Secret Vampire (Chapter 15)
James, giving her blood from his arm. Thatwashow to do it. Friendly andcivilized.
She could see pale blue veins under the skin. And that sight blasted away the last of her hesitation. Instinct took over and she grabbed Thea's arm. Thenext thing she knew she was drinking.
Warm salty-sweetness. -Life. Relief from pain. It was so good that Poppy could almost cry. No wonder vampires hated humans, she thought dimly. Humansdidn't have to hunt for this marvelous stuff; theywere full of it already.
But, another part of her mind pointed out, Theawasn't a human. She was a witch. Strange, becauseher blood tasted exactly the same. Poppy's every sense confirmed it.
So witches are just humans, but humans with special powers, Poppy thought. Interesting.
It took an effort to control herself, to know whento stop. But she did stop. She let go of Thea's wrist and sat back, a little embarrassed, licking her lips andteeth. She didn't want to meet Thea's brown eyes.
It was only then that she realized she'd been keeping her thoughts shielded during the entire process.There had been no mental connection as there had been when she shared blood with James. So she'dmastered one vampire power already. Faster than James or Ash had expected.
And she felt good now. Energetic enough to do theNetherlands skippy dance. Confident enough to smileat Thea.
"Thank you," she said.
Thea smiled back, as if she found Poppy odd orquaint, but nice. She didn't seem suspicious. "It'sokay," she said, flexing her wrist and grimacinggently.
For the first time Poppy was able to look aroundher. This room was more like a living room than partof a shop. Besides the couch there was a TV andseveral chairs. At the far end was a large table withcandles and incense burning.
"This is the teaching room," Thea said. "Grandmadoes spells here and lets the students hang out."
"And the other part is a store," Poppy said, cautiously because she didn't know what she was supposed to know.
Thea didn't look surprised. "Yes. I know you wouldn't thinkthere'd be enough witches around here to keep us in business, but actually they come from all over the country. Grandma's famous. Andher students buy a lot."
Poppy nodded, looking properly impressed. Shedidn't dare ask more questions, but her chilly hearthad warmed just a tiny bit. All Night People weren'tharsh and evil. She had the feeling she could be friends with this girl if given the chance. Maybe she could make it in the Night World after all.
"Well,thanksagain," she murmured softly.
"Don't mention it. But don't let Ash get you rundown like that, either. He's soirresponsible."
"You wound me, Thea. You really do," Ash said.He was standing in the doorway, holding the beadcurtain open with one hand. "But come to think ofit, I'm feeling a little run down myself…." He raisedhis eyebrows insinuatingly.
"Go jump in Lake Mead, Ash," Thea said sweetly.
Ash looked innocent and yearning. "Just a littlebite. A nibble. A nip," he said. "You have such apretty white throat…."
"Who does?" Blaise said, pushing her way throughthe other half of the bead curtain. Poppy had the feeling she was only speaking to focus attention onherself. She stood in the center of the room andshook back her long black hair with the air of a girlused to attention.
"You both do," Ash said gallantly. Then he seemed to remember Poppy. "And, of course, this littledreamer has a pretty white everything."
Blaise, who had been smiling, now looked sour.She stared at Poppy long and hard. With dislikeand something else.
Suspicion. Dawning suspicion.
Poppy could feelit. Blaise's thoughts were brightand sharp andmalicious,like jagged glass.
Then suddenly Blaise smiled again. She looked atAsh. "I suppose you've come for the party," she said."No. What party?"
Blaise sighed in a way that emphasized her lowcut blouse. "The Solstice party, of course. Thierry'sgiving a big one. Everybody willbe there."
Ash looked tempted. In the dim light of the teaching room his eyes gleamed dark. Then he shook hishead.
"No, can't make it. Sorry. I'm going to show Poppythe town."
"Well, you can do that and still come to the partylater. It won't really get going until after midnight."Blaise was staring at Ash with an odd insistence. Ashbit his lip, then shook his head again, smiling.
"Well, maybe," he said. "I'll see how things go."
