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Secret Vampire (Chapter 13)

He doesn't understand," Poppy said softly as Jamesunlocked the door to his apartment. "He just hasn'tgrasped that you're risking your life, too."

The apartment was very bare and utilitarian. Highceilings and spacious rooms announced that it wasexpensive, but there wasn't much furniture. In theliving room there was a low, square couch, a desk with a computer, and a couple of Oriental-lookingpictures on the wall. And books. Cardboard boxes of books stacked in the corners.

Poppy turned to face James directly. "Jamie … Iunderstand."

James smiled at her. He was sweaty and dirty andtired-looking. But his expression said Poppy made it all worthwhile.

"Don't blamePhil,"he said, with a gesture of dismissal. "He's actually handling things pretty well. I've never broken cover to a human before, but I think most of them would run screaming and never come back. He's trying to cope, at least."

Poppy nodded and dropped the subject. James wastired, which meant they should go to sleep. Shepicked up the duffel bag that Phil had packed withher clothes and headed for the bathroom.

She didn't change right away, though. She was toofascinated by her own reflection in the mirror. So this was what a vampire Poppy looked like.

She was prettier, she noted with absent satisfaction. The four freckles on her nose were gone. Herskin was creamy-pale, like an advertisement for facecream. Her eyes were green as jewels. Her hair was wind-blown into riotous curls, metallic-copper.

I don'tlooklike something that sits on a buttercupanymore, she thought. I look wild and dangerous andexotic. Like a model. Like a rock star. Like James.

She leaned forward to examine her teeth, pokingat the canines to make them grow. Then she jerkedback, gasping.

Her eyes. She hadn't realized. Oh, God, no wonderPhil had been scared. When she did that, when herteeth extended, her eyes went silvery-green, uncanny. Like the eyes of a hunting cat.

All at once she was overcome by terror. She hadto cling to the sink to stay on her feet.

I don't want it, I don't wantit….

Oh,dealwith it, girl. Stop whining. So what did you expect to look like, Shirley Temple? You're a hunter now. And your eyes go silver and blood tastes like cherry preserves. And that's all there is to it, andthe other choice was resting in peace. Sodeal.

Gradually her breathing slowed. In the next few minutes something happened inside her;shediddeal.She found … acceptance. It felt like something giving way in her throat and her stomach. She wasn'tweird and dreamy now, as she'd been when she hadfirst awakened in the cemetery; she could thinkdearly about her situation. And she could accept it.

And I did it without running to James, she thought suddenly, startled. I don't need him to comfort meor tell me it's okay. I canmake it okay, myself.

Maybe that was what happened when you faced the very worst thing in the world. She'd lost herfamily and her old life and maybe even her childhood, but she'd found herself. And that would have to do.

She pulled the white dress over her head andchanged into a T-shirt and sweatpants. Then shewalked out to James, head high.

He was in the bedroom, lying on a full-sized bedmade up with light brown sheets. He was still wearing his dirty clothes, and he had one arm crooked over his eyes. When Poppy came in, he stirred.

"I'll go sleep on the couch," he said.

"No, you won't," Poppy said firmly. She flopped on the bed beside him. "You're dead tired. And Iknow I'm safe with you."

James grinned without moving his arm. "Because I'm dead tired?"

"Because I've always been safe with you." Sheknew that. Even when she'd been a human and herblood must have tempted him, she'd been safe.

She looked at him as he lay there, brown hair ruffled, body lax, Adidas unlaced and caked with soil.She found his elbows endearing.

"Iforgot to mention something before," she said."I onlyrealizedI forgot when I was . . .going tosleep. I forgot to mention that I love you."

James sat up. "You only forgot to say it withwords."

Poppy felt a smile tugging at her lips. That was theamazing thing, the only purely good thing about what had happened to her. She and James had cometogether. Their relationship had changed-but it still had everything she'd valued in their old relationship.The understanding, the camaraderie. Now on top ofthat was the new excitement of discovering each other as more than best friends.

