She was avoiding him. Or at least it seemed that way to Phil. By Thursday evening Vanda had hardly spoken more than two words to him. To be fair, he knew she wasn't entirely to blame. She couldn't help being noncommunicative during the day.
When they had first arrived at the townhouse Wednesday night, he'd given the ladies some time to settle into their bedrooms on the second floor. He called Phineas to ask him to teleport the snake out of Vanda's apartment. He also asked him to drop by the nightclub a few times during the night to make sure the ladies were safe. Phineas was happy to volunteer when he heard the Horny Devils was full of hot chicks.
When Phil went back upstairs to check on the ladies, they had already teleported to the club. Pamela had left a note to let him know they would return by five-thirty in the morning. No note from Vanda.
He set his alarm for 5:00 A.M. so he could shower, shave, and dress before she returned. The ladies arrived at the back door just before Phineas and Jack. Then all of them wanted a bedtime snack before retiring to their rooms for their daily death-sleep. He wasn't able to flirt with Vanda in front of the other guys. He was trapped once again in the role as her guard. He was also her anger management sponsor. That made her twice as forbidden.
But he was twice as determined. Thursday evening at sunset he waited in the kitchen for the Vamps to come down for breakfast. Cora Lee and Pamela arrived without Vanda. She'd asked them to bring a bottle to her room. They exchanged amused glances when Phil offered to do it.
He took a warm bottle to her bedroom and knocked on her door. She yelled that she wasn't dressed, to leave the bottle by the door and come back in ten minutes. He came back in five, and she'd already teleported to work.
She was definitely avoiding him. He vented his frustration by taking a long jog through Central Park. Then he picked up a pizza and headed back to the townhouse. He settled in the living room in front of the wide-screen TV to eat. The Digital Vampire Network was on, and Live with the Undead was just starting.
Corky Courrant was wearing a tight red sweater to highlight her fake boobs, and it matched perfectly with the red lipstick on her fake smile. She began her celebrity gossip show by attacking one of her favorite targets—the famous fashion model Simone. Apparently, Simone had been dating a rich playboy Vamp from Monaco who had dumped her for another model, Inga. Corky had managed to obtain footage of Simone and Inga having a catfight on the playboy's yacht.
With a sigh, Phil reached for the remote control. His thumb was on the OFF button when he froze. Corky had just flashed up a new picture. It was him, pinning Max to the floor at Vanda's nightclub. An onlooker in the crowd must have taken the picture and forwarded it to Corky.
"Once again, violence erupts at the notorious Horny Devils nightclub in New York City," Corky announced with a malicious smile. "My sources tell me that a former dancer who was sorely mistreated by club owner Vanda Barkowski arrived at the club on Tuesday night, armed with a knife. It's a miracle that no one was killed. Again."
Phil's picture disappeared from the screen, and the camera zoomed in close to Corky's face. She assumed a tragic, pained look. "My dear viewers, this is the same club where I was brutally attacked last December by none other than Vanda Barkowski herself. I still have nightmares about that horrendous attack!"
Phil snorted. Vamps didn't have any dreams at all in their death-sleep. They were dead.
"In case you've forgotten that dreadful event, here it is once again." Corky motioned with her hand and half the screen was taken up with the recording of Vanda screeching and leaping across a table to strangle Corky. While the video played, Corky shuddered dramatically, then slumped on her desk in a swoon.
When the video ended, Corky sat up, perky as ever. "I must urge you, dear friends, to boycott that nefarious nightclub. I repeat, do not go to the Horny Devils. It's an evil, violent place, and we can only hope that soon, justice will be served and it will be wiped off the planet. Vanda Barkowski must pay for her crimes!"
"Shit." Phil turned off the television.
He trudged downstairs to the basement to lift some weights. Maybe he should drop by Vanda's club to see if she was all right. She might have heard about Corky's boycott, and as her anger management sponsor, he needed to make sure she didn't do something she would later regret.
With a snort, he began a second set of biceps curls. It was obvious he was desperate for any excuse to see Vanda. And it was just as obvious that she didn't want to see him.
Why was she avoiding him? She'd responded so well to their first kiss. She'd surrendered to her desire, her body trembling and snuggling close to him. She'd kissed him back with a passion that had made his heart soar. And her beautiful gray eyes had turned red. He knew that was a sign of heated desire.
