Sydney stared straight ahead while Tate maneuvered through the twisty streets that surrounded Kellan and Lucas’s place. She could’ve sworn she still heard the inhuman sound he’d made at her leaving.
Inhuman. Of course. Kellan was nothing more than a wild animal, and he’d tried to make her into one, too. Did he think she hadn’t heard him plotting to change her on the other side of that closed bathroom door? And for what? Just so he could more easily manipulate her feelings for his own ends.
She wouldn’t stand for it. He wasn’t her “sire”. She hadn’t been turned, and she would figure out a way to forget she’d ever known Kellan Barstow and Lucas Phillips.
Somehow, she would wipe them from her mind. And divest herself of the aching hunger that already shredded her stomach with iron claws.
“Did he rape you?” Tate kept his voice carefully neutral. “Or force you to do something you weren’t comfortable doing?”
Oh, I was very comfortable. That was part of the problem.
She didn’t answer. She honestly didn’t know if she could speak without bawling. How positively mortifying. She’d never been a weepy girl, but she’d lost all control.
“You have blood on the hem of your nightgown,” he continued in that same flat tone. “Streaks on your thighs. I saw it when you got into the car.”
“Let it go.”
“No, I won’t let it go. I feel responsible, Syd. It’s my fault you turned to that animal after you found Jed and I in—” He stopped, shook himself. “I just want you to know that’s over. It won’t happen again.”
She hadn’t asked. His relationship with her closest friend simply didn’t matter anymore. “Why?”
“Why?” He turned his face toward hers. His hazel eyes were shadowed and heavy, but she noted the fact with a detached interest rather than concern. She felt tapped out emotionally, unable to give any more of herself to anyone. “Because I’m not gay.”
Wearily, she pressed her cheek against the back of her hand. Just like I’m not a vampire.
“You are what you are, Tate. Pretending otherwise changes nothing.”
“Easy for you to say. Your whole world hasn’t just been turned upside down by something you never expected.”
“You’d be surprised,” she said quietly.
“I know you’re having trouble believing this, but I honestly don’t care what happened between you and Jed. It’s not even on my radar. If the two of you want to be together, you have my blessing. If you don’t, well, that’s on you.”
He flipped on his turn signal as he idled at the entrance of her apartment building’s parking lot. “You’re serious.”
“Deadly.” She shifted to face him after he pulled into a space. “I appreciate you coming to get me. If you wouldn’t mind, maybe you could come by now and then to…check on me. Make sure everything’s okay.”
Tate turned off the car. “Why? Is that guy you ran away from hassling you? The crazy one with the gold eyes?”
Gold eyes. Just the memory she didn’t need. But she remembered just the same. Remembered waking up with her head on Kellan’s chest to see him devouring her with an expression as weighty as a caress.
“He’s not crazy.” Insanely possessive, yes. Crazy? No. Unless she considered the whole idea of vampires crazy, but that was hard to do when even now bloodlust cramped her belly.
“He looked it.”
“Appearances aren’t everything, Tate.”
“Then what? If he’s not the problem, what is?”
She hissed out a breath. “I’ve developed some health issues.”
He rested a hand on her bare knee. “Oh, honey. Is that why…the blood….” His jaw went tight. “You weren’t pregnant, were you?”
She shook her head frantically. “God no. It wasn’t that.” And she couldn’t bear to think about the possibility even for a moment longer. “Just check on me. Please. Maybe in the mornings, before you head to work. I know it’s a burden, but—”
“No, it’s not. I owe you. Have you seen a doctor?”
“No doctors.” She fought a shudder.
“Okay. I’m just so grateful you contacted me. I left you so many voicemails. When you never called back, I was afraid something had happened. Well, something worse than what made you leave.”
He wasn’t the only one who had called. A quick check of her phone had revealed many missed texts and messages from friends and coworkers. They all equaled more concern than she could deal with at the moment.
