You never forget your first blood…
Susan Sizemore returns to the universe of her Laws of the Blood novels with a sizzling story of the relationship between a vampire enforcer and a werewolf.
Erin McCarthyâ€™s Sasha Checkikov flees the bright lights and dangerous slayers of Vegas for New Orleans, where she is saved by a vampire haunted by his pastâ€”and hungry for passion.
Set in the Vampire Babylon world, Chris Marie Greenâ€™s story puts the bond between twin female vampires to the test when one of them falls for her prey.
And my contribution is:
“Thicker Than Blood”
Annie Gallagher is the only survivor of a demon attack that exterminated every other vampire in her city. But she can’t leave before she finds Cricket, a young human girl whose vampire guardians have been killed.Â Annie needs help, but the rules of her kind demand that she operate in secrecy.
But when help comes, it’s from the one man she never expected…
The first chapter is after the cut:
Less than two weeks ago, Annie Gallagher would have slain another vampire for this.
Sheâ€™d followed the human to his home, anyway. Heâ€™d turned off the lights in his second-story bedroom, but she continued to wait; she wouldnâ€™t feed from him until he slept. And so for the second time that night, she stood on a sidewalk and stared across a street at a pair of darkened windowsâ€”but this time, she didnâ€™t let the ghosts overwhelm her.
Annie blinked and looked away from the house. Not ghosts. Even she didnâ€™t believe that the spirits of the dead haunted the Earth, let alone a pizzeria in Northeast Philadelphia. And except for her father, all of the people sheâ€™d been thinking of were still living.
Not ghosts, but phantoms. Memories strong enough to bring the flavor of tomato sauce and mozzarella to a tongue that could no longer taste anything but blood.
Fighting the restlessness and hunger that began pricking the length of her spine, Annie rolled her shoulders within her heavy jacket and tugged at the neckline of her black tank. The body-hugging fabric didnâ€™t tug far, and the movement only made her acutely conscious of the sweat soaking the material.
No air-conditioning unit protruded from the face of the brick row home, but sheâ€™d heard one rumble to life moments after heâ€™d gone inside. His house would be blissfully cool. But it probably wasnâ€™t yetâ€”and although his psychic scent indicated that heâ€™d finally slipped into sleep, it wasnâ€™t deep. At least ten or fifteen more minutes of waiting stretched ahead of her.Â
Loitering. Suspicious behavior, maybe, but Annie doubted that she would be noticed by any of the neighborhoodâ€™s residents. This part of Mayfair was blue collar to its core, early to bed and early to rise. Even the weekends didnâ€™t see much action after the local bars closed, and it wasnâ€™t exactly bumping with traffic on a Thursday night.
Or, considering that it was two-thirty, early Friday morning.
Thursday, Friday… Whatever, she thought, suddenly impatient with herself. A vampire didnâ€™t move to the same circadian rhythms as the rest of the city, so it hardly mattered what day of the week it was when the sun came upâ€”it only mattered when it went down.
Of course, if it hadnâ€™t been Thursday, she wouldnâ€™t have been standing there now.
Annie closed her eyes. All right. So it mattered. Enough that it hadnâ€™t been the sight of Tonyâ€™s Pizza that had stopped her in her tracks when sheâ€™d been walking down Frankford Avenue, but the stabbing realization that only a few hours earlier, her mother, her brother, and his family had probably been in the restaurant. Annieâ€™s two nieces, and the nephew sheâ€™d only seen in picturesâ€”all carrying on the Gallagher tradition: Tonyâ€™s every Thursday night.
Surely theyâ€™d kept going after Annieâ€™s transformation and her fatherâ€™s death. Hell, even before sheâ€™d been turned, med school and her residency had prevented Annie from joining them half the time, anyway.
But however many dinners sheâ€™d missed since then, there had been enough memories to keep her riveted to the spot, staring into the past and letting the present recede into shades of gray. And even as sheâ€™d cursed herself for letting such a little thingâ€”such a bygone thingâ€”get to her, she hadnâ€™t been able to break away until a glint of auburn had burned through the haze of remembrance.
Just another phantom, another bygone. But unlike the firstâ€”the jab of pain, the re-opening of an old woundâ€”that flash of color deepened an ache that had been lurking beneath the surface of her skin for six years, leaching into her flesh, her bones.
The man had turned down a side street as sheâ€™d pulled her gaze away from Tonyâ€™s, but even in the shadows that pooled between the streetlights, Annie had seen his rumpled hair was a shade too brown for auburn. The sun would lift out the red like the glow of a fire.
Just like Jack Harringtonâ€™s…although this man couldnâ€™t be him.
