Behind the Scenes · From Us to You

THE AS:HN EDITION

Antebellum

–High-Jacked by Reatha Beauregard

Randi Browne's pilfered life crashes to a halt...

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CHAPTER 1

RANDI

I was on the phone with my over-protective mother while zipping down the boulevard in my shiny new car. I had the stereo volume all the way low in the background. So, she couldn’t harp about it being too loud. “And, are you on the road now? Sounds like you’re on the road,” she complained. She didn’t want me driving distracted.

“No, I’m in park,” I lied. “I pulled over as soon as the phone rang. Mom, chill out. I can drive.  I’ve been doing this with either you or Dad in the car for years. I’m just taking this baby for a spin around the block and then I’ll be back!”

One hand gripped the steering wheel and the other held the phone, but, just to be safe, I cast a glance at the empty street ahead of me as I bobbed my head to the catchy pop tune whispering from the speakers. Then, I peeked in the rearview mirror, smiling smugly at my reflection in the driver’s seat.

Looking good, I thought as I rubbed red lipstick off my orthodontically corrected teeth. A year of those invisible braces had paid off big time and was yet another sign of my parents’ unstinting love for me. At the thought of their generosity, I felt a twinge of remorse for lying to my mom, but, hell, it was birthday. I deserved to live a little.

Beyond the windshield was an electric blue sky and clean white clouds. The brilliant sunlight glinted off the canary yellow hood of the car. Mom and Dad had bought it for me since I was starting school at the local university in a month, a late start. You see, my parents didn’t want me to grow up. They had already missed too many years with me.

“Besides,” I replied, “all my friends have been driving since sixteen or seventeen. Do you want me to be tied to the apron strings forever? Stop worrying.”

“Worrying is my job. I’m your mom.”

I scoffed at her disapproval and went back to studying my face in the rearview mirror. My strawberry blond hair was a blowzy, frizzy mess made worse by the breeze blowing through the open window, but I rolled my eyes and gave up trying to tame it. I scowled at the fact my babyish features made me look closer to fifteen than my actual age of twenty-one. That was one reason Mom guarded me like a hawk.

Another reason was because we had already tangoed with loss and heartache in this family, and we had come out the victors. Thing is, when I was ten years old, I got kidnapped—with all hope of finding me lost—until I showed up wandering in the woods nine years later.

It was the miracle of a lifetime, and for my mother, the terrifying nine years of believing me dead meant I might as well still be the ten-year-old she missed. But it had been a full three years since I had rejoined my family, and I felt like it was time for us to leave all that crap in the past where it belonged. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I didn’t remember what had happened to me while I was missing anyway.

It was like one day I just popped into existence, nineteen years old and ready to rumble. With history like that, however, the most rumbling I was allowed to do didn’t even register on the Richter scale.

“Sweetie, I’m just trying to keep you whole and harm-free. I lost you once. I don’t want to lose you again. I don’t think it’s wise for us to tempt fate, you know?”

Sighing, I said, “I don’t believe in fate and magic and all that mumbo jumbo, Mom. I believe in concrete stuff like facts and logic, and that’s why, logically, I need you and Dad to consider letting me make the trip to our old hometown on my own. This is a quest for self-discovery.”

“I know. I know,” she whispered with a soft chuckle. I strained to catch the phrase, the confirmation that she accepted she didn’t need to hold my hand anymore. It brought a bittersweet smile to my lips. I guess I was really growing up.

Mom sighed and said, “I’m giving it some thought, but I’m not convinced you’re ready for a day-long drive. Let me talk to your dad about it. You know how he can be, but I’ll try to bring him around and see what we come up with.”

Yes, I knew how dad could be—skeptical, over-analytical and investigative—but I was content with a maybe. It was better than a flat-out no. “Fair enough,” I muttered. “Anyway, this will be good for all of us. I want to know where I come from, to trace my roots. Think of all the history being lost to faded memories. It’s important to me, Mom…but I can’t do this without your blessing.”

“Oh, honey, you have my support on all fronts. I just wish you didn’t have to go all the way to Louisiana.” Shelly Avant sounded wistful, and I chuckled in amusement at how she was making this big fuss about nothing. It was a road trip.

“It’s not like I’m going out of the country or anything.”

The tires hissed along as I cruised through my familiar neighborhood. It was a sunny day saturated with color, and I was finally feeling like I belonged. I had my own car and a modicum of freedom and not a real care in the world—other than weaseling my parents into giving me my way on this.