He set down the weights. He'd lost count of how many reps he'd done. It was hard to concentrate with memories of Vanda's naked body flashing through his head. He had tried not to look when he'd changed her clothes and cleaned her up. For about two seconds. Then, he'd seen the bruises caused by that damned snake, and he'd wanted to rip Max apart with his bare hands.
And Vanda had merely wanted to banish him. No more deaths on her conscience, she'd said. And she'd thought he had killed Max. What had been her words?
I understand the kind of rage that leads a person to take a life.
What had happened to her in the past? He knew she was from Poland. Had World War II traumatized her so much that she'd sought the shelter of the harem to recover?
He took a shower while he continued to speculate. According to Connor, Vanda had been angry since he'd first met her, in 1950. She had over fifty years of unresolved, built-up anger, and he felt sure it dated back to some kind of trauma she'd endured in Poland. And chances were good that whatever had caused her anger was also linked to her fear of getting involved with him.
Was it a trust issue? Had someone she loved in the past betrayed her?
He needed answers, and obviously Vanda was not going to supply them. Like any warrior planning to lay siege, he needed to thoroughly study his target and find the weak spots that would crack open her armor. He smiled grimly. Vanda didn't know it yet, but the chase was still on.
When she was in the harem, her best friends had been Darcy and Maggie. Darcy and her husband were currently serving as day guards for Angus and his team at Apollo's compound. Since they were secretly laying an ambush there, it would not be a good time to call her.
But Maggie would be available. The sun would have set by now in Texas, where she lived with her husband, Pierce O'Callahan, formerly known as DVN soap opera star Don Orlando de Corazon. Phil looked up her contact information on the MacKay database.
Maggie answered the phone. "Phil! How are you? Are you still in Texas?"
"No, I'm back in New York now." Phil explained how Vanda was required by the coven court to undergo anger management. Then he told her about the incident with the snake.
"Sweet Mary and Joseph!" Maggie gasped. "I should be there for her. Do you mind if I teleport over to see you?"
"No, not at all." He strode to the security console by the front door to turn off the alarm.
Meanwhile Maggie informed her family of her emergency trip to New York. A few minutes later she appeared in the foyer.
"Phil!" She grinned at him. "Look at you. I believe you've gotten more handsome than ever."
He smiled as he reactivated the alarm. "And you've gotten more Texan."
Maggie's usual short skirt, clunky goth boots, and tight sweater had been traded in for a pair of jeans, cowboy boots, and an embroidered denim shirt. A fringed leather handbag was looped over her shoulder.
"That's what happens when you lead the glamorous life of a rancher." She hugged him, then stepped back with a gasp. "You're a shifter!"
Phil was so surprised that he could only stare at her for a moment. "You know about shape shifters?"
"Yes. Pierce's uncle is a were-coyote and his sister's a were-jackrabbit." Maggie made a face. "You can imagine how tense it gets around the house when the moon is full. No one wants Uncle Bob to gobble down his niece."
Phil winced. "That is awkward. I guess they were bitten?" Otherwise, members of the same family wouldn't shift into two such different creatures.
"Yes." Maggie gave him a sympathetic look. "Is that what happened to you? Did you get bitten in Texas, too?"
"No, I was born a shifter."
Her eyes widened. "Really?" She ran a hand through her black hair, which was still cut in a short bob. "I guess I never realized it 'cause I didn't know about shifters till I moved to Texas. I recognize the scent now."
"A lot of Vamps don't know. And we'd like to keep it that way, if you don't mind."
"Of course." Maggie pretended to zip her lips. "Now, tell me all the latest gossip about the ex-harem."
Phil ushered her into the kitchen, and she warmed up a bottle of Chocolood in the microwave while he explained his quest for information about Vanda's past. "You see, I believe she has unresolved issues that she's been avoiding for years. If we can force Vanda to confront them, we might be able to cure her anger problem."
"Very interesting," Maggie murmured as she poured hot Chocolood into a teacup.
"Well, I've studied a lot of psychology, so I think my theory is sound."
"I wasn't referring to your theory." Maggie set her cup and saucer on the kitchen table and took a seat. "I find it interesting that I asked for news about all the harem ladies, and you talked only about Vanda."
Phil shrugged. "I'm concerned, naturally, because I agreed to be her sponsor."
Maggie sipped her Chocolood. "And why did you agree?"
"Someone had to do it. No one else volunteered, and I do have some experience in psychology." When Maggie just stared at him with a knowing look, he raised his hands in a surrendering motion. "All right, I admit it. I'm hopelessly attracted to her. Always have been."
