At first, I wondered if it was karmic punishment. I’d sneered at the fancy vampires, and as some kind of cosmic retribution, I’d been made one. Vampire. Predator. Initiate into one of the oldest of the twelve vampire Houses in the United States.
And I wasn’t just one of them.
I was one of the best.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin by telling you how I became a vampire, a story that starts weeks before my twenty-eighth birthday, the night I completed the transition. The night I awoke in the back of a limousine, three days after I’d been attacked walking across the University of Chicago campus.
I didn’t remember all the details of the attack. But I remembered enough to be thrilled to be alive. To be shocked to be alive.
In the back of the limousine, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to unpack the memory of the attack. I’d heard footsteps, the sound muffled by dewy grass, before he grabbed me. I’d screamed and kicked, tried to fight my way out, but he pushed me down. He was preternaturally strong—supernaturally strong—and he bit my neck with a predatory ferocity that left little doubt about who he was. What he was.
But while he tore into skin and muscle, he didn’t drink; he didn’t have time. Without warning, he’d stopped and jumped away, running between buildings at the edge of the main quad.
My attacker temporarily vanquished, I’d raised a hand to the crux of my neck and shoulder, felt the sticky warmth. My vision was dimming, but I could see the wine-colored stain across my fingers clearly enough.
Then there was movement around me. Two men.
The men my attacker had been afraid of.
The first of them had sounded anxious. “He was fast. You’ll need to hurry, Liege.”
The second had been unerringly confident. “I’ll get it done.”
He pulled me up to my knees, and knelt behind me, a supportive arm around my waist. He wore cologne—soapy and clean.
I tried to move, to give some struggle, but I was fading.
“Yes,” he agreed. He suckled the wound at my neck. I twitched again, and he stroked my hair. “Be still.”
I recalled very little of the next three days, of the genetic restructuring that transformed me into a vampire. Even now, I only carry a handful of memories. Deep-seated, dull pain—shocks of it that bowed my body. Numbing cold. Darkness. A pair of intensely green eyes.
In the limo, I felt for the scars that should mar my neck and shoulders. The vampire that attacked me hadn’t taken a clean bite—he’d torn at the skin at my neck like a starved animal. But the skin was smooth. No scars. No bumps. No bandages. I pulled my hand away and stared at the clean pale skin—and the short nails, perfectly painted cherry red.
The blood was gone—and I’d been manicured.
Staving off a wash of dizziness, I sat up. I was wearing different clothes. I’d been in jeans and a T-shirt. Now I wore a black cocktail dress, a sheath that fell to just below my knees, and three-inch-high black heels.
That made me a twenty-seven-year-old attack victim, clean and absurdly scar-free, wearing a cocktail dress that wasn’t mine. I knew, then and there, that they’d made me one of them.
The Chicagoland Vampires.
It had started eight months ago with a letter, a kind of vampire manifesto first published in the Sun-Times and Trib, then picked up by papers across the country. It was a coming-out, an announcement to the world of their existence. Some humans believed it a hoax, at least until the press conference that followed, in which three of them displayed their fangs. Human panic led to four days of riots in the Windy City and a run on water and canned goods sparked by public fear of a vampire apocalypse. The feds finally stepped in, ordering Congressional investigations, the hearings obsessively filmed and televised in order to pluck out every detail of the vampires’ existence. And even though they’d been the ones to step forward, the vamps were tight-lipped about those details—the fang bearing, blood drinking, and night walking the only facts the public could be sure about.
Eight months later, some humans were still afraid. Others were obsessed. With the lifestyle, with the lure of immortality, with the vampires themselves. In particular, with Celina Desaulniers, the glamorous Windy City she-vamp who’d apparently orchestrated the coming-out, and who’d made her debut during the first day of the Congressional hearings.
Celina was tall and slim and sable-haired, and that day she wore a black suit snug enough to give the illusion that it had been poured onto her body. Looks aside, she was obviously smart and savvy, and she knew how to twist humans around her fingers. To wit: The senior senator from Idaho had asked her what she planned to do now that vampires had come out of the closet.
She’d famously replied in dulcet tones, “I’ll be making the most of the dark.”
The twenty-year Congressional veteran had smiled with such dopey-eyed lust that a picture of him made the front page of the New York Times.
No such reaction from me. I’d rolled my eyes and flipped off the television.
I’d made fun of them, of her, of their pretensions.
And in return, they’d made me like them.
Wasn’t karma a bitch?
Now they were sending me back home, but returning me differently. Notwithstanding the changes my body had endured, they’d glammed me up, cleaned me of blood, stripped me of clothing, and repackaged me in their image.
They killed me. They healed me. They changed me.
The tiny seed, that kernel of distrust of the ones who’d made me, rooted.
