Vampire Crush Page 8

"Violet, I told you. I'm sorry that I hurt you. Believe me, if I could take it all back - and I do mean all of it - I would. But you have to let this go."

"But I can't," she cries, covering her heart with her hands. "I love you."

Nothing good can come from going down this path, so I try to intercede again. "Violet," I say softly, "James and I weren't - "

"Stop it," she hisses. "You are the reason I'm in this muddle. You and your bad advice."

The malice in her face makes my heart stop cold, and I eye her clenched fists, wondering if I am going to get into an honest-to-God cafeteria fight. But instead of launching herself at me, Violet suddenly puts a hand to her forehead and starts to sway. "I think I feel faint," she says, and then collapses on the ground.

The crowd that's gathered around us gives a little gasp. Sighing, James bends down over her prostrate form and lightly smacks one of her cheeks. "Violet, get up. You know you can't faint."

Her eyelids flutter. He is about to try the other cheek when Ms. Kate, now on lunchroom duty, barrels her way through the crowd.

"What's going on here?" she booms. "Stand back, people, and give the girl some room. The bell's about to ring." She points to the ceiling, and the bell obliges her, most likely too scared to disobey. "See? Go to your class. Stop gawking."

The ring of onlookers begins to break up, students shuffling off in twos and threes. When Ms. Kate crouches down to look at Violet, James stands up and comes back toward me. Still a little shaken, I gather my things and turn to ask one of my many, many new questions, but he nudges me toward the door.

"Let's go."

"But Violet - "

"Is fine. Well, physically at least. You should get out of here." When we're in the hallway, he lets go of my arm and looks at the notebook I am holding to my chest like a bulletproof vest. "Do you still need those questions answered?"

"Well, yes."

"Great." He grabs it from me, tears out the two pages with my questions for Vlad and Marisabel, and then shoves it back into my hands. "I'll have it to you by next period," he says, starting to walk away.

"But - "

"You can pay me back by giving me a ride home today," he calls down the hall. "I'll meet you by your car. When do you leave?"

"Six," I say, still half-dazed.

"Good. See you then." He stops for a second and gives me a look I can't decipher. "We'll talk," he says shortly and then disappears around a corner.

Chapter Six

My concentration is shot for the rest of the day. When I'm not trying to figure out what James is caught up in, I'm watching the door for Violet. It opens halfway through Ms. Walpole's lecture on body paragraphs, and my spine goes rigid. For once I am actually relieved when it is only Vlad, late to class again. After a few excuses about losing himself in a library book and a round of awkward staring, she waves him to his seat. From my spot at the back of the room, I can see his wavy blond head, the tops of his shoulders, and one lean, muscular arm. Every time Ms. Walpole turns around, he slips out a ragged piece of lined paper and hunches over. He's writing something, and for once it's not in that little journal he slips in and out of his back pocket.

When the bell rings, Vlad scoops up his belongings in one arm and weaves through the departing students to stand in front of my desk. I blink up at him through the fluorescent light.

"You are Sophie, correct?" he asks, sounding bored with the question. He pulls out the wilting piece of paper he scribbled on all period and flicks it at me. "This is for you."

I look down to find my list of questions, which are now accompanied by answers written in a tight, florid hand.

"Thank you," I say, trying to keep my voice even despite my boiling hatred. Now is probably not the time to tell him he writes like a girl.

"I did it as a favor to James, nothing more," Vlad says and then arches one pale eyebrow. "Anything else that you would like to know? My favorite rainy day activity, perhaps?"

"No, that's it." Jerkface. "Thanks again." Standing up, I start to brush by him, but where a normal human being would twist to avoid a butt bump, he stays rooted in place. Sucking in my stomach, I refuse to let him fluster me. I smile, a bit of bravado he acknowledges with a surprised quirk of his pale eyebrows. Ha. I'm almost in the clear when my bag catches on the back of a chair.

