Authors: Mary Hughes
Tags: #vampire;erotic;paranormal romance;undead;urban fantasy;steamy;sensual;vampire romance;action;sizzling;Meiers Corners;Mary Hughes;Biting Love;romantic comedy;funny;humor;Chicago;medical;doctor;adult
I felt off-balance, behind the curve, as if things were happening too quickly for me to catch up; worse, they were cascading.
At least Rorik was safe, and Sarah Jane.
And suddenly it occurred to me—if Sarah Jane was free, where was Luke?
Staring at Una, thinking about Luke and Rorik, I got an idea.
I released Lizelle and searched our booth for a button I knew had to be there.
“What are you doing?” Lizelle stumbled over to the wall and leaned against it, following my progress with her eyes. Even in the dim light, she looked pale.
“What your husband did…it was despicable. But we may be able to turn it to our advantage.”
Marrone and his minion had filled the girl’s veins with vampire blood. Maybe trying to turn her, but I knew from researching with my sister that vampire blood in a normal, healthy human couldn’t turn the human. Only the dead turned.
More likely they were trying to make her an augmented human like Rorik, which probably wouldn’t work either, because there was something about healthy living people—I guessed the immune system—that killed off the vampire factor, eventually.
But vampire blood healed vampires, and while it disappeared over time in humans, for a little while vampire blood might heal people too, and enough vampire blood might even make a kid a superkid, temporarily.
Maybe not superstrong or superfast, but with all that blood from a rapidly healing vampire pumped into her, I was betting she’d be able to do what Marrone obviously hadn’t considered—kick off her sedation.
I found the intercom button and pressed it. “Una, honey. Wake up.”
Lizelle shook her head, tears running down her cheeks. “They drugged her. Maybe k-killed her.”
I took her by her shoulders. “Lizelle, do you trust me?”
She nodded reluctantly.
Waiting until she looked at me, I said, “I’m a doctor. I know healing. Una isn’t dead—far from it. I even think she’ll wake up now, but she’ll need your help.”
Lizelle searched my eyes, and I let her read my absolute conviction. Hope kindled in her gaze. “What do I do?”
“Call to her. Like it’s a normal morning and you’re waking her for school.” I released her shoulders to go to the button and press it again. “Una, your mom wants you to wake up.” I flicked my eyes from Lizelle to Una, a silent plea for her to try.
“Una. It’s…it’s Mom.” Lizelle, eyes glistening with unshed tears, came beside me. “We want you to wake up. Can you do that?”
Lizelle sucked in a breath. “She
” Clasping her hands at her breast, she said, louder, “Time to get up now. Wake up for Mommy, sweetie.”
The girl groaned. Slowly sat. Saw the line leading to her arm and sat bolt upright, looking wildly around. “Mommy? Where are you? There’s a needle in me and…and I’m scared.”
“Everything’s going to be fine,” I said.
“It’s okay,” Lizelle spoke at the same time. “Honey, it’s okay. Listen to Alexis. She’s a doctor, she knows what to do.”
“But there’s a needle in me…” She gazed at it with rapidly blinking eyes, her lips and chin trembling.
“We’ll get that nasty old thing out, promise,” I said. “It’s easy. But first you have to do something for me. See the tape holding the line to your arm? Tear off that tape. Then you can pull the needle right out.”
“But if I pull it out, won’t my blood come out? There’s a
“A little ooze is all.” I tried to make my tone light. “Just press your thumb into it, okay? It’ll stop right away.” Maybe not sanitary, but infection was the least of my worries then. “Now take a deep breath and get to it.”
It took a couple tries but she got detaped and free of the IV. She held up her arm.
“I did it.” By this time her whole body was shaking. Stress, but more. I thought the effect of the vampire blood was wearing off. We didn’t have much time.
“Okay, the hard part is over. Good job.”
“Good job, sweetheart,” Lizelle echoed. “I’m so proud of you.”
“Now one last thing, Una.” I used her name to focus her. “Carefully get down from the bed. Go out the door—there’s only one, see it? Then turn to your right. Show me your right hand?”
Una was twelve, old enough to understand left and right, but even an adult could get confused in a crisis and I wanted to be sure. She held up her right hand and I released a pent breath in relief.
“Go out your door and turn to your right. There’ll be another door with a knob. Open that door, okay? Your mom and I will be waiting.” I took Lizelle’s elbow and gently urged her toward our locked door, waiting myself by the intercom to give Una any last-minute instructions.
“But why can’t you come get me?”
