Chapter Fourteen

It was a piercing shriek that woke Vincent up. He sat up with confusion in the chair by Jackie's bed, his gaze immediately searching for her. His heart seemed to stop when he saw that the bed was empty. Then he was suddenly wide awake and on his feet.

He was sure the long, drawn-out shriek he was hearing was Jackie's, and it was coming from somewhere downstairs.

Vincent heard doors open behind him as he rushed out into the hall, but didn't bother glancing back. The scream had ended by the time he started down the stairs, but it didn't slow him in the least. He practically flew down the steps, his feet barely touching the treads he sailed over. Then he was pounding up the hall.

Vincent saw Dante and Tomasso standing in the hall, burly arms crossed over their wide chests as they stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the kitchen door, but he didn't really think they would try to stop him from getting to Jackie... until he reached them and they didn't move out of his way.

"Move," he growled, trying to squeeze his way past, but there wasn't room to slip between them and they weren't moving.

"Dante? Tomasso? What's happening?" Christian's voice made Vincent glance back to see Marcus and Christian walking up the hall toward them. Apparently the scream had woken them too.

"Tiny and Marguerite are talking to Jackie," Dante answered.

"Marguerite said to keep everyone out," Tomasso added, scowling at Vincent as he tried once again to get past them.

Christian hesitated, then caught Vincent by the shoulder.

"Tell them to move," Vincent turned to snap at the man.

Before Christian could respond, Marguerite opened the kitchen door, peered over the shoulders of the two large men in front of the door and said, "Vincent, go wait in the living room. I'll call you when you can come in."

Vincent opened his mouth to argue, but Marguerite was already closing the door. Scowling, he shifted from one foot to the other, then turned and stomped back up the hall and into the living room, aware that Christian and Marcus were following. Dante and Tomasso apparently stayed at the door like a couple of gargoyles, Vincent realized when they didn't follow.

"What do you think happened?" Marcus asked as the three of them began to pace the living room.

"I think she didn't take well to the idea of being one of us," Christian said dryly.

Vincent frowned at the suggestion. He hadn't thought about how Jackie would take being turned. His main concern had been that she survive the attack, that he couldn't let her die. But he'd forgotten one small fact. Despite how well they'd been getting along the last couple of days, Jackie had hated immortals since her experience with Cassius at nineteen.

"Cassius," Christian murmured and Vincent turned his head sharply to find the man's eyes narrowed on him. He'd been reading his mind. Even as he opened his mouth to tell him to mind his own thoughts, Christian said with surprise, "She hates immortals."

"You don't hate immortals," Tiny said firmly for the third time.

"I do." Jackie scowled at the giant. He was being annoyingly calm and soothing about all this. "How could you let them do this to me?"

"Because I love you and didn't want you dead," Tiny said grimly.

Jackie blinked at the raw expression on his face and suddenly became aware of how haggard and exhausted he looked. It seemed obvious he hadn't slept since the attack.

"And you don't hate immortals, Jackie," Tiny said quietly. "You fear them. There's a difference."

Jackie closed her mouth and sat back as she recognized the truth of that. She'd feared them since Cassius, feared their ability to control her. But she was an immortal now as well. Did that mean she had no reason to fear them anymore?

Tiny rubbed wearily at his eyes and Jackie frowned with concern. "You should go to bed, Tiny. I bet you haven't slept even a couple minutes all night or today."

"No," he acknowledged. "I haven't."

Jackie nodded. "Go to bed."

He hesitated, then peered at her with worry, "Are you going to be all right?"

Jackie grimaced and gave a laugh. "I'm an immortal now, Tiny. I'm perfect."

"I'll sit with her, Tiny," Marguerite murmured quietly, reminding them of her presence. Vincent's aunt had sat so silent and still at the table, Jackie had forgotten all about her being there.

Tiny nodded solemnly, then stood and moved to Jackie's side. Bending at the waist, he gave her a quick, tight hug. "You're my best friend in the world and I thought I'd lost you last night. I'm sorry if you're not happy to be a vampire, but I'm glad you're alive, vampire or not."