Heâ€™d rubbed at his face as he walked, and sheâ€™d heard the sandpapery scrape of his palm over his jaw. Definitely not Jack, sheâ€™d thought, and the startled gallop of her heart had settled into a steady, relieved beat. Mayfair wasnâ€™t Jackâ€™s neighborhoodâ€”and she doubted heâ€™d ever gone five hours without shaving, and never looked unkempt. Certainly his white shirt wouldnâ€™t have been untucked, wrinkled, and clinging damply to his back. Not because of the Bureauâ€™s dress codeâ€”it was the way Jack had been, on duty and off. He was the poster boy for â€œeager and fresh-faced,â€ intent on saving the world, and Annie had loved him for it.
But then, sheâ€™d been exactly the same.
And she couldnâ€™t recall making the decision to follow the human; her feet had simply begun to move.
Sheâ€™d hung back a block, keeping just out of sight, but she couldnâ€™t mistake the scent of alcohol he left in his wake. The odor was too sharp for beerâ€”his drinking had been serious that evening.
Serious, but not heavy. His face had been downturned, as if heâ€™d had to concentrate on the placement of his feet, but he hadnâ€™t staggered. A slow, even stride had carried him past the unbroken line of row homes, past the trash cans and recycling bins caged just off the sidewalk, until heâ€™d reached a block where lawns grew in tiny patches and separated the concrete from the front steps of the houses.
He hadnâ€™t appeared alert to his surroundings, but he didnâ€™t have to be. Unlike some parts of the city Annie had walked through during the past ten days, kids did not roam in packs, laughing and hollering, their weapons bulging in their pockets and outlined in the bottoms of their backpacks.
Theyâ€™d laughed and hollered at Annie until sheâ€™d gotten close. Then, like hyenas suddenly aware of a lioness in their territory, theyâ€™d settled back, watching her warily.
Her guns didnâ€™t bulge and her blades didnâ€™t gleam, but in the sweltering July heat, her long black coat always drew a second, apprehensive glance. So did her pale skin, glistening with perspiration; her light eyes, searchingâ€”and probably shining with desperation. As the days passed, it became more difficult to conceal.
Thankfully, the one sheâ€™d followed hadnâ€™t looked around. Didnâ€™t know what waited outside his home.
Five minutes nowâ€”and the night would still be young when she finished. There was more than enough time to stop by the clinic and steal a unit of blood. She should; sheâ€™d been alternating nights so the packaged blood wouldnâ€™t wear her down too quickly. This was supposed to be a packaged blood night.
But she wanted this one. Maybe it was stupid to allow nostalgia to affect her this wayâ€”and maybe she just had little defense against her old life when it teased her with ghosts and darkened windows, reminding her of easier, brighter times.
And maybe she was too damn tired.
Not physically tiredâ€”she couldnâ€™t fight the daysleep that came upon her every morningâ€”just soul weary. She hadnâ€™t stopped for a moment since returning to Philadelphia and discovering that every vampire in the city had been slaughtered over the course of a single nightâ€”since discovering that the new life sheâ€™d made had been destroyed along with them.
Annie shook herself, straightened her shoulders. Nostalgia, exhaustion, whatever. She had good reason not to go back to the clinic: feeding from a nonliving source would eventually make her weak and stupid.
Weak and stupid wouldnâ€™t help her find Cricket.
A twelve-year-old girl alone in the city had more things to worry about than vampires, demons, or any of the other creatures who stalked the night; there was hunger, loneliness, and fear.
And hyenasâ€”or, more frightening, the monsters. Hyenas might laugh and holler, but most of it was for show. The monsters hid behind friendly, quiet faces, and their smiles were widest when the horrors began.
Annie could easily imagine the unspeakable things that happened to young girls aloneâ€”theyâ€™d been drilled into her from birth.
Worked a new case today, Annie. A little girlâ€”not much older than you. They had a drawer full of pictures. A girl canâ€™t ever come back from that, Annie, not all the way.
She was just a little kid, and once she was knocked up, he didnâ€™t have much use for her anymore. So you make sure you wait until youâ€™ve got his ring, Annie; a man who doesnâ€™t give you one isnâ€™t worth giving anything in return.
A little girl, Annie. Found pieces of her in a bag up off the Turnpike.
The stories had always been accompanied by a warning not to trust strangers. Annie had later learned that advice only applied to little girls: Sheâ€™d grown up, been transformed, and it had been strangers whoâ€™d taken her in.
She wasnâ€™t going to repay them by leaving Cricket alone in a city of strangers who might not be as kind as those Annie had found.
Steeling herself, Annie focused, opened her senses, and reached into the surrounding houses. One mind after anotherâ€”and although Annie had grown up only three blocks away, and had probably known many of these people once upon a time, the flavors of their psyches were all unfamiliar.
