Outside, I let the girl lead me away from the drunken crowd and toward a side alley beyond a bar called Calhouns.
“Im sorry,” she said breathlessly.“I dont know what came over me.Im usually not so fresh, its just that–“
“Im thankful for it,” I said, interrupting her.
She shivered, and I put my arms around her thin frame. Instantly, she pulled away.
“Youre so cold!” she said in an accusatory tone.
“Am I?” I asked, feigning nonchalance.You want to kiss me, I thought.
She shrugged. “Its okay. Its just that Im sensitive to temperature. But I know a way we could both warm up.” She smiled shyly, then raised up to her tiptoes. Her lips pressed against mine, and for a moment, I allowed myself to enjoy their warmth and feel the girls blood race through her veins as she gave herself over to me.
Then I lunged for her neck.
“Ow!” She protested, trying to push me off. “Stop!”
You will succumb, because if you do that, I’ll let you live, I thought, using every fiber of my being to compel her at this crucial moment. She gazed up at me, confusion in her eyes, before she fell back over my arms, her face a mask of sleepy satisfaction. I took a few more sips of the blood, all too conscious of Lexi and the others back inside. Then I dragged the woman up to her feet. Id been careful. The holes Id made in her neck were tiny, almost impossible to see with human vision. Still, I adjusted her scarf around her neck to cover them up.
“Wake up,” I whispered softly.
Her eyes opened, the gaze unfocused. “What where am I?” I could sense her heart beating faster, sense her ready to let loose a scream.
“You were helping a drunk customer,” I told her. “You are free to go. I was simply making sure you were okay.”
She snapped to attention, her body relaxing. “I apologize, sir. Usually, the patrons dont get so rowdy at Miladies. Thank you for assisting me. Ill give you a whiskey, on the house,” she said, winking at me.
I walked into Miladies beside her, and was rewarded with Lexis slow smile from the corner table.
Good job, boy.
I followed the girl until she safely resumed her position behind the polished wood counter of the bar.
“Whats your poison?” she asked, whiskey bottle in hand. She looked pale, as if she were coming down with a slight cold. Meanwhile, her blood was warm in my stomach.
“Ive drunk quite enough, thank you, miss,” I said, as I took her hand and brought it up to my lips, kissing it as tenderly as Id marked her neck.
The following evening Lexi knocked on my bedroom door. She wore a black coat and matching trousers. A cap hid most of her hair, save for a few blond tendrils that fell loose and framed her face.
“I was proud of you last night,” she said. I smiled, despite myself. It was surprising how quickly I took to seeking Lexis approval. “How much did you take from the barmaid?”
“Not too much. But I wanted more,” I admitted.
A look I couldnt quite decipher passed over her face. “I used to be like you, you know. But the more you feed from humans, the hungrier you get. Its a curse. But there are other ways. Have you hunted for animals blood?”
I shook my head no.
“Well, luckily for you, Im going hunting now,” she said, “and youre coming with me. Put on dark clothes and meet me downstairs in five minutes.”
I shrugged on a dark, military-looking jacket Id found hanging in the closet and raced downstairs, loath to put off hunting with Lexi for even five minutes. While I bristled at Buxtons comments about how inexperienced I was, when I heard it from Lexi, I was only eager for a lesson on how our kind survived.
We walked out the door, no trace of sunlight in the inky black sky. I sniffed the air, searching out the scent of the nearest human, then stopped when I saw Lexi staring at me with a knowing look.
Instead of turning left, toward the bustle of Bourbon Street, she turned right, snaking through side streets until we reached a forest. Above us the trees were bare and ghostly against the dark night sky, the moon our only light.
“There are deer here,” Lexi said, “and squirrels, bears, rabbits. I think theres a den of foxes that way,” she added, walking into the thick, mossy woods. “Their blood smells earthier than human blood, and their hearts beat much more rapidly.”
I followed her lead. Quickly and silently, we darted from tree to bush without disturbing the underbrush. In a way, it felt like we were playing a game of hide-and-seek, or just playing at hunting, the way young schoolboys do. After all, as a human, Id always carried a weapon on the hunt. Now all I had were my fangs.
Lexi held up a hand. I paused, midstep, my eyes darting everywhere. I didnt see anything but thick trunks and racing ants in jagged stumps. Then, without warning, Lexi lunged. When she stood up, blood was dripping from her fangs, and a self-satisfied smile appeared on her face. A creature lay on the fallen leaves, its legs bent as if it were still mid-run.
She gestured to the lump of orangish-red fur. “Fox isnt bad. Would you like to try it?”
I knelt down, my lips curling as they made contact with the rough fur. I forced myself to gingerly take a sip of liquid, though, as I knew it was what Lexi wanted. I sucked in, and immediately the blood seared my tongue. I spit it out violently.
“Fox is an acquired taste, I suppose,” Lexi said as she knelt on the ground by my side. “More for me, at least!”
While Lexi fed, I leaned against a tree trunk and listened to the rustling sounds of the forest. The breeze shifted, and suddenly the scent of iron-rich blood was everywhere. It was sweet and spicy, and it wasnt coming from Lexis fox.
Somewhere, nearby, there was a human heart, beating out seventy-twothu-thudsa minute.
Cautiously I slipped past Lexi, and ventured out past the perimeter of the forest. Set up on the edge of the lake was a shantytown. Tents were pitched at every angle, and makeshift clotheslines ran between wooden posts. The whole setup looked haphazard, as if the inhabitants knew theyd have to pick up and relocate at any second.
The camp looked deserted save for one woman who was bathing, the moonlight striking her ivory skin. She was humming to herself, washing the caked dirt off her hands and face.
I hid behind a large oak tree, pretending to take the woman by surprise. But then a large painted poster on a neighboring tree caught my eye. I took a step toward it. A branch cracked, the woman whirled around, and I could sense Lexi behind me.
“Stefan,” Lexi murmured, obviously aware of the unfolding scene. But this time, I was the one to hold up my hand to silence her. Mist floated over the portrait on the sign, but the printing was clear:PATRICK GALLAGHERS FREAK SHOW: VAMPIRE VERSUS BEAST. BATTLE TO THE DEATH! OCTOBER 8.
I blinked, and the portrait swam into my vision. It was of a dark-haired man with chiseled features and pale-blue eyes. His teeth were bared, his canines elongated, and he was crouched opposite a snarling mountain lion.
I knew the face on the poster better than I knew my own. It was Damon.