Anna Strong Vampire Chronicles, Book 4
An Excerpt From: LEGACY from Penguin US / ACE.
Copyright @ Jeanne C. Stein, 2008
All Rights Reserved, Penguin US / ACE
WHEN I WAS HUMAN, I HATED THE HOLIDAYS. Hated the inescapable dirge of mindless Christmas songs. Hated being force-fed hope and joy. Hated the contrived joviality. To me, Christmas was a stark reminder that in a few days, my brother would be dead yet another year, killed in a senseless accident a few days after “the hap-happiest time of the year.”
Yet here I am this mid-December afternoon fourteen years later, a big dumb grin on my face, enduring a crush of smelly humanity for the chance to help my niece pick out a gift for my mother.
I can say that now without the mental quotation marks around “niece.”
In a couple of months, Trish has become as much a member of my family as I am. Maybe more so since she’s human and I’m not.
I’m a vampire.
Another thing I have come to be able to admit (only to myself, naturally) without an internal shudder of disgust or shame.
I’m a vampire.
I accept it, like being blond or having green eyes. I wasn’t born a vampire. I was made one. I’ve adapted to the reality of the situation, and truth be told, can forget about it for, oh, minutes at a time.
I love the sound of that. I can’t help myself. I respond by giving the beautiful, healthy thirteen-year-old girl at my side a hug.
She pulls away, but she’s grinning. “What was that for?”
“No reason. Did you decide?”
We’re in Horton Plaza, at Tiffany’s, a selection of earrings spread on a velvet mat in front of us. I am standing to the left of Trish, out of mirror range, since casting no reflection is one of the drawbacks of being a vampire who lives among mortals. I can also watch Trish unobserved and marvel at how far she’s come in the last three months.
When I first met her, Trish Delaney was a runaway. Her mother, Carolyn, showed up at my parents’ house one night and announced that Trish was their grandchild. Carolyn, whom we hadn’t seen since my brother died, concocted an elaborate story about not finding out she was pregnant until after my brother’s death and being too scared to approach my parents for fear they would react the same way hers had—demand she have an abortion. She came to us then because she was afraid Trish was in real trouble—involved in drugs and murder—and had nowhere else to turn. She also came because she knew what I did for a living. I’m a bounty hunter by trade and expert at finding people.
And we bought it.
Turns out, most of the story was a lie. Carolyn was the one who turned Trish over to her abusers, for money. She’s dead now, and the dirtbag directly responsible for what happened to Trish is dead, too. Three others are awaiting trial. We’re hoping they’ll plead out so Trish won’t have to relive the horror. Trish understands that they may not.
But for now, here she is—a long-legged thirteen-year-old teetering on the verge of womanhood who can smile and laugh and feel secure in the knowledge she has finally found a family that she does not have to fear. If the worst happens and she has to testify at a trial, she knows we’ll be right there with her. In the meantime, we’re going to enjoy the holidays.
As a family.
Trish has an earring in each hand. “It’s between these two. Which do you like better?”
One is a knot of gold, the size of a dime. The other, a delicate filigree hoop.
“The hoops. Mom likes hoops.”
Trish holds the chosen one up to her own ear and checks the mirror. “I like these, too.” She hands the earrings over to the salesperson. “We’ll take these, please.”
The saleswoman is a thirtysomething sleek-haired brunette wearing a shade of red lipstick that would brand me as a tart. On her, it looks regal. She smiles and slips the tray with our discarded choices behind the counter and nods to me.
I properly interpret the nod but defer to Trish with a shrug. “My niece is buying.”
One carefully shaped eyebrow lifts the tiniest fraction. “And how would you like to pay, miss?” she asks Trish.
Trish returns the smile. “Cash.”
The saleswoman nods and turns to ring up the purchase.
“Are you sure you have enough cash?” I whisper to Trish. “Because I can—”
Trish’s face glows. “I want to do this myself,” she says. “Without Grandma and Grandpa Strong, I don’t know where I’d be right now. I want to show them how much I appreciate everything they’ve done for me.”
