Guardian Series Retrospective #8 – Thicker Than Blood

Meljean’s note: This post is part of a series of entries about the Guardians paranormal romance series, including information, reactions, and pieces of trivia for each one. THESE POSTS WILL INCLUDE SOME SPOILERS, though I will try to keep the details of those spoilers to a minimum. Please understand that this means you will get a “behind the book” look at the series, which is not always awesome. After all, there is a person behind the books – me – and it’s often true that enjoying fiction is easier the less you know about the person writing it. With that in mind, I will try to keep comments about my intentions to a minimum.

Please feel free to comment below. If an answer to your question will spoil the final book in the series, however, please understand that I won’t answer it.

This post is about Thicker Than Blood from the FIRST BLOOD anthology, and I’d like to focus on that story in the comments. If you ask a question about another book (or if your question will be answered in another post) I might just give a brief response and let you know a more complete answer is coming up. Please also feel free to leave your own reactions/responses to the book – and I’m not offended if you didn’t like it.

First Blood

THICKER THAN BLOOD’s place in the Guardian series

This is the sixth story in the Guardian series (counting novellas). This book follows DEMON NIGHT, but this story is when I finally pulled my head out of my ass regarding novellas and learned to tell a side story — something connected to the overall arc, but doesn’t influence it too much. That allows readers unfamiliar with the world to enjoy the story more easily, and allows me to tell a story that is either too small to fill a novel, or that shows the effect of the main story arc on unrelated characters — broadening the world a bit.

So in DEMON NIGHT, we met the nephilim, and we knew that they were slaughtering vampire communities in cities around the world. This is the story of what happens to a vampire from one of those cities. The Guardians aren’t the major players here, though Jake and Alejandro do make an appearance, along with Lilith.

Why Annie and Jack, and why Philadelphia?

When I’m invited to an anthology, usually my editor tells me the general theme of the anthology — in this case, it was going to be called “First Blood” and include vampires. I think that my response to her was: “Haha! With a title like that, I’m going to have to write my first virgin!”* And I thought it would be super-funny with a vampire, because her hymen would keep healing, and every time would be like the first time. First blood, get it?

And that dumb little joke pretty much dictated the whole story. (I won’t tell you how many of my story ideas start with me making a bad joke, then going … “Hey! That might actually be a good idea!”)

So I had to decide why in the world this person was still a virgin. I knew I’d be setting the story in the contemporary era, so the easiest solution would have been to make my virgin a vampire who’d been transformed during some historical era (because it always seems difficult for modern audiences to swallow the idea of a virgin heroine over the age of 18.)

I also knew that I wanted an outsider character, because it’s easiest to introduce a new audience to the world if one of the main characters is learning along with them. So that meant that either the hero or heroine should be a human … and that meant that person couldn’t be from some historical era.

When I first considered the old vampire/younger human combination, I ran into the same problem that I did with Falling For Anthony — it’s really difficult to write a convincing romance in a novella-length story to begin with. Throw in a ton of backstory that the couple doesn’t share and that doesn’t relate to the romantic conflict and it means that I’m writing a lot of information that doesn’t really move the story forward. It might tell us something about the character, but it’s far better to learn something about the character AND serve the plot at the same time.

So these characters — my virgin and my human — needed to have a history together, and the conflict between them also needed to do double-duty and show us more about the world. It needed to be something that couldn’t happen if the world was normal.

That’s how I ended up with Jack and Annie. Annie was the virgin. She was also from a religious, loving, close-knit family. With that background, it made sense to me that she would wait to have sex — not necessarily wait for marriage, but wait until she was in love.

After that, it was all easy. I had her family — a cop family. I had a brother with a partner who falls in love with her. I had a vampire attack her, I had Annie terrified of being rejected by her family or hurting them (or Jack), and I had a reason for her to pretend to be dead for a while: because she had to feed, and she couldn’t feed from Jack, and feeding from someone else meant that she was having sex with that person even if she didn’t want him.

