Chapter Eighteen

            Penny and McGregor were crouched into defensive positions, one at each side of me, doing fair approximations of their transformed growls. They couldn’t completely turn unless it was the full moon, but the adrenaline surge that accompanied the vampire’s appearance gave them enough of a kick that their jaw lines were shifting, nails sharpening into claws, teeth pointing into fangs.
Saying I wasn’t prepared to fight a vampire was the biggest understatement in history. Even when I get tips about suspected vampire activity, I’m not fully prepared to deal with them. It’s not just that they’re fast and strong. I can handle that. It’s that vampires are the most untrustworthy creatures on the planet. They’re killers. Nothing more and nothing less. If they claim otherwise, they’re playing a game which will end with you dead. And whatever this particular vampire was selling, I had no interest in buying.
The vampire chuckled, a single bass note that resonated through the clearing. “Heal, boys. Stay,” he said, wagging a finger at Penny and McGregor. To their credit, though the vampire was obviously mocking them in their half-turned state, neither boy took the bait. They stayed at my sides, waiting for the first sign of attack.
“What do you want?” I asked, working to keep my voice steady, though my heart was beating in my throat in a way that made me worry my words would come out garbled.
“I’ve always admired how you get right down to business,” he said, giving me a slow, wicked smile. “Oh!” he said, eyebrows arching in feigned surprise. “Sorry about the fangs. I’m just very excited to meet you.” By the time he’d finished speaking, the offending teeth had receded back into his gums, but his words brought a renewed round of growls from the werewolves.
I clenched my fists at my side to resist the disgusted shiver that worked its way down my spine.
“Why are you here?” I snapped, irritation overcoming my vampire-induced shock and fear.
“Alright,” he chuckled, holding up his hands (nails manicured and shining) in a gesture of surrender. “The owners of this property have accepted our assistance in protecting their investment,” he bobbed his head toward the zombies. “Any threat to their existence is to be dealt with appropriately.”
“You mean you’re supposed to kill us?” I asked, more irritated about his overly formal death threat than I was scared. “So, why are we standing here talking? Obviously, alive.”
Still smiling, he shrugged. “I find you to be very…entertaining. They way you’re unafraid of creatures so much stronger than yourself. Like right now. You couldn’t beat me in a fight, and yet here you stand, looking more angry than scared.” 
“So, you’re going to threaten me in the hopes that I’m afraid enough not to come back. I don’t think that’s a very good plan.”
“Killing you now would be a waste,” he said.
I didn’t understand what this vampire wanted from me. If he was supposed to kill anyone who found the zombies, why was I an exception? I didn’t think for a second it was just because he found me too intriguing to kill. Swinging my machete in a lazy arc, I stepped towards him.
 He made a noise closer to a hiss than a growl, his fangs emerging once more. “If you move one more step forward, one miniscule shift of your foot, I will snap your neck.” 
“You won’t lay a hand on me,” I said, my eyes straying to Penny and McGregor.
The vampire laughed again. “The werewolf cubs couldn’t stop me even if it were the full moon. Heed my warning, Caro Spencer.”
“Or?” I asked, taking another step.
His green eyes went flat, but before he could do more, Penny and McGregor leapt at the vampire in perfect unison.
My mouth opened to call them back, but the space where the three collided was a mess of swirling bodies. They spun together in a whirl of colors for a few seconds before it all stopped.
The tableau that took form before me was the exact reason I never went after vampires without a plan. This particular bloodsucker, not a hair out of place, had a pale hand wrapped around Penny’s neck and the heel of his boot planted on McGregor’s throat.
 “I will kill them both right here, right now. While you watch. Helpless. Is that what you want?” His fingers tightened around Penny’s neck.
I said nothing, lips pressed together until they burned with the pressure.
“It would be just like when those friends of yours were killed. You remember? You were so young, and all you could do was watch as their throats were ripped out.”
Tremors knocked my knees together and my arms began to tremble. “Let them go,” I said, through gritted teeth.
“You will leave this place?” He asked. “And never come back?”
I nodded.
His foot lifted off McGregor, hand sliding away from Penny.
As soon as he was no longer touching either werewolf, the vampire disappeared. I whirled around, searching for him, but found only darkness
“If you come here again, we will not hesitate to kill you,” his voice shouted from the tree line.
