Chapter 27

It had been a pretty good day, compared to the last couple. Maribel had gone to Aunt Vic's to check on Kaitlin, who was recovering pretty quickly, considering. She still had that haunted look in her eyes, but she was talking more, eating a bit, and Aunt Vic said she'd probably be well enough to go home soon.

Dana was likewise back to her old self. She seemed to have snapped out of whatever funk her trip to the castle had put her in, and today she'd dragged Maribel to the beach, to the mall, and to two dance clubs before they'd been forced to come home by a call Dana got for an "emergency" appointment with a client.

"It's always an 'emergency' with these women," Dana had huffed as she'd snapped her cell phone shut and headed for the car. "Catching your man cheating is not an emergency. It's a wake-up call to pack your shit and get out."

Maribel tended to agree, but part of Dana's job was to be on call. She wasn't a doctor or a therapist, but turning a client-in-need away was not in her job description, so they'd headed home in a rush.

And that was fine with Maribel because she hadn't felt like dancing anyway. Hadn't felt like shopping or laying out on the beach either. All she'd wanted to do all day was go home, crawl under the covers, and sleep, just like she had the last couple of days. She'd probably slept away 30 of the last 48 hours.

Which is why she'd called Cairo tonight. This wasn't good for her. It wasn't healthy.

She had so little time left to enjoy here. Summer was flying by fast and it would be fall in no time. Soon she'd have to leave this town she loved so much, this house, be separated from Dana, and life would be all about sharing a cramped dorm room with Lucy if she was lucky, with some human nitwit if she wasn't, and studying again.

Goddess, she didn't want to study again. It's not that it was difficult for her. Quite the contrary; she had a nearly photographic memory which had landed her straight As through high school and full scholarship offers from every college her school counselor had sent her applications to. But just because you excelled at something didn't mean you had to like it.

If everyone you loved wanted and expected you to do something though, you had to do it. So come September, she was hauling off to college. It would be four years before she could come back and live here again, and by then she was certain everything would be different. Time changed things. It changed people, places . . . it would never be like this again, so she needed to live it while she had it. And spending all day in bed with the blinds drawn wasn't living it. Hell, even spending all day on the beach but wishing you were in bed with the blinds drawn wasn't living it.

She pulled a fresh set of candles out of the drawer and set them on the altar, debating whether or not to light them. The ones she'd lit earlier were burning out, tiny wicks just barely raised above the puddles of melted wax. But there was no reason to light more, was there? She'd placed the summons hours ago. He'd heard it. If he wanted to come, he would have.

She tossed the candles back in the drawer and went to bed. At least she knew now, she thought as she pulled the covers over her head and curled up into a ball. That was really all she needed; she'd just wanted to know for sure. She loved him and this hurt – Goddess it hurt – but she would get through it. Accepting that there was no hope was better than clinging to a hopeless relationship, wasn't it?

She knew Dana would say so. But it didn't feel like it right now. She felt worse than she'd felt earlier, before she'd lit those candles and found out he'd really never wanted to see her again.

She tried not to cry. She bit her lip, squeezed her eyes shut. But the tears still fell.

And for a while, she let them.

But she refused to wallow in misery forever. She'd already spent years of energy yearning and mourning over Cairo. She had to move past this.

She kicked the covers off and headed to the bathroom to draw herself a bath. She didn't use this tub enough, she realized as she sank down into the deep marble pool. That was going to change though. She scrubbed the remnants of her tears off her face with determination. No more obsessing over him. From now until the end of the summer, she was going to take bubble baths every night. Spoil and pamper herself. Maybe tomorrow she and Dana would go to a spa, get the mani/pedi/facial combo. Then they would go to Ella's and – the squeak of the bathroom door cut that thought in half.

And the sight of Cairo standing in the doorway cut off her breath. Her stomach felt like it dropped out from beneath her, the blood rushing to her head until she was dizzy. The water was suddenly too hot, the bathroom too humid. The vampire in the doorway too beautiful.

He'd come after all.

Her heart sang.

