The reluctant vampire, p.12
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       The Reluctant Vampire, p.12
 

         Part #15 of Argeneau series by Lynsay Sands
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Chapter Twelve

 

  Drina walked quickly into Elvi and Victor's bedroom and right past their en suite bathroom, headed for the door to the hall. She didn't have to go to the bathroom, of course. She'd only said that to keep from worrying Harper, and fortunately, Stephanie had been too wrapped up in the movie to read her and call her on the lie.

  Not that there was anything to worry about, Drina thought. She'd probably just seen a neighborhood cat or something skulking across the yard or over the fence. But she was going to check it out anyway. Armed and not in a nigh e, she thought with a wry shake of the head as she hurried up the hall to the stairs and down to the first floor. Teddy, Alessandro, and Leonora were in the living room talking quietly while they awaited their shi si ng with Tiny and Mirabeau. They glanced over at the sound of her descending the stairs and Teddy immediately came out of the room.

  "Problem?" he asked.

  Drina shook her head. "I thought I saw something in the backyard, and I'm just going to take a quick peek around. I probably won't even leave the deck. "

  "I'll come with you," he said, moving to follow, but she shook her head as she walked into the pantry to don her coat and boots.

  "There's no need. In fact, it's be er if you watch from the window. If there is trouble and you're with me, we could both be taken out. If you watch from inside, you can shout the alarm and warn the others, so they aren't taken by surprise," she pointed out sensibly. "Besides, it was probably just a cat skulking about or something. There's no sense both of us getting cold. "

  "Alessandro can come watch from the window to give the alarm if anything happens," Teddy said grimly, dragging on his coat as she pulled on her boots. "I'm not le ng you go out there by yourself. I'm police chief of this town, and if there's trouble, I'm going to help take care of it. You're not going out there on your own," he finished stubbornly.

  "What? Are you trying out for the role of the cop in a slasher movie?" she mu ered with disgust, thinking they were usually just as stupid as the other characters in the movies.

  "What?" he asked with bewilderment.

  Drina straightened with a sigh, and said solemnly, "Look, Teddy, you're being very brave and strong to want to accompany me. Unfortunately, you're also being stupid. If there is a problem out there, you could only be a detriment rather than a help in this situation. "

  He puffed up indignantly. "I know you immortals are stronger and faster and all that nonsense, but I have a gun and wouldn't hesitate to use it. "

  "Which makes you even more dangerous," she said firmly. "Any immortal worth a spit could take control of you and make you turn the gun on me before I even realized they were there. " He blanched at the possibility, and she added gently, "The best thing you can do in this situa on is watch from the window and shout to alert the others if there is a problem. That isn't a reflec on on you. It doesn't mean you are weak and helpless. It is the smart thing to do, and you're a smart man. So act like it and stop le ng your pride make foolish decisions for you. And please try to remember I'm basically the immortal version of a cop. I am trained for this. I'm not some helpless female creeping out in her nightie. "

  Confusion flickered across his face, telling her he didn't recognize that reference either, but Teddy heaved a disgusted sigh, and nodded. "All right. But give me a signal if you see anything, anything at all. "

  "I will," she assured him, dragging on her coat and hat before turning back to the closet to retrieve one of the large suitcases Anders had stored in there when they'd thought they were basically babysi ng. Opening it, she rifled through the contents, no ng that a couple items were missing. Anders was already armed and she should have thought to arm herself before this, she knew. It was that old "new-life-mate"

  distrac on thing ge ng in the way, Drina thought on a sigh as she retrieved a quiver of arrows, a crossbow, a gun, and a box of drug-laced bullets that should knock out any rogue for at least twenty to thirty minutes . . . enough time to secure them for pick up.

  "Christ," Teddy muttered, eyeing the arsenal she'd revealed.

  "Did you think we went a er rogues armed with just our charming smiles and good sense?" Drina asked with amusement as she strapped the quiver to her back for easy arrow retrieval, and then quickly loaded the gun.

  "I don't know. I guess I never really thought about it," he admi ed quietly, and then shook his head. "And I suppose you're good with both those weapons?"

