"I'm guessing this is Stephano Notte?" Jackie asked, unable to look away from the pale, prone man. The mortal vice president of the company who had been missing from his office.
"Yes." Vincent's voice was almost a whisper and she peered his way. On first glance, one could be forgiven for thinking he wasn't affected. His face was a cool mask of indifference, but not his eyes. They were glowing silver-blue and swirling with a mix of pain and fury and what she thought might be guilt. Jackie suspected he feared the saboteur was behind this and was blaming himself for it. She'd like to tell him that it probably wasn't the case, but the plain envelope sticking out of the breast pocket of the man's jacket belied that. The return address was all that was showing, but it was enough; it was Vincent's address.
Jackie tore her eyes away from the lifeless figure and glanced at Marguerite with surprise. "What?"
"He's alive," she repeated, staying by the door, but pushing it closed after a nervous glance out into the outer office. "I can hear his heart beat."
Jackie turned back to the man and knelt to check for a pulse. She was sure she wouldn't find one, it looked like he'd been stabbed through the heart. Surely he hadn't survived that?
"They must have missed the heart," Marguerite said, apparently reading her mind. "I can hear it beating. It's slow and not very strong, but it's beating."
"I can hear it too." Vincent knelt abruptly at the other side just as Jackie found his pulse. It was thready, but there, she realized with amazement. Stephano Notte wasn't dead. Yet.
"We need to call an ambulance," Jackie said urgently, straightening and moving toward the desk.
"He won't survive long enough for that," Vincent announced. "He's dying as we speak."
"We have to try," she said grimly as she picked up the phone.
"Vincent, what are you doing?"
Marguerite's sharp question made Jackie pause and turn back to see Vincent rolling up his sleeve.
"When I say now, take the knife out," Vincent ordered as he opened Stephano Notte's mouth.
"No, you can't!" Marguerite protested, rushing forward. "Let me."
Jackie frowned, her hand clenching the phone as she tried to sort out what was happening. Marguerite rushed to Vincent's side, but wasn't fast enough to stop him from biting into his own wrist. It was a deep bite and must have been painful, but he didn't even wince. He merely shifted the gushing wound over Stephano's open mouth and let the blood pour in just as his aunt reached his side.
Marguerite had reached out to catch his shoulder as if to physically stop him from what he was doing, but now sagged in defeat at his side.
Legs suddenly weak as she grasped what was happening, Jackie slumped against the desk, the phone still clasped in her hand. She watched fascinated as Vincent slid his free hand under the man's neck and lifted him slightly to facilitate the liquid going down.
"Oh, Vincent," Marguerite moaned the words, sadness heavy in her eyes as shefor some reasonpeered from him, to Jackie, and then back and shook her head.
Disturbed by the woman's reaction, but not understanding it, Jackie set the phone back and moved shakily to stand on Stephano's other side as Vincent turned him. At least, she thought that was what he was doing.
"Take out the knife." Vincent's words were hissed through gritted teeth.
Glancing at his pale face with concern, Jackie automatically knelt to do his bidding. She didn't really think, she just did it, her hand closing around the metal handle and pulling upward. It wasn't until she met resistance that her mind realized that she was pulling a knife out of a man's chest. A shudder of revulsion rushed through her, followed by a wince of sympathy as the knife finally came free and slid from the wound.
The moment the metal weapon was clear of Stephano's flesh, Vincent took his wrist away from the prone man's mouth and allowed the last of the blood dripping from his wrist to drop into the open wound on Stephano's chest.
"Will it work?" she asked as Vincent's wound stopped bleeding and he set the man back flat on the ground.
"I don't know. We might have been too late," he said unhappily.
Marguerite removed a handkerchief from her purse and handed it to him, and Vincent quickly wrapped it around his wrist. He tucked the end under the binding to keep it in place, then bent forward again to lift Stephano's eyelids and peer into his eyes.
"It will work," Marguerite said and the regret in her voice made Jackie glance her way sharply. It took a moment for her to sort out why the immortal was so upset by this turn of events, however, then Jackie recalled the rule about only turning one mortal in a lifetime. Most immortals saved that turn for their life mate. Vincent had just used it to save his vice president. If he found his life mate, he wouldn't be able to turn her.
Her eyes returned slowly to Vincent. His expression was grim, his face pale as he watched over the man who he'd just sacrificed so much for, and she felt tears sting the back of her eyes. Had she really thought all immortals were selfish, arrogant beings who only saw mortals as walking dinner? Dear God, the man had just given up the opportunity of ever having anyone to share his very long life with to save a mortal.