There are a lot of terrible things I’ve built into the Guardians’ world. Sometimes I think what I did to vampires was one of the worst.

So this was the story of what happened to one of those cities where the nephilim slaughtered the vampire communities…but it was also about a vampire’s bloodlust and that aspect of the worldbuilding. About how destructive and lonely being a vampire could be if they didn’t have a partner that they trusted or wanted, and if having casual sex (or treating sex as another need to feed) simply wasn’t part of that vampire’s makeup. For some people, it wouldn’t be difficult. For Annie, it was.

I set it in Philadelphia primarily because my good friend and fanfic writing buddy Kat lives there, and I could pump her for lots of info about the city. She’s the one who suggested using Eastern State Penitentiary as one of the sites, she told me about Tastykakes, which Jack ate as his last meal (we don’t have those on the West Coast), and I ran billions of other questions past her, including stupid ones about row houses and air conditioners.

Stupid Fact: I wrote this story just after DEMON NIGHT and right before DEMON BOUND. Jake showed up a lot in those books (especially the one where he was a hero.) While writing this, I cannot tell you how many times I automatically wrote “Jake” instead of “Jack.” The reason why Jake is constantly referred to as “Hawkins” in this novella is because a) it made sense, because Jake was a stranger to Jack and Annie, so they wouldn’t be calling him by his nickname and b) it was far, FAR too confusing to have such similar names in the story.

*This wasn’t actually my first virgin. I’d also had Emily and Anthony, and Hugh.

Re-Reading Thicker than Blood

Until I wrote HERE THERE BE MONSTERS, this was what I considered my best novella. I like this story, and I didn’t feel that it was bogged down by Emily’s issues (as in the first novella I wrote) or that I tried to cram too much in (as I did with my second novella.)

The one thing that bothered me then — and still kind of bothers me — is the resolution. I really, really, REALLY wanted Annie and Jack to kick the nephil’s ass. The problem was … I couldn’t think of a way for them to do it without cheating or breaking all of the rules that I had established for this world.

The nephilim are strong. Much stronger than vampires. Much stronger than humans (although with the Rules on his side, Jack had an advantage over Annie.) And it wasn’t like I hadn’t had a weaker being take out a stronger one before — Savi stopped the nosferatu on an airplane. But Savi also had hellhound venom, Hugh’s tutelage, and an element of surprise. Jack and Annie didn’t have that. (Well, the hellhound venom wouldn’t have worked anyway. They did have vampire blood, which can weaken the nephil, but until they met the Guardians they couldn’t have known that. So if they’d just lucked out with the blood, it would have been such a cheat.)

So I tried and tried and tried and tried to think of some clever way for them to defeat the nephil without cheating or relying on the Guardians … and I didn’t. I utterly failed. So although, logically, I’m okay with how the ending went down because it’s the ending that fits with the worldbuilding and the rules I set up, emotionally it is somewhat of a disappointment. I think the romance is satisfying, I think it’s awesome when Annie finally finds Cricket again and calls Cricket her sunshine girl, and I love how the story wraps up. Except I really wanted that moment when they kick the nephil’s ass.

Most of my disappointment is in myself, for not being able to think of one and for relying on the Guardians. Sure, Annie and Jack did most of the work and there wouldn’t have been a happy ending for anyone without them. That wasn’t enough.

I still can’t think of a way to let them win. Not without cheating just a little or letting them get really, REALLY lucky.

Favorite Scene

I like a lot of scenes. Like the one where Annie tells Jack what it means that he’s her sunshine boy. Or the one where he sees Annie in her enforcer outfit (complete with shuriken) and thinks she’s the hottest thing he’s ever seen. I love the final scene where Jack is cramming the Tastykakes in before he loses his sense of taste forever. I really like both of these characters. But I think one of the early scenes — after Annie has broken into Jack’s house to feed from him without realizing that it’s him. Jack recognizes her, then chases after her … and they run into the nephil. I love that Jack goes after her without question. I love that she does everything she can to make him go away, but is so desperate for that contact with him — and that she’s not so stupid that she doesn’t ask for his help trying to find Cricket. And I love how they are both trying to protect each other.