Straightening, he turned away and left the room. Jackie watched him go, then sighed and sat back in her seat. She and Marguerite were silent for several minutes, then Jackie asked, "Was it Vincent?"

Marguerite took so long to answer, that Jackie finally turned to meet her gaze. The moment she did, Marguerite asked, "Do you recall biting your attacker? Vincent said you were trying to prevent his being attacked with a knife."

Jackie blinked, remembering the event in question. "I was too weak to hold on with my hands, so I tried biting, hoping to force him to drop the knife."

"You swallowed blood."

"Two mouthfuls at least," she said with a grimace, then blinked. "You mean, that's what turned me?"

Marguerite nodded.

Jackie peered down at her hands, unsure how she felt about that.

"You turned yourself, Jackie," Marguerite said quietly. "And I, for one, am glad. True life mates are rare and wonderful things. Vincent would have been miserable without you."

Jackie raised her head slowly. "Excuse me?"

Marguerite tilted her head and considered her thoughtfully, before asking, "Do you know about true life mates?"

Jackie nodded her head slowly. Immortals had true life mates, a mate that they couldn't read, and couldn't control, but who was meant to be with them. Or so they believed.

Jackie grimaced at that cynical little add-on. She'd met immortals with true life mates and she'd met immortals without. She'd also met immortals who had mated themselves to the wrong person for whatever reason, like Marguerite and her husband Jean Claude. And there was a vast difference between the three sorts of immortals.

Unmated immortals tended to be harsh, arrogant, and usually cold. Sometimes they were even self-destructive. Those mated to the wrong mate tended to be worse: bitter, controlling, and cruel even. Jean Claude Argeneau had been one of those. Her father had once said the man had married Marguerite Argeneau for the wrong reason, that he'd wanted her because she'd reminded him of his previous wife, who had died ages before he'd met Marguerite. Only Marguerite wasn't a proper life mate for Jean Claude. He could read and control her and had become a bitter, cruel tyrant over the centuries.

In comparison, those immortals Jackie had met who had found their true life mates seemed more at peace, softer somehow and eminently happier.

"I'm not? Jackie began to protest, but Marguerite cut her off.

"He cannot read you, Jackie," Marguerite said firmly. "And I can read his thoughts and feelings for you. You are his true life mate."

She shook her head slowly, unable or unwilling to accept this news. Jackie was attracted to Vincent... okay, his kiss had sent her up in flames. She also liked and respected the man, but to be a true life mate... One fated to be with an immortal... It was difficult to accept that.

On the other hand, it was also difficult for her to accept that she was one of them now. She would live hundreds of years, never age, never grow ill, never?/p>

"Hey!" Jackie tilted her head, a frown on her face as she scowled at Marguerite. "Why am I not thin now?"

Marguerite blinked at the change in topic. "What?"

"I thought the nanos made us our perfect, peak condition and all that," she pointed out, then gestured to herself. "I'm still the same size I was before. Shouldn't I be thinner?"

Marguerite bit back a smile, then shook her head. "The nanos do see you are at your peak condition. So, if you haven't lost any weight, this size is your peak. It's the healthiest weight for you." She tilted her head. "And you look a perfect weight to me, dear. I'm afraid your belief in what is attractive has been colored by Hollywood's Twiggy-type figures. That isn't a natural weight for most women... Including you."

"You're thinner than me," Jackie pointed out.

"Actually, I'm not," Marguerite countered, and shrugged. "I'm afraid you just see yourself as larger than you are."

When Jackie began to shake her head at that possibility, Marguerite moved to sit at the table saying, "According to my daughter Lissianna, most women see themselves as bigger than they are. In one of the psychology courses she took at university, they did a study where they had people, both men and women, look at a chart of bodies in varying sizes and shapes. They were to circle the one they thought best represented themselves. According to the findings, women tended to circle a figure a size or two larger than they truly are, while men tend to circle a figure a size or two smaller than themselves. I'm afraid women have a very poor self image overall. I guess that includes you."

Jackie felt herself relax a bit as what Marguerite had said sank in. If the nanos insured you were at your peak condition and she was the same size she'd been before being turned, then she supposed that did mean that this was her peak condition. That explained why she could never lose those fifteen pounds despite her best efforts.

