"Oof." Vanda landed on the floor of her apartment with Phil sprawled beside her.
He rose to his knees. "Are you all right?"
"Yes." Maybe not. Her face felt terribly hot. But at least they hadn't been burned to a crisp.
"There you are! Thank God!" Pamela rushed toward them and helped Vanda to her feet.
"We were afraid you hadn't made it." Cora Lee's eyes widened. "Land sakes."
Vanda touched a burning hot cheek. "Is it that bad?"
"No, no," Pamela and Cora Lee said quickly, then exchanged looks.
Great. Vanda ran a hand through her hair and felt the singed ends. For once, she was glad she couldn't see herself in a mirror. But it was embarrassing for Phil to see her this way. Luckily, he wasn't looking at her. He'd hurried straight to the big plate-glass window, where he was opening the aluminum shutters.
Vanda joined him there and saw the smoke billowing up from the club two blocks away. Her club. Sirens sounded in the distance. A fire truck raced down the street below them, its lights flashing and horn blaring.
Her club was gone. All her dreams of an independent life gone up in smoke.
"Are you in much pain?" Phil asked softly.
Her throat felt tight, tense. "Yes."
"Your skin will heal during your death-sleep."
Her vision blurred with tears. "But not my heart."
He touched her shoulder. "You shouldn't stand here by the window."
"I have to see." She could at least be close to her club as it burned down to nothing. Along with her dreams.
"Vanda, you can't afford to be seen." He pulled her away from the window. "And we shouldn't stay here long. If they realize you weren't killed in the explosion, they'll come here looking for you. But for now, they probably assume that you're dead."
"Who are they?" She had one last glimpse of the column of smoke before Phil closed the shutters.
"I'm betting on Corky." Cora Lee removed a big bottle of warmed-up Chocolood from the microwave.
"I think it's Max the Mega Member." Pamela set out three cups and saucers on the kitchen counter. "But it could be any of a hundred people you've managed to piss off over the years."
"I haven't pissed off hundreds." Vanda thought back to make sure that was true.
"I'll explain," Phil began. "We got some information from the prisoner Angus caught last night."
"Oh, right." Cora Lee poured Chocolood into the three cups, then handed one to Vanda. "Darcy told us about that. She and Austin took him to Romatech."
Vanda settled on the couch and took a sip of the hot blood and chocolate mixture. Her friends sat across from her in two easy chairs.
Phil paced about the room. "The prisoner told us that Casimir has a hit list—Vamps who took part in what the Malcontents call the Massacre at DVN. He wants to avenge the death of his friend Jedrek Janow."
Vanda winced. Her friends Ian and Toni had killed Jedrek Janow. She set her cup and saucer down on the coffee table. "Are Ian and Toni on the list?"
"They're at the top," Phil admitted. "But as long as they remain hidden on their honeymoon, they should be safe."
Cora Lee sipped her Chocolood. "Who else is on the hit list?"
"Jack, Zoltan, Dougal, Phineas." Phil looked at Vanda. "You."
She gulped. "Casimir wants me dead? Why? I didn't hurt anyone at DVN. I never even went inside."
"That's true," Pamela insisted. "Vanda was only there for moral support."
"Apparently, Casimir knows about Jedrek's attempts to kill Vanda in the past," Phil said. "He's trying to finish the job, perhaps to honor his friend's memory."
Vanda clenched her hands together. Casimir had thousands of followers. Thousands of vampires who were eager to do his bidding. Panic bubbled inside her, growing and threatening to overwhelm her completely. She'd been hunted before. Jedrek and his wolves had hounded her for over a year. It had been terrifying, but at least there had only been a half dozen of them. Now there could be thousands…and no place to run. No place to hide.
Phil touched her shoulder, and she jumped.
"It's okay." He rubbed her shoulder. "They'll think you were killed in the explosion. We'll just keep you hidden—"
"I can't hide for centuries!" Vanda jumped to her feet and paced across the room.
"Oh dear." Pamela stood and dug a cell phone from her pants' pocket. "This is horrid, simply horrid."
"Are you calling for help?" Cora Lee asked.