  "With our eyesight, be er than the best mortal sniper in the world," she assured him, and then added wryly, "Having more than two millennia to practice and perfect the skill doesn't hurt either. "

  Teddy nodded solemnly, and then followed her into the kitchen. He paused at the window, though, and she glanced back to see him already peering fre ully out into the darkness. He didn't glance around as she opened the door, but said gruffly, "Be careful out there. "

  "I will," she assured him, and slid outside.

  It wasn't as cold as it had been before this, and Drina wondered idly if this was the first sign that winter might be coming to an end here, or just a slight reprieve. Whatever the case, the snow on the deck was a bit slushy under her boots, so it was actually warm enough to bring on some mel ng, and the night was as s ll as death, with no wind to aggravate things. The one thing she'd no ced while here was that the cold that seemed bearable on a calm night, became completely unbearable if a wind kicked up. She'd also learned that it played havoc with something called the windchill factor, which as far as she could tell just meant it felt even colder than it really was.

  Gaze skimming the backyard, Drina moved to the edge of the deck and paused at the bench that ran around it. She squinted, searching the dark shadows, automa cally turning off the safety on her gun as she did, but didn't see anything. Of course, she'd taken long enough to gear herself up that whatever she'd seen could have climbed up onto the roof by now, she thought a bit irritably. The possibility made Drina glance back toward the house, her eyes searching out the roof. Of course, she couldn't see all of it from that angle, so sighed and moved to the stairs to descend into the yard and start toward the back fence. She glanced back occasionally to see how much of the roof she could now make out, but was nearly to the back fence before she could see all of it.

  There was nothing to see. No raccoons, hungry enough to break from their winter sleep and go in search of food, and no rogue creeping about, looking for a window to slip through. Which didn't mean they hadn't moved around to the front of the house, Drina thought, and moved closer to the house un l she was sure Teddy could see her, then pointed at herself, made a walking signal with her fingers, and then gestured toward the road-side of the house.

  Teddy seemed to understand and, in response, pointed to himself, and then pointed in the same direc on, which she presumed meant he would follow her progress via the ground-floor windows. Drina turned and started around the house, crossing the driveway, and then walking along the sidewalk beside the house to get to the front. She kept glancing up toward the roof as she went, spo ng Teddy at various windows as he followed her progress, but also scanning the roof to be sure there was nothing and no one creeping up there.

  At the front of the house, Drina paused at the wrought-iron gate and took a good long look at the yard and house. She noted Teddy's presence at the front-door windows, but as in the back, the roof at the front was empty. She was about to turn away and head back around the house to return inside, when a rustling caught her ear and made her freeze.

  Turning slowly, Drina searched the front yard more carefully, checking every nook and crevice. She frowned when she spo ed movement in the shadowed snow in the corner of the yard in front of the upper and lower porch. Whatever was moving was too small to be human. She hesitated, but curiosity won out and she opened the front gate and stepped inside.

  The worry about rogues gone now, Drina started across the yard, another concern rearing its head. It might be a poor abandoned, hungry, and freezing cat r
oo ng in the snow for food. Drina liked animals, often more than mortals and immortals, and wasn't above bringing the poor little bugger a bowl of milk or something to help it see its way through winter. Or if it looked uncared for, maybe even le ng it sleep in the garage for the night, where it would be protected from the elements. She could always take it to an animal shelter in the morning.

  "Oh, what a cu e," she murmured, slinging the cross bow over her shoulder by the strap as she got close enough to be er make out the animal. It was a chubby li le sucker, white and black and digging away as if scratching at kitty litter. As she moved closer, she crooned, "Here kitty, kitty. "

  The cat s lled at her call, growled, and stomped its feet like a child throwing a tantrum. It made Drina chuckle as she con nued forward, and she bent forward, trying to make herself smaller and less threatening as she continued to call, "Here kitty, kitty," hoping to lure it to her. Animals were so adorable really; cute, cuddly, affec onate. In the darkest part of the front garden though it was, she could s ll make out that it was hunkered down to the ground, looking oddly flat and wide. Not starving then, but -

  Drina stopped abruptly, a choked sound slipping from her throat as the damned thing li ed its tail and somehow pissed at her. She was a good eight or ten feet away s ll, and the damned thing hit her right in the face and chest and -

  Dear Lord, the smell was the most god-awful stench she'd ever encountered. Drina staggered back, wondering with horror what the hell the animal had been ea ng that its urine would smell so damned foul. That was followed by the wonder as to whether it was some damned mutant to be able to pee out its bu at her, but they were brief thoughts that flashed across her mind, and in the next moment were gone, replaced with dismay as her eyes began to s ng as if someone had shoved burning hot pokers in her eyes.

