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100 Blog Posts - #27 - Ring of Fire, Chapter 2 (continued)

Ring of Fire
Chapter 2


    “It’s a very nice bar,” Della stammered, still trying to ease her elbow out of the vampire’s strong hand, her mind churning through everything she thought she knew about them. Vampires just did not stand in the spotlight; they hid the shadows. If a vampire owned a business, they didn’t front it, they had minions to do that for them. Wasn’t that accepted knowledge?
    “Thanks. You’re from Ireland?” He sounded casual, even relaxed and polite, but he steered her with grim determination, his fingers hard as stone and nearly as cool through the soft cloth of her blouse.
    “I was born in Ireland, but I grew up in London,” said Della, stammering a little. She had no weapons with her, nothing but... no, she had one stake, the heavy one with the cross-piece that worked in a pinch against young vampires who believed they could be “repelled” by the cross, but it was deep inside her purse, pressed against his side and she couldn’t move her free hand around to it easily. Besides, even if she could, she didn’t dare eliminate him here, in front of everyone. She had no idea how many slaves and fledglings he had surrounding him, not to mention the normal humans. What would they do if they witnessed an apparent murder?
    “I’m part Irish, m’self,” he said, his tone still conversational. He spun the ice and whiskey around in the glass he carried in his free hand. He was walking her steadily across the floor and through the swinging doors, down a back hall to a door on the right. “This is my office. Come on in.”
    He opened the door to display an ordinary office, although, like the rest of the bar, there were no windows. Every piece of artwork was framed in non-reflective glass. There was a turn-of-the-century map of Texas on one wall, and a fairly intricate genealogical chart with the O'Connor family crest emblazoned on it hanging behind the desk. The desk itself was nondescript, with a calendar blotter and general clutter, with a good executive office chair behind it and several straight-backed chairs in front.
    “Very nice,” she said. Now they were alone. Maybe she could do something, provided she could survive the next few minutes. She tensed.
    “Have a seat.” He almost threw her into the room, losing his gentlemanly demeanor. Della spun around, her hand going into her purse. Sean Patrick closed the door behind them and leaned on it. “So. The Hiera Sacra's finally found me.” His voice turned from warm and friendly to cold.
    “I beg your pardon, what's that?” she asked, forcing her eyes wide and innocent.
    He chuckled, but it was mirthless. “This ain't my first rodeo, Miss Kelley. You knew what I am as soon as we touched. I saw your expression. But mostly,” in a heartbeat he was right in front of her, holding her arms in a tight grip and bending his face close to hers, “you look so much like your grandmother.”
    His eyes seemed to burn into her skin as he studied her face, almost drinking her features in, with an expression that was part longing and part dismay.
    Della swallowed hard. She expected at any moment to feel his fangs rip into her neck, so she braced herself. Now Della would be left like her grandmother had been, helplessly under his control for the rest of her life, if he didn’t just kill her outright. If only she could reach her stake, first!
    Abruptly, his hands left her arms and he moved away from her. She yanked the sharpened wooden cross out of her purse, leaping at the door. He was there before her, hand against it so she couldn’t open it. She lifted the cross. He looked at it and laughed. “Now what, you’re clinging to that myth?” he asked, and slipped a finger under his collar, drawing out a thick gold chain from which dangled a St. Christopher medallion. “Your grandmother knew I was Catholic. I know she reported that.”
    Della backed away from him until she bumped the desk. “Of course, I know vampires aren’t really affected by the cross,” she said, her mouth dry. “It’s always better to be safe, just in case. Because all of you are affected by this.” She flipped the cross over to reveal the sharpened end, gripping the upper part of the cross like a dagger hilt. Admiration flashed in his eyes.
    “So you come here lookin’ for me, did you? How did the Order find me?” he asked, one eyebrow arching slightly as he relaxed against the door, his huge eyes sparkling with interest.
    What could she say that would make him let her go? What story could she come up with, flustered as she was with him staring at her? How could the Order have found him after all this time, here, of all places? What would make them believe the missing vampire was a bar owner in Burbank, when the last time they’d heard about him, some seventy years before, he’d been a European globetrotter? She only knew because she’d accidentally stumbled into this bar.