"I'm seeing if Princess Joanna is still awake in London." Pamela punched in a number. "I'm feeling a little homesick for jolly ol' England."
Vanda strode toward her. "You're running out on me?"
"No offense, dear, but you're not the safest person to hang out with—Oh, Joanna! How are you? Would you mind terribly if I came for a visit?"
"I want to go, too." Cora Lee rose to her feet. "I've always had a hankerin' to see England."
"Did you hear that, Joanna?" Pamela asked. "Yes, there'll be two of us…Oh, I quite agree. It'll be a lovely holiday."
"I can't believe you're abandoning me!" Vanda yelled.
"One moment, please." Pamela pressed the cell phone to her chest. "Vanda, you know we love you, but there's simply no point in our staying. We'll just get in the way."
"That's true, actually," Phil said. "It's easier for me to protect one than three. And you wouldn't want your friends to be in danger."
Vanda glared at him. Dammit, he was right. She didn't want Pamela or Cora Lee in danger. But this hurt. She'd expected a little more loyalty from her friends.
"The club is gone, too," Cora Lee added. "You don't need us now."
Vanda's heart squeezed in her chest. Yes, her club was gone, but Cora Lee mentioned it like it was no more important than losing a broken plate. Didn't they realize it was her life? It was her great accomplishment. It was her freedom, her independence, her worth, her security. And she'd lost it. "Go ahead, then, and go! Who needs you?"
Pamela winced. "I'm afraid we're not as brave as you."
Cora Lee's bottom lip quivered. "I always wanted to be brave, but I'm too scared."
Vanda turned away to keep them from seeing the tears in her eyes. She'd lost the club. She was losing her friends.
"Phil," Pamela whispered. "Promise us you'll take care of her."
"I will. You have my word."
"God be with you, Vanda," Pamela said.
She glanced back just in time to see both Cora Lee and Pamela lean toward the cell phone to concentrate on Joanna's voice. Then they vanished.
She collapsed on the couch. Her club gone. Her friends gone. The nightmare had started again. The nightmare where she lost everyone she loved, and the bad guys hunted her down to kill her.
A clattering noise drew her attention. Phil had taken all the cups and saucers to the kitchen. A sudden realization hit her. She wasn't alone. Phil was with her. He'd sworn to protect her. Her heart expanded with tenderness and warmth.
Then another realization struck her, and her chest clenched tight. Karl had protected her, too, and it had cost him his life.
She couldn't do this to Phil. With a pang that reverberated through her entire body, she knew for certain that she loved him. And she couldn't let anything happen to him.
"You—" She cleared her throat. "You don't have to clean up after us."
"Actually, I do." He loaded the rinsed dishes into the dishwasher. "We can't leave any signs that you were here. And we need to leave soon. If they decide to verify your death, they'll come here first."
She needed a place to hide. But where? She'd spent most of her time in America safely sequestered in a harem in New York City. She couldn't hide in London with her ex-harem friends without putting them at risk. She couldn't hide in Texas with Maggie without endangering her and her family. "You don't think the townhouse is safe?"
"No." Phil walked toward her. "The Malcontents know about it. It has a good alarm system, but that doesn't stop them from invading."
"All the Romatechs are in danger." Phil retrieved a cell phone from his pocket. "Howard has a cabin in the Adirondacks. I've been there a few times for…hunting trips. I'll call, and the answering machine will pick up. Then you can focus on Howard's recorded message and teleport us there. Okay?"
Phil paused in the middle of punching the number. "What?"
Vanda stood. "I'm not going with you."
His eyes narrowed. "I'm not giving you any choice."
She lifted her chin. "I'm the one doing the teleporting. I can go wherever I please. On my own."
He stepped toward her. "Where are you going?"
She shrugged. "I…know the Carpathian Mountains really well."
"You plan to hide in caves? Sounds comfy."
"Once I'm in my death-sleep, a dirt floor isn't any different than a soft mattress."
He moved closer. "And who will guard you during the day?"
"No one." She tightened the whip around her waist. "I survived like that before. I can do it again."
His jaw shifted as he ground his teeth. "You were alone before. You are not alone now."
"I was alone because Karl died protecting me. I'm not going to let that happen to you."
