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ONLY WITH THE HEART
Cursing under his breath, Evan shook himself out of his daydreams. He disposed of the incriminating evidence, dumping it straight into the trash, ladled another pancake into the hot pan, and this time remained focused on what he was doing.
It had been a long time since he’d made pancakes, but really, that was no excuse for burning them. He’d never claimed to be all that good in the kitchen, but pancakes, at least, were well within his abilities.
For the next few minutes, he made pancakes first one at a time, then, as always growing impatient, started fitting two smaller rounds of batter in the pan rather than a single larger one. Some were a perfect golden color on both sides, others showed that they’d been saved just in time from following the same path as the first, but all in all, the little pile, kept on a plate in the warming zone of the cook top, looked quite nice—and smelled even better. It shouldn’t be much longer now before Ellie came down.
It used to be her favorite way to wake up on Sundays, before…
He stopped himself from following that train of thought as soon as it appeared and kept his attention on the pan.
After a few more minutes, he smiled to himself when he finally heard quiet steps behind him, but when he turned to the entrance to the kitchen, it wasn’t his wife he found there, but a child. His smile faded and he frowned, while the child continued to observe him with an inscrutable look. His face was tinged with pink as though freshly scrubbed clean, his dark hair damp, with deep furrows where he’d slicked it back with his fingers. His toes were bare, peeking under the hem of too long jeans just as filthy as the oversized sweatshirt he wore.
Seconds passed in silence until the child finally said, “I think it’s burning.”
Evan turned back to the stove but it was indeed too late, and two more pancakes joined the first in the trash. Setting the pan aside for now—he had enough batter left for a few more pancakes, but that could wait—he looked back at the child.
Or was he a child? More like a teenager, probably, his oversized clothes making him seem younger than he truly was.
“And who would you be?” he asked.
“And what are you doing here, James?”
He seemed to take the words as chastisement and took a half step back.
“I didn’t mean to bother you,” he said. “It’s just… it smells really good.”
The hopeful light in his eyes asked what his words only hinted at. Evan’s first instinct was to send the child back where he’d come from—presumably the other duplex; Lance had to be talking to clients. He hadn’t made this food for strangers; he’d made it for his wife, with the image, at the back of his mind, of the lazy, loving Sunday mornings they’d shared at the beginning of their marriage.
Before he could say no, however, a second image tried to intrude. That one had a third setting at the table across from Ellie and on his right, and—
He chased it away mercilessly, refusing to let the memory take over, but even so something of it lingered, and he didn’t have the heart to chase James away. Scowling at himself, he pulled a plate, fork and glass from the dishwasher and set them at the table, on the left of where he’d set his empty coffee mug.
He then added the bottle of orange juice to the table, syrup, butter, jars of honey and grape jelly—Ellie would put just about anything on her pancakes—and finally the plate of warm deliciousness. When he looked back at James, he still hadn’t moved from the threshold though hope gleamed even more brightly in his eyes.
“Well?” Evan said gruffly. “Are you coming in or what?”
James hurried forward at once, hesitating only when he’d pulled the chair away from the table.
“Is this all right?” he asked, frowning ever so briefly as he looked at Evan. “If you’d rather I go back to—”
“Sit,” Evan cut in, and grimaced at James’ flinch. He leaned back against the stove and made an effort to relax before he added, “I’ve made too many anyway. You can have a couple.”
But it soon became clear that ‘a couple’ were not going to be enough. James wolfed down the first two pancakes he drowned in syrup and practically inhaled the next two. Evan didn’t have it in himself to take the plate away when the child was obviously hungry.
James’ too-long sleeves were getting in the way and he tugged them up before helping himself to orange juice—though only after checking with Evan that it was okay. Evan gestured absently for him to go ahead, his attention suddenly captured by the red, round spots he could see on James’ exposed forearms.
James noticed his staring and blushed. His hand shook a little when he set down his barely touched juice and pulled his sleeves down again. He transferred more pancakes onto his plate, his gaze kept resolutely down to avoid Evan’s.
Leave it alone, a quiet voice warned Evan. Don’t get involved. That’s none of your business. Not anymore.
He turned to the stove, his back to James, and set the pan to warm again to make the last few pancakes. As much as he tried to silence them, the words slipped out anyway.