    “You were seen by a local operative,” she lied as quickly as she could. “London agents were called in to verify the sighting.” That sounded good.
    To her annoyance, Sean Patrick barked out a laugh. “Oh, come on, Miss Kelley,” he said, as his eyes flicked down to her cleavage, an expression as human as any man’s. His gaze quickly returned to her face, his cheeks reddening. Vampires could blush? “I saw you out there. You came in here to have a good time and dance. You didn’t expect to find me here at all. That pretty girl I was flirting with from the stage didn’t know I was a vampire, not until I touched your hand.”
    Della jerked her chin up and dared to look back at him. “I am not lying.” He had been flirting with her. She wanted him to. Her stomach twisted.
    “You are lying,” he said, but despite the harsh words, his eyes were merrily twinkling at her, and they crinkled at the corners when he smiled. He wasn’t supposed to be like this. He wasn’t supposed to be adorable. Della frowned.
    “Why did you ask me if you already knew?” she snapped.
    “I wanted to hear what you’d say. It’s okay, though. I’m just as glad to know for sure that it was complete chance.” He considered her for a few moments, then asked in a soft voice, “Tell me. How is your grandmother?”
    “She passed away when I was fifteen,” replied Della, taking several deep breaths to bolster her courage. To her surprise, he turned away from her, his head bowed at her words, as though he’d actually cared about Moira, had thought of her at all as more than merely his thrall! Della snapped, “Because of you, she was taken off field duty and put to work in records keeping. You hypnotized her and tricked her.”
    He turned back to her, his lips tightly pursed, high color in his cheeks. His eyes were pained. “That’s a lie, too. I never tricked her, and I bet she never said I did.”
    “No, she never said that.” Della swallowed and lifted her chin. “As if you actually cared about her!”
    Pain flashed in his eyes, his mouth trembling. “I suppose I can’t blame you for thinking like that. I know the Order did their best to make her feel their way.” His gaze went to the floor and he let out a long sigh. “Miss Kelley, you leave me no little dilemma here.”
    “I won’t let you hypnotize me and control me, vampire,” she said, lifting her chin.
    He looked at her, his expression curious, his eyes easily readable but she didn’t understand what they were saying. If he were a man she’d think he was attracted to her, was moved by her, or wanted her; but he was a vampire. The most he could want from her was her life’s blood. She didn’t understand. Lord, he had beautiful eyes. Damn it!
    “I don’t plan on controlling you, Miss Kelley. I don’t think I can or even know how to actually control anyone. I could force you to understand me through feeding, or I could put you under a hypnotic suggestion to do something I’d like you to do, but I’d really rather you simply like me, naturally. It’s possible, you know.”
    “You’re a vampire,” she said. “A monster.” She tightened her hold on her stake.
    Sean Patrick’s eyes narrowed slightly. “That’s what you folks really think, I know,” he said, his tone bitter. “All vampires have to fit into that narrow little box you have us crammed into. Tell me, Miss Kelley, would you kill me, here and now, even if I haven’t hurt anyone? I’ve made no move to attack you. I haven’t been a perfect gentleman, I’ll admit, but I haven’t hurt you.”
    “That’s what the Order does. Eliminate vampires,” Della said, actually stung by his words. She jerked her chin as she thought of something. “Try and deny that your sire is a cold-blooded killer. She murdered my father’s first wife."
    Sean Patrick’s head snapped up and fire flashed in his dark eyes. "I don't believe it,” he whispered, but there was a fevered look on his face, as though he needed to not believe.
    Della stiffened. “It’s the truth. My father and his first wife were tracking Amanda in Switzerland in 1970. My father closed in on her fledgling and had him trapped when he heard his wife scream. The fledgling and Amanda got away, and my father found his wife with a broken neck.”
    “I don’t believe Amanda did it,” he said, gripping her arms to stare at her face. His breath was oddly warm against her neck as he bent over her, looking at her so intently it was as though he could see right through her. Della turned her face away, not daring to meet his eyes, then twisted to keep her neck away from his fangs. Although she tried to still them, her hands started to shake.
    “Believe it,” she said, daring to look straight at him. “My father told me all about it. It took him years to recover.”
    “Amanda always taught me to feed without killing. I never saw her take a human life.”
    “Maybe you didn’t know her as well as you thought,” snapped Della.
