Last Breath – Rachel Caine

Shane’s lips felt like velvet against the nape of her neck, and Claire shivered in delight as his breath warmed the skin there. She leaned back against him with a sigh. Her boyfriend’s body felt solid and safe, and his arms went around her, wrapping her in comfort. He was taller than she was, so he had to bend to rest his chin on her shoulder and whisper, “You sure about this?” Claire nodded. “You got the overdue notice, didn’t you? It’s this or they come to collect. You don’t want that.” “Well, you don’t have to be here,” he pointed out—not for the first time today. “Don’t you have classes?” “Not today,” she said. “I had an oh-my-God a.m. lab, but now I’m all done.” “Okay, then, you don’t have to do this because you’re tax-exempt.” By tax-exempt, he meant that she didn’t have to pay … in blood. Taxes in Morganville were collected three ways: the polite way, via the collection center downtown, or the not-so-polite way, when the Bloodmobile showed up like a sleek black shark at your front door, with Men in Black— style “technicians” to ensure you did your civic duty. The third way was by force, in the dark, when you ventured out un-Protected and got bitten.

Vampires. A total pain in the neck—literally. Shane was entirely right: Claire had a legal document that said she was free from the responsibility of donations. The popular wisdom—and it wasn’t wrong—was that she’d already given enough blood to Morganville. Of course, so had Shane … but he hadn’t always been on the vampires’ side, at the time. “I know I don’t have to do it,” she said. “I want to. I’ll go with.” “In case you’re worried, I’m not girly-scared or anything.” “Hey!” She smacked his arm.

“I’m a girl. What exactly are you saying? That I’m not brave or something?” “Eeek,” Shane said. “Nothing. Right, Amazon princess. I get the point.” Claire turned in his arms and kissed him, a sweet burst of heat as their lips met. The lovely joy of that released a burst of bubbles inside her, bubbles full of happiness. God, she loved this. Loved him. It had been a rough year, and he’d … stumbled, was the best way she could think of it.

Shane had dark streaks, and he’d struggled with them. Was still struggling. But he’d worked so hard to make it up—not just to her, but to everyone he felt he’d let down. Michael, his best (vampire) friend. Eve, his other (nonvampire) best friend (and Claire’s best friend, too). Even Claire’s parents had gotten genuine attention: he’d gone with her to see them twice, with exit permission from the vampires, and he’d been earnest and steady even under her father’s stern cross-examination. He wanted to be different. She knew that. When the kiss finally ended, Shane had a drugged, vague look in his eyes, and he seemed to have trouble letting go of her. “You know,” he said, moving her hair back from her cheek with a big, warm hand, “we could just blow this off and go home instead of letting them suck our blood.

Try it tomorrow.” “Bloodmobile,” she reminded him. “People holding you down. You really want that?” He shuddered. “Hell, no. Okay, right, after you.” They were standing on the sidewalk of Morganville’s blood bank, with its big cheerful blood-drop character sign and scrupulously clean public entrance. Claire pecked him lightly on the cheek, escaped before he could pull her close again, and pushed the door open. Inside, the place looked like they’d given it a makeover—more brightly, warmly lit than the last time she’d been in, and the new furniture looked comfortable and homey. They’d even installed a tank full of colorful tropical fish flitting around living coral.

Nice. Clearly, the vampires were trying to put forth their best efforts to reassure the human community, for a change. The lady sitting behind the counter looked up and smiled. She was human, and sort of motherly, and she pulled Claire’s records and raised her thin, graying eyebrows. “Oh,” she said. “You know, you’re entirely paid up for the year. There’s no need—” “It’s voluntary,” Claire said. “Is that okay?” “Voluntary?” The woman repeated the word as if it were something from a foreign language. “Well, I suppose …” She shook her head, clearly thinking Claire was mental, and turned her smile on Shane. “And you, honey?” “Collins,” he said.

“Shane Collins.” She pulled out his card, and up went the eyebrows again. “You are definitely not paid up, Mr. Collins. In fact, you’re sixty days behind. Again.” “I’ve been busy.” He didn’t crack a smile. Neither did she. She stamped his card, wrote something on it, and returned it to the file, then handed them both slips of paper.