“Nasty burns you’ve got there. Cigarettes?”
The quiet sound of metal tines hitting the glass plate stopped. He couldn’t even hear James breathe anymore, and actually glanced back to check he hadn’t left. James was still there, fork still in hand, looking at Evan—and absolutely still, like the proverbial deer facing its certain four-wheeled doom.
Except that, Evan had learned, the deer usually inflicted as much damage as it received.
“You should put something on them to help them heal,” he muttered before turning back to the stove. He’d burned enough pancakes already. And he’d meddled more than enough in James’ affairs.
“I had a cream,” James said after a few seconds. “Antiseptic. But I’ve used all of it.”
Evan bit his tongue and focused on the pancakes, prodding the edges of one with the spatula. No, he wouldn’t ask for details. He wouldn’t ask who, and when, and how often. He certainly wouldn’t ask why, because that never helped. It wasn’t as though he had any right to prod. It wasn’t even his mandatory duty anymore to call the hotline and report it.
But he still was a human being, and he liked to think of himself as decent. Didn’t that mean he had to do something?
Of course it did.
He picked up the pan from the stove and turned back to the table to push the two pancakes directly onto James’ plate. He was trying to decide what to ask first when noise behind him and an exasperated sigh drew his eyes to Lance.
“There you are,” Lance said, ill-tempered. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I thought you’d run away.”
James swallowed a bite of pancake before answering, nonplussed, “And where would I go if I did?”
There was something in those words, a casualness that hinted that James had asked himself this very question and, had he come up with a different answer, he might not have been there.
Lance huffed, as grouchy as he ever was before his first cup of coffee. Without a word, Evan pulled a mug from the cupboard and held it out to him. Lance stepped forward and took it with a nod, walking around the table to get to the coffee maker.
“House guest?” Evan asked, realizing that his previous guess that James was the child of a customer who had wandered out of the office was proving unlikely at this point.
“Only for the night,” Lance said after his first sip of coffee. “We found him on the job yesterday and it was too late to get him to the authorities. I’ll take him once we’re done here.”
If James thought anything of being talked about as though he wasn’t even there, he didn’t say, and continued to eat his syrup-drowned pancake with a studiousness Evan had seen before from people who didn’t know when their next hot meal would be.
“On the job?” he couldn’t help repeating. “You mean…”
He stopped himself short before saying something stupid. James wasn’t a vampire; Evan could see that with his own two eyes.
“He saved me from the vampires who were holding me,” James said without looking up, his voice perfectly level—and perfectly void of any feeling.
The vampires who were holding him… and hurting him, Evan realized. And probably feeding off him, because what other reason would vampires have to kidnap a human, and a child at that? He caught himself looking at James’ neck, but there was nothing to see there. His shoulder, maybe? His wrists?
He turned back to the stove, feeling a little sick to his stomach when he poured the last of the batter. Why did he even want to know?
“It wasn’t really saving,” Lance said even as the feet of a chair scraped on the tiles when he sat down. “Saving would imply we knew you were there, and we didn’t. It was just a lucky accident.”
Unseen, Evan allowed himself a half-smile. Lance and Ellie were different in many ways, but both reacted with the same protests if anyone so much as implied they’d accomplished something even slightly heroic while doing their Special Enforcer job.
The thought of Ellie made him realize that she’d known there was a child under their collective roof and hadn’t said anything to him. His smile faded as he stared, unseeing, at the last pancakes in the pan.
“Your idea to bring him home?” he asked quietly.
Lance’s hesitation answered Evan’s question.
“We both thought it was too late to try to get someone from social services to come for him.”
Evan almost started telling him that the hospital had someone there day and night to take charge of children in need—and that Ellie knew it—but what was the point? Lance sounded like he would deliver James to the proper authorities soon. Wondering why Ellie might have wanted to bring a child home with them, if only for a night, was not something Evan cared to do right now.
“Is something burning?” Lance asked behind him.
* * *
Cradling her right hand to her chest, Taylor unlocked and opened her apartment door with the left. She gritted her teeth, but even so couldn’t suppress a quiet groan when she walked in. Unable to go any further, she leaned back against the door, then let herself slide down until she was sitting on the floor and closed her eyes as pain pulsed through her, as though to the phantom beat of her heart.
