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Secret Vampire (Chapter 7)

Then you must have had a reason," Poppy saidflatly. When he looked at her, she shrugged. "I know you." She knew him in a way she'd never known anyone.

James looked away. "I didn't have a reason, but there were some …extenuating circumstances. You could say I was set up. But I still have nightmares."

He sounded so tired-so sad.It's a lonely world, fullof secrets, poppythought. And he'd had to keep the biggest secret of all from everyone, including her.

"It must have been awful for you," she said, hardlyaware that she was speaking out loud. "I mean, all your life-holding this in. Not telling anybody. Pretending…"

"Poppy." He gave a shiver of repressed emotion."Don't."

"Don't sympathize with you?"

He shook his head. "Nobody's's ever understood before." After a pause he said, "How can you worry about me? With what you're facing?"

"I guess because -I care about you."

"And I guess that's why I didn't treat you like Michaela or Jacklyn," he said.

Poppy looked at the sculpted planes of his face, atthe wave of brown hair falling over his forehead like silk …and held her breath. Say "I love you," she ordered mentally.Say it, you thickheaded male.

But they weren't connected, and James didn't givethe slightest sign of having heard. Instead he turned brisk and businesslike. "We'd better get started." Hegot up and drew the window curtains shut. "Sunlight inhibits all vampire powers," he said in a guest lecturer voice. .

Poppy took advantage of the pause to go to the CDplayer. The music had changed to a Dutch club song,which was fine for doing the Netherlands skippydance to, but not very romantic. She punched a but ton and a velvety Portuguese lament began.

Then she twitched the sheer hangings around the bed dosed. When she sat down again, she and James were in their own little world, dim and secluded, enclosed in misty eggshell white.

"I'm ready," she said softly, and James leaned inclose to her. Even in the semidarkness Poppy felt mesmerized by his eyes. They were like windows tosome other place, someplace distant and magical.

The Night World, she thought, and tilted her chinback as James took her in his arms.

This time the double sting at her neck hurt good.

But best was when James's mind touched hers.The feeling of oneness, of suddenly being whole-it spread through her like starshine.

Once again she had the sense that they were melting together, dissolving and merging everywhere they touched. She could feel her own pulse echoingthrough him.

Closer, loser… and then she felt a pulling-back.

James? What's wrong?

Nothing,he told her, but Poppy could sense that itwasn't quite true. He was trying to weaken the growing bond between them … but why?

Poppy, I just don't want to force you into anything.What we're feeling is-artificial….

Artificial? It was the realest thing that she'd everexperienced. Realer than real. In the midst of joy, Poppy felt a surge of hurt anger at James.

I don't mean it like that,he said, and there was desperation in the thought.It's just that you can't resist the blood-bond. You couldn't resist it if you hated me. Itisn't fair….

Poppy didn't care about fair.Ifyou can't resist it,why are you trying?she asked him triumphantly.

She heard something like mental laughter, andthen they were both clinging together as a wave of pure emotion swept them.

The blood-bond, Poppy thought when James raisedhis head at last. It doesn't matter if he won't say he loves me-we're bonded now. Nothing can changethat.

And in a moment or so she would seal that bondby taking his blood. Try and resistthat,she thought, and was startled when James laughed softly. "Reading my mind again?"

"Not exactly. You're projecting-and you're verygood at it. You're going to be a strong telepath."

Interesting. . . but right now Poppy didn't feelstrong. She suddenly felt kitten-weak. Limp as a wilting flower. She needed …

"I know," James whispered. Still supporting her, he started to lift one wrist to his mouth.

Poppy stopped him with a restraining hand.

"James? How many times do we have to do thisbefore I-change?"

"Once more, I think," James said quietly. "I tooka lot this time, and I want you to do the same. And the next time we do it …"

I'll die, Poppy thought. Well, at least I know howlong I have left as a human.

James's lips slid back to reveal long, delicate fangs,and he struck at his own wrist. There was something snake like in the motion. Blood welled up, the colorof syrup in a can of cherry preserves.

Just as Poppy was leaning forward, lips parted,there was a knock at the door.

Poppy and James froze guiltily.

The knock came again. In her muddled and weakened state, Poppy couldn't seem to make herself move.