And she'd found the part of him that she hadnever been able to reach before. She knew his secrets, knew him inside out. Humans could never know each other that way. They could never really get into another person's head. All the talking in theworld couldn't even prove that you and the otherperson both saw the same color red.

And if she and James never merged like two dropsof water again, she would always be able to touchhis mind.

A little shy, she leaned against him, resting on hisshoulder. In all the times they'd been dose, they'dnever kissed or been romantic. For now, just sitting here like this was enough, just feeling James breathe and hearing his heart and absorbing his warmth. Andhis arm around her shoulders was almosttoo much, almost too intense to bear, but at the same time it was safe and peaceful.

It was like a song, one of those sweet, wrenchingsongs that makes the hair on your arms stand up.That makes you want to throw yourself on the floorand just bawl. Or fall backward and surrender to the music utterly. One ofthosesongs.

James cupped her hand, brought it to his lips, andkissed the palm.

I told you. You don't love somebody because of their looks or their clothes or their car. You love them becausethey sing a song that nobody but you can understand.

Poppy's heart swelled until it hurt.

Aloud she said, "We always understood the samesong, even when we were little."

"In the Night World there's this idea called thesoulmate principle. It says that every person has onesoulmate out there, just one. And that person is perfect for you and is your destiny. The problem beingthat almost nobody everfindstheir soulmate, just because of, distance. So most people go through theirwhole lives feeling not complete."

"I think it's the truth. Ialwaysknew you wereperfect for me."

"Not always."

"Oh, yes. Since I was five. I knew."

"I'd have known you were perfect for me-exceptthat everything I'd been taught said it was hopeless." He cleared his throat and added, "That iswhy I wentout With Michaela and those other girls, you know.I didn't care about them. I could get dose to themwithout breaking the law."

"I know," Poppy said. "I mean-I think I alwaysknew it was something like that, underneath." Sheadded, "James? What am I now?" Some things shecould tell instinctively; she could feel them in herblood. But she wanted to know more, and she knewJames understood why. This was her life now. She had to learn the rules.

"Well." He settled against the headboard, head tilted back as she rested under his chin. "You're pretty much like me. Except for not being able to ageor havefamilies,made vampires are basically like thelamia."He shifted. "Let's see. You already knowabout being able to see and hear better than humans.And you're a whiz at reading minds."

"Not everybody's mind."

"No vampire can read everybody's mind. Lots oftimes all I get is a sort of general feeling for whatpeople arethinking.The only certain way to make aconnection is to-" James opened his mouth andclicked his teeth. Poppy giggled as the sound traveled through her skull.

"And how often do I haveto-?" She clicked herown teeth.

"Feed." She felt James getting serious. "Aboutonce a day on average. Otherwise you'll go into thebloodlust. You can eat human food if you want, but there's no nutrition in it. Blood is everything for us."

"And the more blood, the more power."

"Basically, yes."

"Tell me about power. Can we-well, what canwe do?"

"We have more control over our bodies than humans. We can heal from almost any kind of injuryexcept from wood. Wood can hurt us, even kill us." He snorted. "So there's one thing the movies haveright-a wooden stake through the heart will, in fact, kill a vampire. So will burning."

"Can we change into animals?"

"I've never met any vampire that powerful. Buttheoretically it's possible for us, and shapeshifters andwerewolves do it all the time."

"Change into mist?"

"I've never even met a shapeshifter who coulddo that."

Poppy thumped the bed with her heel. "And obviously we don't have to sleep in coffins."

"No, and we don't need native earth, either. Myself, I prefer a Sealy Posturepedic, but if you'd likesome dirt …"

Poppy elbowed him. "Urn, can we cross runningwater?"

"Sure. And we can walk into people's homes with out being invited, and roll in garlic if we don't mindlosing friends. Anything else?"

"Yes. Tell me about the Night World." It was herhome now.

