Vampire Crush Page 9

"What is that?" Vlad asks.

"It is the Humdinger. Violet left the door ajar again," Neville says. The car rocks as he pushes away from Vlad and walks around the back. I'm trying to think of excuses, but my mind goes blank as he pulls open the door enough to shut it. I can see his arm up to the elbow, the tattoo on his forearm standing out in stark relief to his pale skin. If he moves forward three more inches, I'm done for.

"Oh, I do not care about the Danae, or the girl, or this horrible place!" says a tremulous voice that I recognize as Violet's. I look at Neville's tattoo, the central "D" staring at me like an ominous eye. "D." Danae. It's a possibility. Now I just have to get out of here.

"I am sorry that I left the door open," Violet continues, "but it has been such a horrific day and I would very much like to go home."

Neville shuts the door without looking inside. "Then let's go."

There's a lull, and then the fading crunch of gravel as they walk away.

"Where were we?" Vlad says smoothly when we can no longer hear anything. "Ah yes, into the woods."

The foliage crashes as several people plunge into the trees, followed by the snapping of twigs. I wait for all sounds to cease before screwing up enough courage to sit up and check that the coast is clear. When it is, I scramble out of the car and gulp down the fresh air. Leaning against the bumper of my Jeep, I try to process what I've overheard. A quick check of my watch tells me that it's 6:05. James is late, and to be completely honest, I'm a little iffy now about giving him a ride home. I should peel out of here now, grateful that I've survived one close call.

I should.

Before I have time to second-guess myself, I step into the brush. Midwestern woods are many things, but scary is not one of them - they're about as intimidating as your grandmother's afghan. The predominance of pine trees gives them a nice scent, and even though that means you come out able to freshen a car, it's nice not to worry about big, slavering animals that want to chew on your face. That's why I'm caught off guard by the sudden chill that eclipses me the second I move out of the evening sun. The trees are top heavy enough to smother most of the evening light, casting their thick trunks into gloom.

Voices echo in front of me. "Ingrate" cuts through the murmur, and I stop - individual words mean that I'm too close. We walk this way until the pale orange light shining out of the leaves in front of me suggests that they've reached the central clearing. I stretch my ears as far as they will go. When it sounds like Vlad is no longer moving, I crouch behind the largest bush I can find, located about ten feet to the left of the makeshift trail. Trying not to make any noise, I peer through the branches.

Vlad is pacing back and forth, pausing every so often to kick at rocks and twigs on the ground. "Can you believe him?" he seethes. "He said that he wanted to help, and then what do I hear today? Maybe I should forget about the Danae and stay here because people like me, as if that is so difficult to believe."

"I told you from the beginning that I thought he was weird," Marisabel says from where she's stretched across a pitted picnic table.

"And I told you it was fine!" Vlad snaps.

Marisabel just shrugs, rolling on her back to stare up at an open copy of Twilight. Her long brown hair cascades over the edge. It sways as she shakes her head back and forth.

"This is not right at all," she says. "Edward is dreamy, though. Maybe you could get some tips."

"Oh, could I?" Vlad asks, playful, before stalking into view and twisting the book out of her hands. Pages flapping, it sails over her head and crashes into the trees behind her.

Marisabel pushes herself up and frowns at the spot where it disappeared. "Hey! That was Jennifer Pierson's."

Vlad dips into a mocking bow. "Do offer her my condolences. Tell her I will provide her with a new one should we ever achieve our main objective," he says and then starts to pace. "Can you believe them? Neville does nothing but attach himself to any organization that will have him, and Violet . . . yesterday Violet asked if I wanted to participate in a 'quiz' that will tell me what my 'best fall look' is," he says. "What does that even mean?"

"Mine is eggplant," Marisabel offers absently. "And scarves."