Damn. As I'm working on untangling it, my neck begins to tingle like I've been sitting too long in the sun. I look up to find Vlad eyeing it, nostrils flared, with more interest than he's ever given any other part of my anatomy. This is the last straw.

"Could you move?"

His gaze snaps up to meet my eyes before he gives a smile that's part sardonic, part self-mocking, and no parts apologetic.

"My apologies," he says, his voice so full of laughter that I'm surprised he doesn't bust a gut right there. When I walk out, I don't turn around.

The bell rings before I make it to my locker, so when I get there I'm so rushed that I almost miss the folded piece of paper that falls at my feet. There's something chicken-scratched on the front.

Sophie,Do you know how many people I had to ask before I found someone who knew where your locker was? I told you - loner. Here are Marisabel's answers to your questions. See you at 6. - JamesWell, I have my answers. Now I just wish I had a better idea of what possible connection he could have to all of this.

I stuff the questions in my folder since I'm already late to journalism. Luckily, Mr. Amado is already in full newspaper mode and doesn't seem to care. After making an offhand comment about being glad that I could join the class, he tells me that he's about to start the progress check. I slide into my seat next to Lindsay, who is studying her folders with a queasy expression.

"Since your finished articles are due next Tuesday," Mr. Amado says, "you should have all of your fact-gathering done. Lindsay and Sophie, I'm starting with you. Let's see it."

We pull out our info. I make a hasty excuse for the state of Vlad and Marisabel's interviews.

"That's okay," he says. "Today we just want the info. Lindsay?"

Lindsay hands over her typed responses, still silent. Mr. Amado flips through them and then frowns. "There are only three here. Have you talked to all of your subjects?"

She clears her throat. "I still . . . I still haven't been able to find James."

"He hasn't come to school yet?"

"The attendance records show that he was here today. But he wasn't in my math class like his schedule said he should be." She turns my way. "The only new person was Ted."

"Ted?" Mr. Amado asks. "I must have missed him. I'll look into it. But you should know that this might set you behind schedule. Good work, Sophie."

We both watch as he walks over to Neal and asks him whether or not he's managed to expand on the fact that yes, blood had been stolen. I shoot Lindsay an apologetic look that she won't return. Instead she concentrates on cleaning out her folders, lining up her papers with the precision of a drill sergeant before slipping them back in.

"Lindsay, I - "

"I'm going to work in back today," she says quickly, abandoning me to set up shop next to the computers.

I spend the rest of the period thinking of ways to apologize, working out elaborate fantasies where I play the Good Samaritan, the best of which is where I give a five-hundred-dollar donation to Greenpeace in her name and then let her know by spelling it out in cupcakes across her lawn. Deep down, however, I know that the only way to make this right is to admit that I lied, direct her to James, and let her yell at me. Five minutes before the bell rings, I ready myself to catch her as she exits the classroom, but she heads to Mr. Amado's desk early. He scribbles something on a pink hall pass, and she's out the door. I guess this giant rock of guilt will be camping out in my gut for a little while longer.

I stay in the journalism room after school lets out to work on my articles, spreading the responses from Vlad and Marisabel out on the table next to my computer.

Full name: Vladimir Roman SmithsonAge: The common age for one at this schoolHow many brothers and sisters do you have? What are their ages? Seven. Deceased.Favorite Color: GrayFavorite Animal: WolfFavorite Hangout: This is a stupid question.What are the top five songs on your playlist? This is a nonsensical question.Scar you're most proud of and where it came from? Left arm, swordfight with my father.If you were a car, what car would you be and why? I am not a car, nor do I wish to be one.If you could only have one book on a deserted island, what would it be? The Prince and The Lost Daughter.When you were little, who was your favorite superhero? Casanova.Are you a morning or night person? Night.What's the weirdest thing you eat at home? No comment.What is the greatest problem in the United States? Elitist groups.What one word would you put on your gravestone? Impossible.What do people like best about you? Whatever I tell them to like.