"It won't happen. I'm a hell of a lot tougher than Karl."
"You never even knew him—"
"I know enough! And I will not allow you to go through this alone."
"You don't have a choice." She searched her psychic memory for a cave in the Carpathians.
He grabbed her by the shoulders. "Don't do it. It could be daylight there."
Damn. He might be right. Teleporting to the east was a very risky business. "It won't be daylight in the cave."
"How long has it been since you were there? Over fifty years? The cave could have changed. You could end up teleporting into solid rock."
She swallowed hard.
"You're teleporting to the cabin and taking me with you." He punched in the number. "End of discussion."
She glared at him. "Are you always so overbearing?"
"When it comes to your safety, yes." He held her tight and lifted the phone to her ear. "Do it."
She concentrated on the recorded message, and in a few seconds they materialized in a dark room. Phil released her then, and pocketed his cell phone. She glimpsed brown log walls and the gray stones of a huge fireplace. Moonlight filtered through windows and glinted off…eyeballs.
She gasped, then spun around, looking for Phil. He was moving through the kitchen to the back door. "Phil?"
"Right here." He flipped on the lights.
She turned back to the eyeballs. The head of a deer was mounted on the wall. A giant moose head hung over the fireplace. And some sort of wild pig with tusks hung over the bookcase. "There are dead animals on the walls."
"This is a hunting cabin."
She shuddered. "They're looking at me." And saying, you're next. "I'm surprised you don't have a bearskin rug on the floor."
He winced. "Howard wouldn't go for that. And they're not looking at you. Those eyeballs are glass." He opened the fridge and peered inside.
"I guess you and Howard killed them?"
"Yeah." He set a bottle of beer on the counter and unscrewed the top. "We're…hunters."
She wrapped her arms around herself. She'd been a hunter once, too. She'd started off using her teleportation skills to hunt for her father and brothers in the prison camps. But then she'd seen the hideous cruelty, and something had snapped. Instead of hunting for those she loved, she hunted for those she hated. Prison guards, Nazis. A vampire had to feed every night, so why not do it and rid the world of monsters at the same time?
But Jedrek Janow had discovered her scheme, and she had become the hunted one.
She perched on the arm of a brown leather couch. "I'm a little sensitive about being hunted."
"You're safe here." Phil took a drink. "Only Howard, Connor, and I know about this place."
"That's good." She looked around.
On the back of the couch lay a hand-woven blanket with a Native American design. The couch faced the fireplace, with a coffee table scarred and imprinted with drink rings. An old recliner and floor lamp rested close to the bookcase.
A staircase led up to a loft. She could see several beds up there, all covered with colorful quilts.
Phil was still in the kitchen, sipping his beer. The heat from the explosion must have made him thirsty. Close by, a wooden dinette table and chairs sat on a braided rug.
She took a deep breath and tried to convince herself she was really safe. "Is there any synthetic blood in the fridge?"
"No. Are you hungry?"
"Not now, but I usually have a snack before dawn, and I'll be very hungry when I wake up."
"I'll arrange a delivery when I report in to Connor. I need to make sure Phineas got back to Romatech all right."
She wondered if Phil was going to be in trouble for running off with her instead of staying at Romatech. "Where should I sleep? Is there a basement?"
"There is, but it has windows." He opened a door underneath the staircase. "When Connor comes here, he sleeps in the closet."
Phil smiled and returned to the kitchen. He took a flashlight from a cabinet. "I'll check the perimeter. Make yourself at home." He went out the back door.
With a groan, she glanced at the dead deer. "Life sucks, huh?"
She checked the bolt on the front door. A Malcontent could just teleport inside to kill her, but at least the bolted door would stop any deer or moose relatives intent on revenge.
The closet under the staircase was surprisingly roomy. It was bare except for a row of shelves at one end. She pulled a blanket and quilt off a shelf and spread them on the wooden floor. Then she wandered through the small kitchen. Some clean clothes were stacked on top of the dryer. Flannel pajama pants, T-shirts, a navy terry-cloth bathrobe.