“Through the door,” she said. “Do you want to be in the room together or separately?” “Together,” they chorused, and looked at each other. Claire couldn’t help a bit of a smirk, and Shane rolled his eyes. “She’s kind of a coward,” he said. “Faints at the sight of blood.” “Oh, please,” Claire said with a sigh. “That does describe one of us, though.” The receptionist, for all her motherly looks, clearly wasn’t sympathetic. “Fine,” she said briskly. “Second door on the right.

There are two chairs in there. I’ll get an attendant for you.” “Yeah, about that … Could you get us a human?” Shane asked. “It creeps me out when a guy’s draining my blood and I hear his stomach rumble.” Claire punched him in the arm this time, an unmistakable shut up, and gave the receptionist a sunny smile as she dragged him toward the door that had been indicated. “Really,” she said to him, “would it be that hard just to not say anything?” “Kinda.” He shrugged, then opened the door and held it for her. “Ladies first.” “I’m really starting to think you are a scaredy-cat.” “No, I’m just flawlessly polite.

” He gave her a sideways glance, and with a curious seriousness said, “I’d go first in any fight, for you.” Shane had always been someone who best expressed love by being protective, but now it was deliberate, a way for him to make up for how he’d let his anger and aggression get the best of him. Even at his worst he hadn’t hurt her, but he’d come close—frighteningly close—and that lingered between them like a shadow. “Shane,” she said, and paused to look him full in the face. “If it comes to that, I’d fight beside you. Not behind you.” He smiled a little, and nodded as they started moving again. “I’d still jump in front of the first bullet. Hope you’re okay with that.” She shouldn’t have been, really, but the thought, and the emotion behind it, gave her another little flush of warmth as she walked into the room.

Like the rest of the human side of the collection center, the space felt warm and comfortable. The reclining chairs were leather, or some vinyl approximation. The speakers overhead were playing something acoustic and soft, and Claire relaxed in the chair as Shane wriggled around in his. He went very still as the door opened and their attendant stepped inside. “No way,” Claire said. First, their attendant was a vampire. Second, it was Oliver. Oh, he was wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard and looked vaguely official, but it was Oliver. “What exactly is the second in command of vampire affairs doing drawing blood?” “Yeah, and aren’t you needed pulling espresso at the coffee shop?” Shane added with a totally unnecessary edge of snark. Oliver was often found behind the counter at the coffee shop, but he wasn’t needed there.

He just liked doing it, and Shane knew that. When you were as (presumably) rich and (absolutely) powerful a vampire as Oliver, you could do whatever you damn well wanted. “There’s been flu going around,” Oliver said, ignoring Shane’s tone as he took out his supplies and laid them out on trays. “I understand they’re short staffed today. Occasionally, I do pitch in.” Somehow that didn’t quite feel like the whole story, even if it was true. Claire eyed him mistrustfully as he scooted a rolling stool up beside her and tied the tourniquet in place on her upper arm, then handed her a red rubber ball to squeeze as he prepared the needle. “I assume you’re going first,” he said, “given Shane’s usual attitude.” That was delivered with every bit as dry an edge as Shane’s sarcasm, and Shane opened his mouth, then stopped himself, his lips thinning into a stubborn line. Good, she thought.

He was trying, at least. “Sure,” she said. She managed not to wince as his cold fingers palpated her arm to feel for veins, and she focused on his face. Oliver always seemed to be older than many of the other vamps, though she couldn’t quite pin down why: his hair, maybe, which was threaded with gray streaks and tied back in a hippie-style ponytail just now. There weren’t many lines on his face, really, but she always just pegged him as middle-aged, and when she really stared, she couldn’t say why he gave her that impression. Mostly he just seemed more cynical than the others. He was wearing a black tee under a gray sweater today, and blue jeans, very relaxed; it wasn’t too different from what Shane was wearing, actually, except Shane managed to make his look edgy and fashionable. The needle slid in with a short, hot burst, and then the pain subsided to a thin ache as Oliver taped it down and attached the tubing. He released the tourniquet and clamps, and Claire watched the dark red line of blood race down the plastic and out of sight, into a collection bag below. “Good,” he said.