I pushed up my sunglasses and whipped down the street past handsome houses in red and blonde brick. There were pretty houses with siding of orange and pink and lilac with lawns of deep green that lined the street, and the view was extra lovely from my perch behind the steering wheel.

I almost didn’t notice the man standing on the side of the road, but he was misplaced in this colorful picturesque cul-de-sac, and that drew my attention. A tall black man in an elegant black suit was an oddity. He was barefoot and had a black cane capped in silver, and he was staring right at me with piercing black eyes that made the hair stand up on the nape of my neck. I didn’t even notice the other car. The stop sign I flew past didn’t register.

Not until a horn blew in calamitous warning too late.

There came the thunderous clash of metal, and I was jarred by what felt like the whole world quaking. “Oh, my god!” I shrieked. My head thwacked the driver’s side doorjamb with a sickening crack followed by my vision going blank, blurred, followed by the terrifying realization that it wasn’t my eyes playing tricks, but the scenery whizzing past. The rainbow of colors smeared as my left side slammed painfully against the door.

“Myranda, what’s happening?” Mom shouted frantically, but I could barely hear her for the insidious buzz ringing in my ears. Instinctively, I gripped the steering wheel with both hands, which caused my cell phone to fly, forgotten, across the sliding car. “Myranda!”

Her thin cry faded out over the loud screech of tires biting into the pavement in vain protest. I felt my heart pounding somewhere near my heels as I stomped the brakes. But the other vehicle couldn’t stop, and now neither could I. It forcefully propelled me across the road. The passenger side of my new car was condensed to a crumpled, jagged ruin of twisted metal and busted plastic, glass littering what was left of the seat and turning me into a mess of cuts and punctures.

I was bleeding, and the light was fading fast. I wheezed audibly, scared of the sound—too loud, too shallow, too feeble. With last strength, I turned my gaze to the other car. I saw that the driver had come through the windshield.

The man in the suit who had been standing at the side of the road was now sitting on the top of the car smiling down at me with such a terrifying, knowing look that I squeezed my eyes shut in horror. It couldn’t be real. When I opened them, he was gone, and there was just me and the mortally wounded other driver.

We were no longer racing toward death. We were at a standstill, and death was the smell of gasoline, the ticking of a time bomb, a surety I couldn’t escape. I couldn’t get out of my car because the seatbelt was jammed, and even if it hadn’t been, I couldn’t feel my legs. This is it. The thought crept up out of the chaos and panic, and I accepted it, and I braced myself for nonexistence.

I heard people shouting and feet pounding the pavement. They were drawing closer, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I closed my eyes and went limp. Out of the darkness of blessed unconsciousness came a masculine voice, thick with an accent at once familiar and foreign to me. “Remember me, couillon…” It wasn’t a question. It was a command.

***

My name is Myranda Avant. I was born in the middle of July, a summer child. There are so many pictures of me in my parents’ house that you can tell I’m kind of special to them. I think it’s because they were afraid they had lost me for good once.

My first word was “sock.” My dad, William, laughed when I said it because he thought I had actually said the f-word. This is a story I’ve heard often from my mother, Shelly, who thinks it’s the most hilarious shit in the world, and I think it sums up my life in a nutshell…not exactly what it seems.

I didn’t learn to walk properly until I was almost two years old because of an Achilles’ tendon problem, and I had surgery when I was around eighteen months old to fix it. I used to have a scar from the procedure. I don’t anymore.

I was raised in a close-knit family with two little brothers and an older sister—Josh and Greg and Tamara. We used to live in Louisiana, but my family moved to Gatlinburg, Tennessee around the time I would’ve been twelve years old. As an upper middle class family, we had always had everything we needed, the American dream.

I know this to be true because I have these things written in a journal I keep tucked within a busted seam of my mattress. In this book are the names of relatives, backgrounds of people I’ve never met but should know. The accumulation of a lifetime of memories I should have had, but I didn’t.

Because I’m not Myranda Avant. Myranda Avant was kidnapped out of her backyard in Louisiana eleven years ago. Three years ago I was found fleeing someone in a dark forest. I didn’t remember who was after me. I have no recollection of my past whatsoever.

When they found me, I was taken to a hospital and listed as Jane Doe. Then, this shining force of a woman—Shelly Avant—said I belonged to her. She showed up and told them she was going to take me with her, and she did. She believed in me, which made me believe that what she said was true.

