I have to meet Amanda at the movie theater," she says.

"Is James going?" I ask because I have absolutely nothing resembling willpower at all and should probably be quarantined for further study. But Caroline either doesn't hear me or chooses not to answer.

"She wants to see that one about the zombies who eat New York or something," she continues, her voice still muffled. "Whatever. The main guy is hot. I just hope no one munches on his abs." She tugs on the strap of a gray suede slouch bag and pulls it free with one swift yank before turning to me with a serious glint in her eye. "Oh, and remember; you have to tell me everything that happens tonight. Everything," she repeats, and then gives me a bright, genuine smile before heading out the door.

Vlad's place is part of an older subdivision, complete with sprawling grandfather trees and retired couples who are even older. When I drive through the twisting streets, the majority of the houses' windows are already dark. Every so often I spot the flickering pulse of a television or a lone bedroom light, but for the most part, Shady Grove has closed up shop. Just as I'm turning the last corner onto Preston Drive, a raccoon darts out in front of my car, eyes glowing like iridescent marbles. I slam on the brakes, and it runs for the cover of a nearby parked car. It wasn't even a close call, but my heart stutters. Thank you, nature, for putting me more on edge.

When I am finally able to control my breathing, I realize that the parked car is one in a very long line of parked cars despite the fact that it's nine on the nose. Obviously, this crowd threw any thoughts of being fashionably late out the window.

I park my car and trudge toward the sprawling two story house just as more cars pull up behind me, spewing their giggling occupants into the street, most of whom are already wearing their bathing suits. Personally, I plan on keeping my shirt on until someone ties me down and rips it from my body.

After I pass the final street lamp, the only light left is what pours out from the lower floor of Vlad's house. I see floor-to-ceiling windows, gray, rickety shutters, and a wraparound porch that is illuminated by a single jaundiced light. Moths flutter around it in a vibrating nimbus, and every once in a while one kamikazes into the huddled mass of bodies crowding the doorway. Going by turnout alone, I'd say Vlad's party is a success.

I join the group crowding the porch. A girl in a simple one-piece suit to my left is crying, "But this is the only bathing suit I have!" while her pixyish friend clumsily pats her on the back and stares longingly at the party beyond. Her suit is a size too large, but at least it's a two-piece. She bites her lip before turning back to her distraught friend. "Why don't you go buy one at Wal-Mart and then meet me back here?" she says. "Or we can, like, cut yours."

I'm jostled to the front of the pack before I can hear her decision. Looking up, I find myself staring into the brown eyes of Devon - or perhaps Ashley - now on guard duty. It's the first time that I've seen one without the other, and it's an unsettling feeling. D'Ashley's eyes rake over my body, narrowing when they hit my offending piece of clothing. He points at my shirt and then jerks a thumb to the side.

I grasp the hem, wondering why I'm the only one who's showing any resistance to the forced disrobing. Overtaken by a sudden fit of stubbornness, I pause halfway and tug my T-shirt back down. I wait for D'Ashley's next move. After a few seconds of cartoonish confusion, he makes a motion suggesting that my time is up and I should move out of the way to let in the less difficult guests. When I make no sign of complying, he grabs my shoulder and starts to push me from the porch. Suddenly a hand clamps down on my shoulder.

"Hey, Sophie," James says, sidling up beside me. He looks disgustingly attractive in dark blue jeans and a smoky gray T-shirt. I wasn't expecting him to be here, so my reply is a mixture between "Hello," "Huh?" and "Excuse me?" I sound like a thing that just gurgled its way out of the swamp. He's nice enough to pretend that I have spoken English.

"Ready to go in?" he asks, and then turns to D'Ashley. "She's with me."

There is no way I am taking anything off now, not with James standing less than two feet away from me. I grab the dangling ends of my bikini top and waggle them at the hulking bodyguard. "I have my suit on. See?"

D'Ashley starts to shake his head, but a burst of laughter draws his attention to a point behind me. A new gang of students, about twenty in all, are stumbling up the hill. Fear flashes across the large boy's face; I don't think he was prepared for bouncer duty, and the students are becoming restless.

"Are you going to let us in or what?" James says, making a point to look at his watch and shake his arm like it's burning a hole under his sleeve. "Looks like you've got a lot of people left to check. Vlad won't be happy if it's ten o'clock and half of his guests are still waiting at the door."

The threat of Vlad's displeasure does the trick. D'Ashley gives a terse wave.

We slip in, pushing through a crush of people cluttering up the foyer. At first I check backs and stomachs for any marks, but the bodies are packed so tightly that it starts to feel claustrophobic. I struggle my way to the bottom step of the ornate staircase that leads to the dark second floor. It smells musty, like fall leaves after a rainstorm. Still, this is better than drowning in a swimsuit calendar.

"Thanks for that," I say when James steps up the stairs beside me, and then, because I can't resist, "I thought you were going to the movies with Amanda."

"Nah," James says, and I have to distract myself to hide what I am sure is a glow of pleasure. I look away to do a quick scan of the room. Girls outnumber the boys three to one, and the small number of males present wear their friend status like lodestones around their necks. Most of them hide in corners, staring into their plastic red cups like they might offer up what to do next. As for the girls, a few of them have grass hula skirts - whether vampire provided or not, I don't know - but as expected, I am the only person not showing any real skin.

"If you want to remove your protective shell," James says, "you won't hear any complaints from me."