The only thought that resounded in her brainwasOh,please. Please don't let it be…

The door opened.

Phil.

Phillip was already speaking as he poked his headin. "Poppy, are you awake? Mom says-"

He broke off abruptly, then lunged forthelightswitch on the wall. Suddenly the room was illuminated.

Oh,terrific,Poppy thought in frustration. Phil waspeering through the filmy draperies around the bed.

Poppy peered back at him.

"Whatis going-on?" he said in a voice that would have gotten him the lead role in The Ten Com mandments.And then, before Poppy could gather enough wits to answer, he leaned in and grabbed James by the arm.

"Phil,don't," Poppysaid. "Phil, you idiot…"

"We had a deal," Phil snarled at James. "And you broke it."

James was gripping Phil's arms now, as ungentlyas Phil was grasping him. Poppy had the dismayed feeling that they were going to start head-buttingeach other.

Oh, Lord, if she could onlythinkstraight. She feltso brainless.

"You've got the wrong idea," James said to Philthrough clenched teeth.

"The wrongidea? Icome in here and find the two of you in bed, with all the curtains drawn, and you're telling me I've got the wrongidea?"

"Onthe bed, Poppy interjected. Phil ignored her.

James shook Phil. He did it quite easily and withan economy of movement, but Phil's head snapped back and forth. Poppy realized that James was not athis most rational right now. She remembered the metal chair leg and decided it was time to intervene.

Letgo,"she said, reaching in between the two boys to grab for hands. Anybody's hands. "Come on,you guys!" And then, desperately, "Phil, I know youdon't understand, but James is trying tohelp me-"

"Help you? I don't think so." And then to James:"Look at her. Can't you see that this stupid pretending is making hersicker? Every time I find her with you, she's white as a sheet. You're just making things worse."

"You don't know anything about it," Jamessnarled in Phil's face. But Poppy was still processing something several sentences back.

"Stupid? Pretending?" she said. Her voice wasn't very loud but everything stopped.

Both boys looked at her.

Everyone made mistakes then. Later, Poppy wouldrealize that if any of them had kept their heads, what happened next could have been avoided. But noneof them did.

"I'm sorry,"Philsaid to Poppy. "I didn't want totell you-"

"Shut up,"James said savagely.

"But I have to.This-jerk-isjust playing with you.He admitted it to me. He said he felt sorry for you,and he thinks that pretending he likes you makesyou feel better. He's got an ego that would fill Dodger Stadium."

"Pretending?" Poppy said again, sitting back. Therewas a buzzing in her head and an eruption gathering in her chest.

"Poppy, he's crazy," James said. "Listen-"

But Poppy wasn't listening. The problem was thatshe couldfeelhow sorry Phil was. It was much more convincing than anger. And Phillip, honest, straightforward, trustworthy Phillip, almost never lied.

He wasn't lying now. Which meant… that James must be.

Eruption time.

"You. . ."she whispered to James.,"You . . ."She couldn't think of a swear word bad enough. Some how she felt more hurt, more betrayed than she hadever felt before. She had thought sheknewJames;she had trusted him absolutely. Which made the betrayal all the worse. "So it was all pretending? Isthat it?"

Some inner voice was telling her to hold on andthink. That she was in no state to make crucial decisions.

But she was also in no state to listen to innervoices. Her own anger kept her from deciding if shehad any good reason to be angry.

"You just feltsorryfor me?" she whispered, and suddenly all the fury and grief that she'd been suppressing for the last day and a half flooded out. Shewas blind with pain, and nothing mattered exceptmaking James hurt as much as she hurt.

Jameswas breathing hard,speaking rapidly."Poppy-this is why I didn't want Phil to know-"

"And nowonder," Poppyraged. "And no wonderyou wouldn't say you loved me," she went on, not even caring that Phillip was listening. "And no wonder you would do all that other stuff, but you never even kissed me. Well, I don't want yourpity-"

"Whatotherstuff?.Allwhatotherstuff?"Philshouted."I'mgonna kill you, Rasmussen!"

He tore free of James and swung at him. Jamesducked so that the fist just grazed his hair. Philswung again and James twisted sideways andgrabbed him from behind in a headlock.

