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River Marked

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River Marked

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Author: Patricia Briggs
Publisher: Ace Books, 2011
Orbit, 2011
Series: Mercy Thompson: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Urban Fantasy
Magical Realism
Avg Member Rating:
(24 reads / 10 ratings)


Being a different breed of shapeshifter-a walker-Mercy Thompson can see ghosts, but the spirit of her long-gone father has never visited her. Until now, on her honeymoon with the Alpha werewolf Adam. An evil is stirring in the depths of the Columbia River-and innocent people are dying. As other walkers make their presence known to Mercy, she must reconnect with her heritage to exorcise the world of the legend known as the river devil...


Chapter 1

From The Dalles Chronicle

Two Local Men Still Missing
Thomas Kerrington (62) and his son Christopher Kerrington (40) are still missing, though the boat that they were fishing in has been recovered. The boat was found abandoned two miles downstream of John Day Dam yesterday. The men set out on a morning fishing expedition Monday morning but never returned. Sherman Co. marine deputy Max Whitehead says, "This has been an unusually bad year for boating fatalities on the Columbia. We're stepping up patrols and urging boaters to take their safety very seriously." Searchers are scouring the river, but after four days, hopes are low for a safe recovery of the two men.

From The Hood River News

This week's fish counts are drastically down at both John Day and The Dalles Dams. Allen Robb of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says, "We are concerned that there was some sort of toxic dump in the river somewhere between the dams. There is a significant reduction in the numbers of fish and our operators are telling us that this is especially true of our larger fish such as the adult Coho salmon." Although extensive testing is under way, no sign of poison has been found in the river nor has there been an unusually high number of dead fish. "The fish are spooked," says local fishing guide Jon Turner Bowman.

Under the glare of streetlights, I could see that the grass of Stefan's front lawn was dried by the high summer heat to yellow. It had been mowed, but only with an eye to trimming the length of the grass, not to making it aesthetically pleasing. From the debris of dead grass in the yard, the lawn had been left to grow long enough that the city might have demanded it be mowed. The grass that remained was dry enough that whoever had cut it wouldn't have to do it again unless someone started watering.

I pulled the Rabbit up to the curb and parked. The last time I'd seen Stefan's house, it had fit right into his ritzy neighborhood. The yard's neglect hadn't spread to the house's exterior yet, but I worried about the people inside.

Stefan was resilient, smart, and . . . Just Stefan—able to talk Pokémon in ASL with deaf boys, defeat nasty villains while locked up in a cage, then drive off in his VW bus to fight bad guys another day. He was like Superman, but with fangs and oddly impaired morals.

I got out of my car and walked up the sidewalk toward the front porch. In the driveway, Scooby-Doo looked out at me eagerly through a layer of dust on the windows of Stefan's usually meticulously tended bus. I had gotten the big stuffed dog for Stefan to go with the Mystery Machine paint job.

I hadn't heard from Stefan for months, not since Christmas in fact. I'd been caught up in a lot of things, and getting kidnapped for a day (which was a month for everyone else because fairy queens can apparently do that), was only part of it. But for the last month, I'd called him once a week and gotten only his answering machine. Last night, I'd called him four times to invite him to Bad Movie Night. We were a person short of the usual as Adam—my mate, fiancé, and the Alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack—was out of town on business.

Adam owned a security firm that, until recently, had dealt primarily with government contractors. Since the werewolves—and Adam—had come out to the general public, though, his business had started to boom on other fronts. Werewolves were seen as very good security people, apparently. He was actively looking for someone else who could do most of the traveling but so far hadn't found the right person.

With Adam away, I could give more attention to the other people in my life. I'd decided Stefan had had time enough to lick his wounds, but from the looks of things, I was a few months late.

I knocked on the door and, when that got no response, gave it the old "Shave and a Haircut" knock. I'd resorted to pounding when the dead bolt finally clicked over, and the door opened.