  Gagging and choking, Drina stumbled and fell on her bu and rolled to the side. Her hands rose to cover her burning eyes, and moans were gargling from her mouth.

  "Drina?"

  She hadn't heard the front door open, but she heard Teddy's shout and the stomp of his feet as he raced down the front steps.

  "What the hell - Dear God, it's a skunk!" His approaching footsteps stopped abruptly on that almost false o squawk, and then con nued more cau ously, appearing to curve to the side a bit rather than approach directly, as he mu ered, "Shoo! Shoo you li le bugger. Don't make me shoot you, you damned varmint. Christ, you've been sprayed. I can smell you from here. Oh God Almighty. What the hell were you thinking playing with a skunk? For Christ's sake. Shoo!" he repeated. "Damn, did it get you in the face?

  Shoo!"

  Drina was lying s ll now, curled on her side with eyes closed, wai ng for the nanos to fix whatever the heck the cat urine had done and listening to Teddy with confusion. She couldn't tell from one moment to the next who he was addressing, herself or the cat, and she hadn't a clue what he was talking about, except he seemed afraid of the li le beast that had done this to her. Not that she blamed him really, considering the agony she was in, but the creature wasn't much bigger than a ki en, and Teddy did have a damned gun and - cripes her eyes hurt.

  "Shoot the damned thing," Drina growled, deciding maybe she didn't like animals so much anymore.

  "I'm not shoo ng it. It'll wake up the whole damned neighborhood. Could give one of the old biddies in the retirement home across the street a heart attack, and - "

  "Then throw a damned snowball at it," she demanded furious.

  "Teddy? What's happening?" Leonora's voice called out from the general vicinity of what Drina guessed was the porch.

  "Why is the bella Alexandrina rolling on the snow?" Alessandro's voice sounded next. "Is she making the snow angels?"

  "No, she's not making the damned snow angels," Teddy muttered with exasperation.

  "Oh dear, is that a skunk?" Leonora asked.

  "No," Alessandro gasped with horror. "No the smelly cat!"

  "I've told you, Alessandro darling, they aren't cats. "

  "They look like the cats. Like the big fluffy cat she's been stepped on and fla ened to a big fluffy pancake cat," Alessandro argued.

  "Well, perhaps a little," Leonora conceded.

  "I hate the smelly cats," Alessandro vowed, and Drina thought she heard a shudder in his voice. "They smell like - Like that!" he cried, as the smell apparently reached him. "Make her to go away, Teddy!"

  "How the hell am I supposed to make it go away, Alessandro?"

  "Throw the ball of the snow at it," Alessandro said, and Drina nodded. It was exactly what she'd suggested.

  "He can't do that, dear," Leonora said soothingly.

  "Why not?" Alessandro demanded.

  "Because the damned thing has nowhere to go," Teddy snapped. "Drina's in the way. It's trapped in the corner of the garden. Throwing snowballs at it will just piss it off and make it spray again, and I have no intention of getting sprayed. "

  "Then you must to get the bella Alexandrina out of the way," Alessandro said with distress. "We must to get the smelly cat to go away. "

  "Drina, pull yourself toward my voice a few feet. I can help you up and out of its way then," Teddy called.

  "Pull myself?" she asked with disbelief, and then demanded, "Come here and help me. I can't even see. "

  "I can't. You're too close to the skunk," Teddy explained. "Just pull yourself this way. "

  "Where the hell is Mr. Big Brave Police Chief who was willing to take on a rabid rogue?" she asked dryly.

  "A rabid rogue, by the way, who could twist you into pretzel shapes and laugh while he did it?"

  "Rabid rogues are one thing, skunks are another en rely," Teddy said dryly. "Just pull yourself over here and - "

  He fell silent as the sound of smashing glass sounded.