Poppy knew he was saying more than that. Someunspoken message seemed to be passing betweenhim and Blaise. But it wasn't telepathic, and Poppy couldn't pick it up.
"Well, have a good time," Thea said, and gavePoppy a quick smile as Ash piloted her away.
Ash peered ahead at the Strip. "If we hurry wecan watch the volcano erupting," he said. Poppy gavehim a look, but didn't ask.
Instead, she said, "What's a Solstice party?"
"Summer solstice. The longest day of the year. It'sa holiday for the Night People. Like Groundhog Dayfor humans."
"Oh, it always has been. It's very magical, youknow. I'd take you to the party, but it would be toodangerous. Thierry's a vampire Elder." Then he said, "Here's the volcano."
It was a volcano. In front of a hotel. Waterfallscrashed down its sides, and red lights shone from thecone. Ash double-parked across the street.
"You see, we've got a great view right here," hesaid. "All the comforts of home."
The volcano was emitting rumbling sounds. AsPoppy watched in disbelief, a pillar of fire shot outof the top. Real fire. Then the waterfalls caught fire.Red and gold flames spread down the sides of the black rock until the entire lake around the' volcanowas ablaze.
"Inspiring, isn't it?" Ash asked, very close to herear.
"Thrilling?" Ash inquired. "Stimulating? Rousing?" His arm was creeping around her, and his voicewas sweetly hypnotic.
Poppy didn't say anything.
"You know," Ash murmured, "you can see a lotbetter if you get over here. I don't mind crowding." His arm was urging her gently but inevitably closer. His breath ruffled her hair.
Poppy slammed an elbow into his stomach. "Hey!"Ash yelped-in genuine pain, Poppy thought. Good.
He'd dropped his arm and now he was looking ather with aggrieved brown eyes. "What did you do that for?"
"Because I feltlike it," Poppy said smartly. She was tingling with new blood and ready for a fight. "Look,Ash, I don't know what gave you the idea that I'm your date here. But I'm telling you right now thatI'm not. "
Ash tilted his head and smiledpainfully."You justdon't know me well enough," he offered. "When weget to know each other-"
"No.Never. I'm not interested in other guys. If Ican't have James …"Poppy had to stop and steady her voice. "There's nobody else I want," she saidfinally,flatly. "Nobody."
"Well, not now, maybe, but-"
"Never."She didn't know how to explain. Thenshe had an idea. "You know the soulmate principle?"
Ash opened his mouth and then shut it. Openedit again. "Oh, no. Not thatgarbage."
"Yes. James is my soulmate. I'm sorry if it soundsstupid, but it's true."
Ash put a hand to his forehead. Then he started to laugh. "You're serious."
"And that's your final word."
Ash laughed again, sighed, and cast his eyes upward. "Okay. Okay. I should have known." He chuckled in what seemed like self-derision.
Poppy was relieved. She'd been afraid he'd be disgruntled and huffy-or mean.Despite his charm, shecould always feel something cold running below thesurface in Ash, like an icy river.
But now he seemed perfectly good-humored."Okay," he said. "So if romance isn't on the menu, let's go to the party."
"I thought you said it was too dangerous."
He waved a hand. "That was a little fib. To get youalone, you know." He glanced sideways at her."Sorry."
Poppy hesitated. She didn't care about a party. Butshe didn't want to be alone with Ash, either.
"Maybe you should just take me back to your cousins' place."
"They won't bethere," Ash said. "I'm sure they've gone to the party by now. Oh, come on, it'll be fun.
Give me a chance to make things up to you."
Thin curls of uneasiness were roiling inside Poppy.
But Ash looked so penitent and persuasive …andwhat other choice did she have?
"Okay," she said finally. "For just a little while."Ash gave a dazzling smile. "Just a very littlewhile," he said.
"So they could be anywhere on the Strip,"James said.
Thea sighed. "I'm sorry. I should have known Ashwas up to something. But hijacking your girlfriend…"She lifted her hands in a what-next gesture. "Forwhat it's worth, she didn't seem very interested inhim. If he's planning to put the moves on her, he'sgoing to get a surprise."