She forced her tense shoulders to relax. “I’m sorry you were worried.”
“It’s all okay now.” Tate leaned in and brushed his lips over her forehead. “I talked to your landlord. He left a key under the mat for you.”
“Thank you.” Her eyes misted—what else was new?—but she blinked fast before any tears could fall. “I appreciate this more than you realize.”
“I hurt you. We hurt you. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. Really. If you speak to Jed, please tell him that for me.” She took the hand he held out and squeezed his fingers. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
“Yes.” He waited until she’d gotten out of the car before he spoke. “Syd?”
“Take care of you.”
Sydney smiled, though the effort took the last ounce of her strength. “It’s what I do best.”
* * *
Days bled into nights. Nights grew into weeks. Eventually Kellan stopped turning over in bed, expecting to find her there. But he never stopped aching at the knowledge that she wouldn’t be.
Everything between them had happened so quickly. He shouldn’t have gotten used to her being around so fast, but he’d underestimated the power of finding his mate. And yes, maybe he’d taken it for granted that she would grasp the significance of their joining, but he hadn’t ever guessed he could drive her away.
Or that she’d stay gone.
The bagged blood that appeared at his mouth upon wakening made him snort with disgust. He shoved the hand that held it away, then rolled over and pressed his face into the pillow. Even after fifty washings, the sheets still bore her scent. Strawberries and sunshine.
Come walk with me into the light, or stay forever banished to the night.
The song, Luke’s favorite, pulled at his mind. He’d believed he had moved past the urge to be human. They were so frail, after all. And yes, they experienced joys he never would again, but their losses were just as staggering. Happiness, no matter how brief, always exacted its demand for payment, so he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised he was paying now.
“Well, that solves the problem.”
Kellan pulled the pillow over his head.
He didn’t want to talk to anyone, least of all his best friend. Somehow he knew Luke believed he’d caused this to happen. He was smug about it, too, as if he’d finally been vindicated in his decision to tiptoe around Emily. Women, he’d said, couldn’t handle the truth in one straight shot. Better to spoonfeed them a little at a time. And while Luke still didn’t have his mate by his side, he also hadn’t struck out so resoundingly that Emily refused all contact with him.
All phone calls. All e-mails. All deliveries of calla lilies and irises—though they were out of season and extremely expensive—arranged with blood-red balloons and enormous heart-shaped boxes of truffles. He’d taken the flowers to the cemetery and left them on graves that lacked fresh ones, but the balloons were another issue. They clung to the ceiling around his bed, taunting him with their dangling red tails until he slapped at them like a deranged mental patient.
She’d even returned the emerald velvet gown he’d had delivered. The one he’d had specially made, sized from memory. Not only had she refused it, she’d sent the pristine white box back with the dressmaker’s seal intact. She hadn’t even looked.
Could his ego be crushed any further?
Luke grabbed the pillow off Kellan’s head and threw it aside. “Drink, you slimy bastard.” This time, the bagged blood he’d already forgotten about was slammed against his mouth until his fangs popped out in sheer retaliation. “All of it. Every last drop.”
He drank, from reflex more than hunger. He hated the bagged stuff. Hated being told what to do. But from the clench of his body as the first heavenly trickle slipped down his throat, he’d obviously waited too long to feed.
“And shower,” Luke put in, as if reading his thoughts. “You reek.”
Younger vampires—those under a couple hundred years old—didn’t possess the ability to mind-read, but the decades between them lent knowledge of each other. Often, they didn’t even need to speak.
Which meant Luke probably knew exactly how much he was suffering. Not that he’d made much of a secret of it.
Kellan drained the blood and tossed the plastic hull aside. Then he raked a hand through his hair, now longer than he liked. Damn stuff grew like a weed when he wasn’t making bi-weekly trips to his barber, and it had been more than five weeks since he’d thought of a haircut.
Three weeks since Sydney had been gone. Might as well have been three lifetimes.
