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Authors: Liz Jasper

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BOOK: Underdead
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“I guess you could say I’m in…Human Resources Management. Nothing exciting. And yourself?”

“I teach middle school science, but my background’s in ecology.”

My degree is officially in biology, but I had loaded up on ecology classes because the labs were mostly held outdoors. I discovered early on that I much preferred wearing heavy boots and tromping around in mud to the more traditional latex glove and petri dish route. I liked studying outside so much that I’d signed up for astronomy and geology classes as well. Of course, there’s a price to pay for a self-indulgent education. Mine was that the only job I could find upon graduation was teaching earth science to eighth graders.

“Ecology,” Will said. “That’s a subject I know little about. I so rarely get out during the day. It’s only at night that I have the flexibility to study things that interest me.” His voice was flat, the animation I’d glimpsed earlier gone.

Great. In addition to being financially useless, my educational interests repelled men. I shifted the conversation back to books.

“I like to read Thomas Hardy novels at Christmas,” I said. “They’re so outrageously depressing that even if you have to spend your holiday hearing about your aging relatives’ medical issues, and then go home to find your tree on fire and all your presents stolen by pirates, you still can’t help but feel as if you’re having the best Christmas ever.”

This got him to laugh again and his eyes, lightened to a brilliant sapphire, met mine in shared amusement before the humor in them gave way to something else. My breath caught as he stepped slowly, purposefully, into the space that separated us. I was dimly aware that the band had started up again after a short break and the porch had emptied. Completely. We were alone out there.

He spoke in a low gravelly voice that intensified his faint accent. “You’re not at all what I expected.” He reached forward to capture a long lock of my hair and watched it slide slowly through his fingers as if mesmerized. “Gold and orange and red, like the sunrise.” He traced a finger lightly down my cheek. “You’re as lovely as daybreak.”

He closed the remaining distance between us.

I’m a “third date, first kiss” kind of girl but that night I didn’t care. Soon—too soon—he broke away abruptly and studied me for a long silent moment at arm’s length.

An odd mix of triumph and regret seemed to war across his face, but before I could decide what I’d seen or ponder what it meant, he pulled me tightly against him and I was lost once again in his kiss—until a sharp, ravaging pain jerked me out of my hormonal fog. I wrenched myself away and took a staggering step back.
What the hell did he think he was doing?

He had bitten my neck.

Hard.

I wanted to yell for help, to give him an earful of what I thought about weirdoes who bit people, but the words froze on my lips. I just stood there staring wonderingly into his eyes, those blue, blue eyes as he pulled me toward him. I was terrified yet curiously unable to move away, as if I were in one of those dreams when you try to run and nothing happens. He pulled me closer, closer, and as his lips hovered an inch from mine, the simmering attraction between us caught fire again and I forgot about running away altogether. He lowered his teeth again to my neck and bit again.

The pain woke me partially out of my stupor and the years of self-defense classes my father had made me take kicked in, giving sudden strength to my limp legs. Almost automatically, I pulled a knee sharply up into his groin. He gave a startled cry and loosened his grip for a brief moment, but almost immediately grabbed my shoulders and yanked me back toward him. But the break had been enough. My mind cleared, as if someone had poured a bucket of cold water down over me.

Instead of resisting, I shifted toward him. It caught him off guard and he was forced to step back to keep his balance. I used the opportunity to crack an elbow into his jaw. It was all I needed. Clutching a hand to my throbbing neck, I ran blindly for the door back into the bar and ran smack into another hard chest. I let out a strangled scream.

The owner of the chest, a tall, brown-haired man with intense light grey eyes and a crooked nose, pushed me away and held me at arm’s length. His eyes raked my face and seemed to linger at my neck, though I was sure he couldn’t see what I could only imagine as the world’s nastiest hickey, since my hand covered it.

“Are you okay?” His voice sounded harsh, urgent.

“I’m fine,” I said. I forced myself to remain calm as I scanned the dining area urgently for Becky and Carol. They were still at the table, a half-full pitcher of margaritas between them. They didn’t seem to have moved since I left them.