Sighing, Jackie shook her head. Here she was, suddenly an immortal, with Marguerite claiming Vincent was her true life mate, and what was she fretting over? Her weight. Gad. What was the matter with her?

"Marguerite," Jackie said quietly. "I'm not sure of much right at this moment, but?

"I know," the older woman interrupted quietly. "And I don't expect you to go rushing out and vow your undying love for Vincent right this minute. You need time to adjust. I realize that. But after watching my four children and their mates flounder around, I've come to the conclusion that perhaps it's better just to put the matter right out there for you to see. This way you can at least think about it while you come to accept what has happened to you."

Jackie breathed out slowly. "All right. I'll keep it in mind."

Marguerite nodded, apparently satisfied. "The good news is that you know more about us than any of my new daughter-in-laws or son-in-law knew when they were turned, so we won't need to explain that we aren't soulless demons or such."

"No. That isn't necessary," Jackie agreed wryly. She took a deep breath and asked, "What did they do with the saboteur?"

Marguerite was silent so long, Jackie knew the news wasn't good. Still, it came as something of a shock when she sighed and admitted, "He got away."

"Damn," Jackie breathed with disappointment and pondered what that might mean. Would the saboteur return to finish the job? It might not be a bad thing. She could be the bait. The saboteur might not realize she'd been turned. And she was one of them now, so she would be stronger, faster, and safe from being controlled. Or would she?

Jackie didn't know. She'd heard tales of Marguerite's marriage to Jean Claude Argeneau and had heard that he had been able to control her mind and read her thoughts. Perhaps she wasn't as safe as she hoped.

Frowning, Jackie bit her lip, then asked, "My being one of you doesn't necessarily mean I'm safe from being controlled, does it?"

Marguerite took Jackie's hands in her own and patted them soothingly. "You can't be read and controlled as easily as you could as a human, but yes, until you become stronger and better able to control your thoughts and mind, you're very vulnerable. Even once you learn to use the new skills you'll have, you'll still be vulnerable to older immortals. The really old ones."

"Like you were with your husband," Jackie murmured with a frown and Marguerite stiffened. For a moment, her face was a picture of conflict, then she sat back with a sigh.

"Not quite as bad as that," she said quietly. "My husband liked being able to control me, so he did his best to keep me from meeting others of our kind that might teach me how to protect myself from his abilities. I won't let that happen with you. I'll teach you all I know, Jackie. What it took several hundred years for me to learn, you will know from the start."

"Thank you, Marguerite," Jackie murmured and squeezed her hand.

Marguerite squeezed back, then stood abruptly. "I'd best go let the men back in. The curiosity is probably killing them. Besides, they can help."

"Hold'em, hold'em, hold'em," Dante chanted encouragingly, watching her open mouth closely as Tomasso continued to wave a glass of blood under her nose.

Jackie clenched her fingers, digging them into her palms with determination as she concentrated on fighting the automatic response her body had to the scent of blood. Her teeth wanted to slide out in search of the nourishment her nose could smell, but she forced them back, keeping them in place for what seemed an eternity as Dante and Tomasso shouted encouragement and Marcus watched his wrist watch.

The three men had spent all evening trying to train her to control her teeth. In the meantime, Vincent, Christian, and Marguerite were all helping Tiny with the case she was supposed to be working on. The other four had gone out to interview the people who had worked on the play in New York. Jackie had tried to insist that it was her place to be doing that, but had quickly had it pointed out that they couldn't risk her going out in public until she was able to control her teeth. It could be bad if her fangs decided to pop out while she was talking to one of the humans.

Recognizing the truth behind that, Jackie had given in. She knew Tiny could handle the job and she was sure the presence of the others wouldn't hurt things. She also recognized that they were right about her teeth showing.

"Five minutes!" Marcus announced suddenly, drawing Jackie from her thoughts. "You did it!"

"That-a-girl!" Dante cheered and scooped her from her chair to swing her around the kitchen.

Jackie squealed with surprise, then gasped as Dante passed her to Tomasso, who did the same thing.