“You have excellent flow.” “I’m … not sure how I feel about that, actually.” He shrugged. “It’s got fine color and pressure, and the scent is quite crisp. Very nice.” Claire felt even less good once he’d said that; he described it like a wine enthusiast talking about his favorite vintage. In fact, she felt just faintly sick, and rested her head against the soft cushions while she stared at a cheerful poster tacked up on the back of the door. Oliver moved on from her to Shane, and once she’d taken a couple of deep, calming breaths, she stopped studying the kitten picture and looked over at her boyfriend. He was tense, but trying not to seem it; she could read that in the slightly pale, set face and the way his shoulders had tightened, emphasizing the muscles under his sweater. He rolled up his sleeve without a word, and Oliver— likewise silent—put the tourniquet in place and handed him another ball to squeeze.

Unlike Claire, who was barely able to dent the thing, Shane almost flattened it when he pressed. His veins were visible to her even across the room, and Oliver barely skimmed fingertips over them, not meeting Shane’s eyes at all, then slipped the needle in so quickly and smoothly that Claire almost missed it. “Two pints,” he told Shane. “You’ll still be behind on your schedule, but I suppose we shouldn’t drain you much more at once.” “You sound disappointed.” Shane’s voice came out faint and thready, and he put his head back against the cushions as he squeezed his eyes shut. “Damn, I hate this. I really do.” “I know,” Oliver said. “Your blood reeks of it.

” “If you keep that up, I’m going to punch you.” Shane said it softly, but he meant it. There was a muscle as tight as a steel cable in his jaw, and his hand pumped the rubber ball in convulsive squeezes. Oliver released the tourniquet and clamps, and Shane’s blood moved down the tube. “Can I specify a user for my donation?” Claire asked. That drew Oliver’s attention, and even Shane cracked an eyelid to glance at her. “Since mine’s voluntary anyway.” “Yes, I suppose,” Oliver said, and took out a black marker. “Name?” “The hospital,” she said. “For emergencies.

” He gave her a long, measured stare, and then shrugged and put a simple cross symbol on the bag— already a quarter full—before returning it to the holder beside her chair. Shane opened his mouth, but Oliver said, “Don’t even consider saying it. Yours is already spoken for.” Shane responded to that with a gagging sound. “Precisely why it’s not earmarked for my account,” Oliver said. “I do have standards. Now, if either of you feel any nausea or weakness, press the button. Otherwise, I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He rose and walked toward the door, but hesitated with his hand on the knob. He turned back to them and said, “I received the invitation.

” For a moment, Claire didn’t know what he was talking about, but then she said, “Oh. The party.” “The engagement party,” he said. “You should speak with your friends about the … political situation.” “I—What? What are you talking about?” Oliver’s eyes held hers, and she was wary of some kind of vamp compulsion, but he didn’t seem to be trying at all. “I’ve already tried to warn Michael,” he said. “This is unwise. Very unwise. The vampire community in Morganville is already … restless; they feel humans have been given too much freedom, too much license, in their activities of late. There was always a clearly drawn relationship of—” “Serial killers and victims,” Shane put in.

“Protector and those Protected,” Oliver said, flashing a scowl at her boyfriend. “One that is of necessity free of too much emotional complication. It’s an obligation that vampires can understand. This—connection between Michael and your human friend Eve is … raw and messy. Now that they threaten to sanction it with legal status … there is resistance. On both sides, from vampires and humans alike.” “Wait,” Shane said. “Are you seriously telling us that people don’t want them to get married?” “There is a certain sense that it is not appropriate, or wise, to allow vampire-human intermarriage.” “That’s racist!” “It has nothing to do with race,” Oliver said. “It has everything to do with species.

Vampires and humans have a set relationship, and from the vampire standpoint, it’s one of predator and prey.” “I still think you mean parasite and host.” Oliver’s temper flared, which was dangerous; his face changed, literally shifted, as if the monster underneath was trying to get out. Then it faded, but it left a feeling in the room, a tingling shock that made even Shane shut up, at least for now. “Some don’t want Michael and Eve to marry,” he said. “You may take it from me that even those who are indifferent believe that it will go badly for all involved. It’s unwise. I’ve told him this, and I’ve tried to tell her. Now I’m telling you to stop them.” “We can’t!” Claire said, appalled.