And then they appeared from the woods. An entire vampire clan. Some on the ground, some hanging from tree branches with the reckless abandon of the immortal, pale skin contrasting with the darkness so that they seemed to glow with sinister light.
            Penny and McGregor, recovered from their near brush with death, were standing back at my sides, but instead of readying for a fight, they looked to me for guidance.
“C’mon,” I said, grabbing them by their t-shirt sleeves.
We walked back to the car in silence, all of us surreptitiously checking that we were not accompanied by unwanted visitors.
We spent the car ride to Arcadia in total silence with the dome light on. I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs and my heart stuttered like it was about to pop. My fingers drummed against the steering wheel. I chewed my lip so hard a spurt of blood erupted into my mouth.
When I pulled up to the Omega Kappa Beta house McGregor was out of the car before I came to a full stop. Illuminated in the glow from the street lights was a grid like bruise pattern etched onto the skin of his neck—the marks of the sole of the vampire’s shoe.  
“Wha—“ he stopped. “When—“ he shook his head, pulled his bottom lip between his teeth, and walked to the house.
Before I drove off, I glanced at Penny, but he was oblivious, starring out his window, face a total blank.
I expected him to get straight into his car and head home when we got back to the office, but instead he followed me upstairs without a word. My knees shook as I climbed, but not from exertion. The tremble in my hands was more pronounced now that I didn’t have a steering wheel to hold on to, so I jammed them into my pockets.  
I waited for Penny to start talking, but I was able to flip on the lights and walk across the room before he said, “You aren’t going back there tomorrow.”
“It’s not like the vampires will be out during the day to stop me,” I said.
“They’ll just hunt you down after sunset.”
I whirled around, striding towards him. “I’m not going to listen to your billion reasons about why I can’t take care of myself,” I said.
“And I wasn’t going to say that,” he said, a distinct crispness in his voice. “That isn’t even what I meant before.”
I rolled my eyes, squinching my mouth into a disbelieving frown. “Oh, really? Then what did you mean? Cause you were pretty insistent that one little, human girl wasn’t enough to take on supernaturals.”
His focus dropped from my face, his pupils flicking from side-to-side as though he were speed reading. Just when I thought he wasn’t going to answer, he looked at me, reaching out with a hand to tuck the hair along my jaw behind my ear.  
“Have you ever thought about what I’d do without you, Caro?” he asked, eyes hooking on mine.
A hard knot formed in my throat, as though I’d swallowed my own fist. I shook my head, unable to form words, hypnotized by his gaze.
“You’ve been the only thing keeping me sane for years. Even before I was bitten you were my bad humored voice of reason,” he cupped my cheek in his hand. “When you go out to fight monsters alone, all I can imagine is what my life would be like without you. I know you can protect yourself. I know you’re tough. But I don’t know what I would do in a world where you don’t exist.”
His voice cracked before he finished speaking, so the last was said in whispers. His blue eyes blazed, but he was still completely himself.
I thought about giving a sarcastic, mood killing response. I thought about walking away. What I did, though, was lean forward, closing the few inches between us, and push my mouth against his.
He froze for a moment, only about the time it takes a heart to give one beat, before wrapping his arms around me and pulling me closer. My mouth opened and our tongues met, but absent were the hard, nipping bites, and abrasive lips. This was a different kind of kiss altogether—slow and sweet. He was turning me to liquid.
I couldn’t say how long we kissed. Time lost all meaning in the gentle, deep strokes of his tongue against mine. When our lips did disengage, we stayed together, the tips of our noses and foreheads touching. For all the years we’d been sleeping together, it had never been like this. No romantic tingles; no head-spinning dizziness whenever we touched; no aches of longing that burned from my abdomen down to the tips of my fingers.

 Eighty-five percent of me was well on board with where this encounter was going. Adrenaline and stress were mixing in my body to form a dangerous cocktail that needed an outlet.  The rest of me, however, was throwing a stomping, screaming, kicking temper tantrum. Penny and I were never, ever supposed to engage in meaningful kisses. Our physical relationship had nothing to do with love, but it sure was starting to feel like it. Normally, that would make me end it. Tonight, though, I stepped far enough away from him to slip off my shirt and slide down my jeans. 

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