Her head throbbed painfully when she finished. Too many minds in too short a time. Annie had walked through most of the city in the past ten days, touching hundreds of thousands of them, extending herself as far as possible. She didnâ€™t know ifâ€”or whenâ€”she would hit the edge, but hunger would probably get her there faster.
Sighing, she rubbed her sweat-slicked forehead, trying to ease the ache. Another probe toward the second floor of the house touched on the manâ€™s psyche, soft and heavy with sleep.
She started across the street, then paused. Her hand found the grip of her sword, but she didnâ€™t draw the weapon.
Another mind touched hersâ€”dark, searching, and powerful.
Annie threw her psychic shields up full. Probably too late. The barn doors shut, but now someone would know a cow was loose. She waited, her gaze scanning her surroundings, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. No traffic, no one on the sidewalksâ€”and a careful examination of the sky told her that no demons lurked, ready to descend on her from above.
It hadnâ€™t seen her, then, but had only felt her psychic presence. There was no telling how far away it had been.
And she had enough reasons to find Cricket and get the hell out of Phillyâ€”but whatever sheâ€™d sensed had just given her another one.
An icy blast of air-conditioning welcomed her through the front door. Annie stood for a moment, closing her eyes in relief. The heat didnâ€™t pain her, but the sweat and oppressive humidity left her feeling disgusting, uncomfortable.
Carefully, she replaced her lock-pick tools in their velvet pouch and rolled it closed. The cylinder fit neatly into the pocket sheâ€™d sewn in the lining of her jacket; from another pocket, she withdrew an instant hot pack. Fabric rustled as she slid off the heavy coat, but nothing clinked. The quiet ticking of a clock, the deep sound of breathing from the upstairs bedroom were no louder than the crinkle of plastic when she squeezed the package in her hand.
It was intended for first-aid kitsâ€”the chemical reaction created a temporary heating compressâ€”but Annie held it in her mouth, careful not to pierce the casing with her fangs, and surveyed the room.
He must have just moved inâ€”or was preparing to move out. The sofa faced a blank wall. No TV, no stereo, no coffee table.
Annie piled her jacket and sword on a stack of boxes near the door, but didnâ€™t remove the holster that lay against the small of her back. With light steps, she climbed the stairs, testing the surface temperature of her lips and tongue against the back of her hand. Warm. Their touch probably wouldnâ€™t shock him awake, but they would cool quickly.
Sheâ€™d used a sedative on the others, but this one had been drinking; doping him might be dangerous. With luck, the alcohol would deepen his sleep, and he wouldnâ€™t think her feeding had been anything but a pleasantâ€”very pleasantâ€”dream.
His room was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the house: a large bed covered by a navy fitted sheet, and a dresser heaped with clothes. Although heâ€™d taken time to fold his laundry, he hadnâ€™t put it away. Not a slob, but not obsessively neat, either.Â
His white shirt lay on the floor, the sleeve trailing beneath the bed. He hadnâ€™t made it out of his pants. Annie studied the sprawl of his body, calculating the least disruptive approach, the best location to bite.
Heâ€™d landed on his stomach, his arms wrapped around his pillow and his face buried in the crook of his elbow. The position brought his shoulders up and in toward his neck; itâ€™d be difficult to reach his throat without moving him. The sides of the abdomen and ribs had too many nerve endings. Of all the flesh exposed, his back had the fewest pain receptors.
Her gaze moved down the smooth muscles parallel to his spine, the hollows just above the low waistband of his black trousers. He looked to be of average height, and he wasnâ€™t too bulky or too leanâ€”just a man who kept himself fit and strong. Anticipation began to build its ache in her fangs. The bloodlust wasnâ€™t upon her yet, but arousal sparked softly within her.
Briefly, she wished sheâ€™d warmed her hands. Wished for a connection deeper than her mouth, his blood.
But there wouldnâ€™t be. Couldnâ€™t be. She wound the damp, heavy mass of her hair into a bun and fastened it with an elastic band. A few red strands escaped, and she tucked them behind her ears, leaving nothing to brush or tickle, so that heâ€™d swat at her in his sleep as he would a mosquito.
She leaned over, bracing her palms alongside his waist. The mattress didnâ€™t squeak as she eased her knees onto the bed, straddling his legs without touching him.
Breathing wasnâ€™t an option. An exhalation would be cold against his skin, an inhalation would bring his odor to herâ€”and she didnâ€™t want to be reminded that this was a stranger. Didnâ€™t want harsh reality. Sheâ€™d imagine a clean, lemon-bright scent, instead.
Sheâ€™d never asked him if it was his soap or an aftershave.
Jack, she thought, closing her eyes and gently touching her lips to his shoulder.
