I close the office door behind me to join Rafe’s warm laughter in the kitchen. He’s finished prepping all the vegetables for his meal and looks ready to start cooking. The need to do something, anything, pushes at me so strongly, I rush to our closet to dress. Sturdy, ugly clothes are the kind you need when you go outside here. I grab thick jeans, silk long johns, an undershirt, turtleneck, bulky sweater, and to top off my lovely outfit, a down jacket. Big boots replace the high-heeled pumps, and I’m good to go.
Vampire or not, I need protection when out and about for any notable length of time in the winter here. We can withstand the cold longer than humans, but prolonged exposure with no covering would slow us down and make us more vulnerable to attack, not to mention the effects on my skin are just criminal.
“Going to go take a look around to see if I can find a trace of the scent Jonathan mentioned.” My voice sounds hollow in my own ears as I march to the backdoor.
Rafe straightens his stance and looks up from his post at the stove.
Yeah. Need to burn some of this off. I’ll be right back.
Grabbing a set of master keys hanging on a nearby hook, I step out into the frozen tundra that freezes the hair in my nostrils. Not a land for the faint of heart, it’s a good thing I don’t need to breathe very often. Blocking out the bite, I take a deep breath in while thanking my lucky stars my clientele doesn’t mind the weather. This extreme cold lowers our core temp a lot, which means we do need to warm back up to room temperature before any hanky panky. It brings the old phrase “cold hands, warm heart” to an entirely new level.
Walking down the path leading me away from our kitchen, I pass gorgeous fluffy pines, small and large, planted up near the base of the inn and farther out too. Twinkling holiday lights wrap the trees, lending a glow to the illuminated pathway under my boots. A quaint, winter wonderland that’s quite pretty in the ever-present darkness.
The paved paths here meander throughout the hot tub grotto, lending a private feel to each setting they come to. Pergolas enclose individual tubs with hardy bushes planted up next to them, increasing the feel of solitude. I take a route which brings me close to the foundation of the building and start to examine the snow under the windows. Spying footprints beneath room six, I head over to them. They look much bigger then my own size seven. Could mean a very tall woman or a smallish man.
I’m annoyed at myself and the feeling’s exacerbated by Jon’s Were blood coursing through me. How in the hell did I not think of the window before? The scent of blood in room six clouded my thoughts, but I had no idea it impaired my thinking so damn much. Jon was right to question me in the kitchen; I’m not at my best tonight. Damned if I’ll admit it to that hunk of fur anytime soon, though.
The clean smell of the snow, the sharp scent of pine trees and chemical traces of bromine from the four nearby hot tubs greets the frozen-stiff hairs of my nostrils. No lingering hints of an unknown vamp to detect, but I've come along hours later and there's a mild wind to contend with. Let’s face it: I’m no werewolf. What I can do later is check inside the suite near the window. I feel pretty stupid for not thinking of it sooner; live and learn, and try not to be snarky when Jon reams me for it.
Could a human have committed this crime? Or could the killer be one of the few vampires who can fly? Maybe they climbed up the side of the building? I guess a human could climb up too, but he or she would need some equipment and there’s no evidence of a tool bag dropped to the ground or lots of footprints which would indicate whoever stood here walked around looking up to gauge the climb before ascending.
Completing a circuit of the hotel, pristine white snow greets me at every turn. Snowdrifts up against the building are quite high, especially in the corners where the wings meet the center structure. There’s no other footprints in the snow outside any windows, which tells me the killer had no need to go back inside afterward unless, of course, he went in through a door. Which would just be freakin’ great.
I set off at a sprint down a wide-curving path that leads to the ten outer cabins. Lighted bushes, glowing statuary, and trail markers stream past my vision like traffic headlights in a slow-motion shutter release. Jonathan sniffed around the cottages on the outside, but I want to use my keys and check inside too. Letting myself in to the farthest one out, number ten, I work my way back toward the main building, examining all the empty ones first. There’s no trace of an unknown vamp scent, so I stop outside Drew’s cabin, looking to discreetly check out the occupied units next.
My body shakes, and not from the cold. I itch as though my skin could crawl right off me if given the chance. Taking a moment to center myself before going those last steps to Drew’s porch would be a good move, not to mention a smart one. The energy leaking out of me needs to be contained before I face another vampire, or the illusion of the luscious-but-average-powered innkeeper would not be complete.
I begin a mountain pose from my yoga training. It’s the best one to center me when I’m not dressed for a more complex move. Placing my feet hip-distance apart, I hold my hands loose at my sides. I raise my toes in the big boots before planting them down firmly in anchor. My spine straightens, tailbone roots down, chest lifts and shoulders pull back. The connection to the earth feels strong when the alignment is right, enabling me to pull the aura of my energy back inside to lock down tight.