Yes, James thought, and so is she. Poppy was onlyuseful to Ash as long as Ash thought he could playwith her. Once he realized he couldn't…
He didn't want to think about what would happenthen. A quick visit to the nearest Elder, he supposed.
His heart was pounding, and there was a ringingin his ears.
"Did Blaise go with them?" he asked.
"No, she went to the Solstice party. She tried to get Ash to go, but he said he wanted to show Poppythe town." Thea paused, raising a finger. "Waityou might check at the party. Ash said he might stopin later."
James spent a moment forcing himself to breathe.Then he said, verygently, "And just who is giving this party?"
"Thierry Descouedres. He always has a big one.""And he's an Elder."
"Nothing. Never mind." James backed out of theshop. "Thanks for the help. I'll be in touch.""James…"She looked at him helplessly. "Do youwant to come in and sit down? You don't lookvery well…."
"I'm fine," James said, already out the door.In the car he said, "You can get up now."
Phillip emerged from the floor of the backseatwhere he'd been hiding. "What's happening? Youwere gone a long time."
"I think I know where Poppy is.""You just think?"
"Shut up, Phil." He didn't have energy for exchanging insults. He was entirely focused on Poppy."Okay, so where is she?"
James spoke precisely. "She is either now, or shewilll be later, at a party. A very large party, filled with vampires. And at least one Elder. The perfect placeto expose her."
Phil gulped. "And you think that's what Ash is going to do?"
"I know that's what Ash is going to do."
"Then we've got to stop him."
"We may be too late."
The party was strange. Poppy was amazed at howyoung most of the people were. There were a few scattered adults, but far more teenagers.
"Made vampires," Ash explained obligingly. Poppyremembered what James had said-made vampiresremained forever the age of their death, but lamiacould stop aging anytime. She supposed that meantthat James could get as old as he wanted, while she would be stuck at sixteen eternally. Not that it mattered. If she and James were going to be together,they could both stay young-but apart, maybe he'd want to age.
But it was odd to see a guy who looked about nineteen talking earnestly with a little kid wholooked about four. The kid was cute, with shiny black hair and tilted eyes, but there was something at onceinnocent and cruel in his expression.
"Let's see, now that's Circe. A witch of renown.And that's Sekhmet, a shapeshifter. You don't want to get hermad," Ash said genially.He and Poppy were standing in a little anteroom, looking down a level into the main room of the house. Of the mansion, rather. It was the most opulent private residence Poppy had ever seen–and she'd seen Bel Airand BeverlyHills.
"Okay," Poppy said, looking in the general?direc tion he was pointing. She saw two tall and lovelygirls, but she had no idea which was which.
"And that's Thierry, our host. He's an Elder."
An Elder? The guy Ash was indicating didn't seemolder than nineteen. He was beautiful, like all thevampires, tall and blond and pensive. Almost sadlooking.
"How old ishe?"
"Oh, I forget. He got bitten by an ancestress ofmine a long time ago. Back when people lived incaves."
Poppy thought he was joking. But maybe not.
"What do the Elders do, exactly?"
"They just make rules. And see that people keepthem." An odd smile was playing around Ash's lips.
He turned to look directly at Poppy.
With the black eyes of a snake.That was when Poppy knew.
She backed away rapidly. But Ash came after her,just as rapidly. She saw a door on the other side of the anteroom and headed for it. Got through it. Onlyto find herself on a balcony.
With her eyes, she measured the distance to the ground. But before she could make another move, Ash had her arm.
Don't fight yet, her mind counseled desperately.
He's strong. Wait for an opportunity.
She made herself relax a fraction and met Ash's
dark gaze. "You brought me here."
"To hand me over."He smiled."But why?"
Ash threw back his head and laughed. It waslovely, melodious laughter, and it made Poppy sick. "You're a human," he said. "Or you should be.
James should never have done what he did."Poppy's heart was racing, but her mind was oddlyclear. Maybe she'd known all along that this was what he was going to do. Maybe it was even the rightthing to do. If she couldn't be with James and she
couldn't be with her family, did the rest really matter? Did she wantto live in the Night World if it wasfull of people like Blaise and Ash?