    “I was with her for fifty years. You’d think you’d get to know people in that amount of time.” But he didn’t sound certain. Sean Patrick’s head dropped again, his chin against his chest. “Sit down, Miss Kelley,” he said, letting her go.
    Della glanced at the chair, gripped her stake, and ran at him. Sean Patrick threw his hand up to ward her off, the force of her attack driving the stake through his palm. He let out a sharp hiss as he managed to stop the point just before it reached his chest. His fingers curled around the cross piece, yanking it away from her.
    The vampire burst out with a violent string of cursing as he shoved her back and held his wounded hand close for a moment, then away from himself as dark, almost black, vampire blood began to seep from the hole in his palm, dripping down off the point of the stake to the floor. “God damn it! Pardon, Miss Kelley,” he ground out between his teeth, curtailing his swearing as he grabbed hold of the top of the cross and, letting out a yelp, yanked it out of his hand and threw it across the room.
    “Sean Patrick, are you in here?” the door burst open and the handsome man from the front box office burst in. “You’re missing a hell of a good show... what the fuck?” He saw Sean Patrick’s hand and his eyes flicked around the room as his face turned an ugly red. His gaze dropped to the bloodied stake on the floor and then he spun on Della, slamming the door behind him. He grabbed her by the neck with one powerful hand, lifted her, and shoved her into the filing cabinets. Her head banged painfully on the drawers as his fingers closed on her windpipe, choking her. She gasped, stars dancing before her eyes.
    “Matt, stop it,” shouted Sean Patrick.
    “She tried to kill you!”
    Della clawed at Matt’s hand, kicking his shin with all her strength, but it apparently had no effect, except to make his fingers tighten. Della started to struggle only to breathe, her attempts to free herself turning feeble. Her vision was starting to blur.
    “I mean it, Matthias, let her go. Get yourself under control,” came the vampire’s voice, sharp and stern, through the buzzing in her ears. “Right now!”
    After a second, the grip around her neck loosened. Della gasped in a fresh breath, stumbling away from Matt as far as she could as she panted, drawing air past her aching throat into her starving lungs. She pressed her back against the wall and eyed him warily. He was definitely no vampire, but his brown eyes showed the clear signs of having been fed on, frequently, and she kicked herself for not having seen it when she came into the bar in the first place.
    “You,” he said. “If I’d known what you were up to I wouldn’t have let you in.” His voice was ragged with barely suppressed fury.
    “I didn’t come here looking for a vampire. But I’m always prepared in case I do,” she snapped back, her voice hoarse. She coughed and tried to edge further from her attacker, whose fists twitched upward when she spoke, thick muscles rippling beneath his decorated shirt as he moved toward her again.
    “Matt, let it go,” said Sean Patrick, his tone even but urgent. Della looked at the vampire. He’d grabbed a handful of Kleenex from a box on the desk and was holding it against his wounded palm while he licked blood from the back of his hand like an animal. Della shuddered and looked away, but the malice in Matt’s eyes was far more frightening than seeing the vampire clean his own wounds. “I am serious. Leave her be.” He looked up and fixed on Matt with a stern gaze. “Are you listening to me? Get it under control, young man.”
    There was a tension in the air that Della felt had nothing to do with her. To her surprise, Matt took a step back and let out a long breath, then said, “Yes, sir,” in a respectful manner. He didn’t sound like a slave in thrall to a vampire. He sounded like a young man confronted by his father.
    “Damn it, wood hurts,” said Sean Patrick. His face looked strained. “Pardon me. Now, if we can all behave like gentlemen and ladies?” He looked from one to the other. Della rubbed her neck and looked from Matt to where Sean Patrick had hurled her stake. She saw Matt’s fists clench again. “This is Della Kelley.”
    “Hiera Sacra, or working on her own?” asked Matt. There was a vein starting to throb in his forehead.
    “I belong to the Order,” said Della, her voice rough. “But I didn’t come here on a hunt.”
    “I believe her. Control, son, control.” Sean Patrick moved around his desk. He was really limping now, heavily favoring his left leg. Della frowned slightly.
    “Yes, sir,” repeated Matt, but he sounded a lot less respectful. The muscles in his jaw were jumping as he clenched his teeth. Still, he backed further from Della and leaned on the door, capturing his hands behind his back.