“They love each other!” “That has exactly nothing to do with what I am saying,” the vampire told her, and opened the door to the room. “I care nothing about their feelings. I am talking about the reality of the situation. A marriage is politically disastrous, and will ignite issues that are best left smoldering. Tell them that. Tell them it will be stopped, one way or another. Best if they stop it themselves.” “But—” The door shut on whatever she was going to say, and anyway, Claire wasn’t sure she really had any idea. She looked over at Shane, who seemed just as speechless as she was. But he was, of course, the first to recover his voice.

“Well,” he said, “I told him so.” “Shane!” “Look, vampires and humans together have never been a good idea. It’s like cats and mice hooking up. Always ends badly for the mouse.” “It’s not vampires and humans. It’s Eve and Michael.” “Which is different how, exactly?” “It—just is!” Shane sighed and put his head back against the cushions. “Fine,” he said. “But no way am I breaking Eve’s heart. You get to tell her the wedding’s off, courtesy of the vampire almost-boss.

Just let me know so I can put my headphones on the going-deaf setting to drown out the screaming and wailing.” “You are such a coward.” “I am bleeding into a bag,” he pointed out. “I think I’ve achieved some kind of anticoward merit badge.” She threw her red rubber ball at him. Not that Claire hadn’t secretly seen all this coming. She hadn’t wanted to believe it. She’d been involved in all the party preparations—Eve had insisted. Between the two of them, they’d planned absolutely everything, from the napkins (black) on the tablecloths (silver) to the paper color on the invitations (black, again, with silver ink). It had been fun, of course, sitting there having girl time, picking out flowers and food and party favors, setting up playlists for the music, and best of all picking out clothes.

It had been only this week, as everything got … well, real … that Claire had begun feeling that maybe it wasn’t all just fairy tales and ice cream. Walking with Eve downtown had turned into a whole new experience, a shocking one; Claire was used to being ignored, or (more recently) being looked at with some weird wariness—wearing the Founder of Morganville’s pin in her collar had earned her an entirely unwanted (possibly undeserved) reputation as a badass. But this week, walking with Eve, she’d seen hate close up. Oh, it wasn’t obvious or anything…. It came in sidelong glances, in the tightening of people’s lips and the clipped way people spoke to Eve, if they spoke at all. Morganville had changed somewhat, in these past couple of years, and one of the most important changes had been that people were no longer afraid to show what they felt. Claire had thought that was a positive change. At first, Claire had figured the dissing was just isolated incidents, and then she’d thought that maybe it was just the normal small-town politics at work. Eve was a Goth, she was easily recognizable, and although she was crushingly funny, she could also piss people off who didn’t get her. This was different, though.

The look people had in their eyes for Eve … That had been contempt. Or anger. Or disgust. Eve hadn’t seemed to notice at first, but Claire detected a weakening in her usual glossy armor of humor about midway through their last shopping trip—about the time that an unpleasant lady with church hair had walked away from the counter while Eve was checking out with a bagful of stuff for the party. As she walked away, the Church Lady had reached out to mess with a stacked display of sunglasses, and Claire had caught sight of something odd. The woman was too old for a tattoo—at least, too old for a fresh one—but there was a design inked on her arm that was still red around the edges. Claire saw only a glimpse of it, but it looked like some kind of familiar shape. A stake. It was a symbol of a stake. Another, younger lady had come hustling from the back of the shop to wait on Eve, flushed and flustered.

She’d avoided meeting their eyes, and had said the bare minimum to get them out of the store. Church Lady hadn’t bothered to look at them at all. Claire had waited until they were safely out of earshot of any passersby before she said, “So, did you see the tat? Freaky.” “The stake?” Eve’s black-painted lips were tight, and even in sunlight, her kohl-rimmed eyes looked shadowed. Her Urban Decay makeup normally looked really cool, but in the harsh winter sunlight, Claire thought it looked a little … desperate. Not just crying out for attention, but screaming for it. “Yeah, it’s the new big thing. Stake tats. Even the geezers are lining up for them. Human pride and all that crap.