  "What was that?" Drina asked sharply.

  "It came from the back of the house," Teddy said sharply, and then she heard Harper shout and Stephanie scream, and Teddy barked, "Wait here. "

  "What? Wait!" she cried, then cursed and forced her hands from her eyes to try to see as she heard his footsteps rush away. She could hear Leonora and Alessandro moving away as well but couldn't see a damned thing. Opening her eyes merely brought on the pain again and forced her to close them once more. Though she thought this time they hurt a little less. Maybe.

  Adrenaline rushing through her, Drina started to roll onto her stomach to get up, ignoring the growl the ac on immediately caused from the corner of the yard. Worried sick about Harper and Stephanie, she merely snarled, "Go ahead and spray me again, bitch! My eyes are closed, and I can't smell any worse than I do now. "

  Drina staggered to her feet and stumbled blindly toward where she thought Leonora's and Alessandro's voices had been coming from earlier. She'd only taken a couple of steps when she stumbled into what felt like a snow-covered boulder and fell face-first in the snow. Releasing a string of curses she'd learned while a pirate, Drina started to scramble back to her feet, then froze as a faint wa of smoke reached her nose. Li ing her head, she sniffed the air, but whatever she'd smelled was gone. All she could smell was some horrible combina on of ro en eggs, burning rubber, and very strong garlic. She could hear the hungry rush of flames, though, coming from what she thought was the side of the house. Gri ng her teeth, Drina didn't bother trying to get up and risk running into something else but began to crawl forward on her hands and knees. She'd only moved a foot or so when her senses made her pause and stiffen.

  Drina's head rose like a deer scen ng the air for danger though she apparently had no sense of smell at the moment, and it was sound she was testing the air for. Someone was there. She knew it. She could feel their presence in the prickling along her spine.

  Her first ins nct was to go for her gun, but she no longer had that. She must have dropped it when she'd fallen back a er being sprayed, Drina realized. Christ, she was a blind idiot, crawling around in the dark without a damned weapon, she thought bi erly, and then recalled the cros
sbow hanging from her shoulder. Not that it would be much use since she was presently blind. She might as well be wearing a stupid nightie and wailing please don't kill me.

  "Screw that," Drina mu ered, and immediately fell back to sit in the snow, reaching back to snatch an arrow from the quiver and slinging the crossbow around at the same me. She was prac ced enough at the task that even blind she managed to arm the crossbow in a heartbeat. The problem then became where to aim the damned thing, but she lifted the weapon and strained to hear any sound that would give away the person's location.

  When Drina turned in the general direc on of the side of the house, or what she thought was the side of the house where the cornered skunk had been or s ll was, there was a sudden flurry of sound that definitely wasn't the skunk. Whatever made it was big, human-sized big, judging by the thud of footsteps as they fled in what she thought was the direction of the gate.

  Drina followed the sound with her crossbow, and when her ins ncts screamed to release it, loosed her arrow. She heard a grunt, but the footsteps didn't slow, and she cursed under her breath, suspec ng she'd only winged whoever it was.

  Drina sighed, but rearmed the crossbow just in case and listened blindly for another moment before she heard approaching sirens.

  "Fire trucks," she mu ered, beginning to shuffle backward on her bu in the direc on she thought the stairs were, using one hand and her legs to move herself. The en re me, she con nued to point her crossbow blindly in the general direction of where she thought the yard's front gate was.

  "Well, they put out the fire," Teddy Brunswick announced wearily, stomping his feet on the mat as he entered his kitchen and began to remove his coat.

  Drina glanced to him from the stool Anders had silently set beside the back door for her . . . as far from his own posi on at the far end of the a ached dining room as he could get her without s cking her outside. Her vision was s ll blurry, but she could see well enough to make out the way the police chief's nose wrinkled as he caught her scent. She also didn't miss how quickly he scooted out of the kitchen and into the dining room, straight across the room to the desk against the far wall, where Anders was busily punching away at Teddy's computer keyboard. He was searching the Internet for sugges ons to remove skunk spray from a person.