I give her shoulder a squeeze. Unfortunately, I do know where she’d be. Either with a truly miserable bitch, her real grandmother, or in a foster home. Hard to say which of those alternatives would have been worse.
Which is why I made the decision I did. Neither Trish nor my parents know that she is not really my brother’s child. DNA tests confirmed it, tests that I’ve buried. I’ll never be sure if Carolyn knew the truth or not. It doesn’t matter. Trish is where she belongs and if I have any say in the matter, where she’ll stay.
The saleswoman is back. “That will be $297.80,” she tells Trish.
Trish grins at me, pulls three one-hundred-dollar bills out of her wallet and hands them over. About the only good thing Carolyn Delaney did in her last months on earth was to take out an insurance policy naming Trish as beneficiary. Maybe she sensed that the mess she’d gotten them in would not end well. Maybe it was a pathetic attempt to tell Trish she was sorry when that end came. In any case, most of the money went into a college fund, but my parents thought Trish should use some of it on herself.
What Trish has done is use most of it on gifts for her new family.
The only thing nicer than Trish looking so happy that she can pay for the earrings herself is the expression on her face when the saleswoman comes back with one of those delicious blue Tiffany signature boxes. She slips the box into a matching bag and hands it to Trish along with her change.
Trish is beaming.
I feel like I must be beaming, too. At least until we ease our way back into the throng circling Horton Plaza. The shoppers have the look of hungry wolves. More desperation than inspiration on these less-than-happy faces. You’d think there were only two shopping days left before the big day instead of two weeks.
This many pulsing jugulars makes my own anxiety start to peak. The hair prickles on the back of my neck.
Time for a break. “I would kill for a cup of coffee,” I tell Trish, when in fact what I’m feeling is I’ll kill if I don’t get a cup of coffee.
“Starbucks?” Trish asks. “Or do you want to try the coffee bar at that new restaurant?”
Since that new restaurant belongs to someone I’d give up drinking coffee to avoid—my business partner’s ex-girlfriend Gloria—it takes me a millisecond to respond. “Starbucks.”
We reverse directions and head toward Broadway.
Usually, my senses are on high alert when I’m in a crowd. It’s natural and instinctive. The animal side of my nature scans the air like bug antennae for any sign of danger, for any vibration of impending doom.
This time, the internal radar fails miserably.
My breath catches in my throat.
It’s suddenly right in front of us.
As if conjured up from my worst nightmare, she’s slipped like a cockroach right past all my defenses.
I clutch Trish’s shoulders, ready to propel her in the opposite direction.
A hand reaches out and stops me with a firm grip.
Trish is smiling, unaware of the peril.
“Hey, Gloria,” she says. “David didn’t tell us you were back in town.”
I STARE. GLORIA IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE IN TOWN. She’s supposed to be in Los Angeles or New York, doing whatever the hell supermodels do.
Gloria aims her thousand-watt smile at Trish. “He doesn’t know yet,” she says. Then she puts a finger over her lips. “I want to surprise him so if you see him first, don’t spoil it, okay?”
Trish nods that the secret is safe. “We were going for coffee. Want to join us?”
Shit. Shit. Shit.
With all the obnoxious, rude teenagers in the world, my family has to end up with a nice, polite one. My insides curl into a ball.
I’m saved by a shake of Gloria’s auburn mane. “I can’t, honey. I do need a word with your aunt. Do you mind?”
Trish nods again. When Gloria doesn’t immediately launch into whatever it is she needs to tell me, Trish accepts that it’s one of those adult things and moves off to look at some decorations in a nearby store window.
I watch Trish, then turn reluctantly to fix my attention on my least favorite person, human or otherwise, in the entire world.
Gloria Estrella is a model and an actress. A well-known model and actress. Now, as we stand here in Horton Plaza, life seems to shift into slow motion as those passing around us cast one look at her and falter in their steps. Even though half-obscured behind oversize sunglasses, women recognize the heart-shaped face, the huge almond eyes, the artfully tussled mane of shoulder-length hair. Men recognize the tits and long legs. She has on jeans and a cashmere sweater and three-inch Ferragamo pumps, but men know what’s underneath. They see the Victoria’s Secret model prancing on TV ads in thong underwear and a push-up bra every damned day.
