Text copyright © 2012 by S.C. Stephens

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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

I'm back! Sorry it's been so long. Last year was a very hectic year for me. The last six months have been especially grueling. I won't bother you with the details, but let's just say my personal life took a one-eighty. I was writing this story while it was happening, and I know I was a little out of it at times. I'm not entirely sure this story makes sense, lol. I'm counting on you, my loyal readers, to help me fix this story and make it presentable. =D I thank you in advance for your help!

I gave this story an M-rating for violence, sexuality, and some swearing, but honestly, it could probably pass for PG-13.


Conversion: The Next Generation

Chapter 1 – Blending In

I tapped my pencil on a blank sheet of lined 8x10 paper. The dull thud did nothing to remove my writer's block, but it helped to relieve my anxiety. A question was pounding through my brain, a question that every person in my English class was expected to answer by Monday morning. The question wasn't difficult; most of my schoolmates would be able to whip out a response in twenty minutes. But me? I was struggling with the three seemingly simple words that I'd been asked:

Who am I?

Well, that's the million dollar question, isn't it?

To the outside world, I am Nika Adams, an average sixteen-year-old human girl. I'm best friends with my twin brother, Julian, even though we sometimes fight over stupid stuff, stuff we end up laughing about later. I chat on the phone to my girlfriend, usually about cute boys at school that she has a crush on. I push on the borders of my parents' household rules, but ultimately, I love and respect them. I enjoy animals and nature, hope to make a difference in the world, and want to find the man of my dreams someday. I'm experimenting with hair and makeup, wearing shirts that make my dad frown, and skirts that make my mom march me right back upstairs. While my brother and I live with our parents in the heart of Salt Lake City, the rest of my family lives on a working ranch, and I would much rather spend a Saturday afternoon delivering a calf than aimlessly loitering around the mall…not that I'd admit that to my friends. Pizza is my favorite food, followed closely by hot fudge sundaes. My grandparents are the best people in the whole world, and my Aunt Ashley is my hero.

Yes, to the outside world, that was my life in a nutshell.

But that view was flawed, and missing several important details, details that I couldn't talk about. For one, I couldn't talk about my dad outside the family, not with any sort of fondness anyway. The "story" that the world was being told was that my father was a deadbeat dad who'd left me and my brother at birth. I really didn't like that one. I'd have preferred that Dad was a war hero, died in the heat of battle. But my "mother" had picked the story, and she preferred the deadbeat dad scenario; she'd even killed him off in a bar fight a few years ago, so the question of him showing up in our lives wouldn't come up.

But that had to be the case, because none of the men in my life could pass as my father. Besides Grandpa Jack, they all looked too young. And they all looked too young, because they were all dead, every single one of them. Most of the rest of my family too, for that matter. Because who I really am…is a fourth generation vampire. But no one can know that.

They all had to believe the lie. Deception and concealment are practically family mottos in my home, ones I'd been taught since birth. Hide who you are. Don't use your abilities in plain sight. Never show your fangs. Yeah, just like every other vampire in my family, I had fangs. But, unlike most of the rest of my vampire-nest, my brother and I also had heartbeats. We were still alive…for now.

Born into this life, it was just the way we were, the way we'd always been. But being a vampire didn't make us evil or anything. My brother and I didn't spend our evenings trolling the city for young necks to rip open. Really, all it did was make the idea of a nice steaming cup of blood sound a little better than it probably did to a one hundred percent human. It was a tasty snack that we liked to indulge in on occasion. That was about it. It was a little different for the undead members of my family. No, they weren't evil, but they lived on blood, needed it as much as a human needs water. To an outsider, that probably seemed barbaric, but it was the way our species survived past death…so…yeah.

My real dad, Teren, the one I couldn't talk about, was a third generation vampire. He'd died and converted into an undead creature right before his twenty-sixth birthday. So, visually, he was still in his prime. My mother, Emma, had been completely human before being converted by Dad. The story was legend in our house. She'd been attacked, near death, a true death, and Dad had swooped in to save her, her and the babies growing within her…Julian and me. And that was only one of the times Dad had saved our lives. Yeah, my real dad is kick-ass.