"What's done, is done," Marguerite murmured fatalistically, drawing Jackie's blurred vision back. She asked, "What do we do now?"
Jackie stared, not a single idea forming in her head. It was Vincent who said, "He'll need blood and lots of it. But we need to get him out of here without anyone realizing he survived."
Blinking her inertia away, Jackie took a moment to sort out why he thought no one should know Stephano had survived the attack, but then she realized he'd been stabbed head on; he must have seen his attacker. If the saboteur knew he'd survived, he'd make another attempt to kill him to keep him from revealing who he was.
She was impressed that Vincent had picked up on that right away. His thoughts were working much more quickly than her own at the moment. However, now that it was faced with a problem, her own brain started to function once more.
"Why stab him?" she asked suddenly. When Vincent peered at her blankly, she explained, "Stephano is a mortal. If the saboteur is an immortal as we're assuming, why didn't he just wipe his memory? Why stab him?"
"Stephano's mother was mortal when she had him," Vincent explained. "As was his father. She was widowed when he was still quite young and became the life mate of an immortal. Of course, Mrs. Notte became an immortal herself, had her son Neil who is also an immortal. She wanted to turn Stephano too, but he wouldn't allow it."
"Stephano grew up the only mortal in a family of immortals," Jackie realized.
"In instances like this, the mortal often learns to block some of our abilities," Marguerite said. "Like you have. It's simple self-defense."
"So, the saboteur couldn't completely control him?" "It's possible. Or perhaps, couldn't wipe his memory fully," Marguerite suggested. "And rather than take the chance he'd remember, killed him. Or thought he did."
Nodding, Jackie reached forward to grab the letter sticking out of Stephano's breast pocket, only to pause as she saw the knife still clutched in her hand. It was actually a letter opener, not a knife. Grimacing, she set it on the carpet beside her, then snatched the letter from his pocket and opened it. All it said was:
A friend of yours? I'm afraid he got in the way.
The next one will be someone you chose.
"What does it say?" Vincent asked.
Jackie silently handed the letter over, her thoughts occupied with what the words meant. The first part was obvious. Stephano must have interrupted the saboteur while he was in here doing something and only been killed because he got in the way. The last sentence was the one that troubled her.
"The next one will be someone you chose," Vincent read aloud. "What the hell does that mean?"
"I'm guessing it means that now that he's moved on to murder, he intends to continue in that vein," Jackie murmured, her gaze dropping to the man on the floor. Stephano Notte might still die, and even if he didn't, it would only be because he'd been turned. The saboteur had intended for him to die and was working on the premise that he had.
"Yes, but what does he mean by it will be someone I choose?" Vincent asked with distress.
"Chose. Past tense," Jackie corrected with a frown and shook her head. "I'm not sure what he means by that."
Although she had some ideas, Jackie acknowledged to herself. None of them were good though and she really would rather they didn't come to pass.
"How long until we know if he's going to survive the turning?" she asked.
"He'll survive," Marguerite assured her. "I've seen people in worse shape survive it."
"Okay," she said slowly, her gaze sliding back to the man on the floor. He was pale and unmoving and she wouldn't have found it hard to believe he was already dead, except that the wound on his chest appeared smaller to her than it had been when she'd first pulled the letter opener free.
"How long does a turning take?" she asked. That was one thing there was very little information on in the agency files.
"The worst of it is usually done in the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours, though it can take a little longer depending on the extent of the injuries or illnesses they have," Marguerite answered. "He'll wake up after that, but the turning won't be completely finished for weeks afterward."
Jackie nodded. It was the waking up part she was interested in. The moment Stephano woke up, they could get the name of the saboteur from him, round the man up, and prevent anyone else from getting hurt or dying. She frowned. A lot could happen in twenty-four to forty-eight hours.
"All right." Vincent stood abruptly. "We need to get him out of here and back to the house to start giving him blood."
"And we need to do it without anyone knowing he survived," Jackie added, standing as well.
"An ambulance is the best bet," Marguerite announced. When Jackie and Vincent glanced her way, she shrugged. "Stephano was mortal. An ambulance would be called in. And the police. They would take the body away."
Jackie nodded. If they just snuck him out of the building, the saboteur might suspect he didn't die. But... "How do we handle the EMTs?"
"Either Aunt Marguerite or myself could control the ambulance attendants," Vincent suggested. "Travel with them and have Stephano delivered to my house, and then wipe the memories of the EMTs."
