The first thing I noticed as I approached Mister Salvatore’s house was that Jacob and Shanataya hadn’t actually made it inside. Jacob was waiting at the steps of the porch, glaring at everyone around me suspiciously. Shantaya was trying — without much success — to tug him the rest of the way to the front door. And John hovered just slightly behind both of them.
I won’t lie: the fact that John had provided an adult presence to keep an eye on the werepups while I was distracted was a huge — though belated — relief. On the other hand, realizing that Jacob and Shantaya had witnessed the whole hugfest — and since they were werewolves, probably heard everything that was said aloud — cut straight through what little glow remained from it after I’d realized I had to face Pipsqueak again.
Jacob in particular looked angry. Shantaya, on the other hand, looked a little frantic that Jacob was ignoring her. And maybe… embarrassed? I wasn’t sure if that was because of Jacob or because of what she’d witnessed between Ben, Emma, Megan and I. I was rapidly becoming mortified by my part in the PDA, though. So in either case, I felt like I might just owe her an apology or something.
Of course, that wasn’t going to happen because of stupid faerie traditions. So I channeled my inner vampire resting bitch face as I stalked past them. Maybe I could get Emma to convey that I really hadn’t meant to get Shantaya stuck babysitting Mister Jockboy for me. I probably couldn’t get her to apologize for all the PDA, though. She loved being caught in that stuff; the more risque the better.
In any event, they made way for me to pass. Even though I was pretty sure my bitch face was undermined by the blush that revealed my near terminal level of embarrassment. Really, it was probably good that I was already dead: otherwise relationships would’ve done me in by now. No one said anything, but Jacob followed at my heels so fast Shantaya stumbled to catch up. I ignored them — despite the fact that ‘Angry Jockboy right behind me’ was getting my heartbeat revved back up toward panic. Trying to focus on how I could possibly order Pips not to make a game of picking on Cassie without leaving him a loophole to exploit sort of helped me tune out Jacob’s presence.
It didn’t do anything to calm down my heart rate, though.
The house’s wards were still out and Hans had given me a standing invitation, so I had no trouble crossing the building’s threshold. I invited everyone else in on Hans’ behalf, though, just in case. Or at least: I tried to. Really I just sort of scowled at Jacob — and inadvertantly Shantaya and John — and waved them in.
I caught John before he could step past me, though. “How long until your mom gets here?” I asked.
If he was phased that I’d upgraded her from ‘step-mom’ to ‘mom’ it didn’t show. All I was thinking by it, though, was that all the animated movies I’d ever seen as a kid indicated that step-moms were extra evil. Given my own mother’s ability to casually crush my morale without even trying or noticing… Well, I was not prepared to contemplate dealing with an actively malicious, evil vampire step-mom. Not that trying to picture her as a fifties house wife baking treats for John was really working to de-vilify her in my imagination. I mean, he was a ghoul and she was a vampire. Domestic, familial bliss didn’t exactly fit into that equation.
In my head, she had a decidedly sinister perfection about her as she pulled a tray of cookies out of the oven. Corpse cookies. And that pitcher of punch was really probably fresh blood from whatever neighborhood kid she’d tricked into the house with an offer of cookies and then butchered to make them. Holy crap, John’s mom was a sinister piece of work. I mean: I used to think only witches shoved kids into ovens.
“A half hour to an hour, maybe,” John answered. “It depends on how quickly she left the hotel after I called her.”
I nodded instead of swallowing nervously. My palms had abruptly started to get clammy again, but I resisted the urge to wipe them on my skirt. “Can you call her and narrow that down?” I asked. “I need to talk to Pips, and Ben needs to get to know Megan and Emma — and the house isn’t warded anymore so I don’t want anyone to accidentally be talking about personal stuff when someone we don’t know — with super hearing — comes up to the house.”
John nodded like I was being perfectly sensible instead of anxiously paranoid and started to reach for his phone. I caught his wrist, startling a surprised look out of him.
“And as long as you’re doing stuff for me,” I babbled, “can you check out the house across the street? Something’s bothering me.” I didn’t mention that what was bothering me that if he made his call from anywhere in the house I’d be able to hear it, and listening in was guaranteed to freak me out.