It took me a while to recognize Rachel. The last time I'd seen her, she'd looked like the poster girl for the disenchanted goth or runaway teenager. Now she looked like a crack addict. She'd lost maybe thirty pounds she didn't have to lose. Her hair hung in limp, greasy, and uncombed strings down her shoulders. Mascara smudges dripped over her cheeks in faded smears that would have done credit to an extra in Night of the Living Dead. Her neck was bruised, and she held herself like her bones ached. I tried not to show that I noticed she was missing the last two fingers on her right hand. Her hand was healed, but the scars were still red and angry.

Marsilia, the Mistress of the Tri-Cities' vampires, had used Stefan, her faithful knight, to oust traitors from her seethe, and part of that involved taking his menagerie—the humans he kept to feed from—and making him think they were dead by breaking his blood bonds to them. She seemed to think that torturing them had been necessary as well, but I don't trust vampires—other than Stefan—to speak the truth. Marsilia hadn't thought Stefan would object to her use of him and his menagerie once he knew that she'd done it to protect herself. He was, after all, her loyal Soldier. She'd miscalculated how badly Stefan would deal with her betrayal. From the looks of it, he wasn't recovering well.

"You'd better get out of here, Mercy," Rachel told me dully. "'Tisn't safe."

I caught the door before she could shut it. "Is Stefan home?"

She drew in a ragged breath. "He won't help. He doesn't."

At least it didn't sound like Stefan was the danger she had been warning me about. She'd turned her head when I stopped her from shutting the door, and I saw that someone had been chewing on her neck. Human teeth, I thought, not fangs, but the scabs climbed the side of the tendon between her collarbone and her jaw in brutal relief.

I shouldered the door open and stepped inside so I could reach out and touch the scabs, and Rachel flinched back, retreating from the door and from me.

"Who did this?" I asked. Impossible to believe Stefan would let anyone else hurt her again. "One of Marsilia's vampires?"

She shook her head. "Ford."

For a moment I drew a blank. Then I remembered the big man who'd driven me out of Stefan's house the last time I was there. Half-changed to vampire and mostly crazy with it—and that had been before Marsilia had gotten her claws into him. A very nasty scary guy—and I expected he'd been scary before he'd ever seen a vampire.

"Where's Stefan?"

I have very little tolerance for drama that ends in people getting hurt. It was Stefan's job to take care of his people, never mind that for most vampires their menageries existed as convenient snacks, and all the people in them died slow, nasty deaths over a period that might last as long as six months.

Stefan hadn't been like that. I knew that Naomi, the woman who ran his household, had been with him for thirty years or more. Stefan was careful. He'd been trying to prove that it was possible to live without killing. From the looks of Rachel, he wasn't trying very hard anymore.

"You can't come in," she said. "You need to leave. We're not to disturb him, and Ford . . ."

The floor of the entryway was filthy, and my nose detected sweaty bodies, mold, and the sour scent of old fear. The whole house smelled like a garbage heap to my coyote-sensitive nose. It would probably have smelled like a garbage heap to a normal human, too.

"I'm going to disturb him all right," I told her grimly. Someone obviously needed to. "Where is he?"

When it became obvious that she couldn't or wouldn't answer, I walked farther into the house and bellowed his name, tilting my head so my voice would carry up the stairs. "Stefan! You get your butt down here. I have a bone or two to pick with you. Stefan! You've had enough time to writhe in self-pity. Either kill Marsilia—and I'll help with that one—or get over it."

Rachel had resorted to patting my shoulder and tugging at my clothes to try to get me back outside the house. "He can't go outside," she said with frantic urgency. "Stefan makes him stay in. Mercy, you have to get outside."

I'm tough and strong, and she was shaking with weariness and, likely, iron deficiency. I had no trouble staying right where I was.

"Stefan," I bellowed again.

A lot of things happened in a very short period of time, so that I had to think of them later to put them together in the proper order.