"So you don't care about James, either," she said."You're willing to put him in danger to get rid of me."
Ash considered, then grinned. "James can takecare of himself," he said.
Which was obviously Ash's entire philosophy. Everybody took care of themselves, and nobody helpedanybody else.
"And Blaise knew, too," Poppy said. "She knew what you were going to do and she didn't care."
"Not much gets past Blaise," Ash said. He startedto say something else-and Poppy saw her chance.
She kicked-hard. And twisted at the same time.Trying to get over the balcony rail.
"Stay here," James said to Phil before the car had evenstopped. They were in front of a huge white mansionfringed with palm trees. James threw the door open,but took the time to say again, "Stay here.No matter what happens, don't go in that house. And if somebodybesides me comes up to the car, drive away."
"Just do it, Phil! Unless you want to find out aboutdeath firsthand-tonight."
James set out at a dead run for the mansion. Hewas too intent to really notice the sound of a cardoor opening behind him.
"And you looked like such a nice girl," Ash gasped.He had both of Poppy's arms behind her back andwas trying to get out of the range of her feet."No-no, quit that, now."
He was too strong. There was nothing Poppy coulddo. Inch by inch he was dragging her back into theanteroom.
You might as well give up, Poppy's mind told her.It's useless. You're done.
She could picture the whole thing: herself being dragged out in front of all of those sleek and handsome Night People and revealed. She could picturetheir pitiless eyes. That pensive-looking guy wouldwalk up to her and his face would change and hewouldn't look pensive anymore. He'd look savage.His teeth would grow. His eyes would go silvery.Then he'd snarl–and strike.
And that would be the end of Poppy.
Maybe that wasn't the way they did it, maybe theyexecuted criminals some other way in the NightWorld. But it wouldn't be pleasant, whatever it was.
And I won't makeiteasyfor you!Poppy thought. Shethought it directly at Ash, throwing all of her angerand grief and betrayal at him. Instinctively. Like akid shouting in a temper tantrum.
Except it had an effect shouting usually didn't.
Ash flinched. He almost lost his grip on her arms.
It was only a momentary weakening, but it wasenough for Poppy's eyes to widen.
I hurt him. Ihurthim!
She stopped struggling physically in that same instant. She put all her concentration, all her energy,into a mental explosion. A thought-bomb.
LET GO OF ME YOU ROTTEN VAMPIRE CREEP!
Ash staggered. Poppy did it again, this time makingher thought a fire hose, a high-power jetstreambombardment.
Ash let go. Then, as Poppy ran out of steam, hetried in afumblingway to reach her again.
"I don't think so," a voice as cold as steel said.Poppy looked into the anteroom and saw James.
Her heart lurched violently. And then, withoutconsciously being aware of moving, she was in hisarms.
Oh, James, how did youfind me?
All he kept saying was Are you all right?
"Yes," Poppy said finally, aloud. It was indescribably good to be with him again, to be held by him.Like waking up from a nightmare to see your mothersmiling. She buried her face in his neck.
"You're sure you're all right?"
"Good. Then just hang on a moment while I kill this guy and we'll go."
He was absolutely serious. Poppy could feel it in his thoughts, in every muscle and sinew of his body.He wanted to murder Ash.
She lifted her head at the sound of Ash's laugh."Well, it ought to be a good fight, anyway," Ashsaid.
No, Poppy thought. Ash was looking silky and dangerous and in a very bad mood. And even if James could beat him, James was going to get hurt. Evenif she and James fought him together, there was going to be some damage.
"Let's just go," she said to James. "Quick." Sheadded silently, Ithink he wants to keep us around untilsomebody from the party gets here.
"No, no," Ash said, in gloatingly enthusiastic tones."Let's settle this like vampires."
"Let's not," said a breathless familiar voice. Poppy'shead jerked around. Climbing over the railing of thebalcony, dusty but triumphant, was Phil.