These bogus answers hardly seem worth the trouble, not to mention that I didn't ask the dumbface what two books he'd take to a desert island. Marisabel's are even worse. She answered most of the questions with "I don't know" and the rest with doodled flowers. That's it, I think, crumpling the pages into one tiny ball of suck. I'm done banging my head against this stone wall; I don't care if I have to begin my article, "Vlad likes three things: fencing, himself, and killing off his siblings." I don't care if I have to lie and - oops - report that Vlad likes finger painting with dolphin blood in his spare time. We're now entering full investigative mode.

I spend the next few hours tweaking my data, fleshing out Vlad's non-answers with anything I've heard floating around the hallways, not caring at this point how accurate this information is. By the time I look up from my computer, it's already a quarter to six, so I shut down my documents and head to the front exit. The sun is still bright enough that the windshields of the few remaining cars in the lot wink light back at me. One of them is Vlad's Hummer, its shadowy bulk looming behind my Jeep like a closet monster.

I've got ten minutes before James is set to show up - time to figure out who these people are, once and for all. After checking to make sure that the parking lot is deserted, I peer through the Hummer's windows, but the tinting means I can't see anything except for the light shining in from the opposite side. I tug at the handle in frustration, astonished when the door pops open. Unlocked. An invitation to snoop.

The first thing I find is a shopping bag full of clothes with the security tags still attached; some of them have rips down the side as though someone had tugged too hard while trying to remove them. Whatever else they might be, they're definitely A-plus shoplifters, but that still doesn't tell me enough. I need names; I need dates; I need anything that could pass as a cold, hard fact. I shove the dresses and pants back in the bag and check the glove compartment, but it's empty; there's not even a car registration.

I move to the back, cursing when the movement causes the heavy door to creak shut behind me. I find a week's worth of unfinished worksheets on the floor and a small cooler nestled behind the driver's seat. I've hardly seen any of them eat lunch, so it's odd that they'd be packing snacks. I wrestle off the top, but it's empty.

"Who's with me?" says a dim voice. Vlad's voice.

My blood turns to ice. I hit the ground and lie as flat as possible, praying that the tinted windows and large seats will shield me from view. There's the scrape of feet against gravel and the soft thud of someone leaning against the car only inches from my head.

"The more we stand outside in the light, the worse it will be," Neville says impatiently, his voice vibrating through the metal behind me and making it hum.

"The car stays here as long as I do. Crack a window and wait in the vehicle or walk home. You choose."

My breath hitches. Don't wait in the car. Please, don't wait in the car.

"We'll walk," Neville says, and I almost choke on the relief. "This is not wise. Especially if you think you are close."

"Close?" Vlad gives a short, strangled laugh. "Hardly. At this point we are close to starting over."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean," Vlad says darkly, "I chose incorrectly. It's not Caroline."

A weighty silence surrounds the Hummer on all sides. Caroline's not what? The girl of his dreams? America's Next Top Mob Member?

"Not her?" Neville says, and unlike Vlad, his voice is downright chipper. "Well, then perhaps this is the perfect time to rethink what we're doing here. I, for one, think that you might be better off forgetting the Danae and staying here. People seem to rather like you," he says, "and there are so many things to do. Do you know that there is a club devoted entirely to the creation of little walking machines that fight one another? Amazing. I'm almost tempted to - "

A growl splits the air. The car tips from the force of someone being slammed against it, and the movement causes the passenger-side door to creak open. If anyone walks around to the other side, they will see me. I tuck my feet as close to my body as possible and bite my tongue to stay silent.

"I apologize if I gave the impression that this is a group decision," Vlad says with threatening precision. "We are not here to join organizations or socialize with lonely girls in the washroom. If I find that you are doing so, you will be out. And I would like to see you all take care of yourself, I really - "

He stops sharply when the car starts to ding, warning that there is an open door. Oh God. Blood rushes into my ears, thrumming so loudly that for second I don't hear anything. I look up, but all I can see is the swirl of Neville's reddish hair pressed against the window.

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