Hans cut into the left-hand lane and parked in front of Megan’s car, so that his Hummer was next to me – and facing the wrong way down the street. I swallowed. I was never going to let him drive me anywhere again. He didn’t even turn off the car or put on his blinkers before leaping outside and crouching beside me.
Hans put one hand on my shoulder and the other cradled the side of my face, directly opposite the side Mr. Tophat had been nuzzling. He tilted my head so I was looking at him. “Abigail,” he asked, “are you alright?”
I looked up into Hans’ open, honest concern and wanted to cry. I’m not used to thinking of men as beautiful, but in that moment – while he looked down at me as though I were precious and he’d been worried about me, and after all the madness that had already befallen me tonight, and with the street lamp blazing like a halo around his mussed hair – in that moment, Hans was beautiful. I wanted nothing more than to throw myself against his chest, be engulfed in his embrace, and weep until I was unconscious.
But I couldn’t say any of that, let alone do it. What kind of pathetic person falls apart on a near stranger two nights in a row? No doubt Hans would laugh at me if I tried and dump me on the spot.
“I’m cold,” I squeaked. “And I hurt my ankle,” I whimpered. First Hans, then Emma and Mr. Tophat – Mom had been right. I’d let a boy kiss me and turned into one of those girls. I stared up at Hans. Oh god, I’d called him my boyfriend. Did he feel that way about me? What if he went mad with jealousy when he found out I’d cheated on him with another woman? No. I couldn’t think about that now. I was just trying to distract myself.
Hans was just wearing jeans and a tee-shirt again, but he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me against himself. Hans was so solid, and warm…. I buried my face against his chest to hide the way my eyes were watering. Hans stroked my hair. He smelled like soap and grass and leaves and Hans. I tried really hard not to sniffle into his shirt.
“It will be okay,” Hans said softly. “You’re safe now.”
“Stop coddling her,” Mr. Salvatore said from behind me.
I shrieked and twisted around as far as I could in Hans’ arms – which wasn’t more than turning my head to look over my shoulder. Mr. Salvatore stood just steps away from us. I hadn’t heard a thing when he’d gotten out of the car or walked over – just like when he’d appeared out of nowhere next to Megan’s desk at work.
Mr. Salvatore was wearing a three piece suit, polished black shoes and driving gloves. His accent promised death wrapped in silk, and his eyes were pits – looking into them was like staring into the soulless barrels of a murderer’s handguns. “Where is Megan?” Mr. Salvatore asked casually. But it was the kind of casualness that threatens to hang you by your own intestines over the side of a bridge if you dare take it casually.
I clung tighter to Hans. His tee-shirt bunched up in my fists. I was probably stretching the fabric. I didn’t care. I was only thinking about it to avoid thinking about the way Mr. Salvatore was glaring at me. I didn’t think I could lie to those eyes and live.
“She’s not here,” I whispered.
“I can see that,” Mr. Salvatore said. “Why isn’t she?” One of his gloved hands curled into a fist. “Was she taken?”
I tried to gulp down my fear. Did that ever work? Nope. But at least part of my plan had sort of worked. Maybe. As long as Mr. Salvatore thought that Megan had been carried off by fae.
Hans snorted. “Salvatore, relax. I’m sure she’s fine.”
I twisted back around to stare at Hans. His head was raised to address Mr. Salvatore, but I could still see his face. Hans’ brow furrowed. He looked back down at me.
“Abigail, there isn’t a scent of Megan on you that’s recent enough for her to have been in the car with you.” He frowned in puzzlement while my eyes went wide with horror. “Why did you say the two of you were together?” Hans asked.
“Yes, Ms. Abigail,” Mr. Salvatore asked in idle curiosity. “Why did you lie to bring us here?”
I kept my gaze on Hans. I didn’t dare look at Mr. Salvatore again. Everyone knows vampires can hypnotize you if you meet their gaze. I didn’t know if that was really true, but I couldn’t risk finding out the easy way. Maybe I could trust Hans to help me. He didn’t seem angry. Just confused, and maybe a little worried.
“Megan is fine,” I said hastily. “We split up earlier this evening. I had to get Mr. Salvatore away from everyone. Hans, he’s been starving himself. He’s dangerous!”
Hans’ frown hardened. “Abigail,” he said, “I know you’ve had quite a shock to your world view. It’s frightening. I understand. But Salvatore is no more a monster than I am, and he treats his curse with the same gravity as I treat mine. He would not be that irresponsible; he fed from me this morning. You don’t have to be afraid of him.”
I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or to cry, but there would have been an edge of hysteria either way. Hans wasn’t in on Mr. Salvatore’s obsession – but he didn’t believe me, which was almost as bad! “You don’t understand,” I gasped. “This isn’t just me freaking out!” How could Hans not see that Mr. Salvatore was off the deep end? It was written in his eyes and audible in the veiled menace of his voice. Did Hans actually think this was how a normal person looked? How a normal person sounded?
But then again… Hans had said he and Mr. Salvatore knew each other from a war. Maybe, as far as Hans knew, ‘coiled death waiting to strike’ was how Mr. Salvatore sounded normally. I had to get him to see how wrong he was!