No chance in hell was Jack letting her slip away. If Annie wouldn’t stay, then he’d go.

He didn’t bother to put away his gun or grab a shirt and shoes before heading out the door, certain that if she left his sight for even two seconds, she’d disappear. Maybe one second—she was already halfway across the street.

Jack swore and broke into a run, relieved when she didn’t do the same. He might have dogged her heels, just to draw a reaction, but he came up even with her instead.

She didn’t slow her loose, sidewalk-eating stride, only glanced at him sidelong with crystalline blue eyes. That look caught him like a teeth-rattling kick to the head, clearing the haze of drink, sleep, and shock—and driving home everything he’d seen but hadn’t yet processed.

When her hair had been a light auburn and her lashes blonde, those eyes had been extraordinarily pretty. But contrasted with the black liner, her pale skin, and wine-red hair, they were stunning. And despite all the artifice, she wore it naturally.

Annie apparently had a dark side—and she’d become very comfortable with it.

What had happened to bring it out?

When it had happened was clear: No one randomly pronounced a sister dead and held a funeral for her—particularly not a man like Gallagher. The only person more devoted to his family than Annie’s brother had been Annie’s father.

Six and a half years before, as Brian Gallagher’s new partner and without immediate relations of his own, Jack had been invited into the close-knit circle only by virtue of belonging to a larger family the Gallagher men held almost as sacred: law enforcement. Jack had allowed himself to be talked into a Thanksgiving dinner, suffered through Mrs. Gallagher’s version of roasted turkey, and had been trying to escape when Annie had arrived home, worn from a three-day shift in the emergency room.

She’d offered him a handshake, a smile, then dragged herself upstairs to sleep—and Jack had finagled dinner invitations for seven months, braving the terrors of Mrs. Gallagher’s kitchen, his reward a few minutes of conversation with Annie. Those minutes had quickly become hours, extending into the living room or over a beer on the patio—until finally, finally, he’d admitted how he felt.

God, how he’d loved her, wanted her.

But there hadn’t been much fooling around. Not just because she was his partner’s sister—Annie had still lived at home, and her father was a decorated city cop who’d worked himself up to a position behind a desk. Unlike Jack’s own father, Captain Gallagher hadn’t been a complete asshole, but his style of parenting had been heavy-handed and strict. And Annie hadn’t been sheltered—no ER resident in a Philly hospital could be considered sheltered—but she’d never indulged in anything casual.

In any case, Jack had quickly learned he didn’t want something casual. Not with Annie. He wanted permanent, forever after, and he’d been willing to be patient.

Only after her funeral had he regretted that decision. Regretted never asking her to marry him, never making love to her. He’d waited for that, too—taking it as far as he could in the few private moments they’d had, but he’d wanted their first time to be better than a hasty grope in an empty hospital room. Even an overnight stay at Jack’s downtown apartment was impossible—it meant Annie would have had to face her father the next day, and have a shame placed on her that didn’t belong.

But it was obvious that something else had been placed on her. Annie’s brother must have blamed her for their father’s heart attack; it didn’t take an FBI agent to deduce that.

And a damn good thing, Jack thought, considering that he had resigned from the Bureau a week earlier. Brian Gallagher had been part of the reason for that, too.

But whatever her brother had done or said, Jack didn’t think Gallagher was the reason for the changes Annie had made in her appearance. He studied the line of her jaw, the proud set of her shoulders and neck. There was defiance there, just under the surface—but that was expected, normal.

The caution and weariness that accompanied it were not.

However often she’d had to stand up against the overbearing force of her father and brother, she’d never feared that they’d hurt her. But something had wounded her. Something repeated and long, because Jack couldn’t imagine her not bouncing back from a one-time hurt.

Anger kindled, but he tamped it down. Without a target, he might take it out on Annie. Chasing after her might piss her off, but whatever injuries had been done to her, he wouldn’t add to them.