I realized the man was saying something to me. I brushed off his polite concern and hurried back to our table. Gathering up my long hair in one hand, I pulled the thick mass around my neck and let it hang down the front of my chest. I have a lot of hair. Anything on my neck that needed to be hidden would be.

Becky was waiting eagerly for a report. I bent to collect my purse. “I’m going to head home,” I said.

“So soon?”

I pitched my voice louder and said to the group at large, “I’m sorry I have to leave early, but I’m not feeling too well. I think I’m coming down with something.”

Becky’s grin faded and her brow furrowed as she exchanged a glance with Carol.

Roger spoke portentously from the head of the table. “I’m not surprised. Many people, especially the new teachers, are only able to hold off a cold until the holidays.”

His smug response got my back up, but now was not the time to deal with Roger.

Carol was watching me with a concerned look. “I’ll drive you,” she said, standing up. “I’m parked just down the block.”

I forced myself to speak lightly. “No, you stay and have fun. I’d planned to take a taxi anyway—it’s only ten bucks, I live so close.” It was only a partial lie—I definitely planned to take one now. After a few more minutes of saying goodbye to everyone and fending off offers of company I didn’t want for the ride home, I managed to escape. I wasn’t kidding when I’d said I felt crappy. My neck hurt, my stomach was churning with a potent combination of disgust and tequila, and the room was starting to spin. Fortunately, a taxi was waiting outside the restaurant and the driver handed me neatly inside.

I managed to give him my address before slipping into darkness in the backseat.

Chapter Three

 

Bright rays of morning sunlight jolted me back into consciousness like a slap in the face. Never before had I felt so reluctant to be alive. My head hurt, my body hurt—even my eyes hurt, as if the lids were insufficient protection against the light. With what seemed like an absurdly large amount of effort, I shifted my head back into the shadows and opened my eyes.

My mind wasn’t working very fast, or very well, and I took things in slowly. The first thing I noticed was that the small, sparsely furnished room needed some serious maid service. The small bedside table and wide matching dresser were simple, cheap and nearly invisible under their heavy loads of picture frames and unfolded laundry. Unframed posters, an erratic mix of impressionist art and nature scenes, splashed color on generic white walls. A stack of books listed determinedly toward the door, as if trying to escape back to the orderly seclusion of the library. Maybe they knew they were overdue. I did. The library had left messages.

While I had gone through the sluggish process identifying my own bedroom, the sun had crept back across my face with the sly grace of a water buffalo. I pulled a pillow over my head and tried to go back to sleep, but it was abundantly clear I wasn’t getting any farther before I consumed a handful of aspirin and a bucket of water.

I hauled myself out of bed and stumbled across apartment-beige carpet toward the adjoining bathroom that seemed miles away from my bed instead of just ten feet.
I am never drinking tequila again
, I promised myself fervently.
Never ever.

I squirted a rather crooked line of toothpaste onto my toothbrush and went to work scouring the cotton out of my mouth while I drummed up the courage to stop avoiding the mirror. If I looked anything like how I felt, there would be an ogre looking back at me. I rinsed my toothbrush, carefully patted my mouth dry with a towel, and then risked a peek.

Ooh, even better. Two ogres.
I closed my aching, bloodshot eyes for a moment and regrouped, trying to ignore the dizziness that suddenly swamped me. When the room stopped spinning, I rubbed my eyes and tried again, squinting a little against the fuzziness.

I was all that was lovely. I looked like a carrot-topped banshee. My face was flushed, my hair was a tangled mess and my neck was throbbing. Will’s kiss—and its creepy denouement—came rushing back.
How had I forgotten that? What else had I forgotten?
I began to panic. It had finally occurred to me that I didn’t even remember coming home. I looked down at myself. I was still dressed in the clothes I had worn to dinner.

How many margaritas had I had?
It was hard to gauge—Becky had kept our glasses filled from the pitcher, but I thought it had probably been only two, maybe three. Surely not enough to cause a blackout! I shoved my hair aside and craned my neck to inspect the spot between my ear and collarbone where that jerk had bitten me. I could swear he’d left teeth marks. I probed the area gently with one finger. It came away wet. The wound was seeping a bit—he’d actually broken skin.

