THREE MONTHS LATER
I wake when I hear the first squeal–and then the second–of the newest residents at the Savannah compound. James Grady and Anna Grace Brennan–my best friend’s newborn children–are home and making their presence well-known.
Wait a minute. Who am I kidding? I wasn’t asleep. I spent the day lying awake thinking of Avery just like I’ve done every day since her arrival three months ago. I can’t blame my lack of sleep on crying babies–especially since they just arrived home for the first time.
The last three days have been the worst. The key to solving the mystery of the blood jewel slipped through my hands. The answers were so close I could taste them but Curry ended it all when he chose to kill Marsala before she could give us an explanation. Without any hesitation at all, he snuffed out my chance at learning what I needed to know so I could keep Avery safe.
I’m furious with Curry but I can never let him know. I was a fool to tell him I loved Avery and now I have to do damage control which means I must lie to my best friend again–and soon–because he won’t wait long before he asks me to explain how I could possibly love a human.
I walk to Curry and Chansey’s bedroom and find the door open. That explains why I was able to hear the crying babies from their soundproof quarters. I tap on their door without a response. I assume neither is able to hear a thing over the shrill screams coming from within so I knock again a little harder. “Come in,” they call out in unison.
I pass through their bedroom into the nursery and stop in the doorway when I see Avery. I make a show of appearing surprised to see her but it’s a sham. I already knew she was there because there’s never a time I don’t feel her presence.
She’s so perfectly beautiful. Nothing seems more natural than to see her rocking one of the babies as she strokes his or her face. It’s an instant reminder of everything she’ll have one day when it’s safe for her to leave this compound. They’re things she’ll share with another man–instead of me–and I can’t stand the thought.
She’s grinning when she looks up. It’s the first smile she’s ever sent in my direction but I know it isn’t for me. It’s a remnant of the happiness she has for the baby she’s holding but I’m not choosy. I’ll take a smile from her any way I can get it. It’s incredibly beautiful and she does it far too little. I wish I had the courage to tell her so.
Her smile fades and I feel the tension that always arises whenever we are in the same room. It always makes me want to leave–and I usually do–because I don’t want to cause her discomfort. I want nothing but happiness for her and if my absence accomplishes that then I’ll always oblige.
I turn to leave but Curry stops me. “Sol? What are you doing up so early?” He has a confused looked on his face.
He’s wrong. His kids must have his brain muddled. “It’s not early.”
“Since when is noon not early for a vampire?”
No way it’s the middle of the day. “Noon? You’ve got to be kidding me.” I look in the direction of the nursery’s curtains but they’re closed.
Curry walks over to the black and white print drapes and pulls one back an inch to show me he’s right. It’s a hazy day but I can easily see that it’s midday. Hmm … That’s perplexing.
I’m now able to see that Chansey is holding Anna Grace since I assume she’d be the one to wear pink-trimmed clothing. She places her daughter on her back on top of her legs and brings her tiny feet up to her mouth for a kiss. “Please tell me our kids aren’t loud enough to wake sleeping vampires.”
“They are some loud little buggers when they join forces but I wasn’t asleep when I heard them crying. I seriously doubt they have the ability to wake the others.”
Chansey never takes her eyes from her daughter. “That’s good to know, isn’t it? We don’t want the other vampires in the house to be grumpy like Uncle Sol, do we?”
“I’m not grumpy.” Am I?
“Take it easy on him, love.” Curry kisses Chansey’s forehead and then looks at me. “Can I see you in your office for a minute?”
And here we go. See you in my office for a minute is code for I need to get you alone. He’s wants to know why I was talking out of my head about loving Avery.
Chansey looks up at her husband so adoringly. Their love for one another is so apparent. And I envy it. “That’s fine but don’t be too long. You know what’s coming and I need help.”
I’m happy for Curry and Chansey but I’m jealous because it’s what I want for myself with Avery. I’ve accepted that it can never be but it doesn’t keep me from dreaming.
“Avery, would you mind sitting with Chansey and the babies for a few minutes? It’s almost their feeding time so she’ll probably need some assistance with whoever isn’t eating while she nurses the other.” He always ensures that Chansey is taken care of even in his absence.
“Sure.” Avery brings James Grady up so his cheek brushes hers. “I have no objections to holding one of these precious little angels.”
“We shouldn’t be long.” That at least sounds reassuring.
“I’m in no hurry to get rid of this sweet angel.” Avery strokes her index finger down his forehead and slope of his nose. He closes his eyes when she repeats the motion and he doesn’t open them again. It’s like some kind of newborn magic sleep trick.
I can’t help but overhear the conversation between Chansey and Avery as we leave. “Anna Grace usually throws a fit to eat about fifteen minutes before James Grady decides he’s ready. I guess she thinks ladies should go first but he always decides he’s starving about halfway through her feeding. I haven’t managed to master nursing them at the same time.”