“We would, honey. Believe me, we would if we could. But you only have to do this one thing, and then your mom will hug you and we’ll get out of here. Okay? Now go.”
She hopped off the gurney and hit the floor with a wobble. I held my breath as she pin-balled off the machine and a couple of tables getting to the door, but she made it. When she was out of the room I counted to a slow three, the amount of time I thought it would take her to find our door.
I exchanged a worried look with Lizelle, whose eyes were glistening again.
Then there was a metallic thud and the knob of our door was turning, unlocking automatically as it had for Umbras.
Mother and daughter fell into each other’s arms and it was only by a heroic leap that I got my hand between door and jamb before it closed and locked again. Nearly sprained my fingers and stifled a few ripe curses, but I kept it from shutting.
I gave them their moment, then whispered, “We must go.”
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Lizelle, arm around her daughter who was looking distinctly woozy now, followed me out and down the hallway to the stairwell. But when they started downstairs, I hesitated.
“What’s wrong?” Lizelle whispered.
“We need a plan.”
“We have a plan. Get out of here.” Some of the old Lizelle came back in a small eyeroll, and I was glad to see it—and distressed I had to crush it.
“Yes, except the whole front entrance was battened down. Metal curtains everywhere. Electrified too.”
Lizelle’s head swiveled toward me, expression shocked. “Then where will we go? How can we get away?” She forgot to whisper.
“With a plan.” I thought hard. Julian and Bo were outside, and though they didn’t know Lizelle and Una were in here, they knew
was. I was confident they’d stop at nothing to break through Marrone’s barriers to fetch me.
All we had to do was outlast Marrone and company.
“Good question.” Cameras were everywhere. Worse, if Marrone was a vampire, he had ways to sense us humans I couldn’t even begin to imagine—well, after that whole eye-closing out-of-range bit with Luke and Bo and Julian, I could imagine some. But how much more sensitive was a vampire?
I turned to Una. “Can you hear more than usual? Smell more?”
She frowned, then nodded. “Not now. But when I first came to, I could sense you and Mom breathing in the next room and some of your body heat and…and I could
your hearts beat.” The last was whispered, and she shivered. “It was weird.”
“No, it’s okay. It’ll help us. What else?”
“Well, when you told me to pull out the needle, it was harder because I smelled something…coppery. My blood…” She scrunched her eyes and swallowed visibly. “It was hard.”
“You were very brave.” And now I had my answer. If Marrone could hear our hearts, smell our bodies and feel our body heat, we had to hide someplace loud, smelly and hot.
Right. “I think I know where we can go.”
“Where?” Lizelle’s tight eyebrows meant she was worried. Una slumped against her.
I glanced around for security cameras. I didn’t see any but that didn’t mean there weren’t eyes or ears on us. “Follow me.”
We trundled downstairs. Stinky, noisy and hot. One place I could think of in every commercial building that would fit the bill—the furnace room.
We got to the bottom of the stairwell. I was about to exit into the basement proper when Una roused from leaning against her mother. “That stinks.”
There was a second door, under the stairs. Usually the furnace rooms are locked, but this door’s lock was broken.
I remember thinking that was a good thing, that things were finally going our way.
I’d ushered Lizelle and a stumbling Una inside when I heard a stairwell door open above me. Marrone snarled, “They went downstairs. Find them.”
Feet double-timed our way. I scooted inside and was about to shut myself in with Lizelle and Una—when I remembered the door didn’t lock.
Unless I did something in ten seconds flat, we were vulnerable to being recaptured.
Plans, when necessary, can be made in about two seconds. They aren’t necessarily good plans, or complete plans, but they’re better than nothing.
My amazing two-second plan? Lead the pursuers away from Lizelle and Una.
With me on the outside, I gently closed the furnace room door then raced to the door that opened into the basement proper. I grabbed the knob with perspiring palms and when the metal slipped in my hands, let loose a real curse, hurriedly throttled. I wiped my palms on my pants and managed to get the thing open. By now my heart was rat-a-tatting for real.
Scooting through, I tried to slam the door shut after me. It was on a pneumatic closer and refused to shut at over the speed limit set for snails. With a cry of disgust I let it go and raced into the basement. I’d have to count on my human stink leading them away from the furnace room. By now even I could smell the sharp acrid sting of anxious sweat on me.
The basement was mostly storage. I ran past big chicken-wire-enclosed areas full of shelves, searching for a place to hide. The longer I kept them from looking for Lizelle and her daughter, the better.