"So what if I need a little real refreshment?" Vlad continues. "It's the least I deserve after everything I've done to make this work. Do you know how difficult it was to get everyone registered? How much power it took out of me?" he insists. "Not to mention the constant questions from the attendance office. Despite the vacant expressions on their faces, the adults here are not nearly as dull as I would like. Today one of the old crones in the office started asking questions. I had to stare into her shriveled eyes for five minutes before she went back to her work." He stops to kick a clod of dirt, hard enough that it shatters against a tree. "I felt drained all day. It took all of my willpower not to tear into that girl in English."

My spine stiffens. He's talking about me. He's talking about tearing into me. As refreshment. I can't tell if it's my building sense of unease that's making it hard to comprehend this, or if he's really saying what I think he's saying. But that would mean . . . No. No more Buffy reruns. Ever. I try to force my mind back to the conversation, determined to come up with a non-insane explanation.

"What girl?" Marisabel asks. So far she's been mostly silent, but now he has her full attention.

"Oh, you know," Vlad says. "The unadorned, forthright one who dresses like she is preparing to slaughter a pig." After Marisabel's blank look, he adds, "The one James trailed after all day. The one with all the ridiculous questions."

The insult seems to appease her; she settles back on the table like a content tiger. "If the blond one isn't it, who's next?"

"I do not know," Vlad says, kicking a stick this time. "Perhaps one of the friends. I will start again tomorrow. But for now - dinner!" he says, his voice suddenly bright. "Try that bush; I thought I saw something earlier."

He claps his hands and fixes his gaze across the clearing. I peer around the lowest branch just in time to spot Devon and Ashley hefting two large branches from the scattered leaves. When they start to thrash the bushes, my stomach lurches; the chance that they're beating the brush in the hopes that chicken nuggets will emerge, screaming and running for their lives, is slim to none. It makes sense, my brain insists, and starts to fill in the pieces. The weirdness. The strange staring contests. The lack of parents. The wonder that is Violet. James's warnings. The empty cooler. And the missing blood. Oh God, the missing blood. How could I be so stupid? They're vampires, or at least under a number of severe delusions.

Jesus, Sophie, the guy's name is Vlad.

I bite my tongue to stop from giving a hysterical little laugh, and tell myself that when I get home I'll be able to work out a far more rational explanation. But right now? I need to leave. Fast. Devon and Ashley are only a quarter of the way around the clearing, so there's time. Boosting myself into a crouch, I glance backward. Twenty more feet and I'll be out of immediate hearing range, at which point I will sprint back to my car.

Suddenly I hear a rustle, followed by an excited cry. The leaves crunch as a small ball of fur makes a startled beeline for my bush. The rabbit bursts between the leaves and then crouches at its base, terrified and trembling. Before I can react, I hear the sound of two very large men barreling in my direction. If I run now, they will see me. No question. I stare into the rabbit's glassy eyes, hypnotized by fear. Think, think, think. "Here's my contact!" I will say. "That will teach me to stop making out so much after school." Insert nervous chuckle; try not to faint dead at their feet.

Devon and Ashley bend down to peer under the hanging leaves of the bush, and the rabbit darts to the side, running for better cover. Their shadows move, and I hear a shrill squeak, followed by a sickening snap and Vlad's shout that he wasn't supposed to kill it yet. Even though I want to vomit, the rabbit's flight has given me my chance to escape. I ready my legs to launch myself forward just as a swish of footsteps sounds to my right.


Lindsay's voice echoes in the startled silence. Launching myself back at the bush, I frantically shove branches out of the way so I can see clearly. Crap, crap, crap. What is she doing here?

Lindsay stands in the center of the clearing, clutching a blue binder to her chest like it's the last life vest on the Titanic. Next to Vlad and the two giants, she appears even tinier than usual. Her auburn hair catches the last glimmers of sunlight, throwing her pale face into even sharper contrast. She looks nervous, and very, very vulnerable. All except for the determined jut of her chin.

"I'm looking for James," Lindsay says, hugging the binder tighter and moving back a few steps when Vlad starts to approach. "Well, information about James, really. I heard you mention him earlier in the halls, and I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about him." She takes a deep breath. "Just a few things. It's important."

