Mr. Tophat’s greeting jarred me out of my shocked state. Or, at least, it jarred the part of me that takes over when I need to interact with people and don’t know how.
“My name is Abigail,” I grated. “I am not some candied treat.” Maybe it wasn’t the most important thing I could say, but I wasn’t really thinking about that. Mr. Tophat’s candy pet names had started to piss me off last night, but at the moment I was just relieved that I hadn’t actually killed him.
I’d been pretty sure that stabbing him would just banish him back to faerie land – but I hadn’t known it when I’d plunged his own sword through his chest. Knowing I didn’t have his murder on my conscience was almost enough of a relief to make me regret being pissy about the nicknames.
Mr. Tophat tilted his head. “I suppose not, anymore,” he admitted. “Your aura still presents itself as delectable, but I am not so foolish as to desire a taste of pie made from poisoned apples.”
I scowled at him. “What are you doing here?” I demanded.
Mr. Tophat stood and tucked his cane under his arm with a flourish. He splayed his hand over his chest as though wounded; his voice dripped with mock hurt. “Why, my dear Strawberry Strychnine, do you think me a dishonorable cur? You charged me with the protection of your friend – and although I must confess I lost track of her whereabouts after my untimely banishment, I have no intention of abandoning my sworn word. So here I am, waiting for our dear Megan to appear, that I may resume my vigil.”
He let his assumed posture fall; his voice turned serious. “And now, my sweet Cyanide Cupcake, perhaps you will do me the kindness of revealing Megan’s current location, so I will not find myself forsworn because of some dire event that may befall her before I can even find her?”
I scowled at him. Cyanide Cupcake? Strawberry Strychnine?! I really didn’t like Mr. Tophat. He was creepy and rude. Plus, he was a freaking faerie! An otherworldly being that fed on fear and superstition. He was the sworn enemy of those supernatural beings that had once been human. His kind wanted to plunge the world into a second dark age. And I happened to know, from our first conversation, that he had a serious hate-on for vampires.
But despite all that, I trusted him. With Megan, at least. I’d tricked him into granting me a boon – and I’d used it to charge him with keeping Megan from harm. I hadn’t really thought he would carry through – it had been a desperation gamble on my part – but Mr. Tophat had faced down Mr. Salvatore. Even though Mr. Tophat had known he couldn’t beat a vampire, and even though he’d known a vampire could permanently kill him.
Apparently if a faerie was killed in our world, their life was just released back into faerie land. But if their life is consumed by something like a vampire, then they are gone forever.
“She’s at a hotel,” I told Mr. Tophat. “I don’t know where. But she has others with her. She should be safe for now.”
Mr. Tophat scoffed. “And yet I notice you are not one of those with her. Tell me, my mandrake meringue, if you were among her companions would she still be… safe?”
I shivered despite myself. “You know what I am,” I said. “You saw me come back. No, she wouldn’t be.” I braced myself, preparing for Mr. Tophat to charge me – to draw the sword from his cane and cut me down, like he’d tried to cut down Mr. Salvatore.
I was a young vampire. Mr. Salvatore had been ancient and experienced in war. I didn’t think I’d be able to hold off Mr. Tophat if he came after me.
Mr. Tophat tilted his head. He scowled at me. It made his nose crinkle. “I could almost believe you regret that,” he said dryly. “Your aura is vexingly convincing, given that you are a soulless abomination.”
That did it. Sure, I’d freaked out about being a monster earlier. But it was one thing for me to beat myself up. It was another thing entirely when someone else did it.
Especially since, despite all of Hans’ and Emma’s efforts, Mr. Tophat’s accusation filled me with fear. I was afraid he was right.
“Well, you’re a rude jackass,” I shot back in reflexive defensiveness. “And I’m not soulless,” I insisted. “My soul just… sort of… kind of goes dormant when I get hungry,” I finished weakly. I hoped that was the case. I hoped I was still really who I was when I was alive-ish. I hoped that ‘alive-ish Abby’ wasn’t just a disguise that vampire Abby wore to lure in victims; a disguise so good it even fooled me.
I was horrified by the possibility that I was really and truly dead. That the self I’d been when I was alive was gone. That I was just vampire Abby; that the part of me that took over when I was scared wasn’t the same thing as it had been when I was alive – that it was my hungry self, now. I was so scared of what I might do if it turned out that my sated self – the part of me that could pretend to be human – was really just a lie. Just an illusion, with no real ability to keep my monstrous nature in check.
I trembled. I tried to tell myself it was just because I was too tense from preparing to fend off Mr. Tophat. The truth was: I wanted to cry.
Mr. Tophat’s eyes narrowed. I wondered what he saw in my aura. “A likely lie,” he said. “To be expected from a pretender who wraps herself in the scraps of other people’s souls and claims they are her own. Nice try, my dear Hemlock Hallongrotta.”
“My name is Abigail!” I shouted at him. “I’m me! I’m not just a monster!” I felt my nerves fray. I didn’t even know what the fuck hallongrotta was.
Mr. Tophat’s lip twisted in a disgusted sneer. “We both know otherwise, but you continue to press the lie? Well, my Belladonna Bonbon, I shall have proof.”
Before I could think of anything to say, anything I could do to show that I was still me and not just a monster sneaking around in my body, Mr. Tophat lunged. He was fast. Not ‘I can stop time’ fast, but still inhumanely so. His hand snapped over my mouth before I could shriek and shoved me against the door.
Something cold pricked my chest. I looked down and saw that Mr. Tophat’s sword was in his other hand. He held it low and angled high so that the tip of the blade rested between my breasts.
“One sound,” Mr. Tophat whispered, “And I shall skewer you to the door by way of your heart. And then, my dear Monkshood Marzipan, I shall fetch a knife from our dear Megan’s kitchen and hack off your head. Am I understood?”
I nodded as frantically as I could while Mr. Tophat’s hand was clamped over my mouth. I’d once seen him split a troll in half with a one-handed swing of that sword. I believed him.
Mr. Tophat smirked. “Good.” Then he shifted his hand down from my mouth. He placed his forearm across my collar and shoulders and leaned into me, keeping me pinned. His sword didn’t shift at all.
Then he leaned closer. My eyes widened. What the hell was he doing? He tilted his head. My heart started pounding frantically as his lips approached mine.
No! My mind scrambled. Mr. Tophat had once threatened to chain me up in his bedroom. He hadn’t said what would happen next, leaving my panicked brain to imagine his perverted tortures.
My imagination had always been overactive. Now it kicked back into high gear, spurred on by everything Mr. Tophat had implied last night. My heart had gone from racing to frantic palpitations. I inhaled to scream, and the sword pierced my skin.
Mr. Tophat recoiled as though slapped. I sank to the floor. My scream came out as a sob. My body was trembling and it was all I could do to hold back tears. I wrapped my arms around my knees. I liked it when Hans played rough – but that was because it was play. Mr. Tophat had just come at me. There hadn’t been a hint of ‘play’ about him.
When I looked up, Mr. Tophat was staring at me. He looked utterly confused. He crouched down to look at me more closely. I was hyperventilating.
“Why?” I gasped.
Mr. Tophat tilted his head. “To see,” he said, “if you were more afraid of the kiss or of the blade.”