“Hey.” Luke snapped his fingers in front of Kellan’s face. “You in there? I said you need a shower.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I live here, too, you know. Hard to bring chicks around when you’re moping in your smelly bed.”
“My bed doesn’t smell.”
“Fine. You’re what smells. Get a grip on yourself, man.”
Kellan cast Luke a sideways glance. “And what chicks are you bringing around? I haven’t seen you boning anything but yourself.”
Luke kicked back on the edge of the bed and tipped a bottle of root beer to his lips. That was a recent affectation, because Kellan had never seen him touch the stuff before. “And you talk about my language.”
“I’ve decided decorum is overrated.”
Along with true love, soul mates, and living an eternity. What he wouldn’t give to be a mortal man content to screw his way across Maine right now.
“This new attitude of yours isn’t becoming, Kell. Your questionable grooming and eating habits aside, the man I’m looking at isn’t the one I’ve known since I was a boy.”
“Get used to it.”
“I’d rather not, thanks.” Luke leaned forward and met his eyes. “I saw Sydney.”
Kellan’s heartbeat quickened in time with the breaths that lifted his chest. His reaction to her name would have been laughable if he hadn’t been on the verge of desperation.
“Is she well?” he asked, when at last he trusted himself to speak.
“Short answer? No.” Lucas rose a brow when Kellan bunched the sheets in his fists. “She’s pale, but otherwise, she seems okay. Physically. On her break, I noticed her snacking on a steak rare enough to moo, but other than that, she seemed pretty normal.” He hesitated, almost as if he were debating how much to reveal. “I think she might have filed down her fangs.”
“She’s trying to blend. Hard to do, because she’s even more beautiful than she was before. Her hair’s a darker, richer brown, her eyes a killer green. And her body. Wow, man. Just wow.” He gestured crudely as Kellan’s eyes slitted. “Seriously, it’s better you haven’t seen her. You’d jump her on sight.”
“Was that what you wanted to do?”
“Only mentally. She’s one hot ticket. But physically?” Lucas sighed and gave a plaintive glance at his lap. “Except around Emily, damn thing’s dead as a doornail. It’s even worse now that I’ve spent so much time with her. My cock has numbed to the wiles of any other female.”
Kellan laughed. He simply couldn’t help it. But the sound seemed foreign to his ears. “I know your pain.”
“Yeah.” Luke braced his elbows on his knees. “You’re going to go after her, right?”
“Sending stuffed mice isn’t trying. You need to show up at her door.”
Kellan tugged at a loose thread on his pillowcase, feeling like an idiot. Had he fumbled around a girl this much even in junior high? “Did you speak to her?”
“Briefly. She had to serve me at the coffee shop, or else I don’t think she would have. Cutest thing was, she blushed when she saw me. Adorable. I mean, wasn’t she kind of promiscuous before we—”
Kellan flashed him a glance rife with suppressed fury. “I know you didn’t just call my mate a slut.”
“Sorry.” Obviously sensing that now wasn’t the best time for his version of the truth, Luke coughed into his hand. “Anyway, she came across as sexually…uh, experienced. But seeing me embarrassed her. Her hands shook as she counted out my change.”
“She didn’t ask about me.” Reading Lucas’s quiet look of pity, Kellan shook his head. “No, of course she didn’t. Well. I’m glad to hear she’s active. Back to work. Living her life.”
Bile filled his throat. Yeah, living her life by slaving away as a coffee waitress when he could give her everything she’d ever wanted. Okay, maybe not everything. They weren’t millionaires. But he could provide for her far beyond her current standard of living. He’d make sure she never exhausted herself counting out nickels and dimes.
He’d also make sure she understood it wasn’t all about his love for her. That he was willing to wait as long as it took for her to grow to love him back.
“You’re right,” he said after a moment, kicking aside the sheets wrapped around his feet. “I haven’t gone after her yet. But it’s time.”