Maggie grinned. "I always knew there was something between you two. But why do you say it's hopeless?"
He took a can of beer from the fridge and popped the top. "At first I couldn't get involved with her because I was her guard, and frankly, I just thought she was playing with me because she was bored."
Maggie nodded. "She was bored, but I think she was genuinely attracted to you."
"I've just recently become aware of that." He thought back to their kiss, and the way she'd surrendered in passion. And then he recalled the years he'd wasted when he could have been pursuing her. With an inward groan, he guzzled down some beer.
"It shouldn't be hopeless now," Maggie said.
He sat across from her at the table. "I'm her anger management sponsor, so I'm not supposed to get romantically involved. And I'm her guard again. Technically, she's forbidden."
He shrugged and drank more beer. "I'm not a very technical person."
Maggie's mouth twitched. "A man of action, eh? That could be exactly what Vanda needs."
He plunked the beer can on the table. "She's avoiding me. I think she's…afraid."
"Ah." Maggie traced her finger along the rim of her teacup. "She was always very cautious about forming new relationships. She knew me for over ten years before she would even admit we were friends. But once she calls you friend, she'll fight like a tiger to defend you. Do you know she threatened my husband once if he didn't treat me right?"
Phil smiled. "That sounds like her. She tried to defend Ian, too, last December."
Maggie nodded. "She told me once that Ian looked a lot like her youngest brother. But when I asked about her family, she refused to talk about them."
"Do you know what happened?"
"No, not really. When she first came to the harem, she was like…a wounded animal. She wouldn't speak to anyone. Wouldn't look at our faces. It was so sad." Maggie grew silent, frowning as she remembered.
"Tell me more," Phil said softly.
"I was afraid she would starve to death. There were nights when she refused to go out for…food." Maggie gave him an apologetic look. "That was before synthetic blood."
"I understand. And Vanda would refuse to hunt? Wasn't that painful for her?"
"Oh yes. Something awful. I would beg her to go hunting with me. Even when she did, she would barely take enough blood to stay alive. I always had this terrible feeling that she was punishing herself."
"Why would she make herself suffer?"
"I asked her, but she would never say." Maggie finished her Chocolood, then took her dishes to the sink to rinse them out. "She reminded me of a sparrow with broken wings. All brown and downtrodden. She wore this old brown dress, and her hair was brown, too. A lovely brown, streaked with dark red highlights, but she pulled it back severely in a bun. It was like she wanted to crawl into a hole and never fly again."
Phil sat in silence. This was not the Vanda he knew. As far as he could tell, she had suffered from a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression. She might still be suffering from the aftereffects. After all, she'd gone from one extreme to the other, from the broken brown sparrow to a purple-haired, whip-toting, wildcat prone to violent outbursts. The real Vanda—the one she was afraid to be, lay somewhere in between.
He finished his beer. "She never confided in anyone?"
"No," Maggie set her cup and saucer in the dishwasher. "Her first year in the harem, she hardly spoke at all. George, the Coven Master back then, gave us a small monthly allowance. Cora Lee, Pamela, and I would go shopping or to the movies. Vanda spent her money on art supplies."
Phil sat back, surprised. "Art?"
"Yes. She painted. Every night. All night." Maggie grimaced. "Ghastly pictures. Red paint everywhere. Blood, dead bodies, swastikas, barbed wire, wolves—"
"Yes." Maggie shuddered. "She painted them with such huge, vicious teeth."
He swallowed hard. What the hell did wolves have to do with the war? Or with Vanda?
"Then one night she went crazy," Maggie continued in a low voice. "She piled all the paintings in a heap in the backyard and set them on fire. She burned her art supplies, too, and never painted again."
Phil crumpled the empty beer can in his fist. "Did she ever say why she stopped painting?"
"Just that she didn't want to remember anymore." Maggie sighed. "But of course, she still remembers. We all remember the painful memories from our past."
His own painful memories crept out of hiding, brought to mind by Maggie's words. It had been nine years since his father banished him. Nine years since he'd seen his family. During the first few years, he'd received letters from his sister. She didn't know his whereabouts, so she left the notes in his hunting cabin in Wyoming, hoping he would find them.
He hadn't been to the cabin in four years. What was the point? He could never go back to his father's pack. That part of his life was over.
Maggie suddenly brightened. "I know what might help. Darcy interviewed the harem girls for that reality show a few years back. There might be a copy here somewhere."