Mom had ended up being just like Dad after he changed her. Vampires have certain restrictions on what they can do. Mainly being in sunlight. The negative side effects lessen with each generation, so the four of us—Mom, Dad, Julian and me—frequently enjoy sunbathing. Dad's mom, Alanna, doesn't. Being second generation, she can be out and about for short periods, but then it bugs her and she has to hide away. I couldn't imagine living like that.

Grandma Alanna's husband, Grandpa Jack, is purely human, and wants to stay that way. Besides Dad, Grandpa is about the coolest guy I know. To the outside world, he technically owned the ranch. He'd also been remarried about a zillion times. All to the same woman, Grandma Alanna, but since Grams looks Dad's age, everybody pretends that she's a new wife every decade or so. And Dad and the rest of the undead female vampires at the ranch were being sold in the story as Grandpa Jack's young wife's siblings.

That one was weird, even for me, but Dad and the girls all look the same age, and eerily similar, so them being siblings was the best story around. But it was still odd for me to hear Dad call his mom…sis.

But Great Grandma Imogen and Great Great Grandma Halina act more like sisters, so I tended to think of them that way anyhow. Grandma Imogen is a first generation vampire, so she's up during the day, but can't go outside at all…too painful. Grandma Halina is the only pureblood vampire in the home—the one who'd started us all. She'd been pregnant with Imogen when she'd been turned, which is how Great Grandma had come out half-human, half-vampire. While the vampiric nature inside of me was pretty weak, it's a marvel to behold in a pureblood. Grandma Halina can do things none of us can. She's faster, has better hearing, which is saying a lot, and can trance humans…basically make them do anything she tells them to. That comes in handy. Especially when we need people to forget certain things.

Grandma is also a little different temperament-wise. Halina can seem aloof or distant to outsiders, even cold and calculating, but it's the vampire in her, not really her. Being turned doesn't make you a monster, it doesn't make you start slaughtering people…but it does make you different. And it didn't help anything that Grandma was turned against her will. She'd had a certain…grudge…against her life for a long time, or so Dad tells me. But I'd only seen Grandma happy and in love, so it was sometimes hard to picture. And Great Great Grams was in love with the smartest man I'd ever met—Gabriel.

Gabriel was…well, a hunk. Blond hair, green eyes, and movie star good looks. But he'd always been like a grandfather to me—my brother and I even called him Grandpa Gabby until we were ten—so seeing him as sexy, was kind of…ew. But Grandma sure did; I'd learned more about the birds and the bees from the two of them than anyone else.

The last two vampires in my life weren't related to me in any way, but they were still a part of my extended family. Starla and her boyfriend, Jacen. As Mom had grudgingly told me, they'd both come into our group with Gabriel. And while Starla got on my mom's nerves, she was doing us a huge favor, in one respect. See, Starla was taking medicine that prevented her from converting into an undead vampire, so she was just as alive as Julian and me. That allowed her to age…and that allowed her to play the role as our mom to the humans around us.

Starla wasn't overly thrilled about the situation, and she hated being called "Mom." She said it made her feel old. It always made Grandma Halina laugh when Starla complained about it. But until the flaw in her blood that kept her from converting was fixed, a problem Gabriel was pouring all of his efforts into, Starla had to keep aging. It was either age or die with her, die-die that is, so she had no choice.

The last family members in my life were all on my mom's side of the family. Grandma Linda lived out at the ranch with the vampire girls. She'd bonded so tightly with Grandma Alanna that when our foursome had moved into the city, she'd decided to stay behind in the countryside. Mom had seemed surprised by her decision. I hadn't been. When my brother and I had been homeschooled by our many grandmothers, the bond between them all had been pretty obvious.

Grandma Linda's second daughter, my Aunt Ashley, was still living back in San Francisco with her husband, Christian. They were as happy as could be, even though her husband was completely clueless about the true nature of his in-laws. While we all tried to get together a couple of times a year, us going down to California, or them coming up to visit us in Utah, I missed Aunt Ash. Mom did too. Between the two of us, we talked with her almost every day.

So that was my family tree, the bits and pieces of my life that made up who I was as a person. And I couldn't write down a single word of it. Here I was, living in the Genealogy Capital of the World and I had to keep my genealogy as secret as possible. Sometimes deception sucked.

Sighing, I tucked a loose lock of brown hair behind my ear. It was the same shade as my real mother's hair, not that anyone at school knew that…one more thing I couldn't write down.