I slid behind a post just as the basement door
open. “She’s over there,” someone snarled.
Footsteps rang hitting concrete. I darted for the next post but hands caught me before I got two steps. This being captured was getting old fast.
The hands dragged me out of hiding and into a stench worse than a jock strap mask. The sailboat-nosed guy, Marrone’s bodyguard, leered down at me. He dragged me back into the stairwell. It took all my willpower not to glance at the furnace room door as I stumbled past.
He pushed me up the stairs and out into the lobby, where Umbras waited beside an open elevator.
Sail-nose pushed me inside.
Umbras stalked in and slapped my face. “Where’s my daughter?”
I’d been ready to feed him a lie, that we’d gotten separated and I didn’t know where Lizelle and Una were. But my glass monster rose up in me, fast and livid.
“Why?” I spat blood. “So you can slap her around too?”
He recoiled as if I’d struck him in return. “I’d
“Bullshit. You were escalating. It was only a matter of time until you beat her like you beat your wife—”
He backhanded me into the elevator wall. The only thing that stopped me from getting a broken nose or worse was that I’d been watching his shoulder and had seen it coming. I yielded and turned with the blow. I still felt a bruise blooming, but it wasn’t incapacitating.
But it did shock me into thinking. What was I doing? How could I help Lizelle if I got injured?
Part of me—most of me—wanted to ream out Umbras for the years of abuse, but I took it and tucked it away. Time for the rational doctor to take charge.
The elevator stopped and the doors
open, blowing the sting of bleach and ammonia into my face. We were back on the floor that didn’t exist.
Umbras grabbed my arm in a tourniquet-tight grip and hauled me down the hallway, toward the observation booth that locked from the outside.
But he dragged me past it and shoved me into a small hospital-like room.
A sick old man lay in the bed, breathing labored, stertorous. His skin sagged like a plastic grocery bag on overripe fruit, several bruises from previous IVs visible.
Tubes connected him, like Una, to a pale, unconscious vampire.
But in this case, the vampire was Luke.
Marrone entered the bedroom. “Dr. Byornsson! There you are, my dear. Why did you run away? You won’t want to miss this, I’m sure.” He patted my cheek, the one Umbras had abused.
I glared at him, trying like hell not to wince. “What did you do to Luke?”
“Oh, a bit of narcotic, is all.”
A vampire narcotic, almost as impossible to build as a universal antibiotic for supergerms. Which meant he’d been at it a short eternity…The thought combined with his pumping Una with vampire blood regardless of the impact on her, more random trial and error than proper testing… The light bulb went on in my head with an almost audible
“A narcotic related to the chemical stew
you dumped in the Meiers River,
by any chance?”
It was a shot in the dark, but he startled.
I got a zing of pleasure. Now I understood why he’d been so interested in my research. He was the one who’d drugged our river, simply dumping the stuff in to see what it would do.
No scientific method at all.
“So. You’re brighter than you look. Won’t matter.” He took the length of clear coiled tubing from the machine hooked to the sick old man, and before I could look away, thrust the blunt end into Luke’s chest.
Unlike the young vampire, Luke only groaned.
“Owun, notes for the chart, please.”
John Umbras responded to the name, still holding my arm in his vise grip but reaching with his free hand to wake a nearby tablet computer, fingers poised over a wireless keyboard.
I frowned. Had I misheard? But “Owun” didn’t sound much like “Umbras” and it wasn’t like John at all.
Marrone pointed at Luke. “Subject 1611-1, complete drain, time and date. He’s older than any of the others we’ve had, so please take extra notes. I especially want any differences between him and the younglings I made myself.”
Luke’s blood began to flow into the sick man. Knowing how this ended, my stomach lurched.
So stop it.
A plan half-formed in my head. I should have waited a second or two for it to fully form, but this was Luke and I was almost physically ill at the thought of never seeing his sunshine-bright hair or the sparkle of gold flecks in his hazel eyes or feel the strength and comfort in his hands again.
So I acted, punching a foot to break Umbras’s knee and jerking loose from his grip. Free, I lunged at the tube sticking so cruelly from Luke’s chest, my eye on Marrone standing there supremely confident with his arms folded over his ridiculous frilly shirt and frock coat, smirking.
There were only the three of us in the room and Umbras’s leg was broken, yet a hand clamped on to my arm where I was already sore and yanked me back.
To my shock, it was a grinning Umbras. He shook his leg out in front of me. It was bent the wrong way…then it straightened with a crick
and was fine.