Rachel sucked in a breath of air and froze, her hand on my arm abruptly holding on to me rather than pushing me away. But she lost her grip when someone grabbed me from behind and threw me onto the upright piano that sat against the wall between the entryway and the living room. It made such a huge noise that I mixed up the sound of my impact with the pain of my back hitting the top of the piano. Reaction to countless karate drills kept me from stiffening, and I rolled down the face of the piano. Not a fun thing. My face hit the flagstone floor. Something crashed into a limp pile beside me, and suddenly I was face-to- face with Ford, the big scary guy who inexplicably seemed to have thrown himself down beside me, blood dripping out of the corner of his mouth.

He looked different than he had last time, leaner and filthier. His clothing was stained with sweat, old blood, and sex. But his eyes, staring momentarily at me, were wide and startled like a child's.

Then a faded purple T-shirt spilling over ragged dirty jeans, and long, tangled dark hair blocked my view of Ford.

My protector was too thin, too unkempt, but my nose told me that he was Stefan almost before my brain knew to ask the question. Unwashed vampire is better than unwashed human, but it is not pleasant, either.

"No," Stefan said, his voice soft, but Ford cried out, and Rachel let out a squeak of sound.

"I'm all right, Stefan," I told him, rolling stiffly to hands and knees. But he ignored me.

"We don't harm our guests," Stefan said, and Ford whimpered.

I stood up, ignoring the protest of sore shoulders and hip. I'd have bruises tomorrow, but nothing worse thanks to sensei's sometimes brutal how-to-fall sessions. The piano looked like it would survive our encounter as well.

"It wasn't Ford's fault," I said loudly. "He's just trying to do your job." I don't know if it was true or not; I suspected Ford was just crazy. But I was willing to try anything to get Stefan's attention.

Still crouched between Ford and me, Stefan turned his head to look at me. His eyes were cold and hungry, and he gazed at me as though I were a complete stranger.

Better monsters than he had tried to cow me, so I didn't even flinch.

"You're supposed to be taking care of these people," I snapped at him. Okay, so he did scare me, which is why I was snippy. Get-scared-and-get-mad wasn't always smart. I, raised in a pack of werewolves, certainly knew better. But looking at Stefan and what had happened to his home made me want to cry—and I'd rather get scared and mad than do that. If Stefan thought I pitied him, he'd never let me help. Criticism was easy to take.

"Look at her—" I gestured toward Rachel, and Stefan's gaze followed my hand in response to the command in my voice, command I was just learning to borrow from Adam. There were a few perks to being the Alpha werewolf's mate.

Stefan jerked his gaze back to me as soon as he realized what I'd done, baring his fangs in a way that reminded me more of one of the werewolves than a vampire. But the snarl died from his face, and he looked at Rachel again.

The tension died from his shoulders, and he looked down at Ford. I couldn't see the big man's face, but his body language clearly said surrender to my pack-trained sight.

"Merda," said Stefan, releasing his hold on Ford.


The menace was gone from his face, but so was all trace of any emotion. He appeared almost dazed.

"Go get showered. Comb your hair and change your clothes," I told him briskly, striking while he was still weak. "And don't dawdle and leave me at the mercy of your people for very long. I'm taking you out tonight to watch some bad movies with Warren, Kyle, and me. Adam is out of town, so there's a slot open."

Warren was my best friend, a werewolf, and third in the Columbia Basin Pack. Kyle was a lawyer, human, and Warren's lover. Bad Movie Night was our therapy night, but sometimes we invited people we thought needed it.

Stefan gave me an incredulous stare.

"You obviously need someone to hit you with a cattle prod to get you moving," I informed him with a sweeping gesture that took in the disreputable state of his house and his people. "But you got me instead, your friendly neighborhood coyote. You might as well give in because I'll just annoy you until you do. Of course, I know a cowboy who probably has a cattle prod somewhere if it comes to that."

One side of his mouth turned up. "Warren is a werewolf. He doesn't need a prod to get cows moving." His voice sounded rough and unused. He glanced down at Ford.

"He's not going to hurt anyone soon," I told the vampire. "But I can drive most people to violence given enough time, so you should get moving."

Abruptly, there was a popping noise, and Stefan was gone. I knew he could teleport though he seldom did it in front of me. Both of his people jerked reflexively, so I guess they hadn't seen him do it much, either. I dusted off my hands and turned to Rachel.