She opened her mouth to speak, to say hello, to ask him why he took so long, to ask him why he'd come at all, but then she noticed something off about him. His shirt – it was shredded, which wasn't unusual – but through the tears in the fabric, she could see that his skin was shredded as well. He always showed up looking like he'd just been in a fight, but he'd never looked like he'd lost before. Her eyes moved to his forearms. They were thrashed. Goddess, even the rough skin of his hands was torn and bleeding.

"Jesus, Cairo, what happened to you?" she whispered, moving to get up and get him some antiseptic, but he held up a hand to stop her.

"Stay there," he said.

She wanted to argue. He needed his wounds cleaned. But as he carefully pulled the shirt away from his skin and lifted it up over his head, the words froze on her lips. Even torn and bloodied, the sight of his body was enough to make her mouth go dry. And the gashes in his chest were already healing, sealing up into superficial cuts and scrapes before her very eyes.

When he slid into the tub across from her and his legs tangled with hers, Maribel wasn't sure what to do with herself. She wanted to throw her arms around him and bury her face in his thick neck. She wanted to wrap her legs around him and press her chest flush against his. She wanted . . . she wanted everything with him.

But she made no move to reach for him. The fact that he was there should have been enough to give her some confidence, to let her touch him as she wanted, secure in the fact that he wanted her touch, her affection. But it wasn't enough. Not with Cairo. Not with the way he'd left her last time.

Don't call me tomorrow.

He leaned his head back against the marble, sighing and closing his eyes as though she wasn't even there.

And then he did the most insulting thing he'd ever done to her.

He fell asleep.

As his breathing slowed and she caught onto the deep, steady rhythm that came with the slip past consciousness, she was suddenly angry. He'd never slept here before, not when she'd asked him to. But he was sleeping now? Of all the times . . . Maribel fumed. Why did she have to love him? Why did her heart have to lie with a creature who had so little warmth? After three days and four nights of separation, a normal man – even a normal vampire – any lover in fact, would have taken her in his arms by now. Kissed her . . .

But not him. She never got what she expected from him, and though that had excited her at first, she was past that. He wasn't a fantasy or an experiment anymore. He was her love, and the thrill of playing will he or won't he had waned.

She wanted to lash out at him. Ask him why he came if he wasn't going to talk to her, wasn't going to touch her. Maybe she would have been better off if he hadn't even shown. Being so close yet so far from him was its own blend of misery. How did you get over someone and move on with your life when he was sitting right in front of you, looking like a fallen Adonis.

Long minutes ticked by as she sat in the cooling water, staring at him bitterly. He was always disturbingly beautiful, but with the harsh planes of his face relaxed in sleep, his beauty was unearthly. She traced the tattoos on his face with her eyes, following the intricate twists and curls as they trailed down the left side of his neck, over his hard pec, then disappeared into the water, where she knew they'd continue over ribbed abs and tight hips.

She wanted to sweep the bubbles to the side so she could get a clear view of what was beneath.

Which was sickening.

Pissed at her weakness, she stood to leave. She couldn't do this anymore. She couldn't be one of those women who came to the High Priestess, desperate for some man who didn't want her, willing to sacrifice her own soul for a moment of his warmth and affection. She couldn't let him make her one of those women she pitied. She was better than that.

She grabbed a towel from the rack and stepped out of the tub, not caring if the splash of the water woke him. But suddenly his hand shot out and wrapped around her thigh, pulling her off balance. She flailed her arms and tried to grab for something to keep her upright, but all she caught was air. And then she was in his lap, staring into red eyes that stunned her, froze her.

Then his hand was drifting up her side, sliding over her ribs, up to her breast. She turned and tried to climb out of the tub, anxious to keep her head about her, but he wouldn't let her. Suddenly wide awake and hard as a rock, he pulled her back onto him, and in a splash she found herself sitting in his lap with her back flat against his chest.

In this position, her body was completely open to his touch, and he touched.

His hands were all over her, stroking her from breast to hip, then back up, pausing to draw little circles around her nipples until they hardened and begged to be pinched. Her head fell back against his chest, too heavy for her neck to hold up anymore. The solid length of him pushed right up against her core, trying to rub in, demanding entry. And Goddess be damned, she wanted to let him in.