"Hey, you still doing your homework? It's a one page, welcome-back-to-school assignment, Nika, not the State of the Union speech. Whip it out already."

Smirking, I looked over to my best friend. Well, as best of a friend as a secretive mixed vampire could have. Julian would always be my closest friend, but the perky brunette beside me was the closest female friend that I had…that wasn't related to me anyway. "I'm working on it, Arianna. I'm just finding it a little…difficult…to get back into the swing of things."

Arianna sighed and leaned back on her hands. Dropping her head back, she let the full glory of the Indian summer sun caress her. It was a beautiful day for sunbathing…which is what I should have been doing, instead of sitting on the edge of the football field, waiting for my "mom" to come pick me up. Starla was late…again. It was only the first week of returning to school and she hadn't been here on time once.

"You're Nika Adams, you live in the city during the week, then hide away from all of your friends on the weekends at some smelly, middle-of-nowhere ranch. You have an insanely gorgeous best friend." Arianna paused to lift her head and wink at me. "And a brother so hot it should be illegal."

I rolled my eyes as Arianna sighed and looked around the empty field before us. "Where is Julian anyway? Shouldn't he be waiting here with you?"

Her hopeful tone completely matched her face. Arianna had had a crush on Julian since nearly day one of our freshman year. I knew girls found my brother attractive…Dad too, when they saw him (Dad and Julian were practically carbon copies of each other), but they were my family and when my girlfriends drooled over them it was a little weird…and a little amusing.

I shrugged. "I don't know where he is. How would I?"

A small smile crossed my lips as I looked over to the gymnasium on the other side of the football field. I knew exactly where Julian was…I could feel him. I could feel every member of my family. Most of them were just blurbs in my mind, a vague sense of their general direction calling to me, but since Julian was so close, I could have extended my hand and pointed to the exact room that he was in…which was the far end of the gym, up on the bleachers. I wasn't sure why he was in there, since he wasn't on a team and he didn't have P.E. for his last period, but that's where he was.

Julian didn't really have to hang out and wait for Starla though. I could let him know when she was here. I could murmur it on the breeze and let the arid wind carry my message and he'd probably hear it. Well, not really. We did have supernaturally good hearing, but being fourth generation, it wasn't as great as the rest of the family's. And with how far away Julian was, and the pockets of noisy people loitering around the school, I would probably have to duck inside the building to whisper my message. And even then, if Julian was preoccupied with something, he might miss it. If that were the case, I would have to yell for him, just like a regular human. Wouldn't be the first time. Sometimes Julian…got lost in himself.

I blamed his moments of self-absorption on our childhood. It wasn't that our childhood hadn't been idyllic, most of it had been, but there'd been a dark spot…a really dark spot. And while Julian seemed fine ninety-nine percent of the time, he did, on occasion, have episodes. It was something that the entire family helped him through...moments of panic attacks, or unnecessary, paralyzing fear. It was something that tightened my heart, just thinking about it. He could be so fragile at times. Sometimes I just wanted to wrap my arms around him and growl menacingly at anything that came his way. But I couldn't be his protector forever, none of us could. Eventually I'd have to let him go, to sink or swim on his own.

Of course, the special bond between us made letting go challenging. It was difficult to ignore Julian's pain or fear when I could feel it slicing through my body as if it were my own. That was our connection though—an unbreakable, empathic bond—and it was sort of a double-edged sword. We'd loved it when we were younger, loved knowing exactly how the other felt at all times, but as we'd gotten older… Well, it wasn't always a gift to know exactly what someone else is feeling.

Squinting my eyes—a warm, brown shade that also matched my biological mother's—I examined the feelings I knew were coming from Julian. Whatever he was doing in the gym, he was happy about it…darn near giddy. Shaking my head, I tuned him out. It could be any number of things making him feel all lighthearted and joyful, but I was pretty sure what it was, and if I was right…I was going to have some serious words with him at home.

"I'm sure he'll be here anytime…then you can drool all over him." I grimaced at my statement while Arianna gasped.

"I'm not about to drool for him!" Arianna smirked, her caramel colored hair bobbing around her shoulders. "Maybe pant a little…but definitely no drooling."

Rolling my eyes, I shook my head at her never-ending crush. As Arianna sat up, she asked, "What about you? When are you gonna drool over some guy?" She sighed. "It's no fun if I'm the only one crushing on somebody."