"Where is Naomi?" I asked. I couldn't see her letting things get into this state.

"She died," Rachel told me. "Marsilia broke her, and we couldn't put her back together. I think that was the final straw for Stefan." She glanced up the stairway. "How did you do that?"

"He doesn't want me to get the cattle prod," I told her.

Her arms were wrapped around herself, her mutilated hand clearly visible. She was bruised, bitten, battered—and she said, "We've been so worried about him. He won't talk to any of us, not since Naomi died."

Poor Stefan had tried to curl up and die because Marsilia had sold him out—and he'd done his best to take the remnants of his menagerie with him. And Rachel was worried about him.

About him.

"How many of you are left?" I asked. Naomi had been a tough lady. If she was gone, she wouldn't have been the only one.


No wonder they looked bad. Four people couldn't feed a vampire all by themselves.

"He's been going out hunting?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I don't think he's been out of the house since we buried Naomi."

"You should have called me," I said.

"Yes," said Ford from the ground, his voice deep enough to echo. His eyes were closed. "We should have."

Now that he wasn't attacking me, I could see that he was thin, too. That couldn't be good in a man in transition from human to vampire. Hungry vampire fledglings have a tendency to go out and find their own food.

Stefan should have fixed this before it got so bad.

If I'd had a cattle prod, I might have been tempted to use it, at least until the stairs creaked, and I looked up to see Stefan coming down. I have a dusty degree in history for which I'd sat through a number of films of the Third Reich, and there were men who'd died in the concentration camps who were less emaciated than Stefan in the bright green Scooby-Doo T-shirt he'd filled out just fine when I'd seen him wear it a few months ago. Now it hung from his bones. Cleaned up, he looked worse than he had at first.

Rachel said that Marsilia had broken Naomi. Looking at Stefan, I thought that she'd come very close to breaking him, too. Someday, someday I would be in the same room with Marsilia with a wooden stake in my hand, and, by Heaven, I would use it. If, of course, Marsilia were unconscious, and all of her vampires were unconscious, too. Otherwise, I'd just be dead because Marsilia was a lot more dangerous than I was. Still, the thought of sinking a sharp piece of wood into her chest through her heart gave me great joy.

To Stefan, I said, "You need a donor before we go out? So no one pulls us over and makes me take you to the hospital or the morgue?"

He paused and looked down at Rachel and Ford. He frowned, then looked puzzled and a little lost. "No. They are too weak, there aren't enough of them left."

"I wasn't talking about them, Shaggy," I told him gently. "I've donated before, and I'm willing to do it again."

Ruby eyes gazed hungrily at me before he blinked twice, and they were replaced with eyes like root beer in a glass with the sun shining behind it.


He blinked. It was an interesting effect: ruby, root beer, ruby, root beer. "Adam won't like it." Ruby, ruby, ruby.

"Adam would donate himself if he were here," I told him truthfully, and rolled up my sleeve.

He was feeding on the inside of my elbow when my cell phone rang. Rachel helped me dig my phone out of my pocket and opened it. I don't think Stefan even noticed.

"Mercy, where the hell are you?"

Darryl, Adam's second in command, had decided it was his job to keep me in line when Adam was gone.

"Hey, Darryl," I said, trying not to sound like I was feeding a vampire.

My eyes fell on Ford, who had never risen from the floor but was staring at me with eyes that looked like polished yellow gems—citrine, maybe, or amber. I didn't remember what color his eyes had been a few minutes ago, but I think I would have remembered the funky eyes if they'd been there then. He was getting very close to becoming vampire, I thought. Before I could get too scared, Darryl's voice interrupted my thoughts.

"You left for Kyle's house an hour ago, and Warren tells me you aren't there yet."

"That's right," I said, sounding astonished. "Look at that. I'm not at Warren's yet."

"Smart-ass," he growled.

