Mr. Tophat’s other eyebrow raised. “Why, you spicy little jawbreaker,” he exclaimed in evident admiration. “If that’s how you’d like to play it then I am more than game. Tell me, with what weapon do you think you can best an eminently experienced immortal duelist such as myself?”
It was a hell of a question. I was saved from answering for a moment by the fact that I was hyperventilating. It didn’t really help me think, though – I didn’t want to fight at all! I’d only called out to the fae because I’d figured maybe if I promised to go to enough scary movies that I had to give up sleeping, then maybe I could get them to help me keep Mr. Salvatore away from Megan.
I’d thought they couldn’t possibly be as evil as Hans claimed. Both sides in a war always claim the other side is the bad one.
But I’d been wrong, and my very own emotionally sadistic stalker elf had come out to prove it. Katherine had been right: I’d had no idea how monstrous the monsters could be – or what stakes they would insist on playing for.
I wheezed for breath while Mr. Tophat watched. He was clearly enjoying himself too much to rush me. And no wonder – I was in a mad panic. He had to feel like he’d found his own personal candy shop. He did, if those stupid pet names were any indication. I wondered if they actually corresponded to different flavors of freaking out, or if Mr. Tophat was just a particularly flamboyant douchebag. He’d obviously been lurking around me long enough to know my actual name.
No! I couldn’t get sidetracked. I needed to come up with a weapon. Something good. Not something I could win with – that would be impossible. I just had to stall until Hans and Mr. Salvatore got here. I needed to come up with something so outrageous Mr. Tophat would have to protest.
“You know, you being immortal does make this kind of unfair,” I managed to comment.
Mr. Tophat’s smile widened into a Cheshire grin. “Yes,” he agreed amicably. “But, as I would have told the baker had she been inclined to listen, I rarely gamble without the winning hand. Now choose, my pretty pastry, or forfeit.”
I hadn’t thought of anything. But maybe that was the problem. Usually, when I’m spouting crazy shit, it’s because I’m freaked out and out of control and desperate to stop – not because I’m trying to come up with it.
I took a deep breath. I held it. It didn’t really matter what I said because this whole situation was out of control. So when I exhaled, I just went with whatever wanted to come out.
“I choose vampires,” I said.
Mr. Tophat actually took a step back. “You… choose vampires? You can’t do that,” he protested with a laugh.
“Why not?” I shot back. “I’m the challenged. The choice should be mine.”
Mr. Tophat straightened and squared his shoulders. “Only a fae noble may choose a champion, my ignorant gelato. Mortals must represent themselves.” He sighed theatrically. “I’m sorry, but it’s just not done.”
“But I’m not choosing a champion,” I countered. “I’m choosing a weapon.”
Mr. Tophat’s eyes narrowed. “A vampire is not a weapon,” he said flatly. “It is a soulless abomination.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. My mouth was running away with me and I wasn’t even trying to stop it. “Soulless. As in: Not alive. Therefore, an object. And as my ancestors learned in the age of clubs, any object can be a weapon because we are a tool using species, mother fucker.”
Mr. Tophat’s jaw dropped. “Are you actually proposing we bludgeon each other with undead?” he asked in appalled disbelief.
The image was ridiculous enough that I wanted to giggle. I shrugged instead. “If mine rips your head off after I give him a push in your direction, I won’t make a fuss about it,” I admitted. I was pushing my luck – but if anything, my nonchalance seemed to unnerve Mr. Tophat more. That was good. It meant I was winning.
“Your – you don’t have a vampire,” Mr. Tophat declared. “It’s not a valid choice!”
I felt like my heart had skipped a beat. Mr. Tophat was flustered – he was genuinely afraid! I felt a rush of… of whatever it was I’d felt every time I’d made Hans back down. I tried to stand straighter. “Actually,” I said, “I was just on the phone with my boyfriend, and he’s on his way here to let me borrow his.”
Mr. Tophat’s jaw dropped again. I didn’t think he realized he was doing it. I didn’t care – I was on a power high.
“What?” I asked. “Did you really think I’d call out to the fae at a crossroads at midnight under a full moon to ask for a favor without a backup plan in case whoever showed up insisted on the traditional duel? I’m not stupid, you know.” Oh, god, yes I was – but he didn’t know that.
Mr. Tophat’s jaw worked soundlessly for a moment. Then it shut. His lips twitched, and he started to chuckle. Then to laugh.
Mr. Tophat’s laughter cut the confidence out from under me. Mr. Tophat didn’t seem to notice – maybe because I’ve been in one freakout mode or another for the past forever, and my power-trip confidence had just been bravado on top of it, anyway. Regardless of the reason, though, Mr. Tophat kept laughing. He guffawed until he sank to his heels, clutching his sides and hunching over his knees. I stared. I had no idea how to respond to that.
Mr. Tophat’s laughter gradually subsided into snickers. He wiped a tear from the corner of one eye with his bandaged hand, then smothered another chuckle. Then he flopped over on his back and lay spread-eagle on the sidewalk, staring up at me.
“I yield,” he said. “What would you have of me?”
I squeezed my legs together and tried to angle them away from him. My skirt was too indecent for that to be an appropriate angle for me to be stared up at, and…. What?