    “Miss Kelley, this is Matthias O’Connor. He’s my great-grand-nephew.”
    Della looked up at the vampire, shocked. Vampires never remained in contact with their human families. The Hiera Sacra often found vampire fledglings simply by following up on missing persons reports. New vampires just disappeared from their human lives, leaving no closure for their families. “Your nephew?” she asked.
    “Yes, my younger brother’s great-grandson,” replied Sean Patrick, wiping his palm clean and looking at it. Della could see the wound was nearly closed, but the hand was darkly bruised, still seeping blood, red streaks creeping up his wrist. Sean Patrick curled it into a fist and tucked it into his jacket pocket as he nodded toward the genealogy on the wall.
    Della closed her mouth, looking from the vampire to Matt O’Connor. That certainly explained the similarity in their dark eyes. Strangely, maybe Moira Kelley hadn’t been as wrong about him as the Order claimed she was. Della tried to remember some of the things her grandmother had written about this vampire, those odd and controversial papers the Order either suppressed or laughed at, papers she really shouldn’t have been allowed to read until she became a senior operative, but she’d found them on her own.
    “So what the hell does she want?” snapped Matt.
    “Watch your language,” said Sean Patrick mildly. “Please excuse him, Miss Kelley.” He leaned against his desk, pain shooting across his features again. “Now then. I was about to say something to you, Miss Kelley, before we kinda got sidetracked. I have a bit of a dilemma here.” He considered her with that sad expression, then he tightened his jaw and blinked several times. “I can’t let you leave here.”
    “What?” Della shoved herself away from the file cabinets, startled into anger. Matt jerked forward, too, fists reappearing. Sean Patrick held up his hand.
    “As an operative it’s your duty to return and report on where you found me, and I’m sorry, I just can’t allow that.”
    Della felt her stomach churn again as her heart jumped into her aching throat. She would die here, and her parents, and Theo, would never know what happened to her. She blinked a few times.
    “Now, don’t get all worked up, honey,” Sean Patrick continued, his tone turning surprisingly gentle. “I’m not going to hurt you any. Shut up, Matt,” he held up one finger toward his nephew, who closed his mouth, which had opened in protest. “We have two ways of approaching this situation as I see it. You can stay here as my guest, and I’ll do my best to make you comfortable. We might get to know one another and you’ll come to see me as something other than a bloodthirsty monster. Maybe you’ll change your mind about me, decide I’m no threat and, having done so, might be able to go back and keep my secret.”
    “Or?” she managed to ask, swallowing.
    “Or you’re my prisoner and your stay will be indefinite,” said Sean Patrick. “I really don’t want to have that happen. Either way, Miss Kelley, you are going to be staying here.” He shoved himself off the desk and walked to where Matt leaned against the door with a vein throbbing in his forehead again. They spoke softly. Della strained to hear. Matt gave Sean Patrick a strange look.
    “I can fix that,” said Matt loudly enough for Della to hear, giving her a fierce look. Della knew instinctively she was in far greater danger from this human man than she was from the vampire. “Listen to me,” he said, his voice cold but polite, "You’re in no danger from Sean Patrick. But you'd better watch out for me. You mess with him, you're inviting a world of hurt."
    Sean Patrick scowled at his nephew, but said nothing.
    Della glared at Matt, determined not to show her fear, but she couldn’t stop trembling. There was no way she could get past him. Matt wasn’t as tall as his vampire uncle, but he was much broader, thick with muscle and as powerful looking as the lion he vaguely resembled.
    “Matt,” said Sean Patrick mildly, “don’t. Miss Kelley, I really would rather you be my guest than my prisoner.”
    “A guest is usually voluntary,” said Della, then her taut nerves snapped and she let out an involuntary shriek as something large and furry landed on the file cabinets next to her head with a loud thump. She turned to see a huge silvery cat regarding her with gigantic blue eyes.
    Matt ignored the cat and snapped at her, “Why can't you people leave him alone? He's done nothing to you.”
    “How can you defend a vampire?” asked Della.
    “So he's a vampire!” Matt shot back. “Who cares?”
    “Vampires are monsters!”
    “You believe everything Hollywood tells you? He's my uncle.”
