Vampire Crush Page 24

"You can stop," he says and then leans forward to tear it back out of my hands. "Do you see?"

"See what?"

"I cannot influence you," he says. "I always assumed that 'immune' meant only that the child was mortal in birth, but now I see the evidence was there all along. I can sense your thoughts flickering, but I cannot grasp them."

I'm relieved that this is his big revelation. Frankly, exceptions to their powers ranks right up there with miracle babies on the list of things that vampires should stop being so surprised about.

"Sorry to burst your bubble, but James taught me how to prevent you from butting in."

For a second, his triumphant expression wavers, but then he doggedly shakes his head. "No. That first night, in the woods, I tried to use my sway over you and it did not work. You wiggled when I bit you."

It's on the tip of my tongue to tell him that James hears more than enough of my thoughts, but I stop, partly because thoughts of James will make me lose my focus and partly because I make the mistake of meeting Vlad's eyes. They are steel gray and glittering with single-minded purpose. He's pursued this for almost half a decade; no matter what I say, he will twist it around to fit his theory. Even if I do manage to convince him that I'm not the one he wants, he will start his search again, and I'll be back to lurking in locker rooms trying to predict his next target. Or dead.

"Maybe it is me," I lie, "but like Neville said, you have to be one of the original nine families."

"Neville underestimates me if he thinks that I was not aware of that," Vlad snaps, and then just as suddenly, stands and walks to the bookcase. "Do you know how old I am?" he asks, slipping out one of my father's historical tomes and idly paging through it. "One hundred and eight. I grew up in - "

"Romania," I say.

"Why does everyone always assume that?" he asks, genuinely perturbed as he shoves the book back onto the shelf. "I am Russian. I have been speaking glorious Russian endearments to you." He closes his eyes and touches the bridge of his nose, what I'm coming to understand is the vampire equivalent of taking a calming breath. When he opens them, he asks, "Do you want to know why I became a vampire?"

Latent egomaniacal tendencies is my guess, but I just shake my head.

"My family had fallen, along with the czar, during the revolution. Everything, everything we were, was stripped in an instant and we were forced to throw ourselves on the mercy of relatives who we would not even have let in our door a year earlier," he sneers. "But then . . . then came this creature who offered a chance to be above all that. Power, strength, eternity, all in one bite. Little did I know that in the society of the vampires she was nothing more than a parasite. I started my eternal life even lower than my mortal one," he says, turning to face me with his eyes lit up with more pure emotion than I have ever seen him show. "But you . . . you are my way back. I have dedicated every day of the past forty-four years to restoring you to them. To restoring me. I will not give up now."

Suddenly, he is kneeling in front of me, gripping my fingers and holding on tight when I try to pull away.

"I have come to admire many things about you, Sophochka," he says. "Your unique sense of what should be worn and when. Your eccentric wit. Your relentless curiosity, and your . . ." He blinks as though he's come up blank. ". . . your pluck. Is that the right word? I do not know the contemporary phrase. Nevertheless, I would be honored if you would become my vampire wife."

For a second I can only gape, and then I am yelling, all thoughts of diplomacy disappearing in a vortex of shock.

"Are you insane?" I scream, scrambling over the back of the couch in my effort to get away from him. My leg catches on the way over, and I fall, banging my knee against the hardwood floor. The next thing I know he is beside me, extending a gentlemanly hand and chiding me for crawling around on the floor during such an important moment.

"But why?" I ask when I can finally form words again.

He does everything but roll his eyes to show his impatience. "You are Mervaux. And since you are of greater rank, once we marry I will be Mervaux as well." He pauses. "Also because of the previous attributes I mentioned. Well, what is your answer?"

"No," I say. "No. Never. Nyet."

My vehemence throws him off for a second, but not much longer. "You are being coy. You should be grateful that I came here to pull you out of obscurity. Not many at your high school even know who you are."

"I like it that way."

He chuckles until he sees that I am serious. "No one likes it that way. Come now, you must agree, or it will not be valid," he insists. "I will wait here and ask your father for your hand. Will he be long?"

The thought of Vlad having any contact with my parents, of edging any further into my world, makes my heart seize in terror. He is playing nice now, but who knows how long it will be before his patience thins. I need to get him out of my house; I need space to plan.

Doing my best not to wobble, I get to my feet. "I need time," I stall.

"Time? What would you possibly need to consider? I am offering you an eternity of prestige."

"You tried to kill me."

"I was not aware of who you were," he says as though I am being childish, but when he sees that this is not enough to make me swoon, adds, "I understand your surprise and hesitation, dorogaya, I do. I have been remiss in not courting you with more . . . delicacy. I will tell you what - I will make a few circuits around the neighborhood, and when I return you may give me your agreement."

"A month," I say, and then immediately wish that I had said a century. Or an eon. Or a googol-eon.

Vlad shakes his head. "This has taken far longer than I expected already. I had assumed that your vampire lineage would raise you above your human peers, which is why I began with your sister. Little did I know you would be a l - " He stops, reevaluating his word choice. "A diamond in the rough. No, I will give you a day to understand that I am not someone to fear."

My tenuous grip on sanity starts to crumble. A day is not enough time. I'm so wrapped up in my thoughts that it takes a moment before I register the sound of Marcie's minivan bouncing into the driveway and her shout at Caroline to come back and help her carry in all the diet soda that she made her buy. This is it. Everything's going to collide and there's no way to stop it from spiraling out of control. I look up, expecting to find him watching me with a triumphant look, but instead he's watching the door with an unadulterated terror that almost mirrors my own.

"I need your answer now," he snaps. "Your sister has been sending me letters, endless letters asking me to tell her what went wrong in our relationship."

"A week," I say quickly. "Give me a week."