"We need to celebrate," Dante announced and Jackie glanced over just in time to see him exchange a glance with his twin, then nod toward the door. She glanced back toward Tomasso and caught his wide, wicked grin just before he whirled toward the door leading out onto the back patio.

"No!" Jackie shrieked and began to struggle, but it was too late; before she'd finished speaking the word, Dante had thrown the back door open. The siren went off even as Tomasso started through the door. Not that it stopped him. She couldn't hear his laughter over the alarm, but she felt his chest vibrating against her side as he carried her to the pool, then she was sailing through the air.

The water was cold as it closed around her, but it also had the added benefit of briefly muffling the alarms. Jackie let herself sink to the bottom, then pushed against the concrete floor of the pool, catapulting herself back to the surface. Dante, Tomasso, and Marcus stood at the water's edge, laughing.

Making a face at them, she shook her head and struck out for the ladder to get out of the pool. Dante and Tomasso immediately moved to the ladder, to offer her a hand out. Jackie climbed halfway out before reaching with both hands for the men's, then paused abruptly and glanced toward the house when the siren suddenly went silent. Her eyes widened as she spotted Vincent in the door staring out toward the pool, hands on hips and an annoyed expression on his face.

Jackie smiled faintly, then held onto the men's hands as she took another step up the ladder. She paused again then and threw herself backward, tugging on her hands as she did. Taken by surprise, both Dante and Tomasso flew forward, actually sailing over her and into the pool as she allowed herself to fall back into it. They landed in the water behind her.

Jackie surfaced and swiftly reached out for the ladder, then scrambled out as the men surfaced, sputtering and cursing behind her. Laughing at their outrage, she rushed past Marcus, toward the house. The man was so busy laughing at the twins, he wasn't prepared when she reached out and gave him a shove.

Jackie didn't look back, but heard him squawk one moment before he splashed into the water.

Beaming a wide smile now, she rushed to Vincent.

"I did it! I held my teeth in for five minutes," Jackie announced proudly as she skidded up to him.

"Way to go!" Tiny congratulated, drawing her attention into the kitchen where he stood with Marguerite and Christian.

Jackie smiled back briefly before her gaze slid back to Vincent. She frowned at his grim expression. "What's the matter?"

"I was unlocking the front door when the alarm suddenly went off," Vincent said quietly.

Jackie blinked, then said apologetically, "Oh. Yes. Well, Dante and Tomasso thought they should throw me in the pool to celebrate."

"I was afraid something had happened," he explained, then forced a smile. "I'm glad you're okay."

Jackie reached out and slid her hand into his, giving him a squeeze. He really looked quite pale. Obviously the alarm had distressed him.

"Five minutes?" Christian asked as Dante, Tomasso, and Marcus made their way to the house. Water was dripping from their clothes and pooling with every step they took.

Jackie watched them approach with amusement. She was soaking wet too, but while she was in a jogging suit, they were in leather and were now squelching with every step. All three men nodded at Christian's question, not one of them looking nearly as happy as they had after throwing her in the pool.

"Thanks for helping me learn to control my teeth, guys." Jackie smiled at them sweetly, then turned to make her way into the house, adding, "I'm off to dry off and change."

Jackie slipped past Christian and the others, then paused at the kitchen door and turned to peer at Tiny. "How did the interviews go?"

Tiny shrugged. "I think we eliminated some more people, but no one screamed guilt."

She nodded. "I shouldn't take long to change and then you can give me a proper rundown."

"I'll make coffee," Tiny announced and Jackie shook her head and smiled as she pushed out of the kitchen. The giant was forever making coffee and baked goods. It was like having her gran around, although then it would have been tea and baked goods.

Jackie was quick to change into dry jogging pants and a t-shirt and the first to return to the kitchen. The moment she arrived, Tiny handed her a cup of coffee, then the five of them settled around the kitchen table while Tiny gave her a rundown of how the interviews had gone. Christian, Marguerite, and Vincent added comments here and there, but Tiny did most of the talking.

Marcus joined them during the debriefing and took the last seat at the table. With no chairs left when the twins joined them, the pair leaned against the wall, arms crossed over their chests as they listened.