The yoga teacher I had years ago, Olga, would be proud. She taught me for over fifteen years. Right up until the fact I didn’t age drove me from the town in Germany where we’d met. I miss her and her wisdom. She’s always guiding me in my mind, a calm I can seek in any storm. I hear her voice with its smooth cadence like an echo: You must root to rise.
Feeling more in control, I step up to the cabin porch. A short rap at the door prompts Drew to open it before I lower my hand. He’s dressed in jeans and a snug Henley-style sweater, and both emphasize his lean muscular build. Brown eyes sit on a pleasant but unremarkable face, and his medium brown eyebrows lift in surprise while he looks me over from head to toe.
“Vivian, the lovely innkeeper, what a pleasant surprise.” He ushers me inside quickly, closing the door behind me, to reduce the cabin’s heat loss. “I would not have thought it was you out there. Interesting. What brings you out to my cabin?”
Shit. I should have done my yoga pose a few cabins back. Having no idea what he sensed before my approach, I’m going to go with the “ignore it and it will go away” tactic.
“I’m looking for an unregistered guest who might be on the premises. You haven’t included anyone in your party without letting the front desk know, have you?”
Drew smiles while spreading his hands wide. “No, but you’re welcome to check.”
His expression appears knowing and coldly assessing. I plan to play dumb and get through this as fast as I can. Perhaps talking to people right now isn’t a great idea.
I wave him off with a flick of my wrist. “Don’t be silly, I would’ve sensed anyone the second I came in, you know that. I’m here to find out if you’ve seen anyone new.”
“I haven’t noticed anyone new around my cabin, if that’s what you’re asking, but it’s not like I’ve been checking either. Should I be?”
He gestures to the table and chairs toward the rear of the long room. The cabins each have a small bedroom with a king-size bed, a well-appointed bath and a large living area containing a kitchenette. Accepting his offer to sit, I head to the table and take a seat.
“No, we don’t expect our guests to be checking.”
He’s trying to catch my eye, staring intently at my face with a pensive look. Could he have sensed my true age for a moment while I was outside? Or did I appear older with the recent infuse of power? What age am I to those who can read power signatures well? If he did sense something, I may have invited more trouble on my little fact-finding mission then I need right now.
Hiding my true age keeps the guests calm. It leaves them unthreatened, allowing them to unwind, while protecting all we hold dear here. Most vamps would go on high alert when they encounter another undead older than themselves, which would not be conducive to a relaxing trouble-free vacation now, would it?
Drew pulls me out of my depressing thoughts with a question.
“I like the look of the main building. What made you choose the southern plantation style with the big columns and such?”
Wow, where the hell did that come from? I’m used to the guests asking questions about the place, but the timing feels weird to me right now.
“Rafe and I have traveled extensively and we’ve always thought the mansions down south had a relaxed air about them. Dignified and refined, yet somehow welcoming at the same time.”
“The sunny yellow siding with black shutters does have a nice glow against all the snow. I think you both chose well.”
Does this seem surreal to me because I’m hyped up on Jon’s blood or is he pumping me for information?
He continues, oblivious of my discomfort. “The grounds here are extensive. I imagine one could come back again and again over the years and still find more to discover.”
“Which was our hope. We wanted the guests to always find something new on their tour of the property.”
“Those greenhouses with the UV lighting are a smart investment as well. You can grow fresh essentials for the employees and the guests who require it. You really have thought this out, haven’t you?”
Well, crap, he has been doing a lot of exploring. Normally, it would be fine, but I don’t appreciate the twenty questions. My hopped-up brain is having a hard time sensing nuances in his speech, which means I can’t tell if he has a hidden agenda. It’s best to bail now or try to get this conversation firmly back on track.
Before I have a chance to think up an intelligent topic, Drew fires out yet another question and observation.
“You are more than you appear to be aren’t you, Vivian? That makes me even more intrigued than I was before.”
It’s time to put a stop to his curiosity for now. I can’t mess around anymore. Projecting an air of innocence about myself, and some slight confusion at his question, I slip into his mind and push him to doubt what he sensed earlier, while blurring the information in his mind he thinks he can assume about me.
When answering his question, I refer back to the word “appear” he’d used in his question to make it seem like I think he’s being literal.
“I realize the sturdy jeans and bulky sweater combined with the heavy down jacket isn’t a look that works on me. But in a pinch, it’ll do to protect my skin.” I smile a vapid grin. “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”
Drew’s eyes mirror his thoughts perfectly. My flippant comment combined with the push has done its job. He’s lost some of the assuredness I saw when I first met his eyes. Now would be good time to beat a hasty retreat before I lose the fragile moment. My earlier curiosity over his choice to visit here alone will have to be addressed another time. Rising from my seat, I head toward the exit.