Darryl and I had this love-hate thing going. I start to think he hates me, and he does something nice, like save my life or give me a cool pep talk. I decide he likes me, and he rips me a new one. Probably I just confuse the heck out of him, and that's okay, because the feeling is mutual.

Darryl, of all of Adam's wolves, hates vampires the most. If I told him what I was doing, he'd be over here with reinforcements, and there would be bodies on the floor. Werewolves make everything more complicated than necessary.

"I've lived without babysitters for thirty-odd years," I told him in a bored voice. "I'm sure I can manage to get to Kyle's house without one." I was getting a little dizzy. Lacking another method, I tapped Stefan on the head with the hand I held the cell phone in.

"What was that?" asked Darryl, and Stefan gripped my arm harder.

I sucked in my breath because Stefan was hurting me—and realized that Darryl had heard that, too.

"That was my lover," I told Darryl. "Excuse me while I finish getting him off." And I hung up the phone.

"Stefan," I said. But it was unnecessary. He let me go, backed up a few steps, and knelt on one knee.

"Sorry," he growled. His hands rested on the ground in front of him, fisted tight.

"No trouble," I told him, glancing at my arm. The small wounds were sealed, healing quickly from his saliva. I'd learned more about vampires over the past year or so than I'd known the rest of my life. Ignorance had been bliss.

I knew, for instance, that because of my bonds with Adam, there would be no repercussions from letting Stefan feed from me again. A human without that protection who was food for the same vampire more than once could become a pet—as all the people in the menagerie were: dependent upon the vampire and ready to follow any orders he might give them.

My cell rang, and, with both of my hands available to me, I took the time to check the number: Darryl. Okay, there might be repercussions to letting Stefan feed from me, but they would have more to do with Darryl tattling on me to Adam than they did with Stefan. I hit a button on the side of my phone, so it quit ringing.

"I've gotten you into trouble," said Stefan.

"With Darryl?" I asked. "I can get myself into trouble with Darryl on my own just fine—and hand his butt to him if he steps too far out of line."

Stefan came to his feet, tilted his head, and gave me a little smile—suddenly looking much more like himself. "You? Miss Coyote versus the big bad wolf? I don't think so."

He was probably right.

"Darryl isn't my keeper," I told him stoutly.

He snorted. "No. But if something happens to you while Adam is away, it is Darryl who will bear the blame."

"Adam isn't that stupid," I said.

He waited.

"Jeez Louise," I told him, and called Darryl back.

"I'm fine," I said to him. "I thought Stefan might need a night out and stopped by to pick him up. I'll call you from Kyle's driveway, then you can call Adam and tell him I made it safely. You can also tell him that as long as I don't have crazy fairy queens, swamp monsters, or rapists with delusions of grandeur after me, I can take care of myself."

Darryl sucked in his breath. I suppose it was the rapist remark, but I was done flinching about it. The man was dead, and I'd killed him. The nightmares had mostly stopped, and when they emerged, I had Adam to fight them with me. Adam is a very good man to have beside you in a fight, even if all you are fighting is a bad memory.

"You forgot demon-possessed vampires," said Stefan into the silence. Vampires, like werewolves, can hear private phone conversations—so can I, actually. I've become quite fond of text messaging since I moved into Pack HQ.

"So she did," said Darryl. His voice had softened to molasses and gravel. "We try to give you the air you need to breathe, Mercy. But it is hard. You are so fragile and—"

"Rash?" I offered. "Stupid?" I have a newly minted brown belt in karate, and I fix cars for a living. Only in comparison to a werewolf am I fragile.

"Not at all," he disagreed, though I've heard him call me both rash and stupid as well as a number of other unflattering things. "Your ability to survive anything that gets thrown at you sometimes leaves the rest of us swallowing ulcer medication for days afterward. I don't like the taste of Maalox."

"I'm safe, I'm fine." Except for a few bruises from my encounter with the piano—and, as I took a step, a little dizziness from blood loss. Darryl wouldn't catch my little fib, though. While he can smell a lie as well as most any werewolf, he wasn't the Marrock, who could pick up my lies before they left my mouth, even over the phone. Besides, I was mostly safe—I eyed Ford a little warily, but he still hadn't moved from where Stefan had thrown him.