“You what?” I squeaked. I let my legs give out and sank down to the base of light post. What?
Mr. Tophat rolled onto his side and propped himself up on one elbow. “I yield, you tempestuous tart. That was well played. My boon is yours.”
I blinked at him. Had he just called me a – no, that was just one of his annoying candy names. I couldn’t get sidetracked. I’d won. I’d won?!
I swallowed. “Anything?”
“Anything,” he agreed. He said it salaciously, and his eyes were clearly wandering below my face as he did.
Ew. Ew! Was he flirting? This was worse than the explicit threats of chains and sexual misconduct. I had to be imagining it. I was not getting turned on, that was for sure. It was the rush from the danger and the relief of coming out on top – not the weirdly debonair elf making bedroom eyes at my knees after threatening to make my worst nightmares come true in his dungeon. That would just be… ew. Ew!
I was trembling. I pushed my skirt down. Damn pornerina skirt! Mind out of the gutter, Abby! I yelled at myself. Crap, but Mr. Tophat was freakishly handsome now that I wasn’t too terrified of what he was planning to notice it. No. I could write him into my Hans/Mr. Salvatore slashfic later. I had more important things to do now than celebrating my narrow escape from slavery by imaging wanton debauchery. Especially since I was pretty sure the things I was inclined to imagine were the very things I’d just narrowly escaped. I mean… what the hell?
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I held it in. What am I doing? I asked myself. The answer was immediate and automatic. Protecting Megan.
“The vampire that’s coming here intends harm toward one of my friends.” I was dimly aware that I was stepping into an entirely new, equally dangerous conversation. This was exactly the kind of thing that got twisted into a terrible mistake in the story books. “You will, without violating my intentions in setting you as her guardian, protect her from all harm.” I opened one eye and looked at Mr. Tophat. I’d meant at first to just set him to protect Megan from Mr. Salvatore, but… hell. In for a dime, in for a dollar, right? I hoped my one caveat would be enough to prevent him from pulling bullshit shenanigans, and ‘all harm’ was probably forward thinking. After all, there were obviously more terrifying things in the world than I’d ever known existed. Obsessed vampire stalkers might not even top the list.
Mr. Tophat’s attention was firmly fixed on my face. I opened my other eye.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve just asked of me?” he demanded – and for once he didn’t sound like everything in the world was a joke.
I swallowed. “No,” I admitted weakly. “Hell, how can I? I didn’t even know there was some stupid dueling tradition associated with crossroads and midnight.” I snapped my jaw shut before I could blurt out any more of my ignorance. Mr. Tophat’s eyes seemed to pierce me.
Then he snickered. “Is that so? Well, my vexing little cream puff, allow me to elucidate the matter for you. Immediately after I yielded a battle of honor rather than fight your undead abomination, you have charged me with facing down that very same monstrosity! Now, I am no coward. I will face any mortal or immortal in merry combat – I do not fear death. Should I die, all I have lost is the time it takes to come back from my home. But a vampire is not limited to merely killing its victims. It tears out strips of their souls and thus pretends it has its own. A vampire can consume you, and there is no rebirth from that.”
I swallowed in dread. I was thoroughly unnerved.
And then Mr. Tophat flipped back to jovial. He rolled up and forward and wound up on one knee in front of me so quickly that I couldn’t stop him from taking my hand. “Still, I had a delightful evening, my licorice whip, even if dinner was not included.”
Mr. Tophat kissed my fingertips and sighed extravagantly. “But now I must take my leave,” he said forlornly. “Do try to survive the evening. Those knaves I dispersed should have their courage back soon, and I would be personally offended if you fell prey to them after eluding me.”
And then, with unnatural abruptness, Mr. Tophat was behind me. He still had my hand held diagonally across my body, and his other arm was around my waist. His slender torso pressed tightly against my back and his face nuzzled against my cheek and palm.
“If you do survive, by all means call me again,” he murmured in my ear. “But next time, from somewhere that the riffraff will not overhear. Your bonbonniere, perhaps. I know my way there well enough, and it need not be my bed on which we bind you.”
His lips trailed along the lobe of my ear and I shivered despite myself. “I assure you,” he added softly, “Now that you cannot deny my existence, it would be a personal pleasure for me to lead you to what pleasures may be found in confronting your particular nightmares, my sweet.” He kissed my ear, and the tension in my gut ratcheted up about twelve more notches. I was not going to let a psychotic stalker-elf sadist seduce me!
Mr. Tophat sighed appreciatively as my panic rose. His breath caressed my cheek. I tried to breathe too fast and choked instead.
Mr. Tophat turned his head and kissed my fingertips again. “A confection such as yourself deserves so much more than to be some randy wolf’s she-bitch,” he said as though the thought genuinely depressed him. “Remember, and call for me.”
And just like that he was gone. I was alone, trembling from the cold, the gentle caresses, and utterly shot nerves. I twisted around with my mouth ajar and my thoughts whirling indecently, but even the tendrils of voluminous shadow which had once been Mr. Tophat were dissipating into ordinary darkness. Then lights blazed in front of me. I blinked and shielded my eyes, and found myself squinting into the headlights of Hans’ enormous yellow Hummer.