Eew! Eew! Eew! I did a little gross-out dance, the sort until then I’d only seen women in cartoons do when they encountered a mouse, and reached for my first-aid kit. Soaking a cotton ball with antiseptic, I scrubbed furiously at my neck and thought about Will. I had joked with Becky and Carol about good-looking men having drawbacks in other areas, but come on! I wasn’t sure if I had been a victim of kinky S&M foreplay or some sort of Goth thing run amok. What kind of weirdo bites a girl during their first kiss? Who did he think he was? Dracula?

I threw the cotton ball in the trash and gave another cry of disgust. The hair near my wound was matted and sticky with blood and his saliva - a minuscule amount, maybe, but as a trained biologist, I am fully able to gross myself out on a microscopic level. I had to get myself to the emergency room immediately. Right. And spend the next four hours hung over in a cramped and crowded waiting room only to have a doctor laugh at me for being paranoid. I could see it right now. They’d send me home with a teensy-weensy adhesive bandage and tell me not to kiss strangers in bars.

I pulled off my clothes instead, threw every item into the wicker hamper and showered, washing my hair obsessively three times. When I got out, I felt much better. I put a cheerful yellow bandage strip over the wound on my neck (so I wouldn’t have to look at it) and dressed in my oldest, comfiest sweats. Coffee, I decided firmly. Lots of it. And maybe pancakes. And bacon—ooh, maybe a steak! Nice and rare. Thinking of food cheered me up a little. Was it odd that I wanted a bacon cheeseburger, hung over as I was? No. That was the one thing normal about today. I always wanted food. Yawning, I padded down the short hallway to the living room, opened the connecting door and screamed.

A strange man was standing near the couch, watching me intently and holding what looked like a small club. A voice in my head yelled at me to run, but I stood there, frozen with fear, until a gust of wind came through my bedroom window and slammed the door shut behind me, trapping me in the room with him. I jumped and shrieked and grappled frantically behind me for the doorknob.

He spoke. “Wait! Miss Gartner! I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m the taxi driver. Ah, Gavin Raines?”

He did look vaguely familiar. He was a tall, athletic-looking man in his late twenties with brown hair and a hooked nose that looked as if it had been broken once or twice.

“Taxi driver.” I repeated loudly, to cover the sound of the doorknob turning behind me.

“I drove you home last night?” He spoke earnestly, willing me to remember. “You, um, passed out in my cab. You were holding your keys so I helped you inside, but I didn’t want to leave you like that, without the deadbolt, it wasn’t safe—anyone could have gotten in…” His voice petered out uncertainly.

“Are you always this chivalrous to your customers?”

His glance dropped to the floor. I took a half step back and silently pushed the door behind me open a little wider. “Well, no.” He sounded embarrassed. “It’s just, well you look a little like my younger sister, and…” He looked up and his eyes met mine. They were a curious light grey that struck some chord of memory. I was sure now that I had seen him before, but the memory went no farther than simple recognition.

He said, “I’m sorry. I’m new at this. I just started the job last week—I’m just doing it part-time while I finish my dissertation. Here, let me show you my ID… Er, I didn’t realize I was still holding this.” He put the club down on the table with a little self-deprecating grimace and dug into the back pocket of his jeans.

My suspicions had returned in full force. I pointed to the club with my free hand and the other tightened on the doorknob behind me as I readied myself to dive back into the bedroom at the first sign of homicidal mania. “What do you have that for anyway? Given how I remind you of your little sister and all, I’m surprised you felt you needed it.”

To my surprise he smiled widely. “I didn’t. Bring it in I mean. You did. It’s usually kept under the driver’s seat—all the cabs have ‘em. It must have rolled into the back. You were holding it when I carried you out. Here.” He held out his ID card.

When I didn’t move to take it, he put it on a table between us and stepped back. I reached forward and picked it up. I had to squint to read the tiny writing. What was
wrong
with my vision? Did I need reading glasses? Had all the studying and grading finally caught up with me, or had I just discovered a new and exciting side effect of the truly horrible hangover?

“UCLA, huh?” I said, pushing the unpleasant thoughts aside. “What’re you studying?”

BOOK: Underdead
11.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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