To be thorough, Jackie had wanted to include some of the humans in the interviews. Chances were that it was an immortal, but the humans might have seen something useful. However, no one else had agreed with her. The attacks on Stephano and herself pointed to an immortal, as did the onset of "contagious anemia" in the play's cast, so they'd insisted on interviewing only the immortals. They'd apparently changed their minds during the evening and interviewed a couple of mortals along the way. However, their main interest had been to feed Vincent at those stops under the guise of interviewing them and they'd done little in the way of real questioning.

Jackie thought they were wrong to neglect the humans, but, finding herself outvoted, had shrugged and let them do as they saw fit. She'd even hoped they were right and would come back with at least someone looking suspicious. However, that wasn't the case. Marguerite was seven hundred years old and Christian five hundred. Between the two of them, they'd been able to read the minds of the immortals while Tiny and Vincent had distracted them with questions. And still, they hadn't been able to remove half of the immortals from the list. The others had either had better control over their thoughts, or their thoughts had been such a jumble neither Marguerite nor Christian had been able to make sense of them.

"Well," Christian said once the debriefing was over, "if we're done here, the boys and I should get moving. Aunt Elaine and Uncle Roberto are expecting us for dinner."

"The boys mentioned that while you were gone," Jackie commented.

Christian was speaking of Elaine and Roberto Notte. Elaine was Stephano and Neil's mother. Roberto was Neil's father and Stephano's stepfather. The couple had flown to L.A. from Italy the moment they'd returned home from a business trip to hear the news of Stephano's injury and turning. Vincent had invited the couple to stay at his home, but they'd decided there really wasn't room for them all and had checked into a hotel, taking a suite so that Neil and Stephano could stay with them while Stephano completed and adjusted to the turning. Christian and the boys had decided to continue staying at the house.

Christian glanced from Jackie to Vincent and raised an eyebrow. "Now that the boys have taught you to keep your teeth in, maybe while we're gone, Vincent can teach you how to get them out."

"How to get them out?" Jackie asked with surprise. "They come out on their own. Or try to," she added, since she'd now learned to force them back and not extend.

"Only when you're extremely hungry or the scent of blood is around," Christian pointed out. "You want to be able to feed when you need to. You need to be able to bring your teeth out at will so that you can arrange your feeding around your life, rather than arranging your life around your feeding."

"For instance," he said, "you'll wake up hungry, just like mortals, and at those times, probably just the sight of bagged blood will be enough to bring your teeth on. But what if you have a stakeout or something to see to? You'll want to feed before you leave so you don't need to take blood with you. But what if you aren't hungry? At this point, your teeth won't just slide out when you wish them to. Will they?" he asked, then raised an eyebrow. "Try to bring them on for us."

Jackie hesitated, then ran her tongue along her teeth and concentrated on trying to bring them out. Nothing happened, and she frowned. "How do you?"

"Eventually, you'll be able to bring them out and put them away at will," Marguerite assured her. "As with keeping them from coming out, making them come out is a learned task."

"Until then," Christian said, "there are three things that will bring on your teeth. The sight—or sometimes even just the thought—of blood when you're extremely hungry."

"Like with Tiny when I first came down after the change," Jackie muttered, casting him an embarrassed and apologetic glance.

Christian nodded. "Then there is the scent of blood which works even when you aren't hungry."

"And what's the third thing?" Jackie asked.


"Sex?" she echoed uncertainly.

Christian smiled, stood and rounded the table. Pausing at her side, he held out his hand.

Jackie hesitated, then took it and allowed him to draw her to her feet. Her gaze slid to Vincent as she did. He'd gone stiff, his expression flat as he watched with narrowed eyes. It seemed to her he knew what Christian was going to do and wasn't at all happy about it. Jackie didn't get the chance to analyze any more than that as Christian suddenly tugged her into his arms and kissed her.

Christian was a good kisser, all masterful technique and thrusting tongue. Unfortunately, Jackie was too aware of their audience to appreciate it much. She stood stiff and still in his arms, aware of Vincent's eyes drilling into the back of her head. She even thought she heard a growl from his direction, but then Christian broke the kiss and pulled back, frowning.