” “Is that why—” “Why the bitch refused to wait on me?” Eve tossed her black-dyed shag hair back from her pale face in a defiant shake. “Yeah, probs. Because I’m a traitor.” “Not any more than I am!” “No, you signed up for Protection, and you made a really good deal at it, too—they respect that. What they don’t respect is sleeping with the enemy.” Eve looked stubborn, but there was despair in it, too. “Being a fang-banger.” “Michael’s not the enemy, and you’re not—how can anybody think that?” “There’s always been this undercurrent in Morganville. Us and them, you know. The us doesn’t have fangs.

” “But—you love each other.” Claire didn’t know what surprised her more … that the Morganville folks were turning on Eve, of all people, or that she wasn’t more surprised by that herself. People were petty and stupid sometimes, and even as fabulous as Michael was, some people just would never see him as anything but a walking pair of fangs. True, he was no fluffy puppy; Michael was capable of really bringing the violence, but only when he absolutely had to do it. He liked avoiding fights, not causing them, and at his heart, he was loyal and kind and shy. Hard to lump all that under the vampire, therefore evil label. An old cowboy, complete with hat and boots and a sheepskin-lined jeans jacket, passed the two of them on the sidewalk. He gave Eve a bitter, narrow glare, and spat up something nasty right in front of her shiny, high-heeled, patent leather shoes. Eve lifted her chin and kept walking. “Hey!” Claire said, turning toward the cowboy in an outraged fury, but Eve grabbed her arm and dragged her along.

“Wait—he—” “Lesson number one in Morganville,” Eve said. “Keep walking. Just keep walking.” And they had. Eve hadn’t said another word about it; she’d put on bright, fragile smiles, and when Michael had come home from teaching at the music store, they’d sat together on the couch and cuddled and whispered, but Claire didn’t think Eve had told him about the attitudes. Now this thing with Oliver, telling her outright that the marriage was off, or else. Very, very bad. “So,” she said to Shane as they walked home, arms linked, hands in their pockets to hide from the icy, whipping chill of the wind. “What am I going to say to Eve? Or, God, to Michael?” “Nothing,” Shane said. “But you said I should—” “I reconsidered.

I’m not Oliver’s messenger monkey, and neither are you. If he wants to play Lord of the Manor with those two, he can come do it himself.” Shane grinned fiercely. “I would pay to see that. Michael does not like to be told he can’t do something. Especially something to do with Eve.” “Do you think—” Oh, this was dangerous territory, and Claire hesitated before taking a step into it. Filled with land mines, this was. “God, I can’t believe I’m asking this, but … do you think Michael’s really serious about her? I mean, you know him better than I do. Longer, anyway.

I get the sense, sometimes, that he has … doubts.” Shane was silent for a long moment—too long, she thought—and then he said, “You’re asking if he’s serious about loving her?” “No, I know he loves her. But marrying her …” “Marriage is a big word for all guys,” Shane said. “You know that. It’s kind of an allergy. We get itchy and sweaty just trying to spell it, much less do it.” “So you think he’s nervous?” “I think … I think it’s a big deal. Bigger for him and Eve than for most people.” Shane kept his eyes down, fixed on the sidewalk and the steps they were taking. “Look, ask him, okay? This is girl talk.

I don’t do girl talk.” She punched him in the shoulder. “Ass.” “That’s better. I was starting to feel like we should go shoe shopping or something.” “Being a girl is not a bad thing!” “No.” He took his hand out of his pocket and put his arm around her shoulders, hugging her close. “If I could be half the girl you are, I’d be—Wow, I have no idea where I was going with that, and it just turned out uncomfortable, all of a sudden.” “Jackass.” “You like being a girl—that’s good.

I like being a guy—that’s also good.” “Next you’ll be all Me, Tarzan, you, Jane! ” “I’ve seen you stick arrows in vampires. Not too damn likely I’d be thumping my chest and trying to tell you I wear the loincloth around here.” “And you changed the subject. Michael. Eve.” He held up his left hand. “I swear, I have no idea what Michael’s thinking. Guys don’t spend all their time trying to mind-read each other.” “But—” “Like I said.

If you want to know, ask him. Michael doesn’t lie worth a damn, anyway. Not to people he cares about.” That was true, or at least it always had been before. A particularly cold slash of wind cut at the exposed skin of Claire’s throat and face, and she shivered and burrowed closer to Shane’s warm side. “Before you ask,” Shane said, bending his head low to hers, “I love you.” “I wasn’t going to ask.”

.

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