Maggie dashed from the kitchen to the living room. "Eew." She wrinkled her nose at the leftover pizza sitting on the coffee table.
"I'll get it." He closed the box, then hurried back to the kitchen and stuffed it in the fridge. By the time he returned, Maggie was sliding a disk into the DVD player.
"I found it!" She showed him the case titled The Sexiest Man on Earth.
"I remember that show." Phil settled on the couch. "That's when the ladies won the money that financed the nightclub."
"And Darcy won the Sexiest Man," Maggie added with a laugh. She located Vanda's interview on the menu, then sat on the couch next to Phil.
Vanda's image came on the TV screen. She was smiling at the camera, her lovely dove gray eyes twinkling, her lips full and sweetly shaped. The zipper on her purple catsuit was pulled down just low enough to show some cleavage. Phil found himself smiling back.
Maggie chuckled. "You're so smitten."
He hushed her when Darcy's voice came on, asking Vanda to tell the audience about herself.
Vanda began, her clear voice showing just a hint of accent. She was born in 1917 in a small village in southern Poland. Her mother died when Vanda was eighteen, and as the oldest daughter, she'd taken over the care of her large family. A father, four brothers, and two sisters.
Her smile started to fade when she talked about her mother's death. She was frowning by the time she told how the Germans and Russians invaded Poland in 1939 and her father and brothers marched off to fight.
Her face grew pale. "My father urged me to escape with my two younger sisters. I packed some food, and we fled south to the Carpathian Mountains. I'd been there before, and I knew there were some caves where we could hide. I…never saw my father or brothers again."
"How terrible," Maggie whispered.
Vanda continued, describing their long trek into the mountains. The youngest sister, thirteen-year-old Frieda, took ill, and by the time they found a shallow cave, she could hardly walk. Vanda stayed with her and sent her other sister, Marta, to fill up their water bags.
Marta didn't come back. The next morning, Vanda made her sick sister as comfortable as possible, then went to fetch water. By that evening she was frantic with worry. Marta was gone and Frieda was failing fast.
She went in search of her sister, and squealed with joy when Marta stepped into her path. But Marta attacked her, bit her, and with superhuman strength carried her off to a cave. The vampire who had turned Marta was there, and he changed Vanda, who was too weak from hunger and blood loss to fight off two vampires.
"The next evening," Vanda said, "I was still reeling in shock from what had happened. But I rushed back to my little sister to see how she was. She had died. All alone."
Vanda covered her face, and Phil could tell the film had been edited. The camera rested on Darcy for a moment, and when it returned to Vanda, she was composed once again.
She quickly explained that the war had been so difficult that she'd joined the harem to find a little peace and relaxation. Then she smiled and said she was happy to participate on the show, and the interview ended.
"Poor Vanda." Maggie sniffed. "She lost everyone."
"Not quite." Phil used the remote to turn off the television. "She has one sister who might still be alive."
"Marta?" Maggie made a face. "Marta should have helped her save their sister."
Phil nodded. "Vanda may feel that her only surviving relative betrayed her."
Maggie took a deep breath. "Well, at least you know why she's so angry now."
"There's still a lot she didn't say. She was transformed in 1939."
"Oh, you're right." Maggie sat up. "And she didn't come here till 1948. That's eight years unaccounted for."
"And she merely called it 'difficult' in the interview. I have a feeling she went through hell."
Maggie's eyes filled with tears. "Of course she did. It was in her paintings. Dead bodies, swastikas, barbed wire, blood."
And wolves. Phil swallowed hard. How would he ever gain Vanda's trust if she was terrified of wolves?
Maggie touched his arm. "I want to see her. Even if all I can do is give her a hug."
"Of course. She'll be at the Horny Devils."
"I've teleported there before, so I know the way." Maggie rose to her feet. "Would you like to hitch a ride?"
"Yes." He wrapped an arm around Maggie's shoulders. Vanda wouldn't be able to avoid him now. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell her about my being a shifter."
Maggie frowned at him. "You'll have to tell her if you intend to have a future with her."
"I will." But not now. She was already looking for a reason to run away from him.
Phil and Maggie threaded their way through the crowd at the Horny Devils. When Maggie spotted Pamela at the bar, she squealed, and the two women spent five minutes hugging and laughing. Phil could hardly hear them over the noise.
He lifted a hand in greeting. "Big crowd tonight."
Pamela grinned and handed him a beer. "Isn't it marvelous? That awful Corky told everyone not to come because we were so nefarious and evil." She laughed. "And of course, they just had to see for themselves."