"Did I tell you about the dubs? We have clubs inevery big city. In a lot of small ones, too.""What kind of dubs?"

"Well, some are just dives, and some are like cafes,and some are like nightclubs, and some are likelodges-those are mostly for adults. I know one for kids that's just a big old warehouse with skate rampsbuilt in. You can hang out and skateboard. And there are poetry slams every week at the Black Iris."

Blackiris,Poppy thought. That reminded her of something. Something unpleasant …

What she said was, "That's a funny name."

"All the dubs are named for flowers. Black flowersare the symbols of the Night People." He rotated hiswrist to show her his watch. An analog watch, witha black iris in the center of the face. "See?"

"Yeah. You know, I noticed that black thing, but Inever really looked at it before. I think I assumed itwas Mickey Mouse."

He rapped her lightly on the nose in reproof. "Thisis serious business, kid. One of these will identify youto other Night People-even if they're as stupid as a werewolf.'I

:You don't like werewolves?"

"They're great if you like double-digit IQs."

"But you let them in the dubs."

"Some dubs. Night People may not marry out oftheir own kind, but they all mix:lamia,made vam pires, werewolves, both kinds of witches …"Poppy, who had been playing at intertwining theirfingers in different ways, shifted curiously. "What'sboth kinds of witches?"

"Oh. . .there's the kind that know about theirheritage and have been trained, and the kind that don't. That second kind are what humans call psychics. Sometimes they just have latent powers, andsome of them aren't even psychic enough to findtheNight World, so they don't get in."

Poppy nodded. "Okay. Got it. But what if a human walks into one of those dubs?"

"Nobody would let them. The dubs aren't whatyou'dcallconspicuous, and they're always guarded."

"But if they did…"

James shrugged. His voice was suddenly bleak. "They'd be killed. Unless somebody wanted to pickthem up as a toy or pawn. That means a humanwho's basically brainwashed-who lives with vampires but doesn't know it because of the mind control.Sort of like a sleepwalker. I had a nanny once…"His voice trailed off, and Poppy could feel his distress.

"You can tell me about it later." She didn't wanthim ever to be hurt again.

"M'm."He sounded sleepy. Poppy settled herselfmore comfortably against him.

It was amazing, considering her last experiencegoing to sleep, that she could even shut her eyes.

But she could. She was with her soulmate, so whatcould go wrong? Nothing could hurt her here.

Phil was having trouble shutting his eyes.

Every time he did, he saw Poppy. Poppy asleep inthe casket, Poppy watching him with a hungry cat'sgaze. Poppy lifting her head from that guy's throat toshow a mouth stained as if she'd been eating berries.

She wasn't human anymore.

And just because he'd known all along that shewouldn't be didn't make it any easier to accept.

He couldn't-he couldn't–condonejumping on people and tearing up their throats for dinner. Andhe wasn't sure that it was any better to charm people and bite them and then hypnotize them to forget it. The whole system was scary on some deeplevel.

Maybe James had been righthumans justcouldn't deal with the idea that there was somebodyhigher on the food chain. They'd lost touch with their caveman ancestors, who knew what it was liketo be hunted. They thought all that primal stuff wasbehind them.

Could Phillip tell them a thing or two.

The bottom line was that he couldn't accept, andPoppy couldn't change. And the only thing that madeit bearable was that somehow he loved her anyway.

Poppy woke in thedim, curtained bedroom the next day to find the other half of the bed empty. Shewasn't alarmed, though. Instinctively she reached out with her mind, and . . . there. James was in the kitchenette.

She felt… energetic. Like a puppy straining to belet loose in a field. But as soon as she walked intotheliving room, she felt that her powers were weaker. And her eyes hurt. She squinted toward the painful brightness of a window.

"It's the sun," James said. "Inhibits all vampirepowers, remember?" He went over to the windowand dosed the curtains-they were the blackout type, like the ones in the bedroom. The midafternoon sunshine was cut off. "That should help a little-butyou'd better stay inside today until it gets dark. Newvampires are more sensitive."