And at least she wasn’t running. She slanted him another look as they reached the end of the block.

“Your gun is conspicuous, G-Man,” she said softly.

G-Man. It was an endearment from her, a teasing one. The tension knotting his gut eased.

“And a sword isn’t?” A sword. He couldn’t begin to imagine why she had one.

Her lips curved, but she looked resigned as she slung her jacket around her shoulders like a cape, hiding the weapon. Jack frowned, suddenly wishing he hadn’t mentioned it. No one was on the street to see them, and Annie wasn’t just glowing with perspiration, but sweating. Drops gathered at her hairline, glistened over her skin, pooled in the hollow of her throat.

She met his eyes. With a shrug, she let her gaze fall to his bare chest. “Your outfit is likely to draw as much notice as mine.”

She must have mistaken the reason for his frown. For Chrissake, compared to the sword, a long jacket in July was hardly a blip on the radar. “But I won’t faint from heat exhaustion,” he pointed out. “Or dehydration.”

“Neither will I. But if you cut your foot, you’ll be in trouble.”

“Will you stitch me up and kiss it better?”

She began to laugh, then caught herself and turned her head. “Go home, Jack.”

There was hunger in her voice. It sparked his own need, and gave him hope. “Will you come with me?”

“No.”

“But you came in before.”

“I didn’t know it was you.” She indicated his body with a sweep of her hand, then the neighborhood. “Everything said it wasn’t you.”

It was true. He looked like warmed-over shit. Self-consciously, he smoothed his palm over his hair, and something softened in her eyes.

“You don’t have to—” She broke off, drew in a breath through barely parted lips. “You look good.”

“You look incredible.” He watched pleasure and regret flash over her features. Her expressions were still so familiar; he could still read her so easily. How many times had he seen other women—a quirk of their eyebrows, a movement, heard a laugh—and been struck by memories of Annie?

Had she done the same?

She’d followed him home. Her clothing suggested a burglary, but a thief would have taken one look at his living room and left to find better pickings. Not crawl onto his bed.

“If you didn’t know it was me,” he said slowly, “then I must have reminded you of me.”

She stepped off the curb, and he crossed the street with her. Her lack of response lifted his heart to his throat. She was evading the question, but not lying. She hadn’t even offered the glib response or denial that she usually hid behind whenever she was confronted with something she wished wasn’t true. And the thing about Annie was—even after she’d shrugged something off—she eventually forced herself to face the truth.

So she’d already confronted this, had already accepted it. She’d thought of him, missed him, and had intended to use someone who looked like him.

Use him for…what? Sex? Comfort?

Hell, Jack was ready and willing to offer both—but why would she need to break into a stranger’s home for either? “Do you need help, Annie?”

“No, I just—” She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, her jaw and fists tight. Her struggle was apparent on her face, and he waited. There was her knee-jerk denial. Now she was forcing herself to face the truth—which meant she’d decide whether to let him help or not.

She slowly turned. “There’s a girl missing. Ten days now. I’ve called the local hospitals, shelters—but there are some avenues for information that I can’t access. You can.”

Not any longer. But he didn’t hesitate. “Yes.” He might not have access to the Bureau’s resources, but he had a hell of a lot of free time on his hands, and more than enough money to look as long as she wanted him to. His own project could be a second priority. “Have you filed a report?”

She shook her head, and wiped the sides of her neck and face with her sleeve. “It’s complicated.”

“Because you’re supposedly dead.”

She’d grown up around cops; even with the cosmetic changes she’d made, someone might recognize her.

“No,” she said. Grief flattened her lips, her tone. “Because everyone else is.”

Jack’s brows drew together, a dark suspicion rising in his mind. Ten days. Everyone dead. “Everyone, who?”

“Everyone who might recognize her, and that she might go to. Her legal guardians. The people we knew. Everyone.” She palmed her forehead, slicked back the tendrils of hair that had escaped the loose bun. Her gaze slid past him, her eyes narrowing slightly. “Probably too hot for him inside, hmm?”