As his fangs dragged up her neck and his mouth found that sweet spot – the one that always set her body on fire – she began to fight it. She kicked and flailed and shoved his face away.

"What the hell?" he growled, sharp fangs bared.

She moved to the other end of the tub and turned to face him. "You can't just come in here and use me like this." Her voice shook as she met his angry eyes, "It's not right."

"You called me," he reminded.

"And I'm sorry I did." She reached behind her and pulled the plug from the drain, staring down at the water as it sank lower and lower, realizing for the first time that the fading bubbles were tinted pink. The water had gone red. Her eyes shot up to his chest and she saw that he was still bleeding, the cuts not yet fully healed. And his face – all the anger and irritation had drained from it, leaving him looking weary, exhausted in a way she'd never seen him.

A hollowness filled her chest as she imagined herself cleaning his wounds, feeding him, putting him to bed and curling around him, lying against him as he slept his healing sleep through the day. Giving him all the love he refused to take.

She turned on the shower jets and stood under the hot spray, letting it rinse away the bloody water and futile dreams. When he stood behind her, she expected him to step out of the tub and leave. But instead, she felt his arms encircle her, pulling her back against his chest.

"I don't understand what you want from me," he said in her ear as his hand reached for the soap.

And then his hands were on her again, rubbing the soap over her body, working up a lather. Slippery hands running over her breasts and a warm, wet mouth on her neck.

She closed her eyes and leaned back against him, feeling his hardness press into the small of her back.

"What do you want, little witch," he whispered into her ear as his slick fingers slid down to tease her until the blush crept up her neck and her body tingled all over.

Through the erotic fog of her mind, the thought that he had done this before began to register, as did the irony of it. He used her passion to keep her at a distance. Her lust to stave off her love.

"A house," she blurted. It was true. She wanted a house, a minivan, 2.5 kids. Dog.

His fingers paused and he tensed for a moment. Then they resumed as he leaned down to her ear again.

"I don't live on the earth," he said as his fingers tried to cloud her thoughts again. "I can't live among humans."

She pushed his hands away and turned to face him, prepared to call bullshit on that even though she knew she was so out of line asking the guy to live with her.

But the sight of him sucked the words from her mouth. He was serious. It was clear in the straight set of his jaw. And he was right.

With that huge body and those red eyes, he could never pass for human. Throw in the tats and the aura of menace he wore like a cloak, and you had a lot of people running and screaming. Or at the very least, staring and wondering why their body's fight-or-flight had just kicked in.

She was an idiot for thinking this vampire could play house with her, for even considering it.

"I just want . . . " she struggled . . . what did she want then? "I want to know you," she finally said.

He stared at her a moment, his gleaming eyes hard as glass. Then he grabbed the shampoo bottle and turned her away from him. "I don't even know myself," he said fiercely as he began to work the soap through her hair. His hands were gentle as they massaged the shampoo into her scalp, but his voice was hoarse and rough.

"I can't give you what you want," he said bitterly, "When I don't have it to give."

Maribel stood under the warm spray of the shower, closing her eyes and tilting her head back as he washed her and rinsed her as though she were a child in his care. It was a sad sort of apology, she thought, those softly stroking hands. He was trying to wash away the harsh words with this achingly gently touch, trying to melt the ice he'd blown across the room and into her heart. But it wasn't enough.

Goddess, he's so damaged, she thought as he stroked her face and leaned her back against him. His caresses were so loving they nearly brought tears to her eyes, but when the tears finally came, it was for another reason. It was because what he'd said was true. He didn't have anything to give her, even if he wanted to. Not because he was soulless, but because he truly believed he was. There was a brick wall standing between them; empty and hollow, but strong nonetheless. Too strong for her to break.

"Are you okay, little one?" he asked.

The odd hint of tenderness in his voice made the tears threaten to pour harder, but she leaned forward and let the water splash over her face to hide them, then nodded and arched back against him, grinding a little, distracting him.

She heard his breath hitch at the intimate contact, and when he hardened against her and his touch went from something warm and comforting to something hot and hungry, she welcomed the change. She moved her hair to the side to bare her neck to him, then leaned forward and arched up to give him an embarrassingly clear view. "You want this?" she whispered, glaring back at him provocatively, watching as his eyes glazed over. "Come and get it." She leapt over the side of the tub and made like she was going to run from him, kicking him into predator mode and juicing him up until his low growl rumbled through the room, vibrating the frames on the walls.