Poppy caught something behind his words. "You'regoing out?"

"I have to." He grimaced. "There's something I forgot my cousin Ash is supposed to show up thisweek. I've got to get my parents to head him off."

"I didn't know you had a cousin."

He winced again. "I've got lots, actually. They'reback East in a safe town-a whole town that's controlled by the Night World. Most of them are okay, but not Ash."

"What's wrong with him?"

"He's crazy. Also cold-blooded, ruthless-"

"You sound like Phil describing you."

"No, Ash is the real thing. The ultimate vampire.He doesn't care about anybody but himself, and heloves to make trouble."

Poppy was prepared to love all James's cousins forhis sake, but shad to agree that Ash soundeddangerous.

"I wouldn't trust anyone to know about you justnow," James said, "and Ash is out of the question.

I'm going to tell my parents he can't come here,that's all."

And then what do we do? Poppy thought. She couldn't stay hidden forever. She belonged to theNight World-but the Night World wouldn't accepther.

There had to be some solution-and she could onlyhope that she and James would find it.

"Don't be gone too long," she said, and he kissedher on the forehead, which was nice. As if it wasgetting to be a habit.

When he was gone, she took a shower and puton dean clothes. Good old Phil-he'd slipped in herfavorite jeans. Then she made herself putter aroundthe apartment, because she didn't want to sit and think.Nobody should have to think on the day after their own funeral.

The phone sat beside the square couch and mockedher. She found herself resisting the impulse to pickit up so often that her arm ached.

But who could she call? Nobody. Not even Phil,because what if somebody overheard him? What ifher mother answered?

No, no, don't think about Mom, you idiot.

But it was too late. She was overwhelmed suddenly, by a desperate need to hear her mother's voice.Just to hear a "hello." She knew she couldn't sayanything herself. She just needed to establish that her mom still existed.

She punched the phone number in without givingherself time to think. She counted rings. One, two,three …

"Hello?"

It was her mother's voice. And it was already over,and it wasn't enough. Poppy sat trying to breathe, with tears running down her face. She hung there,wringing the phone cord, listening to the faint buzz on the other end. Like a prisoner in court waiting to hear her sentence.

"Hello? Hello." Her mother's voice was flat andtired. Not acerbic. Prank phone calls were no big dealwhen you'd just lost your daughter.

Then a click signaled disconnection.

Poppy clutched the earpiece to her chest and cried, rocking slightly. At last she put it back on the cradle.

Well, she wouldn't do that again. It was worse thannot being able to hear her mother at all. And it didn't help her with reality, either. It gave her a dizzy Twilight Zone feeling to think that her mom was athome, and everybody was at home, and Poppy wasn't there.Life was going on in that house, but she wasn'tpart of it anymore. She couldn't just walk in, any more than she could walk into some strange family's house.

You're really a glutton for punishment, aren't you? Why don't you stop thinking about this and dosomething distracting?

She was snooping through James's file cabinetwhen the apartment door opened.

Because she heard the metallic jingle of a key, sheassumed it was James. But then, even before sheturned, she knew it wasn't James. It wasn't James's mind.

She turned and saw a boy with ash blond hair.

He was very good looking, built about like James,but a little taller, and maybe a year older. His hairwas longish. His face had a nice shape, clean-cut fea tures, and wicked slightly tilted eyes.

But that wasn't why she was staring at him.

He gave her a flashing smile.

"I'm Ash," he said."Hi."

Poppy was still staring. "You were in my dream," she said.. "You said, 'Bad magic happens."' "So you're a psychic?"

"What?"

"Your dreams come true?"

"Not usually." Poppy suddenly got hold of herself."Listen, um, I don't know how you got in-"

He jingled a key ring at her. "Aunt Maddy gaveme these. James told you to keep me out, I bet."

Poppy decided that the best defense was a goodoffense. "Now, why would he tell me that?" she said,and folded her arms over her chest.