She never asked me to remember. She gave me my story, and I became someone I wasn’t, but now the truth would come out, and I would have no one else to be.

At the precise moment I was getting shoved across a sleepy street in a terrible car accident, miles away the lifeless body of a ten-year-old girl was being discovered in a shallow grave in a marshy tract of land in Lafayette, Louisiana. It would take a few days to sort out who she was, but the news would inevitably make its way to William and Shelly Avant. She was Myranda Avant.

And just like that, I ceased to be me.

CHAPTER 2

RANDI

They say that when you die, you see your whole life flash before your eyes, but that wasn’t my experience. I saw neither my birth nor childhood, and the handful of years I had accumulated as a young adult weren’t weighty enough to create much of a flash.

I woke up in a solemn place where the whispers of nurses reminded me of pious nuns tiptoeing the halls of a monastery.  The sunlight was too sharp through the window at my bedside. My eyes had to adjust, blink by blink, filtering the details out of the blown out picture. A hospital room. Well, that was to be expected. The room was a gauzy white, foggy with the medication dripping through my IV.

Jarring scenes from the crash assaulted me—the scream of tires, the clash of metal, the other driver slung over the hood of his car like a fallen scarecrow. Groaning, I tried to move beneath the heavy weight of the thin sheet pinning me to the bed, but the pain came slow on the heels of the swivel of my head like an afterthought. It pounded in my temples, and I gasped and quickly closed my eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over me.

Cool fingers brushed my hand. “Lie still.”

“Mom?” I murmured. My voice was dry and raspy. I tried to swallow and felt like I hadn’t swallowed in a lifetime.

“It’s…Shelly,” she sniffed. “It’s Mommy.”

I closed my eyes. My arm drifted to my forehead and I held it there. I had messed up. Driving, singing, dancing and talking on the phone all at once. Someone had gotten hurt badly, and the man in the suit? Where had he come from? What had happened to him?

“Mom, I am so, so sorry. Did the other driver…did they make it?” She hesitated, and I knew. “No,” I whispered. “No!” Tears beaded along my eyelashes and rolled down my face.

“…No, honey…” She sounded sad, heartbroken. A sob tore from my lips, and she quietly shushed me, but I couldn’t stop crying.  “Shh, shh, we’ll deal with all that later, darling. Hush, now.” I covered my face with my hands as I wailed in despair at what I had done.

I knew she would try to make it seem like everything was okay, but it wasn’t.  Nothing was okay. “You must be so disappointed in me,” I said brokenly.

“Myran—” she clamped her lips shut before she could get out my whole name.  The door opened and closed softly, and Shelly looked over to see who had entered. I looked, too.  It was my dad. Shelly said quietly but sternly, “You have other things to worry about right now. The accident can wait.”

William Avant stood by the door with shaggy black hair waving wildly around his gaunt face. His dark grey eyes glinted sharply. His mouth was straight and thin as wire, and his chest heaved with every tight breath. Balled fists were held rigidly at his sides.

“I don’t understand. What other things do I have to worry about?” I looked from Shelly to my father as he quickly crossed the room and loomed menacingly over me. I shrank into myself.

“You thought we wouldn’t find out?” He said to Mom, “Look what I discovered in her room. She knew along. She’s been playing us for a fool, but I will not be made a fool of! This ends today!”

I cringed into the pillows.  “Dad, you’re scaring me.”

“Don’t you dare call me that!” he growled. I hitched in a breath.

“William!” Mom’s pale fingers close around Dad’s upper arm to hold him back. He easily shrugged her off.

“Dad, don’t.”  My sister, Tamara, rose. I hadn’t even seen her sitting in a chair at my bedside. “She’s just waking up. She’s not ready for this!”

“No, we’re just waking up! All of us! Here’s the evidence, in case either of you had any doubt. So, don’t tell me I’m overreacting!” Dad shook his head furiously and held up a book, brandishing it for both of them to see.

Then, his narrow shoulders slumped as he let the book drop to the floor, and I struggled to focus—damn, the drugs. What was going on here? My eyebrows came together, then winged skyward as I realized it was my secret journal that he had dropped. The one I used to keep track of Myranda Avant’s life story. Oh, no, I groaned inwardly.

“How could we not know?” he asked, sounding shattered. I felt all the strength drain out of me. The jig was up. He ran his shaking hands over his face and took a shaky breath, staring at me blankly. I shook my head, wishing I could fix this somehow.