Yes, she thought as he grabbed her violently and took them both down to the floor, piercing and thrusting and sucking at her throat like a starved animal. This side of him she could handle.

This side didn't break her heart.

He knew he should have left after the sex; it wasn't like him to stay long afterward. But he wasn't himself tonight. The last few days had fucked up his head; the lack of fight, the fruitless hunt for Marlaina, the coldness of that mountain . . . something had cracked in him on that mountain.

He'd struggled so hard to reach that nook in the rock. Clung and climbed and clawed until the sweat poured from him and the entire front of his body was shredded from the sharp edges. But when he'd finally grabbed onto that lip and pulled himself into that shallow cave, he'd found no relief. Just more wind, coldness, silence, sharp rock beneath him instead of in front of him, but sharp rock nonetheless.

Exhaustion had washed over him. And the silence; it was a dull roar in his ears.

He'd peered over the ledge at the dark sea below and wondered why he couldn't just end it now. What if he never found Marlaina? Could he continue on this path eternally? Did he not deserve the peace that awaited him in those churning black waters?

He'd slid up to the edge and swung his legs over, until he was half on mountain, half in air.

But there he lingered. He couldn't slide himself that last little millimeter that would put him over the edge. It was the silence that stopped him. It screamed at him.

The witch's call.

His adrenalin had kicked up as he'd realized what the silence meant. The call had stopped. Abruptly.

Before he'd known his own intentions, he'd found himself here in her bedroom. He'd tried to convince himself after that it was because he thought she might have been in danger. But as he looked at her now, all curled up in the bed beside him, her dark silky hair twisted over his arm, he knew damn well that was a lie. He'd come because that call had comforted him somehow, even when he'd had no plans to answer it. And when she had cut it off, the thought had occurred to him that maybe she'd given up. Maybe she was quitting him.

The possibility should have been a comfort considering what a nuisance to his peace of mind he thought her. But somehow it wasn't. And he didn't want to think too deeply about why that might be.

He was too exhausted to think now anyway.

Maribel was torn from sleep by a blunt jab to her rib. An elbow. Then a kick to her side. A knee. Then she was nearly thrown from the bed as Cairo began kicking and thrashing violently in his sleep.

"Please, no," he moaned, twisting and curling into himself. "Stop, please, no more."

"Cairo, wake up." She shook him by the shoulders. Christ, he was covered in sweat, and he looked terrified. He was white as a sheet and tense as a wire, grimacing as though in agony. "Cairo!" she shook harder.

His eyes flew open and stared into hers. "Lizzy?" he asked.

Who? "It's Maribel," she said.

Disoriented, he stared at her face, then reached to touch a lock of her hair. "You look just like her," he whispered.

"Like who?" she asked. "Cairo, what happened to you?"

Seeming to snap back to reality, he sat up and began scanning the room. "Fuck, what time is it?" He was out of the bed and dressed so fast she almost missed it.

"Er . . . " her eyes flew to the clock on the wall. 4am. Still dark enough for him to leave.

He rushed for the windows. "Don't call me tomorrow," he said over his shoulder.

"Wait!" she yelled, confused, frustrated. "What does that mean?" No way in hell was she going through the last few days all over again, stressing over whether or not to call him. "Do you mean don't ever call you again?"

"No," he said.

"No what?" she insisted. "No you didn't mean that or no don't call you again?"

She held her breath as he paused and seemed to consider. He swung halfway out the windows before he turned to pin her with that sharp red gaze. "Call me the night after," he said, and then he was gone.

As she sat staring at the empty spot where he'd been, she wondered if she wasn't going insane. Isn't that what it meant when you could no longer distinguish joy from sorrow? What about right from wrong?

She watched the sky lighten beyond the empty windows, wanting to laugh so loud and cry so hard that the two urges cancelled each other out. And when the sun finally blazed through the windows and she fell back in exhaustion, all she felt was . . . numb.