    “No, he's not! The creature that made him killed your uncle and set loose that thing inside of his body!”
    Matt’s fist snapped up and Della flinched away from a blow that didn’t land. Her own fists clenched, although Matt was at least twice her size. She would fight if she had to. But then Sean Patrick was between them, his expression fierce.
    “Matt, I am dead serious here. You get that temper under control and I mean right this minute. Stand outside, if you would. I’m going to talk to Miss Kelley.”
    Matt ground his jaw, sending the muscles in his cheek twitching again. "I hope to hell you know what you're doing." He opened the door, went out, and closed it hard behind him.
    Sean Patrick reached toward her. Della flinched, but the vampire only gathered the big cat into his arms. To her surprise, the animal settled into his embrace and began to purr loudly. “I understand being a fanatic about something.”
    “I'm not a fanatic,” said Della.
    “Every member of the Hiera Sacra I ever met was, Miss Kelley,” said Sean Patrick. “But you could prove to me you're different. Let’s make it as easy as we can. Maybe some vampires ain’t as bad as you seem to think they are. I'm really not an evil creature of the night. Heck, you might actually like staying with me. I have a nice place, and I’m a good cook.” He smiled, petting his cat.
Della looked up, weighing his words and watching the animal in his arms. She’d never seen a vampire before who could get that close to any animal. Animals were one of the best ways of exposing a vampire.
    “Whether or not I agree, I am your prisoner, as I see it,” she said.
    “If that’s the way you want to view it, honey,” he said. “But I’d sure hate to see it that way myself.”
    “Can you guarantee my safety?” she asked. “You won’t bite me. You won’t feed on me. Or kill me.”
    He actually laughed. “I give you my solemn oath,” he said. He set the cat down on the desk and offered her his unharmed right hand. “And you have my hand on it. I won't feed off you unless you specifically ask me to.”
    “Which I will never do,” she replied, and, hesitating only a moment longer, took his hand in hers. His long, dry fingers curled around her hand again, this time in a firm, businesslike shake.
    “So there we are,” he said. “Now, I have some work I have to do. I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, honey, but I’m going to lock you in here for right now.”
    Della stiffened, fear shooting through her.
    “I’m sorry, Miss Kelley. I won’t be able to keep an eye on you out there.” He reached over his desk and flipped a switch. Music from the main room filled the office. But while he was turning on the intercom, Della ran to the door and had it open before he was there again, shutting it in her face. “Let’s not be difficult, Miss Kelley,” he said. “You shook hands on it.”
    Della opened her mouth and closed it again. Her voice shaking, she said, “You really are going to hold me prisoner.”
    “I really would rather call you my guest,” he replied in a sad voice.
    “But you won’t let me leave,” she said.
    “I can’t, Miss Kelley. I know that’s a strike against me right off the bat, but now that you know about me, I can’t let you go. Not until you know who I am, and I know you won’t betray me. Please take my word that no harm will come to you while you’re under my roof.”
    “What about him?” she asked of Matt, glancing at the door. She’d seen the big man standing out the hall, waiting, in the brief second she’d had the door open.
    “Matt won't hurt you,” said Sean Patrick with a smile. “I promise. You can listen to the music on the intercom and I’ll try to hurry. If you want a drink, let me know and I’ll bring something back for you. What’re you drinking?"
    “What about my things? I have a rental car, a hotel room, all my clothes. I left my credit card at the front, I was running a tab,” she said.
    “Give me your keys and tell me what hotel you’re at, and I’ll have Matt return your car and check you out of the room,” he replied. “I’ll take care of the tab.”
    Della jerked away from him. “No! You can’t! I can’t! This is ridiculous! What if I give you my word I won’t tell on you?”
    Sean Patrick chuckled. “You and I both know you can’t keep a promise like that, Miss Kelley. The Order wouldn’t allow it. Now come. You’ll need clothes, and it won’t do to have the hotel staff report you as missing.” Della looked up at him a moment and started for the door again. She knew Matt was standing out in the hall, but maybe she could get away from them both, somehow, lose them in the crowd and get to the parking lot, her car, and away. “And you don’t want to have to pay for a car you’re not using,” he continued, catching her arm and halting her attempted escape. Della ground her jaw and glared up at him.
    “Let go of me! You’re hurting me.”