He gave her a wicked, laughing glance. His eyeslooked hazel inthislight, almost golden. "I'm bad,"he said simply.

Poppy tried to plaster a look of righteous disapproval-like Phil's-on her face. It didn't work verywell. "Does James know you're here? Where is he?"

"I have no idea. Aunt Maddy gave me the keysat lunch, and then she went out on some interiordecorating job. What did you dream about?"

poppy just shook her head. She was trying tothink.presumably, James was wandering around in search ofhis mother right now. Once he found her he'd findout that Ash was over here, and then he'd come backfast.Which meant …well,Poppy supposed it meantshe should keep Ash occupied until James arrived.

But how? She'd never really practiced being winsome and adorable with guys. And she was worriedabout talking too much. She might give herself awayas a new vampire.

Oh, well. When in doubt, shut your eyes and jump right in.

"Know any good werewolf jokes?" she said.

He laughed. He had a nice laugh, and his eyes weren't hazel after all. They were gray, like James's.

"You haven't told me your name yet, little dreamer," he said.

"Poppy," Poppy said and immediately wished shehadn't. What if Mrs. Rasmussen had mentioned thatone of James's little friends called Poppy had justdied? To conceal her nervousness, she got up to dose the door.

"Good lamianame," he said. "I don't like thisyuppy thing of taking on human names, do you?

I've got three sisters, and they all have regular oldfashioned names. Rowan, Kestrel, Jade. My dad would burst a blood vessel if one of them suddenlywanted to call herself 'Susan.' "

"Or 'Maddy?' "Poppy asked, intrigued despiteherself.

"Huh? It's short for Madder."

Poppy wasn't sure what madder was. A plant,she thought.

"Of course I'm not saying anything against James,"Ash said, and it was perfectly dear from his voicethat he wassaying something against James. "Things are different for you guys in California. You have to mix more with humans; you have to be more careful.So ifnamingyourself after vermin makes it easier … "He shrugged.

"Oh, yeah, they're vermin all right," Poppy said atrandom. She was thinking, he's playing with me. Isn't he playing with me?

She had the sinking feeling that he knew everything. Agitation made her need to move. She headedfor James's stereo center.

"So you like any vermin music?" she said."Techno? Acid jazz? Trip-hop? Jungle?" She waveda vinyl record at him. "This is some serious jump-up jungle." He blinked. "Oh, and this is great industrialnoise. And this is a real good acid house stomperwith a sort of madcore edge to it…."

She had him on the defensive now. Nobody couldstop Poppy when she got going like this. She widenedher eyes at him and blathered on, looking as fey asshe knew how.

"And I say freestyle's coming back.Completely underground, so far, but on the rise.Now, Euro-dance,on the other hand …"

Ash was sitting on the square couch, long legsstretched out in front of him. His eyes were deepblue and slightly glazed.

"Sweetheart," he said finally, "I hate to interrupt.But you and I need to talk."

Poppy was too clever to ask him what about."…these sort of eternal void keys and troll groaningsounds that make you want to ask, 'Is anybody outthere?' "shefinishedand then she had to breathe.Ash jumped in.

"We reallyhave to talk," he said. "Before Jamesgets back."

There was no way to evade him now. Poppy'smouth was dry. He leaned forward, his eyes a dear blue-green like tropical waters. And, yes, they really dochange color, Poppy thought.

"It's not your fault," he said.

"What?"

It's not yourfault. That you can't shield your mind. You'll

learn how to do it, he said, andPoppy only realized halfway through that he wasn't saying it out loud.

Oh. . . spit. She should have thought of that.Should have been concentrating on veiling her thoughts.She tried to do it now.

"Listen, don't bother. I know that you're notlamia. You're made, and you're illegal. James hasbeen a bad boy."

Since there was no point in denying it, Poppy liftedher chin and narrowed her eyes at him. "So youknow. So what are you going to do about it?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

He smiled. "On you."

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