Too much information. I didn’t want to think about one–much less two–kids nursing on Chansey at the same time. I’m a vampire. That kind of mundane stuff is more than I want to know.
We’re walking toward my office and I push the breastfeeding conversation aside as I try to decide how I’ll handle Curry’s questions. I should have already considered this conversation and decided on something to say but I chose to not think about it because I don’t want to answer the tough questions he has for me.
“I’m glad Avery is here. It’s good for Chansey to have another woman in the house.”
He doesn’t say it but Curry doesn’t mean just any woman. He means another human woman. “I know Chansey loves Gia and Lairah but I’m sure it means a lot to her to have a human in her life so she isn’t surrounded by vampires all the time.”
I take my seat behind my desk and rearrange papers. I try to appear carefree as I shuffle one paper with another but I know why we’ve come to my office. He wants to ask me about what I said in the hospital. “I want to protect Avery for me … because I love her.” I said those words during a moment of weakness. And it was a screw up on my part. Now I have to fix this problem I created for myself.
I open my desk drawer and pretend to search for something. “When did you get home from the hospital?”
“A couple of hours ago.”
Maybe I should try to keep him talking about his family. “It’s a relief to have them home safely.”
“You wouldn’t believe the weight that has been lifted from my shoulders in knowing Marsala can never harm my family again.”
I’m happy Chansey and the twins are safe but I’m instantly pissed off again. I struggle to hide my anger because it threatens to blow what I’m working so hard to conceal. “I can only imagine.”
“That’s sort of why I’m here. I need to ask you about something you said that night. Something about Avery.”
This is the part where I play dumb and pretend I don’t know what he means. “What about Avery?”
Curry narrows his eyes at me while he wrinkles his brow. I think he’s suspects I’m about to try to deceive him. “You told me you loved her and I’m confused about what that means.”
He’s being a straight shooter on this so a new action plan is required–play down what I said. “It means nothing at all.” I shrug.
He’s no longer relaxed in the chair. He’s sitting on the edge and staring straight into my eyes. “Your face didn’t look like it was nothing to you that night and it damn sure doesn’t look like it means nothing to you now either.”
He knows me well and I have to do a better job of hiding my emotions from him. “It’s true. I have become protective of Avery but only because of the time she’s spent here. I’ve come to think of her as a sister the same way I do the other girls. I meant nothing by what I said.”
“That’s not the way it sounded to me. You’ve never spoke of loving Gia or Lairah.”
“And I won’t,” I laugh. “I’d never hear the end of it from that pair of smartass extraordinaires if they ever heard me say I loved them.”
“You know you can tell me if you’re having side effects from drinking Avery’s blood?” It’s a question–not a statement.
I’ve always been able to tell Curry anything–but not this time. No one can ever know how I feel about Avery. “Yeah, I know.”
“You’re my best friend. You can tell me anything–anything at all–and I won’t judge you or tell the others. Not even Sebastian if it was what you wanted.” We’ve always shared a bond that didn’t include the others and this is Curry reminding me of that.
It’s tempting to tell him because I feel so alone in this–whatever this is. I want to tell him what’s been going on in my head but I’m terrified. How do I explain the feelings I have for Avery when I don’t understand them myself?
“Chansey and the babies are out of harm’s way now. Their safety was the only thing holding me here.”
He interrupts me. “Don’t say you’re leaving Savannah.” He’s picked up on where this conversation is going.
“I can’t stay.” I can predict what he’s going to say but I won’t hear of it. “And I won’t have Avery leave this compound. She feels safe here and that’s something she deserves after everything she’s been through.”
“And what about you? Don’t you deserve to head up the compound you built?”
This is a repeat of the same conversation we had months ago when I was going to leave and the compound is still the least of my worries. “I don’t care about all of this. I can build another compound if I want.”
“When are you going to stop punishing yourself for something you couldn’t control?”
Let him think that is what’s going on here. It’s easier that way. “Leaving will be my atonement for what I did. This is me giving her some form of peace.”
“I don’t think you’re looking to give peace. I think you’re looking to find some.”
Maybe he’s a little more receptive than I imagined but I’ll roll with it. “Am I a terrible person for wanting distance from Avery because I don’t want to look at her every day and be reminded of what I did?”
He looks angry. “I never took you for a coward.”
I should be the angry one since he’s calling me a coward but I’m not. I sort of fall into the category. “Call me what you like but I’m still leaving. Sebastian and I have discussed it and we decided I’ll make the announcement tonight at dinner because we’ll need a new leader to step up.”
“I think you’re making a mistake.”
“It’s my mistake to make.”
“And I can’t talk you out of it?” he asks.
There’s only one person that could talk me out of leaving but it’s never going to happen. “No. My decision’s been made.” He gets up and walks toward the door. “I still can’t talk you into taking my place?”
He doesn’t even turn back to me as he replies on his way out of my office. “No. My decision has been made as well.”