"Does Vanda know about the boycott?" he asked.
"No, thank heavens, and we need to keep it that way. She might go ballistic, and we can't afford any more lawsuits." Pamela spotted Cora Lee and waved at her. "Look who's here!"
Cora Lee ran over to Maggie, and the squealing and hugging started all over again. Then Maggie produced a stack of family photos from her handbag, and the ladies gushed over how adorable Maggie's daughter was. Phil wondered how she'd managed to have a child but refrained from asking since the explanation might take a long time, and he wanted to see Vanda as soon as possible.
"Hey, bro!" Phineas walked toward him with two female Vamps hanging on his arms. "I dropped by like you asked. You sure were right about the hot chicks."
"Any sign of Max?" Phil yelled over the noise.
"No." Phineas gave his new friends an apologetic look. "I hate to say this, ladies, but I gotta go back to work."
"Oh no, Dr. Phang." The brunette on his left arm stuck out her bottom lip in a pout. "How can you leave us?"
"Duty calls, sweetness." Phineas patted her hand. "But I'll come back every few hours to make sure you're safe."
"Oh, Dr. Phang, you're so brave." The blonde on his right rubbed against him.
"Where do you work?" the brunette asked, trying to draw his attention away from the blonde.
"I can't say, darlin'," Phineas replied. "Top secret stuff, you know."
"Oooh." The blonde shivered. "Are you a spy?"
"All I can say is when danger lurks in the shadows, they call on Dr. Phang." Phineas stepped back and lowered his voice. "I'll be back."
"I'll be waiting for you," the brunette yelled as Phineas disappeared.
The blonde sidled up close to Phil. "So are you a spy like Dr. Phang?"
"We…work together." Phil noticed Maggie was headed with Cora Lee and Pamela to Vanda's office. He started to follow, but the two Vamp women had latched onto his arms.
The brunette caressed his biceps. "You seem incredibly strong for a mortal."
"And handsome in such an earthy way," the blonde added.
"Actually, I'm not in Dr. Phang's league." Phil extricated himself from their grip. "He's much stronger than me. And a little dangerous. You should probably stay away from him if you like to play it safe."
The brunette's eyes lit up. "He sounds so exciting."
"Well, he is called the Love Doctor, you know," Phil admitted.
The blonde stepped back. "No offense, cutie, but I'm going to wait for the Love Doctor."
The brunette turned toward her. "No, you're not. I saw him first."
While the two women argued over Phineas, Phil hurried to Vanda's office.
Maggie spotted him quietly closing the door. "Vanda, I hope you don't mind, but I brought Phil with me."
Vanda stiffened and turned toward the door. The smile on her face vanished, and a blush crept up her neck.
He remained by the door. "Hello, Vanda."
The blush rose to her cheeks. "Hi."
Pamela and Cora Lee greeted him with knowing smiles.
He nodded briefly at them, then returned his gaze to Vanda. "How are you?"
"Yes, dear, how are you?" Maggie asked when Vanda didn't answer. "Phil told me about that horrible snake, and I just had to make sure you were all right."
"I'm…fine," Vanda said quietly.
"Well, it was mighty nice of Phil to call you up," Cora Lee said to Maggie.
"And we're delighted to see you again," Pamela added.
"It's lovely to be here," Maggie said, smiling. "The club is a huge success. I've never seen such a big crowd."
"Yeah, that'll show Corky Courrant," Cora Lee muttered.
Pamela winced and shook her head.
Cora Lee gasped and covered her mouth.
Vanda frowned at them. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," Pamela and Cora Lee answered together.
Vanda glared at Cora Lee. "Out with it."
"It's nothing!" Cora Lee insisted, then turned to Pamela for help. "It amounts to nothing, right? We have a huge crowd. They all came to see why Corky said our club was violent and evil."
"What?" Vanda yelled.
Phil walked toward her. "It's all right. Corky used her TV show to announce a boycott of your club, but her plan obviously backfired."
Vanda's eyes flashed with anger. "She's trying to destroy me."
"Your club will be fine," Phil said softly.
"Not as long as that bitch is around," Vanda hissed, and she vanished.
"No!" Phil made a grab for her, but she was already gone.
"Land sakes," Cora Lee whispered. "Where did she go?"
"Where do you think, bigmouth?" Pamela snapped. "She went to DVN to let Corky have it."
"Sweet Mary and Joseph," Maggie breathed. "We need to stop her."