Glancing over at her, I smiled. "Somebody? You're obsessed with half of the school."

Arianna giggled, looking around at some of the lingering boys around the parking lot. "I can't help it if we've got so many hotties here, Nika."

Giving up on my impossible homework assignment, I shoved it into my backpack and glanced around with Arianna. A pair of long-legged, gangly teens were attempting to skateboard down the handrail of the steps that led away from the main building. I watched them fall time and time again, only to get back up and give it another try…like they were super-healing vampires like my undead family. My enhanced ears heard a stream of cringe-worthy expletives and I turned away.

Out in the parking lot was a group of guys chatting…a couple of them were attempting to keep a hacky sack in the air. I could hear their conversation as well. It seemed to mainly be a discussion about the shorter skirt lengths on the cheerleaders' uniforms this year.

Turning away from them, I looked over to the football field. A couple of boys out there were tossing a football back and forth. There was some good-natured ribbing coming from them, but other than that, they were blissfully silent. It was a rarity among teen boys. I'd overheard a lot more than I'd ever cared to hear. I knew so much more about what the male populace in this school thought than a girl should ever know. And boys…mainly thought about sex.

It seemed horribly cliché, and I'd tried to find pockets of conversation that didn't include it, but unless they were discussing sports or homework, girls and sex were the focus for most of them. It made the prospect of dating one of them…not that attractive. I didn't want to be looked at like a piece of meat. I wanted someone to look at me the way Dad looked at Mom…glowing, adored, worshipped, loved with every fiber of his soul. I knew I was too young to hope for such a thing, but still, I found myself looking for it, and none of these…youths…had it.

Shaking my head at Arianna, I shrugged. "Sorry, I just haven't found anybody that catches my eye yet."

Arianna sighed and tucked her hair behind her ear. "Well, my mom won't let me go on solo dates yet, so you need to find someone so we can double." She leaned over and poked me in the stomach. "My love life is depending on you."

A slice of anger ran up my spine. I shivered with the strength of it and closed my eyes. Intense, rolling hatred seared my body, tightened my muscles. I wasn't angry at Arianna's comment; I actually found it rather amusing. No, the anger scorching my soul wasn't even coming from within me, it was coming from Julian. And it was strong…he was pissed.

I looked back at the gym. I could feel my brother's presence moving away from the massive room, hopefully finally coming out to join me as I waited for Starla. Curiosity and concern blossomed in my chest. I really wanted to know why Julian was so angry…although, knowing him, I did have a guess…

"Great, no pressure…" I murmured to Arianna as I felt Julian leave the gym only to enter the boy's locker room. Frowning, I wondered what the heck he was doing. His anger had spiked a little higher as he'd left the gym, not diminishing at all. It raised my concern up a notch. Maybe I should go see what was wrong with him.

Knowing Julian could feel me just as well as I could feel him, I tried to squelch the concern I felt welling in my stomach. I tried to send calming feelings his way, but it wasn't working. Whatever had riled him up wasn't letting go. He was getting madder and madder.

Arianna started laughing and explaining just which boy she wanted to take on just which date—she had about five or six mapped out already. I tuned her out and tried to listen for my brother. I couldn't hear him through the mess of people and structures in the way…my ears just weren't enhanced enough. It irked me sometimes that my family's gifts were lessened in Julian and me—we were much more human than we were vampire. But that allowed us to feel more regular than the others, and I did appreciate the normalcy…the limitations were just inconvenient at times.

I knew that any of the other females, Mom included, could have easily picked out the conversation Julian was having. All I could get was low, husky murmuring. But his emotions were simmering, and that was really all I needed to know.

Glancing at Arianna, I gathered all of my stuff together and zipped up my bag. Arianna raised an eyebrow, but didn't stop telling me about how she was going to take Jake McKinley rock climbing. Giving her a soft smile, so she didn't get too suspicious, I started to stand. "I'll be right back, Arianna-"

I halted mid-sentence and mid-stance. Dread locked up my muscles and my voice. Fear. Julian was feeling fear now. His anger had been rising to a boiling point, but now it had shifted to stark terror…I had no idea why.

Jerking my head back to the gym, I dropped my bag to the ground and tore off across the football field.

"Nika? What the hell? Where are you going?"