Every hair on my body stood shrieking,
Umbras wrenched me into his body and said directly into my ear, “That was stupid, bitch.” His breath billowed like sewer gasses against my skin. I shuddered. “Watch.” He turned me with a shake that rattled my brains against my skull. “Watch your boyfriend drained dry.”
When I tried to turn away, he took my head in his hands and twisted it to face Luke, then peeled my eyelids up with digging fingers. I didn’t dare move for fear of losing my sight forever.
The machine continued its horrible
and blood continued to fill the evil tube thrust in Luke’s chest.
By the time he was paper white and even his small groans and twitches had died, tears were flowing unchecked down my face. My emotions had run amok again, but I didn’t care. Luke was dead. The man whose touch brought joy, who actually absorbed my most monstrous qualities and not only came back for more but tried to comfort me, was gone from my life, before I’d even gotten to know how important he was.
I shook, unable to look away because of Umbras’s cruel fingers, forced to watch Marrone disconnect the tubing, to wait for the horror of Luke’s body collapsing in on itself…
but he didn’t.
In fact, an eyelid twitch fueled my impossible hope that he wasn’t dead.
“How do you feel?”
Marrone wasn’t asking Luke. The old man coughed and sat up. Took a breath and another.
Only he didn’t look old anymore. Vampire blood healed vampires. This proved it also healed humans—and apparently, for the few minutes it circulated in a human before it lost its effectiveness, it even healed aging.
“I-I feel…” The not-so-old man blinked. “I feel fantastic. Decades younger.”
“Good.” Marrone patted his face. “Make sure you transfer my money today.”
Luke woke to the clank of chain and tug and stretch of his limbs as he was hauled by manacles off the floor.
“I’ll turn on the sunlamps, master.” The traitor Owun’s tone was almost loving. “His cells, gasping for oxygen, will shrivel under the killing rays. Pain will burn like fire along his skin.”
Frankly, the man was much too enthusiastic about his work. Luke, concentrating hard, managed to tune him out and take stock, ticking off vital facts.
Heart stuttering, throat burning. Signs that he was dangerously low on blood. So, first job, press what blood he did have—felt like a quart or less—into the loop between his heart, lungs and brain. He focused deep, pulling the fluid into tight circulation. The vampire in him would keep rest of his body at subsistence level for a time, but eventually he’d have to completely shut down.
Hopefully not before he figured out what had happened and how to escape. Last he remembered, Sarah Jane and Rorik were free, Marrone had stunned him, then stuck needles in him, then he got the sensation of draining before being carted into this room smelling of pain and fear…
Alexis pinged forcefully on his internal awareness.
His swollen eyes sprang open. Marrone hustled her into the room. He’d bound her wrists behind her back with a zip tie that, from her white hands, was fastened too tight. Luke burned to free her, then take off Marrone’s head for daring to harm her.
He reached for his mist… His body refused to respond.
That burning, it wasn’t simply anger. He became aware of other things vital to his survival. He was stripped naked, not an issue except it left him completely exposed to the sunlamps.
Two UV lamps were roasting his skin raw, and, as his internal temperature rose, were dangerously near to setting him on fire.
Clamping his eyes shut, he called on his training, using a trick Elias taught him of creating a shell of “human” on the outside to stave off burning. It barely brought his body temp down below flashpoint.
“Well, well.” The voice was cultured. “Not so pretty now, are you, Steel?”
He slit his eyes open. Marrone sauntered toward him, changed again into a frilly shirt, blue granny glasses, Einstein wig and toothy smile.
Marrone’s bad disguises were starting to wear on Luke, and frankly that smile rubbed him the wrong way. He snarled, “Not as ugly as you’ll be after I get done with you. Let Alexis go.”
“I might, after I get the results of my experiment.” The male motioned and the traitor Owun passed through Luke’s field of vision to leave the room.
“What experiment? Killing me? Making her watch?” Luke eyed the bad costume. It occurred to him that when he’d seen Marrone in the mirror, it was a better disguise than usual.
Maybe he wore such bad costumes to allow the one disguise that really mattered, the Luke disguise, to go undetected. In fact, maybe it was Marrone on other occasions throughout the years, when “Luke” had been spotted places he’d never been.
The idea jarred Luke’s concentration. His internal temp spiked. Small fires broke out on his skin.
He quickly reasserted his self-control—but not before Marrone
and stepped forward to slap the flames out with a casual brutality.