  Sighing miserably, Drina glanced toward the ceiling, wondering how Harper and Stephanie were. They had been placed in one of the two bedrooms upstairs in this ny, two-floor house of Teddy's. Dawn, Leonora, and Alessandro were tending to them. Tiny had been moved to the second bedroom, with Mirabeau and Edward continuing to oversee his turning.

  Teddy had arranged to have them brought here to his home while the fire trucks were s ll working on pu ng out the fire at Casey Co age. It had taken two ambulances and his deputy's car to transport them. Everyone else had gone in the ambulances, and Drina had been the only one in the police car. While she hadn't yet been able to see at that point, she was sure she'd heard the deputy making muffled sounds that could have been either gagging or weeping. Either was possible considering how she smelled, and the fact that the deputy had been in such a rush to get her where he had to take her that he hadn't thought to put anything down on his seats before ushering her quickly into the back of his car. His car could very well carry that horrible smell forever for all she knew. Drina could certainly understand if he'd been sobbing over that.

  It turned out the sound of breaking glass they'd heard had been a rock crashing through one of the windows in the second-floor porch. It had been followed by a Molotov cocktail that had sha ered just inches from the blanket. The fuel inside had splashed across the blankets, pillows, and Harper and Stephanie. The two had apparently come staggering out of the room in flames. Edward and Anders had heard their shouts and were the first to reach them, with Teddy, Leonora, and Alessandro hard on their heels. They'd somehow doused the flames ea ng away at Harper and Stephanie, and then - afraid the fire would move through the en re house - had go en everyone out, along with as much blood as they could grab.

  Drina had been the last one anyone had thought of, which she didn't mind since she wasn't seriously hurt or anything, but the whole thing had been incredibly frustra ng and frightening. She'd been worried sick about Stephanie and Harper and as useless as a baby as she dragged herself to the front porch and inside. It was the firemen, charging into the house, who had found her using the door frame to pull herself to her feet in the foyer, shou ng fran cally for Harper and Stephanie. One of the men had led her through the house to the back door and out into the yard with the others.

  "Damage?" Anders's voice made Drina leave her self-pitying thoughts and tune in to their conversation.

  "Surprisingly li le," Teddy said, and did sound surprised. "Apparently the house is double-walled brick, and that helped prevent the fire from spreading from the porch to the rest of the house. Both the upper porch and the one below it are write-offs, of course, and the hallway between the porch and Elvi and Victor's room took some damage before the firemen arrived. There was a good bit of smoke damage, though," he added with a grimace. "And the fire chief said no one can stay there for a bit due to the possibility of hot ashes star ng the fire up again and something about toxic air and residue through the house. "

  She saw Anders nod acknowledgment.

  "Did you call Lucian?" Teddy asked.

  "No. He likes full reports, so I waited for your return," Anders said, and then punched more keys and Drina heard a sound she recognized as a computer printer kicking to life.

  "What's this?" Teddy asked, and his blurry figure moved over to peer down at whatever printed. "Hmm. Carbolic soap, vinegar, and tomato juice. "

  She saw his head swing her way and sat up a li le straighter. "Is that how to get rid of this damned smell?"

  Drina had already removed her clothes and now sat there in the kitchen in the ra est old sheet Anders could find in Teddy's linen closet. It was almost gauze thin and frayed on the edges, wrapped around her twice or three mes and tucked into itself above her breasts. She s ll smelled horrendous, though. Along with her clothes, the skunk - or smelly cat as Alessandro called it - had go en her in the face, neck, hair, and hands when he'd sprayed.

  "Yes," Teddy murmured, and then shi ed. "I have some vinegar, but she'll need more than I have, and I don't have any tomato juice at all. I can get both at the twenty-four-hour grocery store, but it says here you have to get the carbolic soap at a drugstore and they just recently reduced the hours on what used to be our twenty-four-hour drugstore. It closes at 10 p. m. now. "

  Drina turned to peer at the clock on the kitchen wall and squinted to read the me. When she saw that it was 10:03, she could have wept. Did she have some rotten luck or what?