I ignored Arianna's confused complaints as I ran. I had to get to Julian—that was my only concern. I could have blurred to him in a split-second, but hampering my abilities had been drilled into me since birth, and I wouldn't go against that training unless the situation absolutely demanded it. And when Julian's fear shifted to panic…I began to believe that the situation demanded it.

But knowing Arianna was staring at me as I ran away, I halted the need to blur to Julian. I wouldn't freak Arianna out if I could help it. And aside from extreme panic and lingering fear, Julian was okay…well, as far as I knew he was okay.

When I pulled open the doors to the gym, the metal singing in complaint at my force, I felt a rush of pain. Gasping, I paused in my step. The zing of it had exploded over me, almost like I'd felt it myself. I hadn't though, it was separate from my own feelings, which were mainly fearful concern. The pain had come from Julian…and anger came right behind it.

Once inside the gymnasium, my hearing could finally pick him up. He was cursing, and there was lots of scuffling. It sounded like…well, like he'd gotten himself into a fight. Odd, that wasn't like Julian. He wasn't one to pick on people. But then, if what had happened earlier in the gym to make him happy was what I was afraid it was…then yeah, he may have started this one.

Cursing under my breath as another bout of pain lashed Julian's body, I glanced around the empty halls. Seeing it was clear, I sped off after Julian. In mere seconds I was at the edge of a group of people in the boy's locker room. They were all cheering on a couple of guys going at it in the center. Two bodies were sprawled on the tile floor of the open shower, wild punches being slung everywhere.

From the blood bond and our emotional connection, I knew that Julian was in the midst of the melee. Silence shocked me for a moment as I stood on the periphery and watched my brother through a break in the teenagers surrounding him. He'd gained the upper hand and was straddling a senior, Russell Morrison. I watched in horror as Julian successfully landed a punch along Russell's jaw. So many racing heartbeats thudded in the room it was nearly deafening.

Knowing that our supernatural strength was superior to the kids' at this school, fear cut through my startled state. Julian could seriously hurt Russell if he wasn't careful, and with the amount of pain and anger he was feeling, he didn't seem to be worried about being careful anymore.

"Julian!" I screeched, an edge of panic to my voice. He could not get in a fight with a pure human…he'd accidentally kill him.

Feeling my presence, hearing my tone, Julian snapped his head up. Eyes as pale as a spring sky locked onto mine. He was panting, sneering as adrenaline and hatred poured through him. I shook my head, sadness and disappointment washing over my fear and worry. Feeling my heartache and grief, Julian's face relaxed and he looked away from me. Russell underneath him took Julian's moment of distraction as an opening. His punch was finally successful, landing right along Julian's eye. Pain flashed through him and he tumbled back. Grinning viciously, Russell wormed his way free and sprang up to attack Julian again.

I elbowed my way through the people to run over to my brother's side. Stepping in front of him, I shoved my hands into Russell's chest. "That's enough!" I yelled, careful to push him only as hard as a normal human my size would.

Russell moved back an inch and leered at me. "The little Adams to the rescue…typical."

Glancing at Julian over my shoulder, Russell sneered. "Gonna hide behind your sister, chicken shit?"

Julian sprang to his feet and stepped towards Russell. The punch that Julian had received had opened his skin and a bright red trail was rolling down his cheek. I wanted to sigh in frustration. Men! Why did violence always come first with them? Twisting around, I put my hands on Julian's shoulders. "Stop," I whispered, "one wrong move and you could kill him."

Julian's pale eyes flashed to Russell. "He deserves it, Nick," he murmured, below the human's level of hearing.

Digging my fingers into his shoulder, I exhaled the words, "Dad wouldn't want you to do this…"

Julian paused and glanced at me. Then he sighed and hung his head in defeat. To Russell it probably looked like he'd won, like Julian was whipped, defeated, but I felt the tension in my brother's body, felt the fire in his emotions. He'd have knocked Russell into the next county if his conscious hadn't agreed with me…and if I would have let him.

Slumping against the cool, tile wall of the shower, Julian kept his head down. Russell laughed, and the rest of the boys joined in with him. Releasing Julian, since he no longer seemed inclined to fight, I turned and faced Russell. He eyed me up and down, mentally undressing me, and I lifted my chin in defiance. Feeling my own rage start to mix with Julian's lingering anger, I balled my fingers into fists and waited for the jerks to leave.