“Stupid,” she mumbled, hitting her head back against the door. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Her right cheek ached with each movement, as did her lips, but it was nothing compared to her right hand. Very carefully, she touched her face with the fingertips of her left hand. It didn’t feel too severe, and it was only on the right side, but she was suddenly glad she had no reflection.
She’d need to look at her right hand at some point, but for now she didn’t dare. The sight of it was seared into her mind anyway, red and black, like the grotesque prop from one of those cheesy horror movies Lance used to make her watch.
Lance… The thought of him was an ache in and of itself, and she had to fight her instinct to call him and ask him for help. It wasn’t as though he could help, after all. And she didn’t want to know whether he would try.
With mental anguish battling physical pain, she managed to push herself back to her feet and, stumbling, made her way to the kitchenette. Blood. She needed blood if she was to heal. She’d had no Sire to teach her that much, but every instinct she had told her the same thing: find someone, anyone, bite them, feed on them, and take her fill.
“I will not kill,” she said aloud, answering those demanding voices inside her.
They clamored even more loudly. She silenced them by pulling blood from the fridge and drinking it straight from the plastic container, cold and thick and absolutely disgusting—and still better than any meal she’d ever had as a human.
At the same time, though, the now familiar craving replaced the voices that had clamored for blood. This was blood, yes, but animal blood, obtained from a butcher who never quite looked her in the eye when she visited his shop at nightfall. Something inside her wanted more than animal blood, and knew, with a certainty so absolute that there was no point in trying to deny it, that human blood, warm, strong, taken fresh from a vein, would be much more satisfying.
She scrunched her eyes tightly shut and kept drinking until the container was empty—until the blood had drowned out both voices and cravings. That much blood should have lasted her another three more days. She’d need to visit the butcher again that night.
The pain slowly abated, taking on a dull quality, like the sound of bells swallowed by heavy mist. The hand she clutched to her chest slowly relaxed. It would take time to heal—how much time, she did not know—but sooner or later, her hand would be as good as new, as would her face.
And she’d learn her lesson and not let herself be caught outside when she could feel the arrival of sunrise like dread slowly spreading inside her.
Turning on the lights more from habit than because she needed them, she stepped over to the bathroom and undressed, a process hampered by the fact that she had only one good hand. She gasped when the sleeve of her jacket touched her hand, and was even more cautious when removing her shirt.
It would have been so much easier with someone there…
She shook her head and turned the water on as hot as possible in the bathtub. Earlier in the night, when the rain had left her drenched, she’d promised herself a hot shower once she got home, but she didn’t know how her burned hand and face would react to water.
Maybe she could call Evan and ask him…
No. No, she couldn’t do that. He’d tell Lance.
She was fairly certain that, had she been human, she’d have needed to keep her injuries dry; better to err on the side of caution than learn the hard way that vampire bodies didn’t heal as quickly and thoroughly as the teachers at the Academy claimed.
She dumped bubble bath in the tub, using more than needed so that the lilac scent soon covered everything, including the sickening smell of her own burning flesh that she’d tried so hard to ignore. Setting a towel within reach, she finally stepped in and sighed at how delicious it felt. She kept her hand to the side, away from the water, and closed her eyes.
As she relaxed in the water, her mind drifted to the days of her training. Quite a few things she had learned at the Academy had turned out not to be true, or at least not completely accurate, and sometimes she wished she could tell someone. Ellie might be interested—no, not might. She would be, without a doubt. But Taylor didn’t enjoy spending time with her all that much anymore. As friendly and accepting as she was, there always was the faintest edge of wariness in her gestures, in the way she spoke to Taylor. She probably wasn’t even aware of it herself, but Taylor couldn’t ignore it, not when it reminded her so painfully that she was different, now. Other.
Maybe the next time she had information to share, she thought listlessly, she wouldn’t ask to meet Ellie and would content herself with a text message.
Or maybe it was time to move on, and stop acting as though she were still a Special Enforcer. All it had brought her tonight was pain as she tried to track a vampire for longer than she should have. Even if she had found him, even if she’d had more tips to pass on to Ellie, it would never be enough to bring Lance back to her. Maybe it was time to accept that, too.
... continued in chapter 4