  "We'll have to wait till it reopens in the morning," Teddy said unhappily. Drina turned to take in the men's expressions. Neither Teddy nor Anders looked happy at this news, but she was so miserable about it herself, she had li le energy le to care about how they were feeling. It wasn't just that she was red of s nking to high heaven, but Anders insisted, and rightly so, that she should stay in the kitchen and not spread her smell through the rest of Teddy's house. This meant she was stuck right where she was, on the hard vinyl barstool in the kitchen. There would be no creeping upstairs to watch over Harper, no checking on Stephanie, no looking in to see how Tiny's turn was going. She supposed she'd even be sleeping there on the kitchen floor, like the family dog, if she slept at all. It was not being able to go up to Harper that bothered her the most, though. Drina wanted to be at his side, nursing him back to health as he'd done for her when she'd woken after the accident.

  "Well . . . " Her gaze slid back to Teddy at that mu ered word to see that he was shuffling sideways toward the doorway to the hall. Avoiding her gaze, he mumbled something about checking on the others, and ducked quickly out of the room.

  "Calling Lucian," Anders announced, following quickly.

  Drina watched them go, suspec ng it would be the last
she'd see of them un l the drugstore opened in

  . . . oh, ten or twelve hours was her guess . . . it seemed like a lifetime at that point.

  "I don't know what the hell Drina thought she was doing playing with the damned thing. "

  Those gruff words dri ed through Harper's consciousness, the sound of Drina's name, s rring him from sleep.

  "She probably didn't know what it was, Teddy," Leonora Cipriano's calm tones said soothingly. "There aren't any in Europe. "

  "That is because we no would suffer the smelly cat," Alessandro announced firmly.

  "No, you'd most likely transport them somewhere else. " Teddy sounded irritated. "That's probably how we got the li le beasts ourselves. You guys put them all on a boat and sent them over here to North America a couple of hundred years ago. "

  "The English maybe would do such a thing. Is what they did with the criminals, so maybe they would send you the smelly cats. But no the Italians. We would no be so cruel. "

  "Well, I don't know what the hell it was doing out this me of year anyway," Teddy said. "I thought they hibernated. "

  "They go into a torpor, not a true hiberna on," Leonora explained quietly. "And it was probably hungry. They will some mes wake up and come out in search of food if it warms a bit, and it did warm up quite a bit last night. " There was a pause, and then Leonora said, "I just feel sorry for the poor li le thing having to sit down there in the kitchen all by herself like some sort of outcast. She looked so miserable when I went down to ask Anders if he'd managed to reach Lucian yet. "

  "Had he?" Teddy asked sharply.

  "No, I'm afraid not. He said he's left several messages, though. I'm sure Lucian will call soon. "

  There was a gusty sigh, and Teddy said, "Well, he'd be er. You're all welcome to stay here, of course. But this is a small house. I only have the two bedrooms. You'll all be sleeping in shi s un l he calls and gives some sort of instruction. "

  Harper was having trouble following the conversa on. What the hell was a smelly cat and who had been playing with it? For that ma er, what was wrong with playing with a cat? And what was that about Lucian and instructions?

  Harper forced his eyes open and turned his head to peer toward the voices and found he was in bed in a room he didn't recognize and that Alessandro, Teddy, and Leonora were having their rather strange li le discussion by the door.

  Movement beside him in the bed drew his a en on, and Harper turned his head the other way to find Stephanie lying beside him. Her eyes were open, and she looked much less confused than he felt.

  "Drina was sprayed by a skunk," Stephanie explained quietly, apparently reading his confusion.

  "Alessandro calls them smelly cats. "

  "Ah. " Harper sighed and supposed he should have recalled as much. He had a vague recollec on of hearing the name "smelly cat" before from the man, but it had been sometime ago.

  "You're awake," Teddy said grimly.

  Harper turned his head to watch the trio approach the bed.

  "How do you feel?" Leonora asked, bending to smooth his hair back from his forehead and check his eyes for he knew not what.

  "Be er than I did earlier," he said dryly, recalling the "earlier" in ques on. Roaring flames, bubbling skin, the stench of burnt meat, and knowing it was his flesh. Being engulfed by fire was a most unpleasant and terrifying experience. It wasn't something he'd soon forget.

