I forced myself to stop breathing so I could properly gawk at Mr. Tophat. “What?” I blurted.
He sat on his heels and waved a hand. “I did not believe you would remain true to my Abigail’s nature when you were pressed, vampire.” He caught my chin and turned my face one way and then the other. He tilted his head again while studying me. “That you behaved as she would when the danger was clear and imminent – that you perceived the greater danger to be as she would – is… vexing.”
I stared at him. That had been his test? Seeing what freaked me out?! “You fucker!” I shouted. I swung at him. Hit him in the face – vampire fast; vampire strong. It knocked him on his ass.
He grunted and rubbed his jaw. “I may have deserved that,” Mr. Tophat conceded. “But I had no more amusing way to determine the truth than to compare your aura to the panic I tasted when I pecked your cheek yester eve.”
I scrambled to my feet. After all the shit I’d been through, he thought it was amusing to fuck around with my emotions? I was going to kick his ass!
Mr. Tophat laughed. He sprawled on the floor with his arms spread. “And there’s the fire! The ever insistent denial of your nature that makes you so entertaining. You know, my Arsenic Amandine, your fear makes you a grand feast, but it is your constant struggle against it that makes you so delectably tempting.” He smiled as though that had been a compliment. I barely resisted the urge to kick him in the ribs – I didn’t think he’d actually let me get in a shot that he wasn’t willing to admit he deserved.
Mr. Tophat’s grin widened. “At least, that is my opinion. Less refined palettes would no doubt be overwhelmed by your fear alone, my Thallium Torte. And more the pity for them, should they foolishly feed and render the enticing you ‘dormant.’”
My fingers curled into fists, but I was more afraid than angry. Once I’d found out that they fed on fear and anxiety, I’d suspected fae had been feeding off of me my entire life. I’d accused Mr. Tophat of doing it himself, though he’d denied it. He’d likened his knowledge of my emotions to smelling the scent of pies wafting off a baker’s windowsill – nothing he could be blamed for enjoying, and nothing that could count as consuming.
Was he now saying that if I was fed from by a fae, it would diminish me until vampire Abby took over? That at any time, without warning, a faerie could turn me into a ravenous monster? I trembled in growing panic. It didn’t matter how often I fed – no one would ever be safe around me if the fae could turn me into a sociopathic monster against my will!
I couldn’t deal with that. Not right now. I put everything I could into focusing on anger instead.
“I’m not yours,” I grated, “And my name is Abigail. Not torte. If you’re willing to admit that I am still me, you can at least have the decency to use my god damn name.”
Mr. Tophat laughed. “Now, why should I do that,” he asked, “when you’ve never bothered with mine?”
I opened my mouth. I closed it. “I don’t know yours!” I more than half shouted at him.
Mr. Tophat sniffed and stood up. “You never asked,” he pointed out, his tone dripping with feigned injury.
I gaped soundlessly again, then reigned in my outrage. When exactly had I been supposed to ask? When the trolls and goblins had been after me? When he himself had been doing his best to terrify me? When he’d been fighting for his life – and Megan’s – against Mr. Salvatore? Or maybe when I’d killed him. Would that have been an appropriate time?
“What’s your name?” I managed to ask.
Mr. Tophat pouted with exaggerated disappointment. “Are you really so eager to end this part of the game?” He sighed and leaned forward, propping himself up on his cane. I hadn’t seen him sheathe his sword, but maybe he didn’t need to. His sword and clothes had disappeared when I’d ‘killed’ him last night, so maybe they were actually a part of him. Like psychic props or something.
I had no idea how faeries worked.
Mr. Tophat’s pout gave way to a broad smile. “I suppose if you must have an appellation by with which to address me, you may call me Jack.” He smiled fondly. “I had a rather good run under that one in my younger days, back in the old country.”
My blood – Hans’ blood? Emma’s? Mine now, anyway – turned to ice. I swallowed. I knew Mr. Tophat had to know I was terrified, but habit forced me to pretend I wasn’t.
“Oh, no,” I protested. “Jack? Really? You know, for someone who claims to be more subtle than the common rabble, implying that you were Jack the Ripper is just ham-fisted.” I shook my head. “I’m disappointed,” I said. “I would’ve expected better of you.”
Mr. Tophat actually straightened in unconscious protest. He blinked at me repeatedly, as though he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
I sighed. “That’s it, then,” I said. “From now on your name is Melvin. Melvin Tophat.”
Melvin started to open his mouth to protest, but I shook my head again and he hesitated.
“Melvin,” I said, “would you mind getting out of the way? I’d really like to just get my bags and go home now.”
Melvin’s jaw clicked shut. He looked utterly flummoxed – but he stepped aside. I stepped past him and collected yesterday’s shopping bags from the couch. Then I turned back to the door.
I paused before leaving, though. I was still scared and frayed and on edge, but I felt weirdly like I’d just won something, too, by putting the faerie off balance. I glanced over my shoulder.
“Don’t forget our deal,” I said. “I’m counting on you to protect Megan.”
I didn’t like how Mr. Tophat – Melvin – was looking back at me. He looked enormously pleased, in a hungry sort of way that made my skin crawl. Like he was pleased with me, or something.
“Of course,” Melvin said. Then he dissolved into darkness. I didn’t know if he was really gone, or just invisible. I locked up on my way out and hurried back to Hans’ hummer.
Once there I threw my bags in the back. “Is that everything?” Emma asked. “Do you need help with another trip?”
“That’s everything,” I said. I got in and buckled up.
“Home?” Hans asked.
“Yeah,” I said. And then, to the car at large, I asked: “Hey, what’s a Hallongrotta? Or an Amandine?”
“Dunno,” Emma said.
Hans twisted around in his seat to look at me. “Hallongrottor are Swedish pastries with a dollop of raspberry. I think they’re more commonly known as thumbprint cookies over here. And if you’re French, amandine is an almond garnish. But if you’re Romanian, it’s a chocolate cake with an almond cream filling. Why?” When I didn’t answer, Hans added: “I could make you some sometime, if you liked.”
I smiled at him despite myself. My boyfriend: the werewolf chef. That should be a TV show. “That’s okay,” I said. “And no reason – I was just curious. Let’s go home.”
Hans smiled back at me and turned around. He started up the car and pulled away from the curb. And then we went home.