“I trust your stay here so far has been a good one?”
He looks a bit dizzy; maybe I pushed too much. Damn. Subtlety is hard when amped up on Were blood.
“Uh, yes. The resort has been great, exactly what I needed. Your employees have been a delight.”
Meaning he’s fed from them and liked it. Good.
“How do they all carry your scent?” Ah, he noticed. That’s the point.
“Once a month, I fortify the water supply with a cup of my blood.” Drew’s eyes light up at this admission. Maybe I shared too much, but it wouldn’t take a genius to figure it out if anyone really put their mind to it. He’s weighing his next words carefully, yet I can tell he’s still working out all the implications of my statement.
Giving the employees my blood may be a big step, but not an unheard of one when employing large numbers of humans. By sharing my blood, I protect them from other vampires, which also means I can’t feed from them either. When there’s a mutual blood exchange between human and an undead, it links them as vampire master and servant. The vampire can “call” them any time through the blood link they share, and the human must respond. I like to think of it as nature’s way of providing the vampire with a reliable food supply, but still, it’s not a power I wish to have over the employees.
“You are quite the clever girl, Vivian. But doesn’t it limit who you feed from?” Drew has managed to put together what a lot of my guests overlook. Clearly, he’s not as fuzzy-headed as I’d thought.
But he’s right. Having consumed my blood already, they would ALL be my servants if I fed from them. For my employees, the tiny bit of my blood they ingest, scents them to other vampires as “mine” and thus they carry my protection as my wards or extended family.
“Yes, it does limit who I feed from.”
Damn, he’s sure chatty tonight. I’d intended to question him and instead I’m bumbling through this whole encounter. I need to get the hell out of here.
“I haven’t seen you at the bar much. We’re welcoming some new guests tonight. Care to join us?’’
I decide to push him into coming, my eyes lock onto his while I slip into his mind again. Not wanting to go too deep and risk notice, I stay at the surface of his thoughts. I compel him to desire a change from these four walls and agree to come to the bar.
Drew is an unknown. I need to learn more about him now that he may have sensed my true age. I could wipe the memory of my visit from him, but don’t want to risk the exposure.
In reality, I hate subterfuge; it’s not in me. Learning to carefully use my gift has been a challenge my whole undead life. I’d rather rip the knowledge out of Drew and make everyone do as I say, but that would put the tribunal’s enforcers on me for sure.
The fact I’m seriously considering such strong-arm tactics means something’s way off with me. The added infusion from Jon has me ready to believe in my earlier wish to control my little corner of the world.
The darkness crouching inside my being flexes and grows, pushing to the edge of my senses while reaching out to sink its claws into Drew’s pliant mind. It whispers to me: Take what you want. Make him do it.
With smooth precision, I pull myself back out of his head while locking the tempting power away. Easing from his surface thoughts, I state my earlier question again to bring his focus back to the present.
“Drew, would you care to join us tonight in the bar?”
I need to tell Rafe about my loss of control. If I’m not myself, he can help bring me back from the edge. Scary, how I was ready to practically mind-rape Drew a moment ago.
To mess up here and now could be disastrous to our safety.
Subtle steering of events? Yes.
Blatant, outright manipulation? No.
Throughout our history, undead with the ability to mind-control other vampires are tracked down and killed. The string of bodies left behind me to ensure my survival is long. I don’t care to be hunted again and I will not make the same choices as before.
When Drew answers my question about joining us at the bar, I’m pulled out of my fearful inner thoughts.
“Yes, it sounds like fun. I’ll be there.”
The twinkle in his eye makes me think he’s anticipating it. It was not my doing, so he must have something else on his mind. I finally say my goodbye and leave. The door closes behind me with a soft click followed by a snick of the lock.
I feel jittery and slightly scared. The encounter could have been really messy if I had gone deep into his mind as I’d wanted too. Is this how a heroin user feels? The next time I drink from Jonathan, I think I’ll stay in bed for the day with Rafe and burn this high off in a healthy way.
Extra power can be good but not when it’s risky. This murder has shaken me more than I’ve been willing to admit. I can think of no other reason why I’m handling this power flush so poorly. It sure as hell hasn’t done this to me any other time.
My meanderings and ruminations have brought me close to cabin two, where the Natsuhara party resides. I hear a muffled scream of pain, which causes my head to whip up. The key is in my hand before I have a chance to think things through. Racing up the steps to the door, I unlock it and slam the heavy wood back in a quick movement. The sight that greets me steals my very breath. Which of course doesn’t stop me from saying the first thing to pop into my head.