  Leonora moved around the bed to Stephanie now and repeated the same ques on and ac ons; feeling her forehead he realized now, not just brushing hair back, and checking her eyes, perhaps to see if they were clear or how much silver there was in them. It could be a good gage of many things, including passion levels and blood levels.

  Harper heard Stephanie murmur that she was fine. He didn't believe her for a minute. He had no doubt the poor kid was trauma zed. Hell, he was trauma zed, and he wasn't a teenager who un l just recently had been mortal. Fire was one of the few things that could kill their kind. If they hadn't go en out of that room and found help to douse the flames, they could have died there.

  The thought disturbed him and made him shift unhappily. "Where's Drina?"

  "Er . . . She was sprayed by a skunk," Teddy said with a grimace.

  "Yes, Stephanie said so, but where is she?" What he really wanted to know was why the hell she wasn't there with him. He'd nearly died, dammit. He wanted her with him.

  "Well, she's down in the kitchen at the moment. "

  "They won't let her out of the kitchen because they don't want her to smell up the house," Stephanie told him, no doubt plucking the explanation from someone's head. He didn't care whose.

  "She's very worried about you, though," Leonora reassured him. "She wanted to be here with you both. She's probably fretting herself sick down there. "

  The words soothed him somewhat but not completely, and Harper sat up and started to get out of bed, pausing when the blankets covering him fell away revealing a Port Henry Police T-shirt and black joggers.

  "Your clothes were pre y much just charred bits melted into your skin. They fell away with the damaged skin as you healed. Teddy was kind enough to loan you those and help Alessandro dress you while Dawn and I dressed Stephanie," Leonora explained quietly.

  He glanced back to Stephanie to see that she wore a similar getup. Grun ng, he stood, his gaze sliding over a garbage bin brimming with empty blood bags. They were really going through them. In fact, he wondered that they'd had enough to deal with the accident, Tiny's turn, and now this.

  "Leonora opened up the blood bank, and she and Edward brought back a bunch more blood," Teddy announced, catching where his gaze had gone.

  Harper nodded. Leonora had insisted on coming out of re rement a er her turn and taken a posi on at the local blood bank, which had distressed Alessandro no end. Not that he really minded having a wife who worked. It was just distressing to him because they were s ll new turns, and Leonora's posi on meant she had to leave their bed more frequently than he'd liked when she'd taken it on. Especially when he was wealthy enough that she needn't work at all if she chose.

  "Thank you," he murmured to Leonora, heading for the door.

  "Wait for me," Stephanie said, throwing the covers aside to follow him.

  Harper slowed as he headed out of the room, but not much. He wanted to see Drina. He wanted to take her in his arms and never let her go. A man got a lot of things straight when he was forced to face his own mortality, and Harper had realized some things. He loved the damned woman. He'd come to love her fire, her passion, her wit, and her strength. And he was glad as hell she hadn't been in that room when the firebomb or whatever it was had come flying through the window.

  "A Molotov cocktail," Stephanie said behind him, as he started down the stairs. He only realized she was naming whatever it was that had exploded all over them, when she explained, "The memory of the fire chief saying that was one of Teddy's surface memories . . . Thank you for dragging me out of the porch. "

  Harper slowed at her quiet words and turned to slip his arm around her shoulders affec onately, muttering, "My pleasure. "

  Stephanie slipped her own arm around his waist and squeezed briefly, then slid past him on the stairs and hurried the rest of the way to the main floor, turning right at the bo om as if she knew where she was going. Harper followed since he didn't have a clue of the layout of the house, and they turned into a dining room, where Stephanie paused abruptly, her mouth dropping.

  Harper followed her gaze, spo ed Drina slumped miserably on a stool in the kitchen at the opposite end of the house and started toward her at once. Relief coursed through him just at the sight of her. He was passing Stephanie when she made an odd sound that had him glancing toward her. He frowned as he realized that her mouth hadn't dropped open in surprise; the girl was heaving. Slowing reluctantly, he asked, "Are you all - " And then he came to a shuddering halt as the smell hit him. His head jerked back to Drina with horror just as her head
came up.

  She peered at them blankly for a second, and then relief lit up her face like a Christmas tree. She promptly leapt off her stool and rushed forward, clutching what appeared to be a ra y old sheet around her as she hurried to him.