A nearby door opened onto a small bathroom. She grabbed the bathrobe and locked herself inside. She glanced at the mirror above the vanity. Nothing. The only thing she could see reflected was the claw-footed old bathtub behind her. She kicked her boots off. Good Lord, she hated mirrors. They made her feel like…nothing. Small and worthless.
I think, therefore I am, she reminded herself. She had feelings, hopes, and dreams, just like a live person.
But her dreams had just been crushed. Her eyes misted with unshed tears.
She untied her whip and slipped out of her catsuit. While the tub filled with hot water, she rinsed out her underwear and bra in the sink. She hung them to dry on the towel bar.
She settled in the deep tub, letting the hot water seep into her cold bones. She closed her eyes, hoping to relax, but her mind filled with a vision of smoke and fire.
She'd loved that club. She'd designed it, furnished it, decorated it. She'd auditioned the dancers and hired the waiters. It had been her refuge from the cruel world. A place where she controlled everything, and everyone did as she commanded. It was a sanctuary where she never had to feel small and never had to endure the pain from her past again.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. What was she going to do now? Spend the rest of eternity hiding, quaking in fear, with nothing to do but relive the horrors of her past?
She shampooed her singed hair, then ducked under the water to rinse it off. Her face burned. That was her fault. She shouldn't have waited so long to teleport herself and Phil away from danger. But she hadn't quite believed his story about the bomb. How on earth could he have known it was in her file cabinet?
She climbed from the tub, dried off, and put on the terry-cloth robe. It was obviously made for a man. The shoulder seams hung halfway to her elbows, and the sleeves fell past her fingertips. She rolled up the sleeves, belted it tight around her waist. The robe was designed for a man's broad chest, so she flipped the collar inward to help cover her cleavage.
She grabbed her whip and padded into the kitchen. The lights had been turned off, and a big fire blazed in the hearth. She dropped the whip on the coffee table. Was Phil trying to make the place look romantic? Candles flickered on the mantelpiece. And the moose that had been overhead was now gone. She whirled around. The deer and wild pig were gone, too.
A door creaked open, and she spotted Phil at the top landing of stairs that led down into the basement. He switched a light off, then stepped into the main room.
He smiled, his blue eyes gleaming as he looked her over.
Her knees grew weak, but she covered it by sitting suddenly on the couch. She ran a hand through her short, wet hair. "What happened to the animal heads?"
"I moved them to the basement. I figured you wouldn't mind."
"No." She curled her feet underneath her on the couch and adjusted the bathrobe to make sure she was covered.
He moved closer, still looking at her and still smiling. "I checked the perimeter. We're in danger from two vicious-looking raccoons living under a wheelbarrow." His gaze shifted to the coffee table. "Thank God you have your whip."
She knew he was trying to lighten the mood, but the few tears she'd shed in the bathtub had only been the tip of what felt like a giant iceberg in her chest. She turned her head away so he wouldn't see the tears in her eyes.
"I called Connor to let him know we're here. He was relieved to know you're safe."
She started to say a snide remark about Connor, but was too tired to think one up.
"Phineas will come before dawn to bring you a supply of synthetic blood," Phil continued. "So you won't be forced to bite me after all."
She nodded. Relief swept through her, threatening to make her tears overflow. If only Phil would do something awful, then she could scream and throw a fit. She winced inwardly. Was that what she'd been doing all these years? Relying on anger to keep from dealing with her real feelings?
"Vanda." He waited till she cast a furtive glance his way. "Sweetheart, it's going to be all right."
Tears burned her eyes, and she looked quickly away.
"I'm going to wash up."
She heard the bathroom door creak shut. Dammit. She wasn't going to cry. What was the point? She stood and paced to the kitchen table and back. Nothing to keep her mind off her troubles. No television. No computer.
She stopped in front of the bookcase. How to Gut a Fish in Five Easy Steps. Taxidermy for Dummies. A romance novel? She pulled out the paperback and studied the half-naked couple embracing on the front cover. She smiled to herself, wondering who had brought this book to the cabin. Howard, Phil, or Connor? Maybe they read the love scenes to pick up a few pointers. Not that Phil needed any help in that department.
He had been incredible. So intense. So sexy. He had made her melt.
"Are you too hot?"