Poppy heard running footsteps in the hall. "What's happening?" her mother gasped in dismay, regarding the scene in Poppy's bedroom.

At almost the same instant Cliff appeared behindPoppy's mother. "What's all the shouting?" he asked, his jaw particularly square.

"You'rethe one who's putting her in danger,"James was snarling in Phillip's ear. "Right now." Helooked feral. Savage.

Inhuman.

"Let go of my brother!" Poppyyelled. All at onceher eyes were swimming with tears.

"Oh, my God-darling," her mother said. In two steps she was beside the bed and holding Poppy." You boys getoutof here."

The savagery drained out of James's expression,and he loosened his hold on Phillip. "Look, I'm sorry. I have to stay. Poppy…"

Phillip slammed an elbow into his stomach.

It might not have hurt James as much as it woulda human, but Poppy saw the fury sweep over his face as he straightened from doubling up. He lifted Phil off his feet and threw him headfirst in the general direction of Poppy's dresser.

Poppy's mother let out a cry. Cliff jumped in between Phil and James.

"That's enough!" he roared. Then, to Phil: "Are you all right?" And to James: "What's this allabout?"

Phil was rubbing his head dazedly. James saidnothing. Poppy couldn't speak.

"All right, it doesn't matter," Cliff said. "I guesseverybody's a little jumpy right now. But you'd better go on home, James."

James looked at Poppy.

Poppy, throbbing all over like an aching tooth,turned her back on him. She burrowed into her mother's embrace.

"I'll be back," James said quietly. It might have been meant as a promise, but it sounded like a threat. "Not for a while, you won't," Cliff said in a military command voice. Gazing over her mother's arm, Poppy could see that there was blood on Phillip'sblond hair. "I think everybody needs a cooling-off period. Now, come on, move."

He led James out. Poppy sniffled and shivered, trying to ignore both the waves of giddiness that swept over her and the agitated murmuring of all the voices

in her head. The stereo went on blasting out madcorestomping music from England.

In the next two days James called eight times.

Poppy actually picked up the phone the first time.It was after midnight when her private line rang, and she responded automatically, still half-asleep.

"Poppy, don't hang up," James said.

Poppy hung up. A moment later the phone rangagain.

"Poppy, if you don't want to die, you've got tolisten to me."

"That's blackmail. You'resick,"Poppy said, clutching the handset. Her tongue felt thick and her head ached.

"It's just the truth. Poppy, listen. You didn't takeany blood today. I weakened you, and you didn't get anything in exchange. And that could kill you."

Poppy heard the words, but they didn't seem real.She found herself ignoring them, retreating into afoggy state where thought was impossible. "I don'tcare."

"You do-care, and if you could think, you'd knowthat. It's the change that's doing this. You're completely messed up mentally. You're too paranoid andillogical and crazy toknowyou're paranoid and illogical and crazy."

It was suspiciously like what Poppy hadrea!izedearlier. She was aware, dimly, that she was acting the way Marissa Schaffer had after drinking a sixpack of beer at Jan Nedjar's New Year's party. Making a ranting fool of herself. But she couldn't seemto stop.

"I just want to know one thing," she said. "Is ittrue that you said that stuff to Phillip?"

She heard James let his breath out. "It's true thatI said it. But whatI said wasn't true. It was just toget him off my back."

By now Poppy was too upset to even want tocalm down.

"Why should I believe somebody whose whole lifeis a lie?" she said, and hung up again as the first tears spilled.

All the next day she stayed in her state of foggy denial. Nothing seemed real, not the fight withJames, not James's warning, and not her illness. Especially not her illness. Her mind found a way toaccept the special treatment she was getting from everyone without dwelling on the reason forthetreatment.

She even managed to disregard her mother's whispered comments to Phil about how she was going downhill so fast. How poor Poppy was getting pale, getting weak, getting worse. And only Poppy knew that she could now hear conversations held in the hallway as clearly as if they were in her own room.

All her senses were sharpened, even as her mindwas dulled. When she looked at herself in the mirror, she was startled by how white she was, her skintranslucent as candle wax. Her eyesso green and fierce that they burned.

The other six times James called, Poppy's mothertold him Poppy was resting.