“I can explain,” I whispered.

Shelly murmured, “We didn’t know because we didn’t want to know. We wanted it to be her.”

“You did,” he spat.  “You wanted it to be her. I wanted the truth. Did you have something to do with our daughter’s disappearance? Or, are you some fucking runaway who figured you could live off of us? Is that it? Boy, we must’ve seemed like one helluva a meal ticket to you!”

The accusations dug deep, and I flinched with every one of them, but I knew he was only saying these things because he was hurting. I had caused this pain; it was all my fault. “N-no,” I stammered.  “I swear it wasn’t like that!” I drew the covers up to my chin, wishing I could pull them over my head and make the confrontation disappear.

“You’re lying!” William Avant grabbed my wrist and effortlessly lifted me up out of the bed. The sheet fluttered to the floor, a poor shield. I was a bag of bones that he shook until everything in me rattled while I sobbed. A part of me felt like I deserved to be manhandled. The other part wondered if he was angry enough to seriously hurt me. Things were escalating out of control.

“Mommy! Daddy, please…” I sobbed. It was the wrong thing to say. I knew it when his eyes turned murderous, and he grabbed my throat. “Ack!” I gagged. Eyes wide with fear.

Shelly cried out, “What are you doing? What are you doing?! Don’t hurt her! Billie, you can’t do this!”

“Who are you?!” He shouted. My teeth clacked together painfully. Everything in me hurt. The white room dimmed.

“You’re hurting me!” I cried. Tears sprang to my eyes. “Please…” If he didn’t stop, I was afraid I would pass out. Never in a million years had I imagined the man I called ‘father’ would do something like this to me. Two nurses burst into the hospital room at the noise, but one of them ran right back out when she saw what was happening. The other one tried to break up the altercation.

“Goddamnit, I will know!” William threatened. “You lying little—tell me who you are!”

“I. Don’t. KNOW!” I screamed shrilly.

“Dad, stop!” Tamara snatched me from his grasp, a task made easier by the fact he viciously flung me away at the same time. Tamara wrapped her willowy arms around me as I fell to the floor, and Mom pulled dad away.  Orderlies flooded into the room. Shelly snatched up the journal and helped them take William out, and I wondered if that would be the last time I ever saw them again. Was that to be our goodbye, then?

“Are you alright? Are you okay?” the nurse kept asking me. I heaved a terrified breath, clinging to Tamara, as I peered over her shoulder at my used-to-be parents leaving the room. William Avant’s voice rang out in my ears over and over. Who are you? Who are you?

CHAPTER 3

ISAAC

There were only two times when I felt at peace: When sleeping and after a good hunt, and I never slept. I threw the door of the sleek black vintage Cadillac open and stepped out into the empty parking lot. The River Styx Tattoos and Piercings sign lit up the night, the only open establishment in Lafayette at this late hour, middle of the work week.

I owned the place, as well as a nightclub off the beaten path where the local kids came to raise hell. I was something of a hell raiser, myself, so I could relate to them. But there should’ve been some cane being raised in my lot tonight, and there wasn’t, which meant something was up.

“When the cat is away,” I murmured, glancing around. There were bikers in the shadows at the edge of the parking lot giving me a hard stare as I strolled to the tinted black glass doors of the tattoo parlor, like they were hunting trouble. An ordinary man might’ve missed them, but I could smell them from a mile away.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” I called out. In response, one of them gunned their engine. I chuckled, unamused. “Y’all have got about five minutes—and, I’m being generous, now!—to ride your mangy asses off of my property…or you’re gonna need some help limping off.”

As I stretched my tattooed arms out at my sides and casually wriggled my clawed fingers, I flexed my muscles in the red silk quarter-length sleeves. No cheap leather for me, no. Only the finest. A gold watch caught the streetlamp, a gold signet ring on my pinkie. A black pistol glinted in the front waistband of my black slacks. Gave me a hard edge I felt contrasted nicely with my refinement. I smiled. They didn’t want to ride this train.

As I ambled into the shop, I announced, “Lads and lassies, the master’s home.”

“Where’ve you been, stranger?” Azalea Blue, with cerulean hair and a red-lipped smile, beamed at me from across the room.

“Oh, you know me, Azalea. Prowling,” I said with a grin. My sharp nails raked my beard as I scratched my face and peeped out the window at the bikers. “How long they been out there?”