He hesitates. Footsteps reverberate up the wooden porch steps.

"A week," I insist.

"Agreed," he says. "Now, quick, point me to the back entrance. She cannot find me here. I have told her we are different people a thousand times."

"A week without you coming to see me," I clarify as we hear the jingle of keys in the lock.

"Fine!" he yells. "Where is the exit?"

I point to the room behind me. And then with a whoosh and the sound of a chair toppling in the dining room, he's finally out of my house.

When Caroline bangs into the foyer, she's clutching a twelve-pack of diet root beer. "Why is there a silver Hummer parked on the street?" she says excitedly, ripping the iPod buds out of her ears. "Seriously, what is wrong with you? You're standing in the middle of the room like you're cataclysmic or something."

"I just woke up," I say, but it sounds hollow even to me.

"Right, okay, whatever," Caroline says, looking around the room. "Is Vlad here?"

The eagerness in her voice is only a hard-edged reminder of what I am dealing with, how hard it will be to keep everyone safe. "Why would Vlad be here?" I say as casually as I can.

"I thought maybe he had gotten my note and - "

"He's not here, Caroline."

"Oh," she says, her hope visibly deflating. "Anyway, warning - Mom was out jogging this morning, and she swears that she saw a boy who looked like James Hallowell going next door. I tried to tell her she was crazy, but I'm pretty sure she suspects. If I were you, I'd pretend you don't know anything."

Joy bursts through the catatonia, and I grab Caroline by the shoulders. "James? James is next door?"

"Good. Act exactly like that!" she calls out behind me as I run out the back door and across the yard.

Chapter Fifteen

I bang on James's back door, and then, when that fails to make it open, kick it at the same time. It's no longer a knock, it's a cacophony, and I keep it up until the door finally swings inward.

"What - ," James begins, but he stops when I hug him like someone they just let out of the asylum for hugging maniacs, but only because they were facing overcrowding.

"You're alive," I say into his neck.

"I think you're strangling me."

"You don't breathe."

"Good point." After a moment's hesitation, he wraps his arms around my back and slips his thumbs into the belt loops at my waist. It feels familiar and intimate and I like it. I allow myself a few moments to bask in this joy before I have to face the new situation with Vlad.

James pulls back and frowns. "What situation with - ," he starts to ask, but I punch him on the shoulder.

"Why didn't you let me know that you were fine?"

"I tried!"


"I threw rocks at your window as soon as we made it back."

"We?" I ask just as I spot Violet in the room behind, dwarfed by an oversized T-shirt and gray sweatpants that are rolled up at the cuffs to expose their fuzzy underbelly. Her hair is still pulled back, but a few loose tendrils curl around her ears. A floral sheet is draped over the end of the banister.

"Marisabel's here too," James says quickly.

"And that makes this . . . better?"

His eyes widen. "No! I mean, Marisabel and Neville." He runs a hand through his hair. "I probably should have said him first."

"You didn't tell me you were having a slumber party," I say, but Violet bounces over before he can respond.

"Oh no, it is nothing as fun as that," she says. "Vlad kicked us out and ruined the dress I made."

"Vlad tried to kill us, Violet," he says.

"Well, yes, that too. Come on - we are discussing our next step in the salon," she says, grabbing my hand and dragging me behind her.

James has added a few things to the living room since I first peeked through the window that first day of school, most of which I've seen gracing the neighborhood curbs this past month: an orange-and-brown plaid couch that could only have come from the seventies, a small television that still has a VHS slot, and an uneven coffee table that's only standing because there's a thick copy of The Wall Street Journal beneath one leg. What do you know - a vampire really did steal my dad's paper.

I take a seat beside a despondent-looking Marisabel. She's alternating between staring into space and idly trying to pick out the tangles at her shoulders.

"What were we talking about?" James says, suddenly sounding very weary.

"I would like the largest room," Marisabel says. "Violet claims that she should have it because there are purple curtains, but I saw it first."

"You did not," Violet says. "And I still do not see why you do not want the bedroom with the green paper, because it matches your eyes."

They both look at James, who is rubbing his own eyes in frustration. "I told you both that I don't care who has the master bedroom; you're not going to be sleeping in it anyway. And this is just temporary until you find out where to go."

Marisabel's face crumples. "But I don't have anywhere to go!"

Violet shoots him a dirty look before moving to pat Marisabel's knee. "You can be very insensitive at times," she tells James. "Do you know about this aspect of yourself?"

Before James can defend himself, Neville stands. He's been sitting against the wall looking guilty, but now his face looks determined. "James may be insensitive, but he is right. Now is not the time for discussing bedroom arrangements. We barely managed to escape with our lives last night, and I for one do not believe that the danger has passed. He might very well be coming for us, and we need to be ready; we need to be prepared; we need to be at full streng. . . " He trails off when he sees that I've raised my hand. "Yes? Sophie?"

"I don't think you're Vlad's number-one concern," I begin, but then catch sight of Marisabel's face. Ever since we stopped talking about bedrooms, she's done nothing but sniffle. The fact that Vlad has proposed to someone else a day after they ended a sixty-year relationship and tried to kill her might be the final stake to the heart. While Violet continues to pat her consolingly, I look at James and Neville. "Can we talk somewhere else?"

"We can go to my room," James says, his face worried. "Just to be safe."

As we wind past the dining room on our way upstairs, I notice that the wild floral wallpaper hasn't changed - the last time I stood in that room was when we said adios to the Hallowells over chips and dip. Marcie made a heartfelt toast while I stood in a corner and tried to blend into the jungle of mauve flowers, hoping no one - especially James - noticed how miserable it was making me. But everything else is different. The hallways are eggshell blue instead of the old hunter green, and the stairs beneath my feet have been varnished to a different woody hue.

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