Russell looked between the two of us, shook his head, then spat at our feet. Considering the fact that Julian had landed a good one on him and his lip was cut, his slimy gift was laced with blood. I could smell it.

His smile dropping after his gross display of…poor manners…Russell pointed over my shoulder at Julian. "You stay the fuck away from my girlfriend or I'll do a hell of a lot more than cut up your face…Julia!"

All of the boys laughed at Russell's "clever" nickname and Julian snapped his head up. His eyes narrowed as his lips curled into a sneer. The anger he'd been trying to suppress flared up again. My sharp eyes caught the subtle outline of fangs under his skin, and I knew that Julian was about five seconds away from ripping Russell's throat out. Mom and Dad would be crushed if he attacked. Grandma Halina…would probably be proud.

One of Russell's friends smacked his shoulder, mindlessly telling him, "Good one."

I wanted to roll my eyes, but I was too nervous about what Julian might do if the jerk didn't leave. Julian was normally a calm person, not easily ruffled or riled, but Russell was his exception. Russell, he hated to the core. Russell, he'd fight in a bathroom and drain dry in an alley…because Russell was dating the love of Julian's life. Or so Julian thought.

Personally, I thought he was too young to have met the one, but Julian was sure that he was fated to be with Raquel Johnson. Only, she wasn't aware of that. She liked Julian, talked with him on occasion, but Russell was the moon and stars in her eyes. And he treated her like dirt. It was all very tragic. I was pretty certain that Julian was only attracted to her because he wanted to save her. He wanted to be her knight. He wanted to be the hero our father was. Only problem there was that Raquel didn't seem to want a knight. Some damsels preferred being in distress.

Just when I wanted to yell at Russell to leave already, he and his entourage finally backed away from the shower area. Julian's body was still tight with anger as the boys' sounds started to dissipate. When the heavy door on the locker room banged shut, Julian opened his mouth, exposing his fangs to the boys that were no longer there.

Annoyed, I put my hands on my hips and faced him. "What the hell were you thinking, Julie?"

Julian stepped away from the shower wall, his eyes still locked on the locker room exit. "You didn't need to rush in here, Nick. I had everything under control."

I wiped a smear of blood from his cheek. Holding my red finger in front of his gaze, so he'd concentrate on me and stop staring at the door, I murmured, "Yeah, I see that."

His eyes stared at the blood and he sighed. "Damn it." He tenderly touched his face, his own fingers coming back red.

I momentarily considered sucking the swath of blood off of my skin, the vampire in me growled at the idea, but I pushed the feeling back. Grabbing Julian's elbow, I pulled him over to the sink.

Looking at his cut in the mirror, Julian grimaced. "Great." His face contorting around his fangs, he asked me, "How am I gonna explain this to Mom and Dad?"

I turned on the water, letting the cool stream wash away the yummy goodness that a part of my soul yearned for. "Well, since I'm still waiting for that explanation, why don't you try it out on me?"

Sliding his fangs back in, Julian shook his head; his pitch-black hair reminded me instantly of Dad's. Julian was right, he wasn't going to like hearing about his son fighting. "It was nothing…just Russell being a dick because I was talking to Raquel."

Sighing, I moistened a paper towel so Julian could clean himself up. "Didn't feel like nothing, Julie. It felt like…" I bit my lip as I handed him the towel, remembering his fear and panic. That had been more than Julian just reacting to Russell being a jerk. That had been…primal. Julian took the towel, his light eyes silently asking me to not finish my question. Knowing his feelings when he didn't want me to know them felt intrusive, and shrugging, I decided to respect his reluctance as much as I could. "It felt like something."

Dabbing the towel against his cut, Julian hissed in a breath. Unfortunately, as living vampires, we didn't have the super-healing abilities that our undead brethren had. Julian's wounds would have to close the old-fashioned way.

"I was just having a…moment," he whispered, glancing at me in the mirror.

Sighing, I nodded at his reflection. Julian's bouts of panic attacks had subsided over the years, but they cropped up now and again if he was put in the right circumstances. Dealing with Russell must have put him over the edge.

I said nothing more about it as Julian wiped away the bloody evidence from his face. I felt the lingering bumps and bruises that Julian felt, the aching sting along his cheek. Pain wasn't necessarily an emotion, per se, but our bodies registered it as such. Ever since birth, I had known when Julian was hurting, physically and emotionally. While my long, lean limbs felt fine, I was still aware of his injuries, and was going to be aware of his pain for the next several days while he healed. Yeah, double-edged sword.