    Immediately he let go. “I’m sorry.” Then he frowned. “Hey. Stop that.”
    “Stop what?”
    “Using my good nature against me.” The vampire regarded her with those sad, dark chocolate eyes. “Give me your keys,” he said. “I can force you do it, you know, and I would really rather not.”
    “You’re saying this isn’t by force?” she said.
    “Well, at least this way I can pretend it’s of your own free will,” he replied. He guided her to his desk and sat her down. “Listen to me,” he said, leaning over her, his hands on either arm of the chair, “A good part of me wants to trust you won’t give me away, that I could take your word you wouldn’t and you could walk out of here right now. But another part of me is, quite frankly, terrified of you and your Order.” His eyes took in every part of her face, a hungry expression that made her sink herself more deeply into the leather upholstery. “Until I have good reason to believe you think I’m something more than a monster, you’re going to want me dead.”
    “Vampires are already dead. They are killers of the living. You feed on humans,” she spat at him.
    “Who said I was dead?” asked Sean Patrick, giving her an odd look, his eyebrow quirked up. “I do feed on human blood, but I never killed anyone with my fangs or vampire strength.”
    “That’s an interesting qualification,” said Della, unable to resist pointing out the careful structure of his sentence. “So you are a killer?”
    He blushed again, then coughed. “I shot a man once.” At her shocked look, he continued, “It was 1883 and in a part of Texas my family owned. I wasn't even charged. But bear in mind I was already a vampire, and I chose the straightforward Texas way to deal with a horse thief.” He frowned at her, then shrugged. “That was a different time and a different place.” He pulled away from the chair and walked over to where her stake lay. He reached for some more Kleenex and picked up the bloody cross. “Why do you think I’m dead?” he asked.
    “Vampires are the undead,” replied Della. “That’s common knowledge, even outside of the Order.”
    Sean Patrick grunted, shaking his head as he did so. “Common knowledge the Order created,” he said, straightening up, his movements stiff. “I never have felt dead, even when I was crawling out of a grave. Hell, pardon me, especially not then.”
    “Nonetheless, you are,” she said.
    He chuckled, limping heavily as he came back to the desk. Della watched him curiously. He noticed her expression. “You’re wondering why I’m limping,” he said, tucking the Kleenex-wrapped stake into an inside pocket of his jacket.
    “Uh... yes,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t have thought your hand...”
    “That had nothing to do with it,” he said. “Earlier tonight I was shot.”
    “Shot? With a crossbow?” How powerful was this vampire?
    “No, Miss Kelley,” he chuckled. “With a gun. The victim of a mugging gone wrong. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my wallet on me, and the young man was scared and nervous, so when I didn’t produce any money, he shot me. Five times. In the chest. And it hurts like holy hell, pardon me. Fortunately, most of the bullets passed right through.”
    Della wasn't sure what to say. Vampires weren’t people. She flashed back to some of her own eliminations, thinking about the times she’d been certain she’d seen pain in their faces as they died, and every time she’d worried everyone had assured her it wasn’t real. Vampires couldn’t really feel pain.
    “You going to tell me it’s just my dead flesh having a memory of pain?” he asked, arching one eyebrow as he studied her face.
    “I was considering it,” she admitted.
    “My flesh has a damned good memory, then,” he said with some amount of heat. “Pardon.”
    Della glanced around the office, searching for anything she could use as a weapon. The only sharp pieces of wood in evidence were a number of novelty pencils in a holder on the edge of the desk. She jumped to reach for one, but he was much faster. He was between her and the desk in a heartbeat. He held her wrist firmly, but not in a crushing grip.
    “Let's stop fighting. If you did manage to kill me here you probably won't leave the bar. Bear in mind Matt’s right outside the door, and without me to hold him back, I don’t honestly think you’d stand a chance.” He was simply stating a fact. Della recognized that immediately.
    His eyes held no hint of malice or menace. She feared him, but she realized it was only the fear of her knowledge of him, as a vampire, rather than his actual presence, and in a startling moment of clarity, she realized what she had seen in his clear expressive eyes was stark terror. He was far more afraid of her than she was of him.
    “So what are you going to do with me?” she asked. “My partner is across town. If I don't check in, he'll come looking for me.”
