Lots of people here tonight," Maggie said as Vanda inched her Corvette closer to the entrance of Romatech.
Vanda checked the rearview mirror. She couldn't see herself, but spotted several cars in line behind them. Two in front. All the local Vamps seemed to be here for Jack's engagement party. "I hate parties."
Maggie scoffed. "It'll be good for you. You've been working too hard."
"Friday nights are always busy at the club. I should be there."
"You'll only be gone a few hours. Cora Lee and Pamela were happy to take care of things," Maggie said. "Besides, you need a break. You've had a rough week."
The guard let another car through the gate, and Vanda moved the Corvette closer.
Maggie smoothed the skirt of her red taffeta cocktail dress. "Isn't it fun to dress up for a change? If I was home tonight, I'd be helping my husband shovel bat guano."
"Sounds better than this," Vanda grumbled.
"Don't be such a party pooper. You look lovely in that dress."
Vanda groaned. She should have never agreed to borrow one of Pamela's dresses. Maggie, Pamela, and Cora Lee had ganged up on her, insisting she wear it. But she was taller than Pamela, so the silver satin dress was too short, hitting her at mid-thigh. The bodice was too low. She tugged at a spaghetti strap. "This dress is too revealing."
Maggie snorted. "And your catsuits aren't?"
"They're comfortable. And I like having my whip handy."
"You don't need a whip at an engagement party." Maggie gave her a sly look. "You're just afraid Phil will see you looking so pretty and girlish."
"I'm not afraid." Last night Phil had said she was afraid, and now Maggie was doing it. "I'll prance around the party butt naked if I want. Nothing scares me."
"Then you'll be courageous enough to tell me what happened last night at DVN."
Vanda gripped the steering wheel. "Nothing happened."
"That's strange. Phil said the same thing."
"Really?" Vanda was relieved he hadn't talked about their encounter. She couldn't believe she'd ended up in his arms again, kissing him as if her life depended on it. And she'd come terribly close to surrendering completely. The man was too tempting. And too damned nosy about her past.
Another car drove through the gate, and Vanda rolled the Corvette up to the guard station. She lowered the window and handed the guard her invitation.
He leaned over to peer into the car. "Your names?"
"I'm Vanda Barkowski and this is my guest, Maggie O'Callahan."
He checked his clipboard, then passed the invitation back. "You can go in."
Vanda raised her window and started down the long driveway to Romatech. "So I guess you teleported Phil back to the townhouse last night?"
"Yes. I offered to take him to the club, but he thought you wouldn't want to see anyone." Maggie gave her a worried look. "He seems to understand you very well."
"I don't want to talk about it." Vanda drove into the parking lot and searched for an empty space. "I can't believe you showed him that interview from the reality show."
"It's public record. Besides, Phil thinks you need to resolve some issues from your past."
"I know about his damned theory. It's bullshit." She spotted an empty space in the next row and stepped on the accelerator to get there before anyone else. "And I don't want him digging around in my past. It's none of his damned business!"
"He just wants to help you with your anger problem."
"I don't have an anger problem!" Vanda stomped on the brakes when a couple emerged from between two cars. The woman screamed as the Corvette screeched to a halt a few inches in front of them.
The man thumped the hood of her car. "Stop speeding in the parking lot!"
"Oh, yeah?" Vanda lowered her window. "Watch where you're going, you assholes!" She shot them the finger.
The couple marched off in a huff.
Vanda took a deep breath. That had been close.
"No anger problem?" Maggie muttered.
"They asked for it." Vanda pulled into the empty parking space and stuffed the keys into the silver evening bag Pamela had insisted she use.
She climbed out of the car and checked her dress. The damned bodice was cut low enough that the purple bat tattooed on her right breast was exposed. She sighed. It had seemed like a good idea ten years ago. She'd enjoyed shocking all the stuffy old Vamps at the annual Gala Ball. But after a few years the shock had worn off.
Then she'd cut her hair and dyed it purple. That had worked well. Shocked people tended to keep their distance. Then she'd started wearing a whip around her waist. The implied threat of violence kept most everyone away.