When Julian was as cleaned up as he was going to get, I nodded over to the doors. "We should go…Starla is gonna be here soon."

Julian nodded and fell into step beside me. I felt a wave of hope wash through Julian as we walked past the door leading into the heart of the gym. As his eyes scoured the large, empty room, the hope shifted to disappointment. I sighed and clapped his shoulder. "I really wish you'd stop liking her…she's not worth it, she's not worth fighting over."

Julian twisted his head to me and frowned. "Yes, she is." Warmth blossomed in his chest as he smiled in a clearly love-sick way. "She's wonderful, Nick. You just don't know her like I do."

That I agreed with. I didn't see anything overly wonderful about the woman Julian adored. Mainly I found her sad, weak, and a little victim-ish. But I didn't talk with her like Julian did, and by the feelings that sprouted in his chest whenever she was around, it was clear that he found something in her worth obsessing over.

Hating to burst his bubble, I cringed. "You know you can't date her, right?" Julian furrowed his brow at me and I let out a weary exhale. "Even if she left Russell to be with you, Julian, you can't date her. You can't tell her what you really are…so you can't be with her."

Julian stepped into the open doors of the gym, grabbing a backpack that had been haphazardly tossed beside a garbage can. "I could tell her…" He looked back at me, hope in his eyes and his heart. "Dad told Mom?"

Knowing the story well, I shook my head. "They were older, Julian, and Mom is…different than Raquel. I don't think she would be as accepting as Mom was."

Tossing the bag over his shoulder, Julian raised his chin. "But you don't know that. You're just assuming that she'll react badly…and I don't think she will."

Shaking my head, I twisted to the front doors that lead outside. "Well, it doesn't really matter since she's with Russell." I looked back at Julian silently following me. "And I don't think she's leaving him anytime soon."

Lowering his head, Julian kicked a rock down the stone steps. "Yeah, I know that, Nick."

As we reached the bottom step, Arianna was just stepping off of the football field. "What the heck, Nika?" she yelled, still perplexed as to why I'd run off.

Waving at her, I murmured to Julian, "You know, Arianna would date you in a heartbeat if you asked."

Stepping beside me, Julian smirked. "I know that too, Nick."

Stepping up to us, Arianna handed me my backpack; her eyes focused on Julian next to me. "So, what was the emergency?"

I felt a wave of embarrassment flood through Julian as he was scrutinized by my best friend, a woman whose eyes were clearly only for him, even if we both acted like half of the guys at school interested her. Amusement at my brother's uneasiness bubbled through me and Julian glanced over and rolled his eyes. "Not funny," he murmured, too low for Arianna to hear.

Smiling, I shrugged and answered Arianna as best as I could. "I forgot a book in the gym…had to go get it."

Arianna lifted a light brown eyebrow. "A book…really?"

I shrugged. "It was a really good book." Just when Arianna looked about to argue with my story, I grabbed Julian's arm and tugged him forward. "And look what else I found."

Even more embarrassment flashed through Julian as he nearly collided with Arianna. The giddy girl giggled and put her hands on Julian's arms to steady him. "Hey, Julian. We were just wondering where you were."

Julian looked back at me and raised a brow. He knew I never wondered where he was…I didn't have to. Trying to distance himself from Arianna without openly offending the woman, he murmured, "Here I am."

Just as he successfully removed her hands from his body, Arianna noticed the red and raw cut beside Julian's eye."Oh, my God, Julian, what happened?" Her fingers came up to his face, angling his head towards her so she could examine the wound more closely.

A feeling of extreme discomfort surged through Julian and he quickly pulled his head away from Arianna. "I…uh…fell."

Arianna sighed, her face falling into compassion. "Oh, you poor thing."

Right when she looked like she might reach out and hug him, I heard the hum of a car that I knew very well. Julian and I looked across the football field at the exact same time. On the other edge of the lawn I could see the school parking lot and a silver BMW shone in the afternoon sun as it pulled to a stop. A horn honked twice, unnecessarily, since Julian and I were already well aware of the vehicle.

Removing Arianna's hands from his face, Julian gave her an apologetic smile. "I have to go…our mom's here."