Jack glanced around. Two and a half blocks south, male, late sixties or early seventies. A white wisp of hair, slightly hunched back, a cane. A yellow polo shirt and khaki pants. Jack looked back at Annie, and shrugged. “Probably. At least he has clothes on.”

Her smile barely lifted the corners of her mouth. That had changed, too. The night he’d met her, Jack had been certain the sun couldn’t have competed with the brightness of her smile. And when she spoke, her upper lip was still, as if she was trying to hide an overbite; she held her lower lip just on the edge of a pout.

It did things to her mouth that were as sexy as hell, but not the least bit familiar.

He recognized the worry pinching her features, though, and he frowned as Annie’s hand crept to her sword.

Her gaze was fixed behind him. “Let’s go back to your place, Jack.”

“All right. But why—”

“He’s not sweating,” she said quietly. “Even you are.”

Even him? But her urgency couldn’t be mistaken, and he scrubbed his right palm over the cotton of his pants, wiping away the moisture from it and his gun. When he was certain his grip wouldn’t slip, he glanced back again. The old man was striding toward them, his cane hooked over his forearm.

Jack couldn’t make out the man’s features yet, let alone detect any perspiration. “How can you tell?”

“I can’t see it.” She touched his elbow, briefly, and a shiver raced up his skin. Her hands were frigid. Was her fear so extreme? Taken aback, he looked at her, but she was still staring at the old man. “And his eyes—oh, God. Let’s go, Jack.”

What had gotten into her? The guy was spry for his age, sure—but there was no indication that he was dangerous. No evidence of weapons. He was simply walking toward them, without hesitation or fear.

Walking toward two strangely dressed, armed people in the middle of the night. Young or old, anyone else would have approached with some caution.

His breath suddenly came sharp and shallow, and he fought the overwhelming instinct to turn and run. Jack backed across the darkened street with her, trying to understand his reaction, his sense that he’d just fallen ass backward into a completely fucked-up situation.

Or was her fear just feeding his?

He shot a glance at Annie. Her skin had been pale before; now she was white, her lips colorless. Her grip shifted on her sword. A SIG semiautomatic pistol was in her left hand, the barrel elongated by a silencer.

“Shut up,” she hissed, and Jack blinked. Was she responding to the old man? Jack hadn’t heard anything.

The clench of her finger on the trigger and the burst of suppressed air stunned Jack to his core. The old man staggered. A dark hole opened on his forehead, and blood spilled over his face.

“Annie!” He grabbed for her gun, but she stepped away too quickly. “Jesus fuck me, Annie! What the hell are you—”

Jack froze. The old man was still upright and moving. His pace didn’t appear to have increased, but he was close enough now that Jack could see he was smiling. The blood was gone.

So was the bullet wound.

Jesus Christ. What the fuck? Jack trained his pistol on his chest, looked harder.

Horror ripped through him, left his skin cold, his gut shaking. The man’s eyes were missing—they were just two black holes in his friendly face.

“Listen, Jack,” Annie said, walking backward. Jack was forced to turn and jog in an awkward sidestepping gait to keep up with her, but his aim never wavered from the thing coming after them. “Her name’s Cricket Snow. She’s twelve. When you find her, say that Annie sent you, that you’re my sunshine boy. Then she’ll trust you.”

Those words terrified Jack more than the old man did. His head cleared; his stomach turned to lead. “Don’t you dare, Annie,” he said hoarsely. “Don’t you dare think it’s going to happen.”

Her steps slowed. “Everything I own is under the name Anne Douglas. My mom can make sure that Cricket gets all of—”

Anger rose up, burned away the fear. “Don’t you dare,” he bit out.

“Go back to your place, Jack, as fast as you can.” Her voice wavered, then firmed. “He can’t hurt you, but I don’t want you to see what he does to me.”

Jack stepped in front of her. “He’ll have to come through me.”