  "Oh, Harper, Stephanie. Oh thank God!" she cried. "I've been so worried. "

  Despite himself, Harper took a quick step back at her approach, but then caught himself and forced himself to stand s ll. He also stopped breathing, however, holding his breath in a desperate bid to keep from gagging as the woman he loved threw herself at him and hugged him.

  Drina held him ghtly and for a very, very long me. At least it seemed a very long me to him as he con nued to hold his breath, but then she finally pulled pack to peer up at him happily. Her smile was wide, her eyes glowing . . . until she saw his face. Concern immediately replaced her relief.

  "You're terribly flush," she said with a frown. "Have you had enough blood? Maybe you should lie down for a bit. Are you - Harper, you're turning purple!"

  "I'm fine. " He sighed on an exhale and pulled her to his chest again so that she wouldn't see his face as he inhaled another breath. Dear God, he thought as the toxic fumes wa ed from the love of his life to fill his mouth and lungs. Oh Good Lord in heaven, he moaned inwardly, barely managing not to whimper aloud.

  "I wanted to come up - " Drina began, and then paused as she peered past him. "Stephanie? What are you doing way over - Oh. "

  She deflated like a punctured balloon, and then flushed with mor fica on and - avoiding Harper's eyes -

  scrurried quickly back to her stool. She crawled back onto it, her shoulders slumped and every line of her body speaking of misery. Her voice was much subdued when she said, "I'm glad you're both all right, and that you came down so I could see for myself. You can both go back upstairs now with the others, though, if you like. I understand. "

  Harper turned to see that Stephanie had moved over to a desk holding a computer, about as far as she could get and stay in the room. He supposed that and the girl's dismayed expression were what had recalled Drina to the matter of her scent.

  Sighing, he glanced back to Drina, and then forced himself to move across the room to join her. With every step, he assured himself that his senses would deaden to the scent quickly, and he could bear it ll they did. Still, he couldn't help holding his breath as he approached and stood in front of her.

  "What - ?" she began when he appeared before her. But when Harper simply caught her upper arms and pulled her against his chest, she fell against him with a li le sniffle that told him how much it meant to her. He suspected his Drina did not cry o en, if at all. A weepy woman would never have passed for a male pirate, and he doubted gladiators could afford the luxury of weeping, either. Harper heard her inhale and glanced down curiously to see that she had her nose pressed to his chest and was trying to inhale his scent. He wondered that she could smell anything over her own stench, so wasn't terribly surprised when Drina sighed miserably, and mourned, "I can't smell you. I love your scent, but I can't smell you. "

  Harper didn't have a clue what to say to that, and really, speaking would mean releasing the air in his lungs and taking in another. He desperately wanted to avoid doing that un l absolutely necessary, so was grateful for the distraction when the door beside them suddenly opened, and Anders entered, bags in hand.

  Drina was out of his arms and on Anders at once. "Did you get everything?"

  "Dear God, woman! Get back. You stink," Anders barked.

  Harper scowled at the man. It was no more than Drina was doing, however. He wasn't surprised her moment of sniffly misery had passed and her naturally fiery nature had reasserted itself. This was more the Alexandrina Argenis he knew.

  Eyes narrowing, Drina moved closer instead of ge ng back as Anders had ordered, and then hissed up at the Russian. "And you're the most miserable SOB I've ever encountered, so I guess we all have our crosses to bear. " She snatched the bags from him, and then turned away adding, "The difference is I'm about to bathe away this smell, but when I come down, you'll still be a miserable SOB. "

  Harper found a smile pulling his mouth wide as he watched Drina make her exit, walking out of the room with her eyes blazing and head high, as regal as any queen.

  "Damn, she's magnificent," he breathed, posi ve he must be the luckiest bastard on the planet to have found her.

  "Glad you think so," Anders said dryly. "Then you can take these instruc ons up to her so she doesn't screw it up and use the stuff in the wrong order or something. "

  Harper glanced down at the paper the hunter shoved at him, no ng the tle Instruc ons on How to Remove Skunk Odor from a Human. He glanced back to Anders and smiled widely. "I'll even help her follow the instructions. "

  "I'll bet you will," Anders said dryly.

 
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