I hate her.
She hates me right back. Usually, we avoid each other like I avoid garlic. She’s noxious to my system.
Which makes her desire to talk to me that much more puzzling. As far as I know, we have nothing to talk about. Gloria used to date my partner, David. Used to, being the operative phrase. Gloria hasn’t seen David in two months. I had begun to believe I’d never have to see her again. It was a wonderful, liberating fantasy.
I shift from one foot to the other. “How did you know I was here?”
Gloria slips the glasses off her face. “I saw you in Tiffany’s.”
Terrific. Remind me never to shop in Horton Plaza again. “What do you want? Can’t be about David. Last I heard you’d broken up.”
She tilts her head. “Why would you think that?”
“Why? Maybe because David was shot and you didn’t bother to call to see how he was doing.”
She drops her eyes. “Oh, that.”
Oh, that? David was laid up for two fucking months. He had been shot by a psycho hit man who held us responsible because we got his guy into custody before he could make good on a contract. Gloria didn’t call or come by once during David’s convalescence. I know. I took care of him myself.
“I have to talk to David. In fact, I planned to go by your office this afternoon. I can explain it to him. I can make it up to him.”
Her faltering tone implies she’s not as confident as she pretends. Good.
I narrow my eyes at her. “I wouldn’t bother if I were you. David hasn’t mentioned you once. I think he’s over you. Finally. For good.”
She bristles at that and the bitch shines through. “Don’t kid yourself, Anna. David still loves me. He’s left me dozens of messages. Got one this morning, in fact. Do you want to know what he said?”
I’m shocked at this bit of news. So shocked my traitorous body reacts with an involuntary start. David never tried to contact Gloria when I was around. I can’t believe he went behind my back. A flush of anger creeps up my neck.
Gloria catches the reaction and smiles.
Damn her. “Whatever you have to say, make it fast. Trish and I have more shopping to do.”
She looks over at Trish. “She’s a beautiful girl. Do you think she’d be interested in modeling?”
After what Trish has been through, the last thing my family wants is to have her exposed yet again. There are two reasons I don’t jump down Gloria’s throat right now for suggesting it. Trish really is beautiful enough to be a model, and Gloria doesn’t know what happened to her. Hopefully, she never will.
It takes effort, but I moderate my anger and reply gruffly, “She’s only a freshman in high school. She’s too young to be subjected to that kind of life.”
My tone clearly implies that what I mean by “that kind of life” is nothing good and that it’s directed at Gloria, but surprisingly, she doesn’t bite. In fact, she doesn’t pursue the subject or the insult.
The muscles at the base of my neck tighten. This is not Gloria. I study her more closely. For the first time, I notice frown lines at the corners of her mouth and faint dark circles under her eyes. Through the makeup, her perfect face is shadowed by what? Worry? Grief?
I stifle the urge to clap my hands and do a happy dance.
However, doing that would imply I care. The truth is, if it wasn’t for what she said, that David has been in touch with her, I’d be out of here in a heartbeat. As much as I dislike her, I care for David more. He finds something in Gloria that touches him. I can’t see it but evidently, he’s not over her the way I’d thought.
“You didn’t stop me to talk about Trish. What do you want?”
Her gaze pulls away from Trish. “I need your help.”
“With what? Your Christmas shopping? If you think I’m going to waste my time helping you get back in David’s good graces, you’d better think again. I have more important things to do.”
Gloria doesn’t respond. She shifts uneasily from one foot to the other, her hands in fists at her sides, her eyes darting over the crowd like a rabbit ready to bolt at the approach of a fox. When she looks at me again, there’s no mistaking the emotion clouding her eyes.
“I may be in trouble,” she says finally. “Big trouble.”
In that instant, I know what she says is true. Her irritation and anger are gone, swept away by a more powerful emotion. An emotion my vampire nature can pick out of the air like a bad smell.
Gifted Stein continues to develop her world and characters, giving them realistic weaknesses and flaws. Urban fantasy with true depth and flair!
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