She jumped, and turned toward his voice. He'd just emerged from the bathroom. Bare-chested. The book tumbled from her hands.
He nodded toward the fireplace. "I wanted to make the place more cozy, but the fire might be too hot for July."
"It—It's fine." She grabbed the paperback off the floor and stashed it on a lower shelf, stealing one last glimpse at the hero's chest on the cover. No comparison. The model looked fake. Posed. Waxed.
Her gaze drifted back to Phil. Now that was a chest. Broad across the shoulders. Brown hair, still glistening from his bath and curling as it dried. A thin line of hair dissecting six-pack abs and disappearing under the plaid flannel pajama bottoms he wore low on his hips.
He walked toward her with something clasped in one hand. "I found something in the bathroom that might make you feel better."
Did it require batteries? "What is it?"
He showed her the clear bottle filled with a greenish liquid. "It's aloe vera. Good for burns."
"Oh." She touched her face. "I'll heal during my death-sleep."
"Which is about seven hours from now." He sat on the couch and patted the cushion next to him.
She perched on the edge and lifted a hand to take the bottle. To her surprise, he didn't pass the lotion to her. He squeezed some onto his palm, then set the bottle on the coffee table next to her whip.
"Hold still." He moved closer, then dabbed some lotion on her chin with his finger.
"I can do it myself."
"You can't see where the bad spots are." He smeared some across her forehead.
It did feel wonderfully cool. "I must look awful."
"You're always beautiful to me." He smoothed some lotion over her cheeks. "You've been crying."
Just the mere mention of tears brought the dreaded things back to her eyes. "I lost everything. My club. My friends."
"Your friends still care about you. You haven't lost them." He dabbed some lotion onto her nose.
She sniffed. "I lost the club. It was everything to me."
He rubbed his hands together to coat them with aloe vera, then smoothed his palms down her throat. "It wasn't everything."
"Yes, it was. I designed it myself. I made all the decisions. It was my creation. It was…perfect." His hands felt perfect, too.
"It gave you a great sense of accomplishment."
"Yes. Exactly." She was so glad he understood. "I was happy there. I felt…safe and secure."
He leaned back against the sofa cushions. "It was brick and mortar. Wood and cement. Nothing more."
She stiffened. He didn't understand at all. "Did you listen to anything I just said?"
"I did. You felt a great sense of accomplishment. You felt happy and secure. And those feelings were all attached to your club."
"Yes." A tear ran down her cheek.
"Vanda, the club didn't hold your feelings. You do that in your heart." He brushed her tear away. "Nothing—not a Malcontent or an explosion or a fire—can take your feelings away from you."
The iceberg lodged in her chest melted away, and more tears streamed down her face.
"Do you know what I see when I look at you?"
"A crazy undead lady with purple hair and a mean disposition?"
He smiled and ran his fingers through her damp hair. "I see a beautiful young woman who is smart and brave and can accomplish anything she sets her mind to."
"You think I can be happy?"
"I know you can."
More tears escaped. "You say lovely things, Phil."
He kissed away the tears. "Actually, I'm more a man of action."
She could imagine what actions he had in mind. "Phil, it will kill me if anything happens to you."
"I'll be fine." He kissed her brow. "Trust me."
"That's why I refused your help, you know. It's not that I'm ungrateful or stubborn. It's that I…I…"
He kissed the tip of her nose. "You've grown a little fond of me?"
"Yes." Her face felt hot again. "Just a little."
"Good." He grabbed the Indian blanket off the back of the couch and spread it on the floor in front of the fire. "I'm a little fond of you, too."
Her gaze drifted to the bulge in his flannel pants. "And yet, you show it in such a big way."
He grinned. "Come here. I want to kiss some part of you that doesn't taste like aloe vera." His blue eyes glimmered with heat. "I'm sure I can find just the spot."
She knew he could. She circled the coffee table and stood in front of him.
He touched her cheek. "Vanda, I love you."
Her heart cracked wide open. "Phil." She threw her arms around his neck. "What would I do without you?"
She was falling in love. She hadn't wanted to. But he was proving far too irresistible. And sweet. And sexy. "Will you make love to me? Now?"
"I thought you'd never ask." He bent his head down.