John’s startled expression softened. Maybe he realized what I was really worried about — probably because of my cold, dead, sweaty hand clamped around his wrist — because his tone softened, too. “Yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “It would sort of defeat the purpose if she listened in on your conversations over my phone, huh? Don’t worry: I’ll call from a safe distance. You don’t need to make up a reason to send me across the street,” he concluded with a grin.
I barely kept my eyes from widening. I hadn’t thought of that at all! “Yes,” I squeaked. “Exactly what I was thinking,” I blatantly lied. “Except, also: I still haven’t heard anything from that house,” I continued to babble. “Like it’s warded or something. And I really don’t want to be ambushed again by someone.” Craaaaap. Why did my autopilot have to be so attentive to details? Now I really was starting to get a little freaked out by it. I mean: maybe my senses just hadn’t ‘keyed in’ on the building. Except I had been paying specific attention to the house when we got here. And: nothing. That isn’t normal. Old houses should always have something in them creaking or scuttling around or rotting or settling.
I let go of John and started pushing him outside. “So check it out,” I insisted. “I’ll feel better. And take Fumiko for backup.”
I tried to look apologetically at Fumiko — I knew I was out of control! But whatever she got out of that look just made her smirk. The prospect of a good fight making her have to smile, probably. She caught John’s arm and finished the job of hustling him away. “Come on, corpse boy,” she cajoled. “Let’s go ‘put Abby’s mind at ease.'”
My relief at having navigated that whole conversation without coming off as a paranoid freak was really short lived, though, because John and Fumiko were immediately replaced by Ben, Megan and Emma.
“What’s going on?” Emma asked. She looked a little concerned.
I flushed: I knew I was being paranoid and neurotic, and really the three of them should’ve known too. “Nothing,” I said as I hastily ushered everyone inside with their own personal ‘come in’s. Then, because I was nervous and I babble when I’m anxious, I repeated everything I’d told John.
At first Emma bit her lip and glanced over her shoulder like she was getting worried, too, but then Ben spoke up. “The house probably seemed like it was warded because it is,” he said. I gawked at him and he shrugged. “It’s not unusual for a vampire to buy up the properties around his or her home,” he explained. “It helps ensure privacy, and it can be handy to have places for your donors to crash, or to put up guests and representatives from The Center without opening up your personal space to them. Plus, it’s not like any of the Families are hurting for cash: owning a few houses out away from the city center isn’t that big of a deal.”
I continued gawking, but Emma was already nodding in agreement. “Yeah, I sort of remember someone from over there coming over sometimes. Um… Becky, I think? Honestly, I was sort of depleted most of the time, so I couldn’t pay a lot of attention back then.”
Megan’s hand found Emma’s and squeezed it. Emma squeezed back, and the momentary sadness seemed to drain away. Ben, however, seemed very uncomfortable from hearing that tidbit of Emma’s past.
Still, when Ben spoke it wasn’t to comment on Emma’s abuse by Mister Salvatore. Instead, it was to address me and turn the conversation back to it’s original topic. “I had some of my own donors check over the other properties when I took over Mister Stuesy’s wat” Ben said. “But if you want I can have Adam and a few others make another round.”
I almost took him up on it. Adam and one of Ben’s other donors were actually at the little side table. They’d paused their card game to listen in on our conversation. But at the last moment I managed to pull my head out of my ass before my paranoia and autopilot could insist I inconvenience everyone else.
“No,” I said. My voice was clipped from the effort of being reasonable. My paranoia wanted me to accept — and my autopilot was all for doubling down and insisting that Ben call Valerie, Thomas, Mister Kallaher and Kelson from Club L and have them lock down the whole neighborhood before John’s stepmom showed up.
I felt a trickle of reassurance from Megan, though. It let me take a deep breath, and when I let it out my voice was almost normal. “No,” I insisted. “If that’s normal then I’m just being paranoid — and asking John to check it out was mostly that I didn’t want to get nervous and worked up listening to him and his st… his mom, anyway.”
“Ah,” Ben interjected. “Which is actually what I was asking about when I asked what’s going on,” he concluded with a chuckle. “What’s going on with John’s mom?”