Except Phil. He'd never been afraid of her.
"What do you know about Jack's fianc'ee?" Maggie asked as they walked toward the entrance of Romatech.
"Her name's Lara." Vanda looped the strap of her evening bag over her shoulder. "I heard she was from Louisiana, and she's a cop."
"Then she's mortal?"
"How interesting." Maggie gave her a pointed look. "Isn't it amazing how so many Vamps are finding true love and happiness with non-Vamps?"
"I think it's romantic."
Vanda snorted. "You married a Vamp."
"I married for love," Maggie insisted. "If my husband had been mortal, I wouldn't have hesitated one second. There's nothing more beautiful than true love."
"I need a drink."
Maggie scoffed. "Denial will not save you when Cupid's arrow finds its mark."
"If I see Cupid anywhere in the vicinity, I'm ripping his chubby little arms off." Vanda yanked the door open to Romatech.
A few Vamps were mingling in the foyer. Connor was standing behind a table, wearing a black and white plaid kilt and black jacket. He finished checking the contents of a lady's handbag, then passed it back to her.
Maggie rushed toward him, smiling. "Hi, Connor."
"Maggie, my bonny lass." Connor leaned over the table to give her a hug. "'Tis good to see you again."
Vanda crossed her arms. Connor never called her bonny.
"I'll need to check yer bag, Maggie," Connor said.
"You want to see my pictures?" Maggie opened her bag and removed a small stack of photos.
Connor examined Maggie's bag while she shuffled through the pictures.
"This one is Pierce with our daughter, Lucy." Maggie showed it to Connor. "And this is last Halloween when Lucy was a princess. I made the costume myself."
"She's a bonny wee lass." Connor handed her the evening bag. "Ye adopted her?"
"I did." Maggie rushed to explain. "Her biological mother was a voodoo priestess from New Orleans who slipped Pierce a love potion so she could seduce him. Then, after she got pregnant, she erased his memory and abandoned him. And that's when he got changed into a vampire. But he had amnesia and didn't remember who he was or that he'd fathered a baby. And then Corky Courrant found him and brought him to New York, and he became Don Orlando de Corazon, the famous soap opera star on As a Vampire Turns. That's when I met him, and then Ian helped me discover his true identity. It's all very simple, really."
Connor's eyes had glazed over halfway through Maggie's story. "I see."
"The old amnesia/secret baby story," Vanda said wryly. "Happens all the time."
Maggie gave her an annoyed look and stuffed the photos back into her evening bag. "It happened to me, and we couldn't be happier."
"Then I'm verra happy for you." Connor turned to Vanda. "I'll need to check yer bag, too."
"I thought you'd never ask." Vanda tossed her bag onto the table. She was ready for him this time.
He opened her silver evening bag. His eyes widened.
She was quite proud that she'd managed to squeeze a pair of handcuffs, a blindfold, her back massager, and a bottle of Viagra into such a tiny handbag. She smiled sweetly. "Something wrong, Connor?"
"I see ye came prepared." He gave her a wry look as he returned her bag. "Enjoy yer evening."
"I will." Vanda strode toward the banquet hall.
Maggie sidled up to her and whispered, "What's in your bag?"
Vanda handed it to her with a smile.
Maggie opened it and laughed. "Girl, I have missed you." She passed the bag back with a sly look. "You must be planning to have sex with someone. I wonder who that could possibly be?"
"It was a joke, Maggie. Don't read anything more into it." Vanda entered the banquet hall.
The High Voltage Vamps were on the dais, playing "That's Amore." Couples were on the dance floor, happily swaying to the music. Vanda groaned.
A line had formed to congratulate Jack and meet his fianc'ee Lara.
"Oh, she's pretty," Maggie observed. "And she looks so happy. Come on, let's get in line."
Vanda surveyed the room as they strolled to the end of the queue. No sign of Phil. She grabbed a flute off the tray of a passing waiter. It was filled with Bubbly Blood, a mixture of champagne and synthetic blood. She downed it in three gulps.