Cliff fixed the broken trim on Poppy's dresser."Who would have thought the kid was that strong?" he said.

James flipped his cellular phone shut and banged a fist on the Integra's dashboard. It was Thursday afternoon.

I low you.That's what he should have said toPoppy. And now it was too late-,she wouldn't even talk to him.

Whyhadn'the said it? His reasons seemed stupid now. So he hadn't taken advantage of Poppy's innocence and gratitude …well, bravo. All he'd donewas tap her veins and break her heart.

All he'd done was hasten her death.

But there wasn't time to think about it now. Rightnow he had a masquerade to attend.

He got out of the car and gave his windbreaker a twitch as he walked toward the sprawling ranch style house.

He unlocked and opened the door without callingto announce his presence. He didn't need to announce it; his mother would sense him.

Inside, it was all cathedral ceilings and fashionablybare walls. The one oddity was that every one of the many skylights was covered with elegant custom made drapes. This made the interior seem spacious but dim. Almost cavernous.

"James," his mother said, coming from the back

wing. She had jet-black hair with a sheen like lacquerand a perfect figure that was emphasized rather thandisguised by her silver-and-gold embroidered wrap.Her eyes were cool gray and heavily lashed, like James's. She kissed the air beside his cheek.

"I got your message," James said. "What do youwant?"

"I'd really rather wait until your father gets home…."

"Mom, I'm sorry, but I'm in a hurry. I've got thingsto do-I haven't even fed today."

"It shows," his mother said. She regarded him fora moment without blinking. Then she sighed, turning toward the living room. "At least, let's sit down….You've been a little agitated, haven't you, these last few days?"

James sat on the crimson-dyed suede couch. Nowwas the test of his acting ability. If he could get through the next minute without his mother sensingthe truth, he'd be home free.

"I'm sure Dad told you why," he said evenly.

"Yes. Little Poppy. It's very sad, isn't it?" The shadeof the single treelike floor lamp was deep red, and ruby light fell across half his mother's face.

"I was upset at first, but I'm pretty much over itnow," James said. He kept his voice dull and concen trated on sending nothing-nothing-through hisaura. He could feel his mother lightly probing theedges of his mind. Like an insect gently caressing with an antenna, or a snake tasting the air with its black forked tongue.

:"I'm surprised" his mother said. "1 thought youliked her."

"I did. But, after all, they're not reallypeople,are they?" He considered a moment, then said, "It's sort of like losing a pet. I guess I'll just have to find another one."

It was a bold move, quoting the party line. Jameswilled every muscle to stay relaxed as he felt the thought-tendrils tighten suddenly, coiling aroundhim, looking for a chink in his armor. He thought very hard-about Michaela Vasquez. Trying to project just the right amount of negligent fondness.

It worked. The probing tendrils slipped away fromhis mind, and his mother settled back gracefully and smiled.

"I'm glad you're taking it so well. But if you everfeel that you'd like to talk to someone … your father knows some very good therapists."

Vampire therapists, she meant. To screw his headon straight about how humans were just for feeding on.

"I know you want to avoid trouble as much as Ido," she added. "It reflects on the family, you see."

"Sure," James said, and shrugged. "I've got to gonow. Tell Dad I said hi, okay?"

He kissed the air beside her cheek.

"Oh, by the way," she said as he turned towardthe door. "Your cousin Ashwillbe coming next week. I think he'd like to stay with you at the apartment-and I'm sure you'd like some companythere."

Over my unbreathing body, James thought. He'dforgotten all about Ash's threat to visit. But now wasn't the time to argue. He walked out feeling likea juggler with too many balls in the air.

Back in his car he picked up the cellular phone,hesitated, then snapped it shut without turning it on. Calling wasn't any good. It was time to change hisstrategy.

All right, then. No more half measures. A seriousoffensive-aimed where it would do the most good. He thought for a few minutes, then drove toMcDonnell Drive, parking just a few houses awayfrom where Poppy lived.

And then he waited.

He was prepared to sit there all night if necessary,but he didn't have to. Just around sunset the garage door opened and a white Volkswagen Jetta backedout. James saw a blond head in the driver's seat Hi, Phil. Nice to see you.When the Jetta pulled away, he followed it.

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