Aw, crap. I’d meant to have John fill Ben in on that, hadn’t I. What little calm I’d gotten from Megan twisted into anxiety at the reminder that I couldn’t carry a plan through for shit. Forget talking to Pips: How could I expect to make a good impression on this vampiress who’d been married to Mister Salvatore when I was too scattered to even tell Ben she was coming to visit?
“She’s coming to visit,” I told Ben. “John can fill you in when he gets back. Or you can ask Megan and Emma. Yeah: you all need to get to know each other, so do that. Talk among yourselves, okay?” I was walking backwards as I babbled; retreating toward the hallway door. “I’m just going to go downstairs and have a little chat with Pips.” And then I’m going to hide in the bathroom and be sick until John’s mom gets here, I mentally added.
No one made any move to stop me, though from the heartbeats thumping away in my ears I could tell that Jacob and Shantaya were keeping pace behind me. Whatever. Once I got in the basement, I could put myself in a corner where Jockboy couldn’t lurk where I couldn’t see him. And on that comforting thought I turned and bolted. In just seconds I was clambering down the stairs to the basement.
Get it together, Abby! I scolded myself as I rushed down the stairs. I hesitated at the basement door, even though I could hear the werepups hastily following behind me. It looked like someone had blown it off it’s hinges with C4 or something.
Oh. Right. Daniel.
My attempt to get it together fell apart right then and there. Why had I agreed to meet a strange vampire in the remains of a supernatural warzone?! Was I that insane?!
I noticed m hand was trembling but otherwise frozen in the act of reaching for a doorknob that wasn’t actually there. Behind me, I heard Jacob tugging Shantaya after me while she told him to ‘slow down.’ Behind them, in the front room I’d abandoned, I could hear Megan, Emma and Ben talking.
“She gets anxious about new people,” Megan explained.
“I know,” Ben and Emma said on top of each other.
I swallowed and stepped into the basement. Maybe listening to them discuss me wasn’t a better option than listening in on John’s phonecall. But it couldn’t be worse, right?
“So,” Emma asked oh-so-casually. “In your own words, Ben, how did you meet our Abby?”
I blanched and hastened into the basement. As Ben stumbled awkwardly through a description of me kicking his ass, I spotted Pips sitting at the bar.
Oh fuck me. I was so desperate to find a distraction before Ben got to the blood-sharing that I practically ran up to Pips. He looked up as though he was as surprised I was coming over to talk to him as I was. And dammit all, the widening of his catslit eyes just made them easier to fall into.
“Pips,” I blurted out. Don’t say he’s pretty, I directed my autopilot. Don’t say he’s pretty! “We need to talk.
I didn’t get to say anything else, though, because as soon as those words left my mouth Pipsqueak straightened fully and slapped both his palms against the counter. “Finally!” He exclaimed loudly enough that I jumped. My heart sped up and I felt the start of a hyperventilation attack — but Pips didn’t even notice.
“Someone needs to tell your boyfriend that the next time he decides to pull rank and order someone to ‘wait downstairs and not bother anyone’ he needs to include some bloody caveats,” Pips raged. He pinned me with his gaze and took a deep breath. When he let it out he was calmer. And smiling — but it was a mean smile. “Otherwise some poor fae is going to end up down here, ‘not bothering anyone’ about anything — including the fact that someone has wrapped a curse around this house and has been dumping energy into it for the past three bloody hours!”
I was too shocked to reply, but Ben must’ve been able to hear us just as well as I could hear him because he shouted: “Everyone out of the house, now!” before I could even parse what Pips had said.
Glass shattered upstairs and Pipsqueak immediately disappeared in a swirl of shadowy essence. What? I tried to shift my awareness to see if Pips had abandoned us entirely, or just gone between worlds.
I didn’t see anything. A wave of exhaustion overwhelmed me and I tumbled forward into darkness. Except this time my awareness didn’t twist and expand like it usually did when I went dormant — because I wasn’t going dormant at all.
My knees hit the floor and I kept falling forward. I think I struck one of the bar stools and started keeling to the side. That was the last thing I was aware of, though: I was asleep before the rest of me hit the floor.