Hans started to say something, but I interrupted him. “No, listen,” I hastily said. I didn’t know when Mr. Salvatore was going to suddenly snap my neck to stop me from spilling his plans, but I figured it had to be coming. “Katherine told me something was wrong with Mr. Salvatore when she went to see him at lunch. She said….” She’d said he was wearing his gloves, but she hadn’t said what that meant. It had scared Emma into not defending Mr. Salvatore anymore, though. “Hans, why is he wearing gloves?” They were driving gloves, but Hans had been driving. “It’s important,” I swore to him. “Katherine said it was seriously bad.”
Hans looked up from me and I felt a thrill of hope. “Salvatore?” he asked. “Can you take those off for a minute to put Abigail’s worries at ease?”
Mr. Salvatore sighed. “And of course refusing such a simple request would seem suspicious in and of itself,” he said. “No matter how ridiculous or impertinent the request may be. Ms. Abigail, I do hope you realize how little I like impertinent mortals forcing my hands, even in little things.”
I felt like my heart was going out of control. I knew exactly how little he liked it – he’d tried to murder Katherine for nagging at him not to kill people, hadn’t he? Every one of Mr. Salvatore’s words plucked my fight or flight response, and when it comes to that I’ve always been a rabbit. Unfortunately, with my ankle out of commission ‘flight’ had nowhere to go except ‘panic.’
“Satisfied?” Mr. Salvatore asked Hans – and whatever he’d done made Hans stiffen in surprise.
Hans swore in a language I didn’t know. Swedish, maybe? Swiss? Hell, maybe he wasn’t even cursing – but it sounded like a swear. Hans let me go, gently lowering me against the lamp post. Then he rose from his crouch. He moved with the exaggerated slowness and care of a flannel-clad man who’s trying not to spook a rabid chupacabracorn, and he held himself like he was getting ready to wrestle a grizzly. “Salvatore,” Hans asked with equal caution, “What happened?”
I looked despite myself. I couldn’t help it – not without Hans’ chest to hide my face against.
Mr. Salvatore was tucking his gloves into his jacket pocket. The hand at his side looked perfectly normal: bare, pale; with long, delicate fingers. Then he took his other hand out of his pocket, and I saw what Hans had seen.
Mr. Salvatore’s left hand was a mess of discolored blisters and blackened, cracked skin. Mr. Salvatore held it up and watched his own flesh split as he idly flexed his fingers. I felt sick. No blood oozed from the wounds, though, old or new.
“It’s your blood,” Mr. Salvatore told Hans. “It’s more potent than a mortal’s. I had to feel the sun for longer than normal to take the edge off of ‘living.’”
“Why would you…” Hans started to ask, but Mr. Salvatore interrupted him.
“Please,” Mr. Salvatore said. “Do away with the stupid questions, Hans. I’m old. I’ve fought in four wars. I’ve died and returned a dozen times. I’ve lost more friends and lovers and family than I can remember, and I have done things that I would weep at the memory of – if I were alive.”
Mr. Salvatore tilted his head to look at Hans. “But here?” Mr. Salvatore asked rhetorically. “Here, at the cusp of hunger and on the slain edge of death? Here, those memories have no sway. Survival takes its precedence over grief and guilt, and existence is tolerable again.” He smiled. “No,” he contradicted himself, “existence is pleasurable again. Survival rejoices in simple successes; the meeting of needs, the fulfillment of desires. And from here, without guilt or doubt or conscience to interfere, my needs are so very simple to determine and pursue.”
“You need to feed,” Hans said firmly. “You’re too far past life for your flesh to heal, and that’s dangerous.”
Mr. Salvatore chuckled. “Indeed I do, but not from a supernatural such as yourself, my friend. As I said: your blood is too potent – and the sun is hours away. No, I need a mortal’s lifeblood to repair the damage yours has dealt me without taking me past survival and into the realms of grief and despair.”
Hans stepped forward and reached out to the monster he had just yesterday called friend and mentor. Perhaps he still thought of Mr. Salvatore that way. “Salvatore,” Hans plead, “You don’t want to do this.”
It wasn’t lost on me that Hans had just put himself between myself and a vampire bent on mortal blood. My heart pounded. I hadn’t expected that. I didn’t know what to make of it, either. Of Hans’ action or the way my heart was racing. Adrenaline. That had to be it. And Hans was just trying to talk down his friend. That was all.
Mr. Salvatore laughed. He’d noticed what I had, too. “You clearly overestimate your knowledge of what I desire to do, Hans. That scrap of humanity holds no interest for me save that she might serve to draw out the one I mean to have.”
Hans lowered his hand. His stance shifted in a subtly dangerous way. “I can’t let you do this,” Hans said flatly. Then, with more emotion, “I won’t let you cause another tragedy to mourn when your bloodlust is sated.”
Mr. Salvatore shook his head. “I won’t,” he said. “I will never mourn again. If I kill my donors – let them start to die before I start to feed – there will not be enough life in them to sate my hunger. I will live forever without regret. There will just be the thrill of the hunt, and the joy of taking.” Mr. Salvatore laughed again. And the most chilling thing about it was that he didn’t sound cruel, or insane, or evil. His laughter just sounded like he was happy.
And then, mid-laugh; without warning or stopping for breath, Mr. Salvatore launched himself at Hans.