Season Content Notes: abduction, blood
“I am a vampire.
“And I can make you — or keep you — young.”
The room was silent. So silent, I could hear their heartbeats. I looked around the table, and my heart clenched. Their faces, even hidden by blindfolds, were familiar to me.
Karen’s heart-shaped face was pine dark, and I was probably lucky I couldn’t see her eyes just now. They glinted like sunlight through the pine boughs and were just as entrancing.
Victor was lanky and thin, his nose as sharp as a falcon’s beak. Fitting since he was the sharpshooter of the team. Noses shouldn’t be sexy.
Marcus, skin as dark as my hair and lean, with that incongruous blond hair cut so short it looked like feathers. Would it feel like feathers too?
Leyla’s face was round as Lună and tanned like a surfer, her black curls tamed into tight braids.
Benj was pale with dark brown hair and eyes, much like my own people. But it was his mouth I loved: a sensual bow always quirked with humor. Almost always. I’d managed to wipe the humor away.
I felt like I already knew them, and Luna’s approval sang in my blood. But they weren’t mine yet, and they might never be.
“You’re right, Nastasia, that is a… very interesting benefits package,” Marcus said, his light tenor calm and just the slightest bit patronizing. “But we’re happy with our current employer.”
I slumped. I couldn’t help it. “You don’t believe me. You think I’m crazy.”
“No one said that, Nastasia–”
Snorting, I pushed my chair back and stood up. “I don’t like being patronized. I like being treated like a fool even less.”
“I think we’ve been real patient, Nastasia.” Marcus wasn’t sounding so calm anymore, and I knew I was losing them. Maybe had already lost them. “But we want to go home now.”
My breath caught, but I’d known it was coming.
If they had given me a time I could have shown them proof, convinced them to hear me out… but sotii could not be forced. If I didn’t release them, they would be prisoners. Not sotii, and never mine.
I took the knife off my belt and placed it in front of Victor. “It shouldn’t take you long to get yourselves loose. I’ll be gone before you do. There’s a rental van in the garage with your things in it.”
I turned for the door. I had been so sure these were the ones, but there would be others. I still had time…
“Why are you looking to hire security?”
Leyla’s voice was light and sweet, and I could have drowned in it.
“Like I said, I have enemies. And I am alone.”
“I thought all vampires had clans for protection.”
This time it was my own heartbeat I heard hammering in my ears. Leyla knew about my people?
Leyla hadn’t really expected this Nastasia to let them go. Not until she heard the grief in the woman’s voice and her footsteps — no longer silent — heading away from the table. But it seemed this was the real deal. Giggle and all.
She should have let the vamp keep walking, but she told herself she was curious. And how often do you get offered a chance at immortality?
Marcus was to her right, so it was probably his hand that gripped her shoulder so tightly. It was definitely him quietly demanding “What the hell are you doing?”
“Getting some tea. Come on, Nastasia, Marcus may be in a hurry to get home, but it’s been too long since I had some real girl talk.
“Karen’s awesome, but she doesn’t gossip, you know?”
“I…” the vamp’s voice wavered, then firmed up, “My clan was bound to Luna, but our enemies tore us apart when I was a child.”
To most people, that would be the cue to change the subject. People getting torn apart — literally or figuratively — wasn’t really girl talk. Unless you were the mean girls.
Leyla wasn’t a mean girl. When she tore you to pieces, it wasn’t with words, and it was for a better reason than shits and giggles. Around her, the rest of the team shifted in their chairs. If they had comms on, they’d have been bombarding her with questions. But they knew better than to interrupt when she was getting tea.
“That sucks. When you were a kid? How did you survive?”
“My Mama got me out. She and Ozanna and Emil raised me, kept me safe. But Mama died last year.”
This called for a physical gesture. Offer a hug, lean closer, something. But Leyla couldn’t do any of that. Couldn’t even offer a hand to hold with the vamp who-knew-how-far across the room. So she tried to put it all into her voice. “Wow. I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” Nastasia’s voice was closer. “We knew. Her sotii died in the fighting, and without them… she died a little every day.”
“Her sotii? I don’t know that word. They defended her?”
“Yes,” the word wasn’t more than a whisper. Very close, then. Leyla tapped twice on the table, letting the team know they could join the convo.
“Is that what you were looking for from us, Ma’am?” Benj asked. His drawl was deeper than usual. Leyla thought he did that on purpose when they seduced someone together, his drawl playing off her fry. “You need… what was it, sotey of your own?”
“Yes.” Her chair scraped on the floor again. It hurt Leyla’s ears but she’d learned to work through that kind of annoyance long ago. “I’m coming into my powers but still weak. Without sotii I am… honestly, I’m walking around with a target on my back.”
Marcus squeezed Leyla’s shoulder again, a warning that he’d have words for her later. But Leyla didn’t care because he was willing to work with her now.
“I still don’t understand why us,” he said. “No, I’m even more confused why us. Wouldn’t you want vampires for that?”
Nastasia giggled again, and Leyla shivered. She would never admit it, but if she hadn’t heard the vamp giggle earlier, Leyla would have let her walk away. But she had needed to hear it again.
Now that she had, she was pretty sure she was hooked. Addicted to vamp giggles, sight unseen. Yeah, she was in trouble.
That Leyla had taken me by surprise was understatement of the year. That was okay, though; it gave me another chance.
“Sotii are always human. That’s… Mama’s sotii came from human families who had been part of our clan for centuries.”
“You can’t do that.” Leyla’s voice was warm and understanding, and I leaned into it. I was telling them too much, far too much for humans who weren’t bound to a clan. But I didn’t care.
“No. Even if I could find anyone… I can’t take a normal human as sot. I’d just be putting that target on their back too. Oh, people in the clan were trained to fight. But martial arts or self-defense or even time in the military isn’t really…” I swallowed.
“No need to explain, ma’am. We have a bit of a… specialized skill set.”
“Mama never recovered after they died. I want to know that anyone who becomes mine will survive.”
No one said anything for a moment, then Karen barked a laugh. “That is some tea. So we’d be what… bodyguards?”
“Bodyguards, advisors… ah… food?” I couldn’t help wincing a little at some of their expressions. “It’s… it’s another way sotii protect us. I’ve never fed — that’s why my powers are weak. When I take sotii, I’ll never feed on anyone else. Who else can I trust like that?”
Victor was spinning the knife on the table. Karen cocked her head, following the sound of it. Like a snake, her free hand shot out and grabbed the knife. She weighed it in her hand a moment, then started carving the table.
“This is a shit knife.”
I shrugged, knowing she couldn’t see it, not knowing what it meant. “I only have a few good knives. I wasn’t going to leave one of them behind.”
Karen raised the knife to her cheek — as if she was going to shave with it. “We’ll have to get you more.”
My breath caught again, hope this time. Marcus sighed.
“Nastasia, would you step out of the room and let us talk? I promise we’ll be here when you come back.”
“Of course!” I jumped to my feet, knocking the chair over. Smooth, real smooth. At least they couldn’t see my blush. Shaking my head, I righted the chair and walked away. But I stopped in the doorway.
“I’ll be back in an hour. It’s alright if you aren’t here.”