“Past three nights,” Scion said uncomfortably. I glanced over at the buff Native American who was nonchalantly flipping through a Rolling Stones magazine. His vest hung open to reveal a glistening, tattooed chest and more muscles than a bear. I chuckled at his showboating. Fucking lover boy. If the ladies had a favorite, it was Scion.

Blackwork was his specialty. Azalea did new school. I was the master of the needle—body mod and piercings.  We had done ink on more bodies than I could count as one of the most popular destinations in the South for true tattoo lovers who wanted genuine artistry, but there weren’t any customers in my shop, and it looked like it had been that way for hours.

“Past three nights? And, y’all didn’t call me? Jesus,” I swore.  “They’re scaring off my money.”

Scion lifted a slender black eyebrow and side-eyed me. “That’s the least of your billionaire problems. We got trouble coming.”

“Your accounting is way off, my good man, but I’m happy to see you’re keeping up with my coinage. Why the blamed hell are those Wolves at my doorstep?” I paced away from the window and plopped down on the leather sofa in the waiting area as I surveyed my establishment.

Pumpkin orange walls gave it a festive air, in my opinion. I cocked my head to the side to see if I still liked it as much as I had last week when I’d had the place redone. I grew bored easily—the bane of my existence—but at least the green chairs popped against the bright background. The walls were covered in the artwork of the six tattooists I employed.

These two and myself were the night crew. I wondered how the day crew had fared, and if my nemeses, the Wolves biker gang, had been making diurnal visits as well. “Ugh, I am sick to death of dogs,” I muttered testily. I squeezed the bridge of my nose and dropped my head, trying to stop shaking. I was a bundle of nerves. What I wanted to do more than play the Southern gentleman was to rip something apart. My hands trembled with the need, but I would not let my disorder get the best of my civility. I was…

“You mean, you really haven’t heard?” Scion sat forward.

…Hungry. It had been a bad hunt. These days it was always a bad hunt.

“Must’ve been far from TVs,” Azalea surmised, knowing damn well I hadn’t been around a fucking television set. I glared at her. She rose from her tattooing chair to pop on the flat screen mounted on the wall behind her.

“I’m not in the mood for mysteries.” I glanced at the screen to see what my two friends were talking about. It was on the news. “Ah! ‘Mystery solved on remains of child discovered in Lafayette, Louisiana.’  Well, shit. Can somebody tell me what the fuck that has to do with the biker gang out there? Or, are you two trying to make me pitch a fit?”

I was losing patience. They were used to it, though. Scion growled and Azalea laughed, waving off my statement with a flip of her hand. “Now, don’t take your foul mood out on us, Isaac. Just keep watching,” she said.

Grumbling, I ran my fingers through my slick chestnut coiffure and eyed the television with a sullen expression until the newscaster returned and started talking about the body of a slain girl, presumably killed by wildlife. I perked up at the word “wildlife.” My gaze flew to Scion and Azalea as my brow furrowed with understanding and anger. They had finally found her.

Scion rose from his chair and stretched to his full, imposing six and a half feet tall. “You know what this means, right?”

I didn’t want to think about the rogue one of ours who had committed this atrocious act, the murder of an innocent. “He’s been handled,” I said curtly. I could still hear her screams as I had raced in vain to her rescue. I closed my eyes and exhaled harshly. “Richard St. Amant will not be returning here if he knows what’s good for him.”

The door to the parlor eased open. “Are you sure? Because I can’t bank on a maybe.” I glanced up sharply as a woman I hadn’t seen in almost a century glided into the room with an entourage of five guards behind her. I saw through the open door three more of the vampire elite guard waiting outside and heard motorcycles roar in the night as the biker gang got the hell off of my land.

“Angel Langdell?” I said in surprise. Her alabaster skin fairly glowed in the fluorescent light of the shop, and her unearthly beauty could tumble the heavens with its glory. I laughed with genuine pleasure at the sight of my old friend, now sovereignty, and with agility and grace, I leapt to my feet and clasped her slender white hand in mine, delivering a satin kiss to her throbbing pulse.

She smelled divine, but the floral mélange of life essence and perfume was almost too much for me. I had a headache. “My dear, to what do I owe the pleasure of a visit from the Queen of the Vampires, herself?” I asked, strained.

“Isaac Bertrand,” she said silkily. “It’s been too long.”