"Thank you," Darryl said. "Call me when you are at Kyle's."

I hung up. "I think I liked it better when the pack would have been happy to see me dead," I told Stefan. "Are you ready to go?"

Stefan reached a hand down and pulled Ford to his feet—and then shoved him up against a wall. "You leave Mercy alone," he said.

"Yes, Master," said Ford, who hadn't struggled at all when Stefan pushed him around.

All hint of violence dropped from Stefan's body, and he leaned his forehead into the bigger man's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I will fix this."

Ford reached up and patted Stefan on the shoulder. "Yes," he said. "Yes, of course you will."

I admit I was surprised that Ford could say more than "Ogg smash."

Stefan backed away from him and looked at Rachel.

"Is there food in the kitchen?"

"Yes," she told him. Then she swallowed, and said, "I could make hamburgers and feed the others."

"That would be good, thank you."

She nodded, gave me a small smile, and headed for the depths of the house—presumably to the kitchen, with Ford trailing behind her like a big puppy, a really big puppy with sharp teeth.

We walked out the door, and Stefan looked around at the remnants of his lawn. He paused beside the van, shook his head, and followed me to my car. He didn't say anything until we were on the highway along the Columbia.

"Old vampires are subject to fugues," he told me. "We don't handle change as well as we did when we were humans."

"I grew up in a werewolf pack," I reminded him. "Old wolves don't deal with change very well, either." Then, just in case he thought I was sympathizing with him, I added, "Of course, usually they don't bring down a bunch of people who depend upon them."

"Don't they?" he murmured. "Funny. I thought that Samuel almost brought down a lot of people with him."

I downshifted and passed a grandmother who was going fifty in a sixty-mile-an-hour zone. When the roar of the Rabbit's little diesel engine relieved enough of my ire, I shifted back up a gear, and said, "Point to you. You are right. I'm sorry I didn't come sooner."

"Ah," said Stefan, looking down at his hands. "You would have come if I had called."

"If you had been in any shape to call for help," I told him, "you probably wouldn't have needed it."

"So," he said, changing the subject. "What are we watching tonight?"

"I don't know. It's Warren's turn to pick, and he can be kind of unpredictable. We watched the 1922 version of Nosferatu the last time he chose, and before that it was Lost in Space."

"I liked Lost in Space," Stefan said.

"The movie or the TV series?"

"The movie? Right. I had forgotten about the movie," he said soberly. "It was better that way."

"Sometimes ignorance really is bliss."

He looked at me, then frowned. "Orange juice will help with the headache."

So I was waiting in the line at a drive-thru, having ordered two orange juices and a burger at Stefan's insistence, when my phone rang again. I assumed it was Darryl fussing again, so I answered it without looking at the display. Someday I'm going to quit doing that.

"Mercy," said my mother, "I'm so glad I got in touch with you. You've been hard to find lately. I needed to tell you that I've been having trouble with the doves. I can find people who have pigeons, but the man who had the doves just disappeared. I found out today that he apparently also had fighting dogs and is doing a few years behind bars."

My headache got abruptly worse. "Pigeons?" I'd told her no doves. Doves and werewolves are just a . . . Anyway, I'd told her no doves.

"For your wedding," said my mother impatiently. "You know, the one you are having this August? That's only six weeks away. I thought I had the doves under control"—I was sure I had told her no doves—" but then, well, I wouldn't want to give money to someone involved in dogfights anyway. Though maybe it wouldn't bother Adam?"

"It would bother Adam," I said. "It bothers me. No doves. No pigeons, Mother. No fighting dogs."

"Oh good," she said brightly. "I thought you'd agree. It comes from an Indian legend, after all."

"What does?" I asked warily.

"Butterflies," she said airily. "It will be beautiful. Think of it. We could release helium balloons, too. Maybe a couple of hundred would do. Butterflies and gold balloons released into the sky to celebrate your new life together. Well," she said, her voice brisk and determined, "I'd better get on it."