Maggie frowned at her. "Are you all right?"
"Sure." She exchanged her empty glass for a full one from another waiter. "I'm just hungry."
"I think you're nervous."
"Why does everyone want to psychoanalyze me?"
"I don't know. Maybe it has something to do with the seven lawsuits filed against you in the last year," Maggie muttered with a sarcastic tone. "That could be a sign that you don't handle relationships well."
"I would be fine if everyone would just leave me the hell alone."
Maggie sighed. "You have friends, Vanda. Whether you like it or not, there are people who care about you."
Vanda's eyes burned as tears threatened. "Don't be nice to me. I can't…handle it." She gulped down more Bubbly Blood.
Maggie watched her sadly. "Darlin', you can't suffer like this forever. You need help."
Vanda took a deep breath and blinked her tears away. "I'm fine." She was tough, dammit. She started to tighten the whip around her waist, then realized it wasn't there. "Damn, I feel like I'm wearing a nightgown."
"You look beautiful. That silver satin makes your skin look positively luminous, and your eyes are dazzling. Phil looks completely flummoxed."
"What?" Vanda glanced around quickly. "Where is he?"
"He just came in from the patio." Maggie pointed at the glass wall at the back of the banquet hall that overlooked the grounds. "Oh, now he's coming toward us."
Vanda gulped. He looked incredibly handsome in a black tux that hugged his broad shoulders and narrow hips. The blond and red highlights in his hair gleamed, and his beautiful blue eyes were focused on her. "Oh my God."
Maggie smirked. "There goes Cupid's arrow. Bull'seye."
Vanda grabbed Maggie's arm. "Keep him occupied. I've got to go."
"Chicken," Maggie hissed as Vanda hurried away.
She skirted the room, ducking behind groups of Vamps so she couldn't be seen. It wasn't fear. It was panic. Her nerves had been frazzled ever since Phil had come back into her life.
In a far, dark corner, she found a row of chairs that were partially hidden by some large potted plants and a giant ice sculpture on a nearby table. She rolled her eyes. It was a giant Cupid, carved out of ice. Then she noticed the table was laden with mortal food. No wonder this corner was deserted. Most of the guests were Vamps, so they had no interest in mortal food, unless it was walking on two legs.
She finished her Bubbly Blood and set the glass next to a tray of boiled shrimp. A bottle of red liquid caught her eye. At first she thought it was one of Roman's Vampire Fusion inventions, since it was red like blood. She read the label: LOUISIANA HOT SAUCE. Maybe it was here for Jack's fianc'ee.
She wandered toward the row of chairs, looped her bag on the back of one and took a seat. No sign of Phil. No sign of anyone. She inhaled deeply. She would try to remain calm, even though she was a jumbled mess of contradictions. She ached with loneliness, but here she was in the middle of a party, trying to be alone. She longed to feel Phil's arms around her, yet here she was, hiding from him.
He was just too tempting. She loved the way she felt in his arms. She felt beautiful, desired, cherished. It had been so long since she'd felt special to someone.
Trust me, he had said. She wanted to trust him, but how could she trust love? She'd always told others there was nothing more sacred than love. She believed that with all her heart, but she knew deep down that love was for others, not for her. Love had always failed her, always brought pain and suffering. Do you want to endure life for centuries afraid to love another person? Phil's words still pricked at her.
"Hey, Vanda. How's it going?"
She jerked out of her morose thoughts to see Shanna approaching. "Hi."
The pretty wife of Roman Draganesti was carrying their new baby wrapped in a pink blanket. She swung a diaper bag off her shoulder, dropped it in a chair, then returned to the refreshment table. With the baby cradled in one arm, Shanna used her free hand to load food onto a plate. "I swear I have to breast-feed every hour. It makes me so hungry."
"Yeah." A pang of regret hit Vanda hard. After her mother's death, she had loved mothering her younger siblings. But she could never have children of her own, since as a Vamp her eggs were dead.
"Are you all right?" Shanna gave her a worried look as she added some grapes to her plate.
Vanda gritted her teeth. "I'm great."