"Your teeth aren't coming out," he commented with a frown, and Jackie supposed he'd know. He'd just given her teeth a thorough examination a dentist would be proud of, though he'd done so with his tongue.

"Relax," Christian instructed, his voice soothing, then he kissed her again, this time toying with her lips briefly, nibbling before deepening the kiss. It was well done and Jackie was convinced he was the second best kisser she'd ever met. Unfortunately, Vincent was the best and was sitting just three feet away. She was positive that now constant low sound she was hearing was him growling. It was just too distracting to allow her to relax as Christian had instructed.

"This isn't working." Christian sounded bewildered as he again broke the kiss.

"Perhaps Vincent should try," Marguerite suggested mildly.

Vincent was on his feet and had whirled Jackie out of Christian's arms and into his own so fast, she gasped with shock as her body was suddenly plastered against his. Once again, Vincent proved that while he was pretty laid back about most things, kissing wasn't one of them.

He peered down at her for a moment, his eyes intense. Jackie didn't know what her expression was, probably simple bewilderment, but whatever he saw made him relax and his expression softened. Then, he lowered his head, allowing his lips to drift first over each eye, kissing them closed, then he kissed the tip of her nose lightly before pressing his lips to hers.

His mouth was soft at first, questing, then abruptly became firm as he slid his hand into her hair and tilted her head to the angle he wanted.

Jackie gasped and moaned as he urged her mouth open and plundered its moist depths. This time, she forgot all about having an audience, her mind and body focused on the excitement and want Vincent was engendering in her. Pressing closer into his embrace, she slid her arms around his neck, tugging at him just as demandingly as he was holding her. It wasn't until her own tongue caught on one of her fangs and she jerked in surprise that they were both recalled to the kitchen and the people watching them.

"Are you all right?" Vincent asked with concern as he broke the kiss. He'd obviously tasted the bit of blood drawn by nicking her own tongue.

Jackie was breathing heavily, but nodded.

"Well," Christian said dryly. "It seems Vincent would be the better one to teach this lesson."

Jackie glanced at the man and felt herself flush. She almost wanted to apologize for her teeth not coming out when he kissed her, but managed to keep from doing so.

"It's for the best anyway. We have to go see Elaine," Christian went on, glancing at Marcus and the twins. The three men immediately moved to leave the room and Christian followed, saying, "We'll be back as quickly as we can. Call me on my cell if there are any problems."

Vincent looked annoyed at the man's words, but didn't comment. Jackie knew the four men were staying at the house in the hopes of deterring any further attacks on anyone, or perhaps in the hopes that they were around to catch the saboteur if there were any future attacks. They were all keen to catch the saboteur.

Marguerite was the next person to move. Getting up from the table, she announced, "All the mind reading tonight has left me with a bit of a headache. I think I shall have a lie down and try to get rid of it."

"I'm ready for bed myself," Tiny announced, getting up as well.

Jackie glanced from one person to another with a touch of panic. She was suddenly shy of being alone with Vincent after what had just happened. Taking the coward's way out, she slipped out of Vincent's arms and moved for the door, saying, "I should go give the office a call and see if there's anything needing my attention."

She rushed out of the kitchen ahead of Marguerite and Tiny. It wasn't until Jackie had reached the office that she realized that had been about the stupidest excuse she could have used. It was midnight in California. Only 3 A.M. in New York. The office wouldn't be open yet.

"Coward," Jackie muttered to herself as she stopped at the desk and blew the hair out of her face with an upward blast of air from her lips. And she knew it was true, but dear God she'd been all set to climb Vincent like a dog in heat when her fangs had made their appearance and ruined everything. She'd completely forgotten their audience. And now she found herself embarrassed by her own behavior.

Leaning against the desk, Jackie peered with disinterest at the papers and messages on the wide surface and wondered if Marguerite had mentioned her theory of their being life mates to Vincent. And if so, what did he think of that, she wondered.

The sound of the office door opening interrupted her thoughts and Jackie turned to find Vincent standing in the doorway, a bag of blood in hand.

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