She hung up, and I stared at my phone. Stefan was convulsed in the passenger seat.

"Butterflies," he managed through bouts of helpless laughter. "I wonder where she found butterflies."

"Go ahead and laugh," I told him. "It's not you who is going to have to explain to a pack of werewolves why my mother is going to set loose butterflies—" I set him off in whoops again. It was too much to hope that it was one or two. No, my mother never did anything by halves. I pictured a thousand butterflies and, dear Lord help me, two hundred gold helium balloons.

I leaned forward and banged my head on the steering wheel. "I'm eloping. I told Adam we should, but he didn't want to hurt my mother's feelings. Doves, pigeons, butterflies—we are going to end up with a plane with a banner and fireworks . . ."

"A marching band," said Stefan. "And bagpipes with handsome Scottish pipers wearing nothing but their kilts. Belly dancers—there are a number of local belly-dancing troupes. Tattooed bikers. I bet I could help her find a dancing bear . . ."

I paid for my food while he was still coming up with new and wonderful additions to my wedding-day angst.

"Thanks," I told him, taking a big swig of orange juice, and drove back out into traffic. I hate orange juice. "You are such a big help. My new life's ambition is to see to it that you and my mother are never alone in a room together until after Adam and I are married."

Laughter and blood had revived Stefan so much that beyond an observation by Kyle that "Someone needs to remember that the runway model look doesn't even look good on runway models," Kyle and Warren didn't seem to notice anything wrong with Stefan. They also, tactfully, didn't comment on the orange juice I normally wouldn't have touched with a ten-foot pole.

We grabbed three huge bowls of microwave popcorn and headed up to the theater room. Kyle is a very successful lawyer; his house is big enough to have a theater room. Adam's house has a theater room, too—but then it is unofficial home to the whole pack. At any given time we have a couple of extra people sleeping over. Kyle's house just has Kyle and Warren. Warren would be happy living in a tent out on the range. Kyle prefers Persian carpets, marble countertops, and leather chairs. It says something, I'm not sure what, that they are living in Kyle's idea of home rather than Warren's.

Warren's pick for our feature film turned out to be Shadow of the Vampire, a fictional movie about the making of Nosferatu. Someone had done a lot of research into the legends about the old film and played with them.

At one point, watching Stefan's intent face, I said, in a stage whisper, "You know, you are a vampire. You aren't supposed to be scared of them."

"Anyone," said Stefan with conviction, "who ever met Max Schreck would be scared of vampires for the rest of their lives. And they've got him dead to rights."

Warren, who was sitting on the floor in his favorite position—leaning back against Kyle's legs—hit the pause button, sat forward, and twisted around so he could see Stefan, sitting on the other side of the couch. I, as the lone girl, got the big new recliner.

"The movie has it right? Max Schreck really was a vampire?" Warren asked. Max Schreck was the name of the man who played the vampire in Nosferatu.

Stefan nodded. "Schreck wasn't his real name, but he used it for a century or two, so it will do. Scary old monster. Really scary, really old. He decided he wanted to be on film, and none of the other vampires felt like challenging him over it."

"Wait a minute," said Kyle. "I thought that one of the complaints about Nosferatu was that all the scenes with Schreck were obviously filmed in daylight. Don't you vampires all go to sleep in the daytime?"

Kyle, as Warren's lover, knew a lot more about the things that go bump in the night than most humans, to whom vampires were movie monsters, not men who wore Scooby-Doo shirts and lived in upscale houses in real towns. It wouldn't be long, though, I thought, before vampires were outed. Werewolves had outed themselves a year and half ago—though they were careful what they told the public. The fae had been out since the 1980s. People were gradually learning that the world is a scarier place than the scientific reasoning of the last few centuries had led them to believe.