Azalea curtsied low and Scion bowed respectfully as she coasted past, pulling me by the hand back to the sofa. They were younger vampires. Scion was only a century or so old, and Azalea was less than a century, new enough to be in awe of the queen. Angel and I went back a few lifetimes. So, when she came calling instead of using the handy technology of this era to shoot me a text message or inbox, it had to be serious, and it likely had to do with that ridiculous mess on the news.

I clutched my chest overdramatically and teasingly replied, “Angel, darling, I have everything under control. You had no need to make this unnecessary trip. You wound me, you really do.” Angel settled on the couch beside me.

“It wasn’t too much of a strain. One of the perks of being queen is acquiring new ways of getting around. Like teleportation.” She grinned and her white teeth sparkled.

“I can see that coming in handy,” I acknowledged. Unfastening the cuff of her blouse, she rolled up the sleeve and presented me with her arm. “What’s this?”

“Mm? Oh, you look parched. For what we need to discuss, I need you clearheaded.”

“I am.”

“Don’t lie to me, Bertrand. You were never any good at it, and I know you’ve been rationing your handouts from that silly Arts Council woman. How many times do I have to tell you, we don’t do charity? It’s why the city would be a better place for you, where you can hunt without fear of being caught. Now, come on. I haven’t got all night.”

She emitted an inviting moan as I reluctantly closed a hand around her fine arm and cautiously brought her wrist to my quivering lips. As I exhaled, the warm breath fluttered against her milky skin, but I held myself in check.  “I must warn you, it’s been a while,” I murmured.

“Oh, shut up and eat,” she whispered seductively.  Inhaling the dizzying aroma of her blood rushing through her veins, an almost orgasmic thrill flowed through me. She smiled, knowing the hunger, understanding it. I had never let Azalea and Scion experience the true magnitude of self-deprivation. I was their provider, and they were my friends. If anyone came up short, it was me. And, so, here we were.

Nearly mad with bloodlust, my teeth sank into the receptive flesh that broke easily. The crimson gush that filled my mouth was the sweetest ambrosia, but my empty stomach clenched with a fierce cramp, as always happened when one of my kind went too long hungry.  “Ah!” I growled as I put her wrist back to my mouth and kept drinking.

“That’s it,” she cooed gently. Angel smoothed my hair back from my sweaty forehead. My blazing eyes met hers, and I wanted to stop myself, but I couldn’t. She winced, but nodded. “Shhh…Have at it,” she whispered.

It took everything in me to drink only enough and to curb my enthusiasm before draining her of her precious resources. If there was one thing that I knew, it was Angel’s self-preservation skills. She would kill me before I ever had the chance to accidentally do her in. I forced myself to pull away. Gasping, I rubbed my forearm across my bloody lips.

“Ever the gentleman, ma cherie,” she drawled with a small smile. “You had better embrace the demon that you are, or your demons will be your undoing.”

I smiled at her and my fangs were red-tipped and wicked with promises only morality could abate. “Now, see, that is where you have me mistaken, my darling. Monsieur Isaac Bertrand doesn’t have demons. I am something altogether other lately, so allow me to keep my mask of gentility in place. You’ll like me better this way.”

She eyed me speculatively and changed the subject. “You realize that with the discovery of that dead girl, the cops will come calling any day now. I sincerely doubt your idiotic mistake thought to cover his tracks well, and those tracks lead right back to this tattoo parlor, modern forensics being what it is and all that.”

The rogue vampire had worked for me for years, but he wasn’t my mistake. “I don’t know who created him, but I don’t consider him my problem anymore. This is my territory, and he is aware that he isn’t welcome here anymore. The point was, I guess you could say, driven home the last we spoke.”

“You killed him?” she asked coolly. I chuckled deeply.

“Have you ever known me to be dense? I know the rules, Angel. The vampire code forbids us to kill one of our own.”

“Yes, but I figured you imagined our former connection would shield you from the council.”

“Would it have?” Our former connection being that we had been lovers once, a long time ago. But that was a different lifetime, and I was under no illusions about Angel’s sentimentality; she had none.

She casually lifted her shoulders in response. “I’ve come to tell you and your little band of darlings to return with me to the city. We have numbers there. You will be protected.”

“As I said,” I repeated firmly, “Richard has been taken care of.”

“All the same, I’d prefer your sect get out of town for a while, like a few centuries. I’ve come asking. If I have to come again and make demands next time, I won’t be so polite.”

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