"I'll do that," Marguerite offered. "That way, you can stay here and handle the police when they come, then see if the saboteur managed to get the information we were looking for or not."
"Thank you, Aunt Marguerite," Vincent murmured as Jackie moved to the phone to place the call to emergency services. She kept her call vague, saying only that they needed an ambulance and the police at V.A. Productions. She didn't want to say anything that might be questioned later. Marguerite could put the idea in the attendant's heads that it was just a minor injury to one of the workers and Vincent could do the same with the police, but not if she called saying someone had been stabbed.
"They're on their way," Jackie announced as she hung up.
Vincent nodded and then glanced at his aunt. "How much blood do you have at the house?"
"Enough to see him through a day or so, at least," Marguerite said.
"I'll arrange for more," he murmured and then the three of them turned sharply toward the door as it suddenly opened and a man filled the doorway.
Tall, slender, in a dark suit and with jet-black hair, the man smiled at them in greeting. "I thought I heard voices in here."
"Neil." Vincent sounded shocked and Jackie supposed, like herself, he'd forgotten all about Stephano's brother and the fact that he should be arriving soon.
"I just got in," Neil Notte admitted, still smiling. "Amelia told me you were here with your aunt and another lady. She said you were looking for Stephano. Have you found?"
His mouth froze open as his gaze found the man on the floor. He paled and alarm immediately filled his face, then he rushed forward. Jackie moved to close the door he'd left open, then turned to see him kneeling beside Stephano. Vincent knelt beside him, speaking in quiet tones, but there was confusion on Neil's face and he kept saying, "What?" over and over, making Vincent repeat himself. Jackie watched silently for a moment, then shifted uncomfortably and turned to the door.
"I'm going to go wait for the ambulance and police to bring them here. Try not to let anyone else in."
Without waiting for a response, she slipped out of the room and crossed the secretary's office to the hall.
It was nearly dawn when Jackie led Vincent into the kitchen of his home. Tiny and Marguerite sat at the table playing poker, but stopped their game and began to gather the cards together when they entered. Apparently, the pair had simply been trying to pass the time until their return.
"You took a lot longer than I expected. I was starting to worry," Tiny said in a deep rumbling voice as he got to his feet. "Are you hungry?"
Jackie shook her head. "I ate in the cafeteria at the office."
Tiny nodded. "Coffee?"
"Yes, please," Jackie murmured as Vincent pulled a chair out for her.
"I'll make fresh," Tiny said and moved to the counter to match action to words.
"Did you also eat, Vincent?" Marguerite asked, eyeing his pale face with concern as he took the seat next to Jackie.
"I grabbed a bite at the office," Vincent answered brusquely.
Jackie ignored the look he cast her way and ran a hand through her hair. Vincent hadn't had a chance to go out and feed before they'd headed for his production company, something Jackie hadn't even thought of before they'd headed out. She hadn't thought of it until halfway through the evening when she'd noticed that not only was he frightfully pale, but his jaw was tight-clenched and there were lines of pain by his eyes.
Realizing he needed to feed, and knowing Vincent wouldn't leave what was happening at the company to take care of the matter, it was Jackie who'd suggested he feed on one of his human employees. She didn't know which of them had been more shocked at her suggestion, but after closing his gaping mouth, Vincent had refused the suggestion, reminding her that he didn't feed on his employees. However, once she'd made the suggestion, Jackie had recognized the practicality of it. She needed Vincent to be at full strength and thinking clearly at the moment, which meant he needed to feed. So she'd persisted until he'd given in. That didn't mean he was happy with doing so, and from the looks he was casting her way, Vincent seemed to be blaming her for what he'd done.
"You need more." Marguerite's tone was uncompromising. "The cramping from dehydration has already started."
Jackie glanced at Vincent sharply and frowned. While he seemed pale, she didn't see the lines of pain around his eyes that she'd noted earlier, but Marguerite sounded so certain Jackie couldn't doubt her. She supposed that meant he'd really been suffering by the time she'd noticed his need today.
"I'll go out later." Vincent waved her concern away, then endeavored to change the subject by asking, "How is Stephano?"
"Neil is with him," Marguerite answered. "I've told him several times that I'd sit with Stephano to give him a break, but he won't leave his side."
Vincent nodded at this news, apparently not surprised. "Did you have any problems with the EMTs?"
"No. That all went smoothly. Neil handled one, while I took the other."
"Good, good." Vincent ran one hand wearily through his hair, then asked, "Has everything else been all right here today? There were no problems?"