“Oh, Jack,” Annie said softly. Her breath was cool against his back, then his arm. She was allowing him to protect her, he realized, but moving just enough that she could still see past him. “It doesn’t matter. He can go around you.”

The old man stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, twirling his cane, his smile broadening. “Cricket Snow,” he said in a voice that should have been on television, hawking butterscotch candies or oatmeal. “I’ve only to tell her that I’m Annie’s sunshine boy.”

Annie’s response was confident. “She knows you can’t touch her.”

The man’s eyes glinted. They weren’t missing, Jack could see now. Just a pure, deep black.

Somehow, missing would have been less sinister. More human.

With an inclination of his head, the old man said, “Not without her permission. But if I explain to her what I can do to you, I imagine she’ll agree to anything I propose. So I’ve decided to leave you alive until I come to an understanding with her.”

Annie drew in a sharp breath. The man twirled his cane again, and for an instant Jack thought he saw something else there, caught the impression of a huge figure with crimson skin, glowing red eyes, and black feathered wings.

Then it vanished.

Jack blinked, then swept his gaze in a wide arc, searching. Nothing. Annie’s voice echoed in his head: He can go around you. Jack turned in a full circle. Still nothing.

He glanced at her, his brow furrowing. Annie was hunched over, the back of her jacket poking up from her body as if she’d tried to hide a broom handle beneath it.

She whimpered. Her arm jerked downward; so did the thing beneath her coat. A wet, sucking sound filled the air, and she staggered. The old man’s cane clattered to the pavement.

Oh, Christ. Jack shoved his gun into his waistband and fell to his knees in front of her, opening her jacket. The creature had thrown the cane—had impaled her with it. Her hands were pressed over her stomach. Blood leaked between her fingers, shockingly red against her pale skin.

Jack raised his frantic gaze to her white face. “Annie—”

“I’m okay,” she said through tight lips, then turned and began walking. “But we should get inside.”

Astonished, Jack stood and stared after her, then down at the cane. Gore covered the smooth surface, from the flat tip to the U-shaped handle; the blood had smeared where she’d adjusted her grip to pull the length of it from her body.

She’d pulled it from her body. Yet she was steadier on her feet than Jack was.

Holy Christ. What the hell had happened to her in the past six years?

Jack almost shouted it after her retreating form, but stopped himself. Whatever had happened, she obviously needed help—not for him to become another problem.

He ripped his hands through his hair, tried to think over the questions screaming in his head. A flyer for a lost dog was stapled to a streetlight pole. Jack tore it down, then used it to pick up the cane by the bottom, ignoring the blood that soaked through the picture of Fido’s cocked head and friendly expression.

So many missing, but no one had been looking for them—just covering up the disappearances. He’d resigned over it. Hell, it had been past time to resign. He’d been chasing ghosts for five years, risking his career, sleep, alienating more friends than he could count—and he hadn’t cared, because Annie hadn’t been there.

Everyone dead, she’d said. But she wasn’t a ghost—and now he thought that all the answers he’d been seeking were in the one person he thought he’d lost.

Stuff That Relates To Other Books in the Series

SPOILERS!!!

For Michael’s book: There’s actually not that much in this story that you need to know for Michael’s book, or that relates to Michael’s book. This is one of three stories where Michael doesn’t appear at all (the other two are “Blind Spot” and “Ascension,” for the simple reason that he was in the frozen field during the course of those novellas.)

This story does relate to other books, but there is nothing introduced in this novella that didn’t show up in previous novels. We don’t learn anything new. We get to see what Lilith was doing in the FBI before DEMON ANGEL. We see that there are some rumors flying around the vampire communities about Guardians, but that very few communities actually know much about them (but we saw that first in DEMON MOON and DEMON NIGHT.) We’ve encountered the bloodlust before. We see another instance of a nephil taking on the personality and criminal impulses of the human it possessed (this also happened in DEMON NIGHT, but it’s never explicitly stated until DEMON BLOOD.)

And that’s pretty much it for this story.