"Good. Then if you don't mind…" Shanna hurried over and set the baby in Vanda's arms. "Thank you so much."
Vanda stiffened. "But—"
"It's so hard with two little ones." Shanna rushed back to the table and poured herself some punch. "I gave Radinka the night off 'cause she's so worn-out. And Roman is busy with some official coven stuff." She motioned toward the dance floor. "I left Tino jumping up and down to the music. I hope it wears him out."
She downed the cup of punch, then poured another one. "I need lots of fluids. So, are you enjoying the party?"
"Sure," Vanda mumbled. She lowered her gaze, reluctant to even look at the baby. The infant possessed a surprisingly sturdy little body in a pink dress with pink rosebuds embroidered on the collar. Plump pink cheeks. A pink mouth that opened and shut like a little fish. Big blue eyes.
Vanda swallowed hard. Frieda's eyes had been that same shade of blue. Tinged with a bit of green, so they were almost turquoise. "What—" Her voice croaked, and she cleared her throat. "What's her name?"
"Sofia." Shanna popped a grape in her mouth. "After Roman's mother, who died when he was very young."
Vanda's eyes burned. She'd never be able to honor her mother's memory by naming a child after her. With trembling fingers she brushed the blanket off Sofia's head. Black hair. Just like Jozef. The old wound in her heart cracked further open, and she blinked back tears. She couldn't do this. She had to give the baby back.
She looked at Shanna. "I—"
"She likes you." Shanna smiled. "She usually starts screaming if she doesn't recognize whoever's holding her."
"But…" Vanda glanced down at the baby. How can you like me? I'm dying inside.
Sofia waved a tiny fist in the air and moved her mouth like she was trying to talk.
"There you are, Vanda." Maggie peered around the giant ice sculpture. "I've been looking everywhere for you."
Vanda's heart leaped, then relaxed when she saw that Maggie was alone. She hadn't brought Phil with her. "Where is he?"
"Gee, I wonder whom you're referring to." Maggie circled the table. "Hi, Shanna."
"Maggie, how are you?" Shanna gave her a hug.
"I'm great. And this must be your new baby." Maggie rushed over to Vanda to look at the infant. "Sweet Mary and Joseph, what a beautiful little girl."
"Thank you." Shanna strolled over with her plate of food.
"Where's Phil?" Vanda whispered to Maggie.
"He's on guard duty right now. He said he'd catch up with you later." Maggie's mouth twitched. "I didn't know you were so good with babies."
Vanda gritted her teeth. "I'm not."
Shanna munched on a cracker. "Sofia's taken a real liking to Vanda."
"She's too young to know any better," Vanda muttered.
Shanna chuckled. "Actually, she has very good instincts where people are concerned. She always spits up on Gregori, and Radinka claims it's because she knows he's a womanizing cad."
"I'm so glad I ran into you, Shanna." Maggie removed a photo from her evening bag. "I've been meaning to talk to you about my daughter Lucy. She's seven years old now. And she's mortal, since Pierce fathered her before he was turned."
"I see." Shanna studied the photo. "She's adorable."
"The problem is, Lucy's in school now," Maggie continued. "And it's hard to explain how her parents are never available during the day. And we worry that she might slip up and mention that her parents are vampires and her great-uncle and aunt are shape shifters."
Vanda flinched, and the baby whimpered.
Shanna leaned over to whisper comforting words to her daughter.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Vanda," Maggie said. "I probably gave you a shock. A lot of Vamps don't know about shifters."
Vanda shuddered. "I know about them." Her muscles tensed and a black hole of panic threatened to overwhelm her. She gasped for air.
"Are you all right?" Shanna set her plate on a nearby chair. "Do you need me to take the baby?"
"I—" Vanda's gaze met the baby's blue eyes and she froze. Time slowed down and a soft feeling of peace poured through her, trickling down sweet and golden like honey. The panic attack was gone. "I'm okay."
"Good." With a smile, Shanna handed Lucy's photo back to Maggie. "Your daughter is a perfect candidate for the school we're opening in the fall. We'll have a few mortal children there, children who know too much, like Jean-Luc and Heather's girl Bethany."