Marguerite hesitated and then heaved a deep sigh when Tiny sent her a meaningful glance as he turned on the coffeepot and approached the table. Without saying anything, the older vampire reached to the side, picked up a newspaper, unfolded it, and laid it on the table.
Vincent raised his eyebrows, but peered down at the open front page. A headshot of a woman filled a quarter of the front page and he frowned at the grainy picture of the pretty young blonde for several moments before speaking.
"She looks familiar," Vincent commented, his eyebrows drawn together and Jackie leaned closer to read the byline under the photo. Body of beautiful young actress found in the hills.
"She was at the club you took me to the night I arrived," Marguerite said quietly.
Vincent's eyes widened with recognition. "I fed on her."
Frowning, Jackie pulled the paper closer and quickly read the article. It seemed the woman had gone missing early last evening while she and Vincent had been handling the police at V.A. Productions. Her body, mutilated and drained of blood, had been found in the hills at around ten o'clock. Jackie was surprised the story had made the morning paper. They must've scrambled to get it in, though there wasn't really much information; just the picture and a paragraph with the bare bones of the story.
"The next one will be someone you chose," Vincent murmured the words that were presently running through Jackie's own mind.
"That was what I first thought of too," Marguerite admitted.
They were all silent. This was bad. This woman was someone Vincent had chosen to feed on. It meant the saboteur had to have followed him that night... and still may be doing so. Now that the saboteur had stepped up the game to murder, anyone Vincent fed on... he might be marking them for death.
Jackie glanced at Vincent. She saw the recognition of this in the horror on his face and frowned. He looked even paler than he had. In that moment, she knew without a doubt that he'd refuse to go out and feed on anyone else until this was resolved... but he had to feed. He would die horribly and painfully if he didn't.
"Tiny, order a pizza," she said grimly.
"I thought you weren't hungry," the giant said with surprise. "I can make some?
"Pizza," Jackie said firmly. "Order it to be delivered."
The moment Tiny nodded and moved to pick up the phone, Jackie took the paper away from Vincent and set it aside. "Don't worry about this. This is done. There is nothing you can do about this."
"Jackie's right," Tiny said as he finished his phone call to the pizza place and hung up. "There's nothing you can do about that now, let's concentrate on what we can do. Had the saboteur removed the list from the accountant's office?"
"From the accounting office and every other office in the building. The entire playalong with its employeeshas been erased from the computer files at the company. From every department. So have all hard copy files," she announced glumly, as she watched the giant retrieve three coffee cups and move toward the pot as it spat out the last bit of coffee.
After seeing Stephano, Marguerite, and Neil out with the ambulance attendants, Vincent had handled the police. He'd taken them into Phillip's office to control their minds and put the least damaging story in their thoughts before sending them on their way too. The two of them had then made a complete tour of the building, stopping at his office first to tell Sharon that Stephano had been murdered.
Leaving her to spread the news, they'd then gone on to check every file room and computer in the building for information on the play Dracula, the Musical. They'd come up with nothing. The saboteur had gotten there first... again.
Tiny's mouth tightened as he poured the coffees. "So, the saboteur did come in after the papers that night... He's very thorough."
"Yes," Jackie said unhappily. Criminals were sometimes stupid, but even the intelligent ones often slipped up, leaving some trail to follow. This man was neither stupid, nor making mistakes. At least, none she'd found yet.
"What do we do now?" Vincent asked.
Jackie frowned. "There's a possibility Stephano won't be able to tell us who attacked him. From what Marguerite said earlier, he might be harder to read or wipe, but the saboteur may have managed it. He just might not have been sure the memory wiping took and stabbed him to be certain he couldn't tell anyone who he was."
Vincent frowned at the possibility.
"So, we should really proceed as if he can't tell us."
"How? What do we do?"
Jackie opened her mouth to speak, then paused as the buzzer sounded, announcing someone at the gate. Tiny stood and moved to the panel by the door that led into the garage. He turned on the monitor and Jackie wasn't surprised when it turned out to be the pizza delivery. She watched the giant push the button to open the gate, then reached into her pocket and withdrew a twenty-dollar bill, which she handed to Vincent.
"What's that for?" he asked with a scowl.
"For you to pay the pizza boy," she said mildly.
"Why would I pay the pizza boy?" he asked with surprise.
"Because it isn't for me, it's for you," Jackie explained patiently. When he stared at her blankly, she heaved a sigh and turned to Marguerite to comment, "Bastien once told me that your daughter was a hemaphobic."
"Yes, but she's cured now," Marguerite assured her, obviously pleased to make the announcement.