"That's okay. I'm here as more of an observer."

"I figured you weren't here for the company."

I study his face in the shadows cast by the sharp angles of the stairway. Except for that one time during chemistry, I've never seen him looking less than healthy and refreshed. Now he's leaning back against the railing and studying me with a smile. I've missed talking to him, I realize. I've missed it a lot.

Feeling exposed, I glance to the top of the long stairs. The other half of D'Ashley is standing there like a golem, his arms crossed over his chest as he stares down at us.

"What's he doing there?"

Reluctantly, James follows my gaze. "Vlad doesn't want people going upstairs."


"He's got this thing about people touching his stuff."

"That's all?"

"Pretty much," James says. "There aren't any giant wall diagrams that say, 'This is My Evil Plan,' if that's what you're thinking."

That is what I was thinking.

"Let's go up," I say, suddenly inspired. "He might let me through if I'm with you. We could find out more about who he's looking for and what the Danae wants with her."

He looks away. "I knew this was a mistake," he mutters.

Frustration takes over. "Then why do you keep helping me? First with the journalism project, and now with the party. You have to know why I'm here."

He opens his mouth but then seems to be at a loss for words. "I don't know," he finally says. "Vlad told us we had to come, and I saw you standing there and maybe I just thought that the party would be more interesting with you in it," he says before the sincerity is ruined with a twitch of his lips. "I mean, there was that party at Morgan Michaels's house in sixth grade where you drank all that orange soda and then left when everyone started playing kissing games."

"I didn't leave," I say, even though I'm pretty sure I did.

"It was right when we started. I remember." Something warm has crept into his eyes. There's a brief second where my body feels carbonated, but then I think I hear the burst of Vlad's laughter above the din, and it reminds me that no matter how much we skip down memory lane, the cold truth is that we are still at odds. I can't keep doing this; it's distracting, and it only makes me want things that are impossible.

"I have to go," I say and head down the stairs. He calls out behind me, but I've already squeezed between a girl in a nautical-themed suit and a senior wearing a kiwi wrap over her black string bikini. I dart through a doorway on the right, where raucous shrieks mark the hub of the party.

The room's high ceilings and large windows make it a coveted living room, or at least it was once. Between the shuffling feet of party guests, I catch glimpses of the dark, couch-shaped patches where furniture must have once protected the burgundy carpet from decades of sun. The cream wallpaper is stained along the top border, and in many places it curls at the edges. A tattered Victorian couch sits in the corner, covered in gray velvet and missing a few buttons, and folding refreshment tables are set up at the far end of the room. The Hawaiian theme isn't going to win any decorating contests; the room looks more like Dracula's dungeon than a balmy island getaway. A limp sign, with ALOHA written in crooked yellow letters, wilts over the punch bowl, and a few dejected leis hang off the ornate chandelier that hovers above the sea of bobbing heads. Ambiance is obviously a low priority when you have young girls to kidnap.

I make my way to the refreshment table, trying to figure out my game plan as I go. Avoiding Vlad's notice is priority number one, although I still need to keep an eye on him in case he targets anyone in particular. And then there's the little black book. Now that I've infiltrated his home base, there might be a chance to get my hands on it.

I pick up a flimsy paper plate and survey the meager offerings. Not surprisingly, vampire catering leaves something to be desired. Generic cheese puffs lie scattered around a bowl of congealing ranch dip that still holds the shape of the can it came from. The carrots should be a safer option, but instead of being cut into stick form, someone has sliced them into tiny coin-sized discs. How appetizing. I pick up a carrot medallion and start to nibble, swiping a cup from the leaning tower to my right and heading toward the punch. It looks orange, sugary, and unnatural - normal enough. I'm tentatively ladling some into my glass when someone comes up beside me.

"Yo, Soph, what's up?" Neal Garrett says, resplendent in neon green swim trunks. He grabs a cheese puff and pokes it into the ranch dip. "Cool party, huh?"

"What are you doing here?"

"I came with my girlfriend," he says proudly. After checking to make sure no one's listening, he leans down to whisper, "We're playing hide-and-seek. She's kind of bad at it, though, so I thought I'd take a breather and let her think that it's taking me a long time." He pauses. "What are you doing here? You never struck me as the party type."

"It's a long story."

"I've got time," Neal says. "I'm counting to ninety-one thousand."

I open my mouth to tell him that it's not important when I spot Violet charging toward us angrily. She's not wearing anything so revealing as a bathing suit, but she's gotten into the spirit of the evening by wrapping a flowered sheet around her body like a toga. It makes her stumble a little as she bears down on us. Neal yells her name, his voice a mixture of surprise and pleasure.

"What are you doing?" he says. "You're supposed to be hiding!"

"I was sitting in that dusty old cupboard forever," she pouts.

"The cupboard in the study? But you hid there the last time! And the time before that."

Violet shrugs; I'm not surprised that her favorite part of hide-and-seek is being found.

"Is the cupboard upstairs?" I interrupt.

"Sophie!" she cries, delighted. "I thought you would not come." When she notices that my eyes have slid to where she has looped an arm through Neal's elbow, she giggles. "Oops," she says. "We have been keeping it a secret, but you can be the first to know. Neal and I are courting."

"Congratulations," I say, my stomach sinking. A serious talk about not turning one's boyfriends into vampires is on the horizon, but right now I need to focus on Vlad. "Can I, uh, play hide-and-seek with you?"

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