"It sounds wonderful." Maggie slipped the photo back into her bag.
"Classes will be in the evening so Vamp parents can teleport their children to school." Shanna retrieved her plate of food, then paused with a piece of cheese halfway to her mouth. "Oh my gosh, I just had a terrific idea. You were an actress on DVN. You could teach a drama class to our older students!"
Maggie's mouth fell open. "Me? Teach?"
"Yes!" Shanna grinned. "You could teleport Lucy to school, then stay to teach a class. What do you think?"
"Well, it sounds more fun than shoveling bat guano every night," Maggie murmured.
"There you go." Shanna gave her an encouraging look. "And your husband would be welcome to teach, too."
Maggie nodded slowly. "We could use the extra money."
"Great! Let's get you a couple of job applications and a registration form for Lucy. I have them in my office." Shanna set her plate of food on the table, then glanced at Vanda. "Can you watch Sofia for a few minutes? Thanks!"
"But—" Vanda watched in dismay as Shanna and Maggie dashed off. "Goddammit." She glanced at the baby. "Pretend you didn't hear that."
The baby gazed up at her, wide-eyed and curious.
Vanda sighed. "I guess you're stuck with me."
Sofia made a slurping noise.
Vanda adjusted her hold and waited. And waited. She touched the baby's cheek. The skin felt so soft and new. The last time she'd held a baby was in 1927, when her brother Jozef was born. She'd always thought of him as her baby. He'd been only twelve when he'd marched off with his father and brothers to fight the Nazi invasion.
Her eyes grew moist. She'd begged him not to go. She'd begged him to flee with her and their sisters. But he'd wanted to prove he wasn't a baby, that he was all grown up.
He was so young to die.
"Hi," a young voice greeted her.
Vanda blinked her eyes dry. A little boy with blond curls and blue eyes stood next to the refreshment table. He was dressed in a little navy blue suit, but his shirttail had fallen out and his tie was askew.
"I'm Tino." He grabbed a cookie off the table and bit into it.
She'd seen Constantine Draganesti before but had never talked to him. "I'm Vanda."
He finished his cookie and grabbed another. "Did you know your hair is purple?"
"Yes." Apparently, small children didn't know they should stay away from people with purple hair.
"Have you seen my mommy?" Tino finished his second cookie. "She told me to come here when I got tired of dancing."
"Shanna had to go to her office for a minute. She'll be right back."
Tino approached Vanda, studying her curiously. "What are you doing with my little sister?"
"I have no idea."
He leaned over to examine Sofia's face. "I think she likes you. When she doesn't like someone, she screams." He puffed out his chest proudly. "No one can scream as loud as my sister."
You haven't heard me, Vanda thought.
"You want to see what I can do?" Tino asked, then vanished. "Ta-da!" He reappeared, standing on the chair next to her.
"Wow." Vanda stared at him. She'd heard rumors that Roman's son was special but she hadn't realized the little boy could actually teleport. "That's amazing."
"I know." He smiled smugly. "My sister can't do it."
"I guess you're all grown up," Vanda said wryly, remembering how fast Jozef had wanted to grow up.
"I am." Tino sat on the chair next to her. "I have more power than Sofia."
He nodded. "She wants to help you, but she's not strong enough. You want me to try?"
Vanda eyed him warily. "Try what?"
Tino rested his little hand on her arm. His nose wrinkled as he made a face. "You're hurting real bad."
"I'm a Vamp. I don't get sick."
"It's…an old pain," he whispered. "In your heart."
She felt a tingling sensation on her arm where Tino was touching her. "What are you doing?" And how the hell did he know about her pain?
The little boy winced. "I'm trying to heal your pain, but it's so deep inside."
"No!" Vanda scooted down a seat, breaking the boy's hold on her. "I need my pain. It's what I am." Dammit, she'd lived with it for so long, she couldn't imagine being without it. "It—It keeps me safe."
"Safe from what?"
"Safe from…more pain."
Tino looked confused. "I don't understand."