Arianna frowned and looked back to the lot. A petite blonde stepped out of the vehicle and waved at us. It wasn't a welcome, glad to see you wave either. It was more a hurry up, I have better things to do wave. Starla didn't exactly enjoy being our fetching girl, but Gabriel had asked her to do it, so she did. There weren't too many things that Starla refused to do if her "father" asked.

Arianna sighed and stepped back from Julian. "Well, I guess I should go home now, too." She looked over at me. "See you Monday."

She gave me a swift hug, gave Julian a lingering gaze of longing, then headed off in the opposite direction. Arianna lived right next to the high school and always waited with me until "Mom" picked me up. Creepily enough, Arianna lived just opposite a graveyard. The two of us sometimes scared ourselves silly by walking though the cemetery at night. Well, Arianna was scared silly. It didn't bother me all that much. I was used to nighttime excursions with my family, and since my great great grandmother was the scariest thing around, not much in a cemetery scared me.

"Would you two hurry up!"

Julian and I looked back at Starla watching us watch Arianna leave. Shaking her head, I told her, "We're coming…chillax." I spoke it at regular volume but Starla heard me just fine. She popped a bubble with her gum and ducked back inside her shiny vehicle.

Smiling at each other, Julian and I started to walk her way. "So…why don't you just ask Arianna out, since you know she likes you? I think you two would be cute together."

Julian smirked, amusement flowing from him into me. "You think she'd be any cooler about what we are than Raquel?"

Biting my lip, I considered that. Arianna was cool, certainly, but that cool? It was hard to tell. She'd handle it better than Raquel, though. I was pretty sure of that. "Yeah, I think so…"

Julian was quiet as we continued across the field. The blades had been cut recently and the scent of fresh grass nearly overwhelmed my senses…it reminded me a little of the ranch. Once we were climbing up the small slope that I had been sitting on earlier with Arianna, Julian finally spoke. His words matched his mood—subdued. "I don't feel that way about her, Nika." He looked over at me. "She's not who I'm in love with…sorry."

I patted his shoulder in sympathy. "I know."

Starla honked her horn again. Visible through the windshield, she raised her hands in a come-on-already gesture. Rolling my eyes, I hurried the short distance to her car. Cracking the door open, I darted in the front seat while Julian took the back. Starla stepped on the gas before I even had a chance to fully close the door.

"Sorry I'm late," Starla muttered, snapping another bubble with her apple-flavored gum.

"It's all right," I muttered, glancing over at the woman.

Starla was quickly approaching forty, but she still dressed and acted like she was much younger. Her light blonde locks were cut stylishly short, and spritzed and sprayed into a not-moving helmet of perfection. Her skin was tan and Botoxed to be as smooth as possible. Wrapped in a tight designer dress and glasses that were as large as they were round, she seemed like someone much more at home shopping on Rodeo Drive than hanging around Washington Square. And in fact, she was exactly that person, but her nest was here, the love of her life was here, and, Gabriel, the man she eerily called father was here, so…she was stuck in Utah, for now.

Smacking on her gum, she smiled over at me. "So, how was school?"

"Fine." I smiled back and relaxed into her seat, not wanting her to suspect that anything less than normal had happened today.

I felt tension coming from Julian and noticed him squirming in his seat, angling his head away from Starla so she wouldn't see his damaged skin. He couldn't do anything about the smell though. The fresh blood was faint, but it was still clear enough for a vampire, it even permeated through the smells emanating from Starla.

She inhaled, then looked back at Julian. "I smell blood on you…why?"

Starla eyed his face for a long time, a lot longer time than someone concentrating on their driving really should. "Are you hurt? What happened?"

Sighing, Julian stopped trying to avoid it and twisted to face her. "It's fine…I fell."

Starla narrowed her blue eyes at Julian, appraising him. Smirking, she shook her over-styled head and twisted to look back at the road. "Sure, kid." Looking at him in the rear-view mirror, she added, "You may want to work on your story before you get home, though. Your parents will probably buy it as much as I do."

Julian groaned and laid his head back on the seat. A wave of reluctant anxiety went through him and I reached behind my seat to pat his knee. He felt the sympathy pouring from me and sighed as his tension started returning.

Starla watched his reaction in the mirror, then asked, "So, heard you talking outside…who's the lucky girl that you're in love with, Julian?"