The Undead Next Door (Love at Stake 4) - Page 27

As they drove through the small business section of Schnitzelberg, Jean-Luc noticed a few old buildings were boarded up. "These places could have stone cellars."

"Aye," Robby answered. "We should check them later."

"Ye think Lui could be hiding in one of them?" Ian asked from the backseat of the BMW. "Angus told us a wee bit about Lui."

"Yeah, what a bad dude," Phineas MacKinney added. "Been killin' all your old ladies, huh?"

Jean-Luc shifted in his seat to look behind him. He'd known Ian for centuries. The Vamp might look fifteen, but he was much older. Angus had transformed him at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542. Seated next to Ian was a tall black man with the unlikely surname of MacKinney.

"I don't believe we've met. I'm Jean-Luc Echarpe."

"The name is Phineas, but you can call me Dr. Phang."

"Thank you for coming." He turned to the third man in the backseat. "You're one of Roman's daytime guards."

Phil nodded. "With Roman and Connor gone, there's no one left for me to guard during the day." The mortal smiled. "But someone's got to watch over you guys."

"You're cool, brother," Phineas announced.

Jean-Luc agreed. A trustworthy mortal was hard to find. The Malcontents viewed mortals as inferior cattle and enjoyed feeding off them and killing them. The Vamps had fed off mortals, too, before Roman's invention of synthetic blood, but they had never been killers. In fact, they tried to protect mortals from the Malcontents. They'd killed hundreds of Malcontents in the Great Vampire War of 1710.

But now, the Malcontent leader, Casimir, was transforming thieves and murderers to swell the ranks of his foul army. Their mission - wipe the good Vamps off the planet and terrorize the mortal world.

Angus had been the Vamp general in 1710, with Jean-Luc as second in command. Angus was always looking for good Vamps to recruit. Finding trustworthy mortals was even trickier. Only a few mortals were willing to risk their lives to protect Vamps. Phil was one of those few.

"Thank you for coming," Jean-Luc told him.

"Not a problem. But I'm going back on a plane." He cast Ian a wary look. "I really don't like hitching a ride when you're teleporting. I just know I'm going to re-materialize someday with my head on backwards."

Ian chuckled. "Angus always checks under his kilt to make sure he dinna lose anything important."

Robby cleared his throat as he turned onto Heather's street. "Do ye think Lui set this fire?"

"Yes." Jean-Luc gripped the brass handle of his cane. "When he attacked two nights ago, he heard me call Heather by name. She was relatively safe until he figured out her last name and where she lives. This fire is his way of announcing that he now knows everything."

"Why didn't he attack her at the fair?" Phil asked.

"He enjoys playing cat and mouse. He'll stretch this out to torture me." Guilt flooded Jean-Luc when he spotted the fire truck in front of Heather's house.

A crowd of people had gathered in the street. The sheriff's car, parked across the street, illuminated the scene with flashing lights. Heather had been so stricken by the news, she hadn't protested at all when Billy dragged her off to his car.

Angus had asked for the keys to her truck, so he could bring her daughter and babysitter to the house. Dazed, Heather had handed over the keys without question. Angus had carefully checked her truck for any explosive device before allowing Emma, Bethany, and Fidelia to climb in.

Robby slowed the BMW to a crawl as they approached the crowd. "Mrs. Westfield canna remain in her house."

"I know." Jean-Luc nodded. "I have to convince her to move in with me. It's the only safe place for her now."

Robby parked behind the sheriff's car. As Jean-Luc climbed out, he surveyed the scene. The air was thick with the smell of charred wood, but there were no flames to be seen. The firemen had already put the fire out.

He tapped his cane on the street as he examined the crowd. Lui might still be lurking about.

"The house looks fine from the front," Robby commented. "It must have been a small fire."

Jean-Luc nodded. "His intent wasn't to destroy, just to send a message."

Angus parked Heather's small pickup behind the BMW. Emma, Fidelia, and Bethany had all crammed inside, and now they climbed out. The frightened look on the four-year-old's face struck Jean-Luc like a punch in the gut.

Angus strode toward his employees - Robby, Ian, Phineas, and Phil. "Search the area. If Lui engages ye in battle, call for backup."

The guards separated quietly.

Angus stepped close to Jean-Luc and handed him Heather's keys. "Emma and I will be leaving now. 'Tis too late to teleport to Budapest, but we'll go to New York tonight and travel east tomorrow."

"I understand." Jean-Luc pocketed Heather's keys. He knew the hazards of traveling east. A vampire would fry if he teleported into sunlight. "I hope you find Casimir."

"We need to kill him before another war breaks out."

Jean-Luc's chest squeezed with trepidation. He'd known Angus since 1513, the year Roman had transformed them both. They'd become the brothers he'd never had. If he lost them, he would truly be alone. "Be careful, mon ami."

"You, too." Angus rested a hand on Jean-Luc's shoulder. "I've always admired ye in battle. Ye charge in, strong and fearless." He glanced toward Heather's house. "Ye should live the same way. Ye deserve to be happy."

Jean-Luc nodded, comprehending the unsaid message. Angus approved of Heather. The bigger question would be if Heather could approve of him. "God go with you."

"And you, too." Angus turned quickly away. No doubt the big Scotsman didn't want to be seen all teary-eyed. He took Emma by the hand, and the two strode down the street.

Jean-Luc knew they would teleport away as soon as they found a secluded place. A little hand curled around his fingers, and he looked down to see Bethany holding his hand. In her other arm, she held the yellow bear he'd won. After he'd smashed three pyramids of milk bottles in rapid succession, the vendor had gladly handed over the bear in order to keep his entire inventory of milk bottles from being destroyed.

"There's too many people. I can't see," the little girl whispered. "Is my house still there?"

"Yes, and it looks all right from the front. The fire is already gone."

Her bottom lip trembled. "I want my mama."

I want her, too. "We'll find her." He led Bethany through the crowd.

"Who do you think started the fire?" Fidelia asked as she walked alongside them. "Was it that bad guy, Louie?"

"I believe so."

"I should have stayed home. He'd be full of lead if I'd caught him." She patted her purse.

Bethany halted and tugged on Jean-Luc's hand. "I don't want my dollies to get hurt."

His throat constricted at the sight of a tear rolling down her cheek. He squatted in front of her. "If you lose anything, I will replace it."

Her green eyes were the same shade as her mother's. Whereas Heather's eyes could flash with anger, twinkle with mirth, or harden with suspicion, Bethany's eyes were simply wide with worry and need. Deep inside, he felt his heart responding. Was this how a father felt? Mon Dieu, it was something he had never expected to feel. It was...odd.

He'd always thought parenthood was all about protection and duty. He hadn't expected such a strong surge of...tenderness. He wasn't sure he liked it. It felt so damned vulnerable. If anything happened to this little girl, how could he live with himself?

"It will be all right." He wiped her tear away with his thumb and hoped he'd sounded convincing.

He straightened and escorted her through the crowd.

"Mama!" Bethany broke loose and ran to the left. The little green bear fell from her pocket onto the street.

Heather was standing about fifteen yards away, talking to the sheriff. She turned at the sound of her daughter's voice, leaned over, and opened her arms.

"Mama, are my toys all right?" Bethany leaped into her mother's arms.

Heather straightened, still holding her daughter. "It's okay, sweetie. The fire didn't reach your room." Her gaze met Jean-Luc's, then she looked away.

He winced at the pain he'd seen there. He picked up the little bear and walked toward them. "I'm so sorry."

"Why?" Billy eyed him suspiciously. "Did you have something to do with this?"