“Steel, please. If I were simply trying to kill you, it would be easier and more elegant to treat you to the poison I developed. But I need you clean for a while.”
“The poison,” Alexis whispered. Then, louder, she said, “He drained you, Luke. Into an old man. Called you Subject 1611-1, and wanted to know any differences between you and the younglings he made himself.”
“How annoyingly retentive.” Marrone shot her a glare.
Luke’s gaze cut to Marrone and narrowed.
…that was the exact year Luke had been turned. Did Marrone know?
“So you’ve been siring vampires as what, experiments? See how old they have to be before their blood heals humans?” Alliance vampires had long known and kept hidden the fact that their blood, directly infused into their mates, could help slow human aging. But only Elias had known its full healing power, that truly old blood, given an extra
by the vampire so that the deepest lifeblood released, could bring back a human from the brink of death.
But even simple healing through a direct infusion of plain blood was a closely guarded secret known only to the Meiers Corners vampires. Or so Luke thought. “How long?”
Marrone’s smug smile confirmed the worst. “D’you remember a delightful video of the big Spartan bringing the lady cop back from the grave? Atrocious production values…ah well, the answer is, I’ve been doing this for years, at a small facility up north, at a cool ten million a pop.” Marrone chortled. “I’ve made hundreds of millions.”
The disappearing tourists in northern Wisconsin, turned into vampires for Marrone’s amusement and profit.
“N-nosferatu made you do it?” Breathing was getting difficult, his words not much more than a whisper. Not good. Whatever plan he came up with to free Alexis, it had better be soon.
“My esteemed leader? Please,” Marrone sneered. “That male’s gone around the bend. No, I have bigger plans. And a more powerful benefactor who helps fund my research. Not completely, unfortunately, but I have hopes. And in the meantime, this little procedure pays very well. Well enough that I was able to open a second franchise here, nearer to Chicago.”
“Only b-because Nosferatu isn’t paying attention.”
“It’s all connected,” Alexis said suddenly. “Testing with vampire blood, the vampire poison, the Meiers Corners water supply. You’re doing it all for a reason.”
“How perceptive, my dear.” He looked down at her. “Vampires are the superior beings, but we’re at a disadvantage. Can’t claim our rightful place in the world because of tiny factors like sunlight—and the fact that you humans breed like rats. I’m working on drugs to balance the scales. All to benefit vampire kind.”
“The poison that kills vampires?” she said. “How does that ‘benefit vampire kind’?”
Marrone shrugged. “To make an omelet, one must break a few eggs.”
“Right.” Disgust laced her tone, but only Luke seemed to hear it. “And curing the sick humans?”
“It’s an interesting field, and lucrative too. Vampire blood heals. Vampires, of course, and for a time, humans, if it’s pumped into the human by a beating vampire heart. My theory is, the older the vampire, the more the healing potential. But this is the first I’ve been able to test it.”
Breathing was almost impossible, and Luke’s vision was going dark. Out of ideas, he took one last stab—provoke Marrone into being rash. “W-we knew that. Centuries ago.”
An annoyed grimace flashed across Marrone’s face. “Maybe. But I was the one who discovered the little protein enzyme that blocks vampire healing.”
Breath gone, Luke could only give a pleading look to Alexis.
Somehow she figured out what he was trying to do and sneered, “Your ‘poison’? Please. We made an antidote.”
Marrone startled. “You stumbled across the enzyme that blocks the blocker? You Alliance people are smarter than you look.” Suddenly he laughed. “Well, you’d have to be, wouldn’t you?”
But then something mean rose in the eyes behind the glasses. “You managed to figure out the antidote. But you haven’t figured out
In Luke’s failing sight, Marrone removed his glasses. He set them aside, then reached into his mouth—and removed fake teeth. The shape of his face changed into more classically handsome lines. He reached up, plucked a few pins…and the wig was off.
Blond, hip-length hair spilled free.
Marrone swiped at his eyes. Tiny colored circles fell into his palms…revealing gold-flecked hazel irises.
Luke realized the other vampire had been walking with a practiced hunch only when he straightened to his full height.
“G-god.” Luke could barely speak.
He looked exactly like Logan. Like Luke. If he weren’t a vampire, Luke would have suspected clever plastic surgery.
But vampires healed everything, even shape-changing surgery, becoming their ideal self. Which could only mean…
This was not a disguise.
Luke rasped, “W-who are you?”
Marrone grinned. “I’ve been waiting for this for decades. Luuuke…”
“Luke, I am your brother.”