Jackie nodded. "Yes, he told me that too. But I gather that she could only feed herself by biting and that there were occasions when you would order pizza so that she could feed off the delivery person?"
"Ah." Marguerite smiled with surprised pleasure. "Smart girl."
They both turned to peer at Vincent as realization dawned on his expression. For a moment, there was a struggle on his face, then he tightened his mouth and shook his head. "I can't feed on him. If the saboteur?
"Have you ever ordered pizza to feed your hunger on the pizza deliverer?" she asked patiently. When he shook his head, Jackie nodded her satisfaction. She'd suspected not. "Then the saboteur will think the pizza is for your human houseguests, won't he? Which leaves the delivery boy safe from being marked for death by your saboteur." I hope, she added silently, her gaze sliding to the kitchen door as the front doorbell sounded.
Vincent's gaze swiveled toward the kitchen door, but he made no move to get up.
"Vincent, you need to feed," she said quietly. "This is the safest meal I can offer you. Please go collect the pizza."
When he continued to hesitate, Marguerite stood and headed for the door. "I shall let the boy in and take him to the office."
Jackie watched her go, then turned to Vincent. "Go. Feed off him and tip him well for your conscience if you must, but feed. And do it quickly. If he's in and out quickly, there's less chance the saboteur will even consider the possibility that you fed off him."
Vincent's eyes widened abruptly and he got to his feet. Waving away the money she held out to him, he reached for his own wallet as he hurried out of the room.
Jackie sat back in her seat with a sigh of relief. The problem of feeding him had been handled... at least for tonight.
"That takes care of tonight, but what will we do about his need to feed tomorrow?" Tiny asked in an unhappy rumble, his thoughts running along the same line as hers. "I don't think he'll go out and feed if it might mean marking someone for the saboteur to target. He needs to feed."
"I know," Jackie said unhappily and pushed one weary hand through her hair. "I'll have to think of something."
Tiny nodded and then changed the subject. "Neil is grateful for what Vincent did by turning Stephano, but doesn't seem to think his brother will be."
Jackie glanced at him with surprise. "Why?"
"He says that when his mother married her husband and became immortal, she offered to use her right to turn one immortal on Stephano, so that he would be immortal like the rest of the family, but he refused. He said he'd take the hand fate had dealt him."
Jackie considered that, wondering how she'd feel if she was turned without her permission. It was considered a no-no to turn someone without their consent, unless it was an emergency and their consent couldn't be gained. As had been the case with Stephano.
"You know Vincent can't turn a life mate now," Tiny said quietly.
"Yes, it was very selfless of him to turn Stephano as he did," Jackie said on a sigh as Marguerite returned. Vincent was presumably still with the delivery boy. "We'll have to hope his selflessness is rewarded and his life mate, when he meets her, is already an immortal."
"He already has, and she isn't," Marguerite said grimly and Jackie glanced around at her with surprise.
"He has?" Jackie asked and for some reason this news sent pain shooting through her chest. Recognizing the feeling as jealousy, she ignored it, telling herself that it was for the best. She would have no illusions now and wouldn't be foolish enough to allow herself to fall for the guy any harder than she already had.
"Yes, he has," Marguerite announced, but before she could say any more, Vincent entered the room. He looked better than he had when he'd left. He wasn't quite so pale, but he still looked tired and worn out by the day's events.
"You should get some rest," she said with concern. "We all should. We'll start on this first thing in the morning."
"I want to go check on Stephano first," Vincent murmured. "Then I'll head to bed."
Murmuring goodnight, he left the kitchen again and Jackie found herself frowning as she watched him go and realized the implications of what he'd done by saving Stephano's life.
Vincent would have to watch his life mate age and die and then would have to continue on without her. If he even got the chance to do that, Jackie thought. She knew, if it were her, she wouldn't want that. She wouldn't want to love and be with a man who would continue to look twenty-five to thirty years old while she aged, and wrinkled, and her hair turned white.
It would be fine for a while, until she hit about forty and then she'd look like the older woman with the young stud. By fifty or so, people would start to mistake her for his mother, then at seventy as his grandmother. She supposed they could avoid that by not going out in public much, but there was still the fact that while his body stayed young and beautiful, her own would age. She knew life mates bonded, but was there enough bonding that he would still find her attractive when her body began to sag and wrinkle? Or would the woman have the courage to let him see her so? Jackie didn't think she could. She'd be more likely to set him free and hope he found another. She wouldn't want him to watch her body and health disintegrate and the last breath leave her body. She couldn't be that selfish.
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