"Don't you everlisten?" James said to him.
"Well, well," Ash said. "A human in an Elder'shouse. What arewe going to do about that?"
"Look, buddy," Phil said, still breathless, brushingoff his hands. "I don't know who you are or whathorse you rode in on. But that's my sisterthere you're messing with, and I figure I've got the first right to knock your head off."
There was a pause while Poppy, James, and Ash all looked at him. The pause stretched. Poppy wasaware of a sudden, completely inappropriate impulse to laugh. Then she realized that James was fightingdesperately not to crack a smile.
Ash just looked Phil up and down, then looked atJames sideways.
"Does this guyunderstandabout vampires?" hesaid.
"Oh, yeah," James said blandly.
"And he's going to knock my head in?"
"Yeah," Phil said, and cracked his knuckles.
"What's so surprising about that?"
There was another pause.Poppycould feel minute
tremors going through James. Choked-back laughter.At last James said, admirably sober, "Philreally feelsstrongly about his sister."
Ash looked at Philonce more, then at James, andfinally at Poppy. "Well … there are three of you," he said.
"Yes, there are," James said, genuinely sober now. Grim.
"So I guess you do have me at a disadvantage. Allright,I giveup." He lifted his hands and thendropped them. "Go on, scram. I won't fight."
"And you won't tell on us, either," James said. Itwasn't a request.
"I wasn't going to anyway," Ash said. He had onhis most innocent and guileless expression. "I knowyou think I brought Poppy here to expose her, but I really wasn't going to go through with it. I was justhaving fun. The whole thing was just a joke."
"Oh, sure," Phil said.
"Don't even bother lying," James said.
But Poppy, oddly, wasn't as certain as they were.She looked at Ash's wide eyes-his wide violeteyes-and felt doubt slosh back and forth inside her.
It was hard to read him, as it had been hard allalong. Maybe because he always meant everythinghe said at the time he said it–or maybe because he nevermeant anything he said. No matter which,, he was the most irritating, frustrating, impossible personshe'd ever met.
"Okay, we're going now," James said. "We're goingto walk very quietly and calmly right through that littleroom and down the hall, and we're not going to stopfor anything-Phillip.Unless you'd rather go back downthe way you came up," he added.
Phil shook his head. James gathered Poppy in hisarm again, but he paused and looked back at Ash.
"You know, you've never really cared about anyone," he said. "But someday you will, and it's goingto hurt. It's going to hurt-a lot."
Ash looked back at him, and Poppy could readnothing in his ever-changing eyes. But just as Jamesturned again, he said, "I think you're a lousyprophet. But your girlfriend's a good one. You mightwant to ask her about her dreams sometime."
James stopped. He frowned. "What?"
"And you, little dreamer, you might want to check out your family tree. You have a very loud yell." He smiled at Poppy engagingly. "Bye now."
James stayed for another minute or so, just staringat his cousin. Ash gazed serenely back. Poppycounted heartbeats while the two of them stoodmotionless.
Then James shook himself slightly and turnedPoppy toward the anteroom. Phil followed right on their heels.
They walked out of the house very quietly andvery calmly. No one tried to stop them.
But Poppy didn't feel safe until they were on theroad.
"What did he mean with that crack about the family tree?" Phil asked from the backseat.
James gave him an odd look, but answered with aquestion. "Phil, how did you know where to findPoppy in that house? Did you see her on the balcony?"
"No, I just followed the shouting."
Poppy turned around to look at him.James said, "What shouting?"
"Theshouting. Poppy shouting. 'Let go of me yourotten vampire creep."'
Poppy turned to James. "Should hehave been ableto hear it? I thought I was just yelling at Ash. Dideverybody at the party hear?"
James cut her off. "What dream was Ash talkingabout?"
"Just a dream I had," Poppy said, bewildered. "Idreamed about him before I actually met him."
James's expression was now verypeculiar. "Oh,did you?"
"Yes. James, what's this all about? What did hemean, I should check my family tree?"
"He meant that you-and Philaren't human after all. Somewhere among your ancestors there'sa witch."