"We die during the day," said Stefan. "But Max was very old. He was capable of all sorts of things, and it would not surprise me to know that he could walk in the day. I only met him once—a long time before Nosferatu. He attended one of the festas of the Master of Milan, the Lord of Night, without invitation. It was odd to see so many powerful people cower before one unwashed, poorly dressed, amazingly ugly man. I saw him kill a two-hundred- year-old vampire with a look—just disintegrated her to dust with a look because she laughed at him. The Lord of the Night, who was her master, was very old and powerful, even then—and he did not voice an objection though she was the youngest of his get and dear to him."

"Is Schreck still alive?" Warren asked.

"I don't know," said Stefan, and added, half under his breath, "I don't want to know."

"Was he always that ugly, or did he get worse with age?" asked Kyle. Kyle was beautiful, and he knew it. I was never certain if he was really vain, or if it was one of a dozen things that he used to camouflage the sharp mind behind the pretty face. I suspected it was both.

Stefan smiled. "That's the question that haunts the older vampires. One doesn't ask questions about age, but we can tell, more or less. Wulfe is probably the oldest vampire—other than Max—I've ever met. Wulfe is not ugly or monstrous." He paused, then continued thoughtfully, "at least not on the outside."

"Maybe he was fae or part fae," I ventured. "Some of them are very . . . Unusual-looking."

"I have never heard that about him," said Stefan. "But who would know?"

Warren hit the play button and, somehow, knowing that Max Schreck, who had played the original Count Orlok, had been a nightmare for vampires, made the movie a lot more scary—and it had had plenty of that going for it anyway. Only Warren seemed impervious to the effect.

When the movie was over, he glanced at Stefan. "Vampire," he said without insult, "why don't you come down to the kitchen with me while these two look through Kyle's amazing library of video wonder for something that will keep Mercy from speeding all the way home."

"Hey!" I said indignantly.

He grinned at me as he rose from the floor to stretch, his lanky body reaching for the ceiling under Kyle's admiring eyes. Warren wasn't as pretty as Kyle, but he wasn't Max Schreck, either, and he knew he was playing for an audience. Maybe Kyle wasn't the only one who was vain.

"Hey, yourself, Mercy," Warren said. "How about we do a second movie? Stefan's used to staying up late, and you have no Adam to go home to. You two find something else, and Stefan and I will refill the popcorn bowls."

Kyle waited until Warren and Kyle were downstairs before saying, "Stefan looks hungry. You think Warren is going to feed him before bringing him back?"

"I think," I said, "that might be a good idea. He already had a bite of me today and was starting to look at you like you might be dinner. I don't think Warren would let Stefan feed from you if he asked, and you consented. Werewolves are possessive that way. Probably better if Warren does it. Being a werewolf with a pack, Warren won't end up Stefan's good friend Renfield."

Kyle grimaced.

"Don't start the conversation if you don't want an honest answer," I told him, hopping out of the chair and perusing one of the bookcases stuffed with Blu-rays, DVDs, and VHS tapes.

When Warren and Stefan came upstairs, it was obvious to me that Stefan had fed again. He was moving with something close to his usual grace.

"Don't you have Bride of Frankenstein?" he asked, when Kyle held up The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra as our pick for the second movie. "Or Father of the Bride? Three Weddings and a Funeral?" He glanced at me. "Maybe The Butterfly Effect?" Yep, he was feeling better.

I threw a pillow at him. "Just shut up. Shut. Up."

Stefan caught the pillow, tossed it back to me, and laughed.

"What's up?" asked Kyle.

I buried my head in the pillow. "My mother has given up on doves for the wedding and—though I didn't know they were in contention—apparently pigeons. She wants to release butterflies and balloons instead."

Warren looked properly appalled, but Kyle laughed.

"It's a new trend, Mercy," he said. "Right up your alley because it's supposed to be based on an Indian legend. The story is that if you catch a butterfly and whisper your wish to it, then let it go, that the butterfly will take your request to the Great Spirit. Since you released the butterfly, when you could have killed or captured it, the Great Spirit will be inclined to view your request favorably."

"I am doomed," I told the pillow. "Doomed to butterflies and balloons."

"At least it isn't pigeons," observed Warren practically.

Copyright © 2011 by Patricia Briggs


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