Harsh reality caught her wrist, rolled beneath her, and shoved the barrel of a pistol against her throat.
Annie froze. God damn it. Lowering her guard to indulge in a memory and missing his shift from sleep to consciousness could only be called stupid. Inexcusably, tremendously stupid.
But she could berate herself later; right now, she needed to pretend to be weak.
The last thing she wanted to do was scare him. Sheâ€™d had her throat shot out before, by a rogue vampire who hadnâ€™t wanted to give up feeding fromâ€”and killingâ€”humans. It wasnâ€™t the pain that worried her; she couldnâ€™t afford to lose that much blood.
â€œDo you have anything in your hands?â€
His voice was flat, controlled. No, this man wouldnâ€™t spook and pull the trigger. His heartbeat had sped up, but it wasnâ€™t racing.
Daring a movement, Annie opened her eyes. A taut pectoral and the brown disk of a nipple obscured her field of vision; if she lowered her lips even an inch, theyâ€™d meet the crisp, reddish-brown hair that roughened his chest.
â€œNo,â€ she said.
Without a word, he reached up. Light pressure against her back made her grit her teeth, but she didnâ€™t stop him. His fingers unerringly located her weapon, and he eased the revolver from its holster.
Did he expect her to answer truthfully? â€œNo.â€
â€œRight.â€ It only took him a beat to decide a course of action. â€œKeep your hands flat against the mattress, and slowly back off the bed.â€ The push of his gun against her neck emphasized slowly.
Annie could have been across the room in a blink. But feeding from humans to survive was one thing; there wasnâ€™t yet a reason to break the other rule sheâ€™d lived and killed by for six years: preventing humans from discovering the existence of vampires.
So she edged her knees backward, her face down and her posture nonthreatening. Her compliance hadnâ€™t eased his tension; only a marble statue might have matched the rigid cast of his abdomen. A small fold of skin stretched across the upper curve of his navel, and three tiny scars from a laparoscopic appendectomy marredâ€”
Oh, no. Annie stopped moving. Her fingers clenched in the sheet. Please, no.
It had been at her parentsâ€™ dinner table, less than a month before her transformation. When Jack had grabbed at his stomach, pain twisting his features, theyâ€™d thought it was a comment on her motherâ€™s meatloaf.
Fifteen minutes later, Annie had been in an ambulance, helping the paramedics prep him for surgery.
Aside from a single, impersonal handshake when theyâ€™d been introduced, it had been the first time sheâ€™d touched his skin. It had been the night heâ€™d told her his name was Jack, not John Harrington the Third, orâ€”as sheâ€™d thought of him until that momentâ€”simply Harrington.
It had been the night heâ€™d confessed heâ€™d been messed up over her since that handshake. Sheâ€™d waited until his morphine drip was off before confessing the same.
Â â€œWhatever youâ€™re considering doing down there, lady, itâ€™s not smart.â€ Cold steel slid from her neck to the underside of her chin, and he nudged it up. â€œKeep heading on back, and look at the ceiling as you do it.â€
And sheâ€™d heard him speak softly before, but it had never been sharpened by the dangerous tone he was using. She squeezed her eyes shut and averted her face.
Donâ€™t recognize me. Donâ€™t see what Iâ€™ve become.
Maybe he wouldnâ€™t. It had been so many years, and there were a few differences. Her hair color, the makeup. Both were dark now, because roses and cream belonged to the day.
Annie didnâ€™tâ€”not anymore.
â€œYou picked me out as an easy mark the second I left Buddyâ€™s. I expected you to try something when you followed me,â€ he said. â€œBut to actually come into my home, that takes some…kind…of…â€
The anger in his voice faded with his words. The pressure of the gun eased.
And his heart was racing now.
She should run. Should tear away, without looking back.
â€œWho are you? You canâ€™t…it canâ€™t beâ€”â€ Jack dropped her revolver to the mattress, and his fingers tangled in the hair piled atop her head. â€œLook at me, damn it.â€
She did, but only because she wanted to see him, too. To take one glance away with her.
His face was leaner. Time hadnâ€™t dulled his features, but honed themâ€”and he could still trip her breath, skip the beat of her heart.
His brows were heavy and low over eyes darkened by confusion and shock.
â€œAnnie? Oh, Jesus love meâ€”Annie?â€ His gaze hungrily searched hers, hope and disbelief spilling from his psychic scent in a rich, warm tide. His hand opened, began sliding from her hair to her cheek.
Her cold cheek.
Annie pulled away. He probably didnâ€™t see the movement she used to collect her gun. He continued to stare as she stood and forced herself to walkâ€”not run. There was no longer any need to pretend to be weak.
Jack had always been the only one with whom she had to pretend to be strong.