    “Why didn't you bring him with you?” He hadn't let go of her wrist, holding her so she couldn't move away from him. “Does he know where you are?”
    “He knows where I am, of course,” she lied. Why hadn't she left better instructions with Theo? Because of course she hadn't expected him to want to come, anyway.
    Sean Patrick smiled a weary smile. “You're lying to me again, Miss Kelley. Come on, tell me the truth. Let's be frank with one another.”
    “You're very perceptive.”
    He let go of her wrist and leaned on the desk, watching as she backed away. “Not really. You’re just frightened and it shows. So. No one knows where you are. Los Angeles is a very big city.”
    “All right, then,” she said. “What else can I do?”
    Sean Patrick smiled, but his eyes filled with sadness again. “Give me your purse,” he said.
    “No,” she replied.
    “No more arguments, Miss Kelley. You’re going to give me your hotel key and your car keys.”
    Della stared at him. “Suppose I say no?” she asked defiantly.
    “I could very easily take them by force,” he said gently. “But I don’t want to do that to you.”
    “You can’t hypnotize me,” she said, lifting her chin. True, Theo hadn’t finished her lessons in holding off hypnosis, but she knew the mechanics. If she knew it was coming, she wouldn’t fall for it.
    But to her annoyance, he just laughed. “Oh, really?” he said.
    Della blinked. He was no longer leaning on the desk. She whirled around and found him standing just behind her. “While you were under, Miss Kelley, I could have made you give me the information about your hotel, and anything else I wanted you to do. But I didn’t.” He held out his hand. “Please.”
    Della's hands went to her neck as she gasped in horror. She didn’t feel like she’d been fed on, and still deeply distrusted him. Had he fed on her, that distrust would have been mostly negated, replaced by trust and possibly even affection. That was usually how it worked.
    “Don't worry, I didn't,” he said. “I promised.”
    “I know you didn’t,” she said. “Because I still don’t trust you.” Della narrowed her eyes as she studied his face, trying to avoid direct eye contact this time. Her gaze dropped to the front of his black shirt, which was, she saw close up, patterned heavily with matching thread embroidery which gave it its shimmering appearance. “What about my partner?”
    “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it,” he said.
    “Don’t you mean cross that bridge?” she asked, her eyes coming back to his face. He was grinning now, amused.
    “Probably,” he replied. “Come on, Miss Kelley,” he repeated. “I have work to do.”
    “I’m not stopping you from doing it.”
    “Yes, you are.” With that, he dove forward and snatched her purse out of her hands. Della tried to grab it back, but he easily held it above her head. “Thank you.” He winked and slipped out of the door, closing it hastily behind him before Della could get to it, and she heard the lock click.
    She was locked in a vampire’s office.

    Cody sat at the table after Sean Patrick spirited her new friend away. That had been an electric meeting. Della's expression when Sean Patrick touched her had been strange, though. Cody looked around to see if Matt was still around, and found him standing at the end of the bar, drinking seltzer from a bottle and watching the stage with a slight smile, paying little attention to anything else around him. She found her eyes moving more often to his quiet form than to the active one on stage, and she could watch Matt to her heart’s content with everyone else’s attention elsewhere.
    The show had been going for a while when he looked around. Cody quickly shifted her attention elsewhere, and when she dared to glance again, Matt was heading into the back, heading through the swinging doors with purpose. Cody turned back to the stage and watched for a few minutes, then decided she might as well make some kind of move. Why not? Get shot down early before she was formally working for him, or even get a chance to sit and talk over a late-night coffee or something. Besides, she could plead she was searching for Della, anyway.
    The hallway was empty. Cody paused outside of Matt’s office, but the door was open and it, too, was empty. She continued on down to Sean Patrick’s office, trying to decide what she’d say if she knocked. She was, truthfully, looking for Della. If Sean Patrick was schmoozing Della, though, she certainly didn't want to interrupt. It had been clear Sean Patrick was totally gone on the redheaded Irish girl.
    Cody reached the door and lifted her hand to knock when she heard Sean Patrick shout at Matt, followed by Matt’s voice raised in anger. She froze.