"It's like…having a broken leg. The pain reminds me to be careful not to break the other leg. If you had a broken leg, you wouldn't want to break the other one, right?"
Tino tugged at his crooked tie. "I don't want any broken legs."
Vanda smiled at him sadly. "You're sweet to want to help, but I…broke a long time ago. And I don't know how to get better."
"You have to want to get better," a deep voice emanated from behind a potted plant.
Vanda gasped as Phil stepped into view. "You—You shouldn't spy on people." Her heart raced. How much had he heard? Did he really think she didn't want to feel better? She wasn't a masochist, dammit. She was only trying to protect herself.
"I was doing a perimeter check." His gaze drifted slowly down her body, then back up her legs, past the baby in her lap, and settled on the bat tattoo on her breast. His mouth curled up.
Vanda ignored the tingles shooting down her arms and gave him a wry look. "And does everything check out?"
"Oh yeah." His eyes gleamed. "It's looking good." He smiled at the boy. "Hi, Tino."
"Hi, Phil." Tino squirmed off his chair. "You want a cookie? They're chocolate chip."
Phil tossed some cheese and crackers on a plate and handed it to the little boy. "Trust me. This is what you want."
Tino accepted the plate, frowning. "But I wanted—"
"Tino!" Shanna called to him as she approached with Maggie. "I hope you're eating more than just cookies."
"I am! See?" Tino showed her his plate and stuffed a cracker in his mouth.
"That's my sweetie." Shanna kissed the top of his head, then walked over to Vanda. "Thank you for watching Sofia." She gathered up the baby, who was now sleeping soundly. "I never realized how good you are with children. You should do like Maggie and adopt one."
Vanda's mouth dropped open.
"What a marvelous idea!" Maggie clasped her hands together, grinning.
"No way," Vanda protested. She winced at the amused look on Phil's face. "I run a strip club, remember?"
"What's that?" Tino asked with his mouth full.
"And I have an anger problem," Vanda continued. "Not to mention the fact that I'm dead half the time." She glanced at the boy. Hopefully, her undead status didn't come as a shock to Tino. He had to know that his father was dead during the day.
She wondered briefly if the little boy ever acted up when he knew his dad wasn't there to stop him. She could just picture Shanna telling him, Just wait till your father wakes from the dead. You'll be in big trouble then.
Vanda slowly realized that everyone was quietly staring at her. "What?" She glanced down at her dress to make sure she wasn't covered with baby spittle.
"You just admitted that you have an anger problem," Phil said, his pale blue eyes twinkling. "That's the first step toward improvement."
"Exactly." Shanna nodded. "You can't fix a problem until you admit it exists."
"Well, isn't that special." Vanda stood and slung her evening bag onto her shoulder. "I've had enough fun for one evening. Shall we go, Maggie?"
"We haven't met Lara yet," Maggie reminded her.
"And you haven't talked to me," Phil said.
"I don't—" Vanda started.
"Excellent!" Shanna interrupted. "I'll tell Roman that you're following the court decree and having a meeting with your anger management sponsor. He'll be so impressed."
Damn. Vanda couldn't see a way out of this one. But the last thing she needed was another encounter with Phil. She had no self-control around him.
"Come along, Tino. Let's find your dad." Shanna grabbed the diaper bag, then glanced at Maggie. "I'll call you." She walked away with the baby. Constantine waved good-bye, then ran after his mother.
"I need to finish my rounds," Phil said. "I'll meet you back here in fifteen minutes." He hugged Maggie, smiled at Vanda, and strode away.
Vanda couldn't help but admire his gorgeous backside as he crossed the room. Still, she wondered why he'd hugged Maggie and not her.
Of course! He was guarding her at the townhouse and sponsoring her in anger management. He was forbidden to have a relationship with her, and most of these Vamps in attendance knew it. So, as long as she stayed here in the banquet hall, surrounded by other Vamps, he'd have to keep his hands off her.
She would be safe from his seductive maneuvers. And from her own weakness. Vanda smiled to herself. Suddenly, the party didn't seem so dismal after all.