Vlad looks almost jovial. "Important?" He moves closer, forcing Lindsay to retreat to the edge of the trees, before he throws a playful look at Marisabel. "I fear I know very little. James is a private soul. How about the rest of you?"

Devon and Ashley shake their heads, their most communicative gesture to date. They're standing rigidly, hands behind their backs. Marisabel doesn't answer at first, just looks at him for a few long seconds.

"Vlad, don't do anything you will regret," she says softly.

"I am only trying to assist a fellow schoolmate," he says with grating innocence and then leans over so he's more on Lindsay's level. "So," he purrs. "What is your name?"

"Lindsay Allen," she says weakly, having now completed what appears to be a total body meld with her binder.

"And tell me, Lindsay Allen, do you have any distinguishing marks on your person?"

Disarmed, Lindsay's wariness evaporates. "What?"

Vlad waves a hand in the air. "Any birthmarks, moles, rashes that spell out your mother's maiden name . . . you know, marks!" He frowns down at her uncomprehending face. "How do you say it? Ah, yes, 'work with me here.' "

Lindsay pushes her shoulders back and pulls herself up to her full height. "This was a bad idea. I'm going now. Sorry to bother you. Please let James know that I am looking for him."

"I will take that as a 'no,'" Vlad says and then grabs her arm before she can move. "Not so hasty. I have a final question for you."

Lindsay orders him to let her go, her voice high, her cool composure cracking. She tugs against his grip, but Vlad just pulls her closer. Leaning down, he acts like he's about to whisper in her ear, but his next question rings out clear and strong.

"Do you think that anyone will miss you?"

Chapter Seven

There's a still moment, and then everyone's moving at once. Marisabel springs off the picnic table and runs over to Vlad, latching onto his bicep and yelling that it's time to leave. She might as well be a gnat; Vlad shrugs her off, continuing to smirk as Lindsay struggles against his grip. Devon and Ashley push in closer, putting themselves between her and the beaten-down path. Lindsay's gaze bangs about wildly, searching for an escape until Vlad jerks her close and grabs her chin, forcing her to look directly into his eyes. Her wrist goes limp.

Through the shock, the panic, and the guilt, the thought that has been running through my mind finally takes shape. This is bad. You have to do something. Snap out of it. I don't think long about what to do - I can't think long. After all, stupidity got me into this, maybe stupidity will get me out. I push my way through the bushes. Eyes. Avoid the eyes.

"Here you are!" I say, brushing lingering leaves off my arm as I aim the biggest smile I can manage at Vlad's chest. "I've been looking all over! I thought you said to meet in the parking lot. Thank God I heard your voice."

Vlad lets go of Lindsay, more from surprise than fear. Jogging over, I loop my arm through her elbow. Her arm tightens around mine like a boa constrictor; the rest of her is still catatonic.

"We'd better get. But y'all have a nice night," I say. Apparently, fear turns me Texan. A startling personality insight that I'll jot down later if I'm not dead in a ditch. I try to pivot us both around, but Lindsay's not offering much in the way of forward motion. It's a slow, bumbling turn. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Vlad nod over our heads.

We turn right into the twin chests of Devon and Ashley. I try to move us to the side, but Lindsay's legs are tangled up with mine, causing me to step on one of their toes. I make the mistake of looking up at their faces. They don't smirk, they don't glower, and in the second before I veer my gaze away, their eyes are as dead as a flat-lining heart patient. They just . . . exist, like two towering chess pieces. The left one is still clutching the dead rabbit. It hangs there limply, like a warning.

The good news is that Lindsay is starting to show signs of life. Her eyes are glassy but there, and I can feel her fingers tapping my upper arm. She stumbles a bit to the side, of her own accord, and I do everything I can to encourage the momentum in that direction. At least until the two brick walls move to block our way.

Vlad's thighs slink into view. He is wearing black boots with tips that curl up at the ends like two little devil horns. I concentrate on the embroidered patterns on their toes, willing my head to stay down, willing my heart to stay in my chest.

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