    She didn't really mean to eavesdrop. Cody was the youngest child in a family of six children, and selective "listening in" was almost second nature to her, even when she knew she shouldn't. In a household like she’d grown up in, you learned to keep your ears open if you wanted to know anything at all. Besides, hearing Matt shout, "She tried to kill you!" simply struck her completely still, frozen to the floor. She stopped with her arm raised, listening to the heated conversation on the other side. Occasionally the words, especially Sean Patrick’s reasoned tones, fell too low for her to hear them, but almost everything Matt and Della said came through in all their fiery glory.
    Holy cow. Sean Patrick was a vampire? Well, that sure explained the pictures. Cody put her hand to her neck and considered her interview with him, frowning as she remembered when she’d thought he’d moved, but she hadn't actually seen him move. Maybe he had. Vampires. Vampires. What did she know about vampires? Not a whole lot, other than what was in the movies. The movies rarely got such things right. Not when it came to the world of magic. She knew enough to know vampires were magickal creatures, and maybe as unpredictable as mages themselves.
    Cody backed slowly and carefully away from the door, returning to the main room. It also explained how he’d been working here longer than Matt, and why he was the boss. Shoot, she didn't have any idea how old he was. Well, working for a vampire wouldn't be any worse than her last boss, who had been totally human but still preyed on children.
    The bar was hopping with the loud, awesome honky-tonk music, and Cody accepted the first guy who asked her to dance without even looking at his face. He swung her out onto the dance floor and she followed on automatic. A vampire. She’d never met a vampire before. Holy cow.
    She saw Matt come stalking out of the back, his face red and his hair rumpled. Sean Patrick came behind him, but went to the secondary bar on the far side of the room instead of the main bar, which is where Matt aimed. He took another bottle of seltzer from Carlos and spoke to him. Cody finished the dance and thanked her partner, then circled around the edge of the crowd, over to the secondary bar. She lost sight of Matt’s bright blond hair in the crowd, but she could see the top of Sean Patrick’s head over the others, where he was assisting the bartender. There was a smile on his strained face as he passed longneck bottles to several cowboys, some almost as tall as he was.
    Okay. So he was a vampire, and it sounded like Della was a vampire hunter. So where was Della now? Somehow Cody couldn't believe that he'd killed her and stuck her bloodless body somewhere, not after what she'd heard and not after seeing the look on Matt's face. Hell, from what she’d heard, it sounded a lot like Matt had been a lot closer to doing the killing. And oddly, at the moment, Cody felt she could do the same. Just standing there looking at Sean Patrick she liked him well enough to want to protect him from vampire hunters, and that thought alone confused and irritated her. She barely knew the guy. The really annoying thing was that she'd stopped thinking about making time with a gorgeous man and wasn't even looking for Matt anymore.
    At the moment, what she really needed to do was some serious thinking. She wormed her way close to the bar, where Sean Patrick was leaning heavily on his elbows, looking tired. "I'm gonna head out,” she said.
    He looked sharply at her. "Didn't you go with Matt?"
    Cody shrugged. "Go where?"
    Sean Patrick let out an annoyed sigh. "I needed him to run an errand and told him to take you with him. Apparently, he didn't.” He shrugged. "So we'll see you tomorrow?"
    "Um. Yeah, yeah, I'll be here tomorrow,” she said.
    His tired eyes narrowed slightly as he looked at her, then a ghost of his usual smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He reached over and patted her hand. "Good. Drive safe.” He pushed himself off the bar and crossed the floor as the last encore played, and Cody watched him disappear beyond the swinging doors before she turned to see the stage lights dim, casting the entire bar into darkness. After a moment, the house lights came up fully and the saddle over the dance floor started sparkling again. The show was over.
    Cody dug her truck keys out of her pocket as she headed into the parking lot, hurrying to where she’d left her battered old Chevy half-ton. She unlocked the door and swung into the cab, pondering to herself as she started it up. The engine coughed slightly and then roared to life, rattling her in a comfortable, familiar manner.
    Nightmare, indeed. Cody wished she hadn't had the rum, but she felt like the shock had boiled all the alcohol out of her system and she was perfectly safe behind the wheel. She drove down into Los Angeles proper and into the drive-thru at the first open McDonald's she saw, where she ordered a jumbo fries and Diet Coke. Thus armed with caffeine and carbs, she headed for home.
Tags: della, ring of fire, sean patrick and cody
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