I return to my bed after my conversation with Curry but I’m unable to sleep. How can I when I’m only able to think of Avery and how painful it will be when I’m parted from her? I absolutely dread telling her but not because I think she will be sad. She’s going to be thrilled and her joy is going to break my heart.
I enter the dining room late so the family is already there and waiting. Dining is something I look forward to each night but it has nothing to do with drinking blood. I love it because Avery’s seat is next to mine and it’s the only time I’m able to touch her.
Sometimes I think she likes the feel of her tiny hand inside mine but then I become certain I’m imagining it because I hear her heart pound with fear. I had hoped she would eventually come to trust me and we’d be able to reside under the same roof without her living in constant fear of me but I gave up on that dream a while ago.
I’m seated at the head of the table and I take Avery’s hand in mine when it’s time for the sacrament of thanksgiving. I hold it tighter tonight and caress my thumb across the top as I speak. She probably finds that bizarre but I don’t care. I’m a selfish bastard tonight and I’m doing it for myself because this is the last time I’ll ever touch her. “We, the Coven of Landra, give our humblest gratitude in recognition of the Blood Swan, Rebecca, for her selfless gift of sustenance.” As they do every night, the others join me in reciting the rest of the sacrament. “Thank you, Rebecca, for your gift of The Life, which sustains our existence and gives us strength to do the needed tasks before us.”
I don’t let go of Avery’s hand as I usually do when I finish leading the ritual. And neither does she. I look at our clasped hands for a moment before lifting my green eyes to the golden brown ones staring back at me. I’m certain she’s going to pull away any second so I brush my thumb over her fingers one last time while watching her face. For a moment, it almost feels like we’re friends. Or lovers. But then the moment is gone when too much time passes and we each pull our hands away.
I grasp the glass of blood in front of me but I have no appetite for it. I haven’t craved it in quite some time now–much longer than what any vampire young or old would consider normal. I try to remember the last time I nourished myself and realize it’s been too long. I should be starving by now. But I’m not.
Conversations are taking place between my family members around me but my attention is undivided for the beauty to my right although I don’t dare look in her direction. I drown out the idol chatter around me until I’m concentrating solely on the connection I share with her.
My bond to her hasn’t weakened in the least over the last three months. I think it could be even stronger than it was the night I took her life’s essence into my body as I drank from her.
I close my eyes and go to that dwelling where it’s only the two of us–like we’re suspended in a mysterious place lost in time. It’s my favorite spot to be because I feel her so closely–as if we are one–and she isn’t afraid of being so near. I’m able to hold her hand in this dream-like place because she isn’t frightened by my touch.
“Sol.” My fantasy is interrupted when I hear Sebastian call my name. I suspect by his tone that he probably said it more than once although I didn’t hear him. I’m suddenly aware that my hand has found Avery’s under the table but I don’t remember how it got there. I’m grasping it tightly–holding on for dear life–and probably hurting her.
“Yes?” Everyone’s attention is directed at me as I release the small delicate hand in mine.
Sebastian prompts me. “Your announcement? Would you like to make it now while everyone is together?”
Not really. I’m not prepared to see the relief on Avery’s face but I have to tell her–and everyone else–at some point. “Of course.” I cough and then swallow because the words feel like they’re stuck inside my throat. “I’ve decided to return to New Orleans with Sebastian. We’re leaving tomorrow night and I’ll need someone to take my place as leader here.”
No one utters a word or asks why I’m leaving and it’s all the confirmation I need to draw my own conclusion. They think they know exactly why I’m going away but they’d only be half-right. “Please don’t all volunteer at once.”
Lairah finishes off the last of her blood and places her empty glass on the table. “I think we all assumed that asking for volunteers was ceremonial. We were waiting for Curry to step up since it’s only natural that he would be next in line to take charge.”
My friend needed my support. “The timing is all wrong for Curry. He can’t take this on right now because Chansey is still recovering. She needs him full-time and this position would take away too much of the time he needs to spend with her and the babies. But if you want to choose a leader based on seniority then the next in line would be Thatcher.”
Gia and Thatcher look at one another–a clear indication that there is a concealed liaison between them–but it’s Thatcher that speaks up. “Can I have a little time to think it over?”
Gia and Thatcher’s relationship borders on being ridiculous. I wonder who they think they’re fooling because everyone in this family knows they have something going on. I don’t know when they’re going to figure out that they can have their little fling openly because no one here cares.
“Certainly but please be mindful that I need a volunteer before we leave tomorrow night. Otherwise, Sebastian will be forced to appoint someone and none of us want that.”
My hand has abandoned my full glass of blood. It’s resting on the table and Avery’s fingers brush mine as she rises. “I’m afraid I’m not feeling well so I’m going to retire to my room. Goodnight.”
Avery’s lying. She isn’t ill at all. She’s sad. But it can’t be about me leaving the compound. She’s happy about that–or at least I thought she would be–so why isn’t she jumping up and down with joy?