I was still dizzy when the limousine stopped in front of the Wicker Park brownstone I shared with my roommate, Mallory. I wasn’t sleepy, but dizzy, mired in a haze across my consciousness that felt thick enough to wade through. Drugs, maybe, or a residual effect of the transition from human to vampire.
Mallory stood on the stoop, her shoulder-length ice blue hair shining beneath the bare bulb of the overhead light. She looked anxious, but seemed to be expecting me. She wore flannel pajamas patterned with sock monkeys. I realized it was late.
The limousine door opened, and I looked toward the house and then into the face of a man in a black uniform and cap who’d peeked into the backseat.
“Ma’am?” He held out a hand expectantly.
My fingers in his palm, I stepped onto the asphalt, my ankles wobbly in the stilettos. I rarely wore heels, jeans being my preferred uniform. Grad school didn’t require much else.
I heard a door shut. Seconds later, a hand gripped my elbow. My gaze traveled down the pale, slender arm to the bespectacled face it belonged to. She smiled at me, the woman who held my arm, the woman who must have emerged from the limo’s front seat.
“Hello, dear. We’re home now. I’ll help you inside, and we’ll get you settled.”
Grogginess making me acquiescent, and not really having a good reason to argue anyway, I nodded to the woman, who looked to be in her late fifties. She had a short, sensible bob of steel gray hair and wore a tidy suit on her trim figure, carrying herself with a professional confidence. As we progressed down the sidewalk, Mallory moved cautiously down the first step, then the second, toward us.
The woman patted my back. “She’ll be fine, dear. She’s just a little dizzy. I’m Helen. You must be Mallory?”
Mallory nodded, but kept her gaze on me.
“Lovely home, dear. Can we go inside?”
Mallory nodded again and traveled back up the steps. I began to follow, but the woman’s grip on my arm stopped me. “You go by Merit, dear? Although that’s your last name?”
I nodded at her.
She smiled patiently. “The newly risen utilize only a single name. Merit, if that’s what you go by, would be yours. Only the Masters of each House are allowed to retain their last names. That’s just one of the rules you’ll need to remember.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “And it’s considered déclassé to break the rules.”
Her soft admonition sparked something in my mind, like the beam of a flashlight in the dark. I blinked at her. “Some would consider changing a person without their consent déclassé, Helen.”
The smile Helen fixed on her face didn’t quite reach her eyes. “You were made a vampire in order to save your life, Merit. Consent is irrelevant.” She glanced at Mallory “She could probably use a glass of water. I’ll give you a moment.”
Mallory nodded, and Helen, who carried an ancient-looking leather satchel, moved past her into the brownstone. I walked up the remaining stairs on my own, but stopped when I reached Mallory. Her blue eyes swam with tears, a frown curving her cupid’s bow mouth. She was extraordinarily, classically pretty, which was the reason she’d given for tinting her hair with packets of blue Kool-Aid. She claimed it was a way for her to distinguish herself. It was unusual, sure, but it wasn’t a bad look for an ad executive, for a woman defined by her creativity.
“You’re—” She shook her head, then started again. “It’s been three days. I didn’t know where you were. I called your parents when you didn’t come home. Your dad said he’d handle it. He told me not to call the police. He said someone had called him, told him you’d been attacked but were okay. That you were healing. They told your dad they’d bring you home when you were ready. I got a call a few minutes ago. They said you were on your way home.” She pulled me into a fierce hug. “I’m gonna beat the shit out of you for not calling.”
Mal pulled back, gave me a head-to-toe evaluation. “They said—you’d been changed.”
I nodded, tears threatening to spill over.
“So you’re a vampire?” she asked.
“I think. I just woke up or . . . I don’t know.”
“Do you feel any different?”
“I feel . . . slow.”
Mallory nodded with confidence. “Effects of the change, probably. They say that happens. Things will settle.” Mallory would know; unlike me, she followed all the vamp-related news. She offered a weak smile. “Hey, you’re still Merit, right?”
Weirdly I felt a prickle in the air emanating from my best friend and roommate. A tingle of something electric. But still sleepy, dizzy, I dismissed it.
“I’m still me,” I told her.
And I hoped that was true.
The brownstone had been owned by Mallory’s great aunt until her death four years ago. Mallory, who lost her parents in a car accident when she was young, inherited the house and everything in it, from the chintzy rugs that covered the hardwood floors, to the antique furniture, to the oil paintings of flower vases. It wasn’t chic, but it was home, and it smelled like it—lemon-scented wood polish, cookies, dusty coziness. It smelled the same as it had three days go, but I realized that the scent was deeper. Richer.
Improved vampire senses, maybe?
When we entered the living room, Helen was sitting at the edge of our gingham-patterned sofa, her legs crossed at the ankles. A glass of water sat on the coffee table in front of her.
“Come in, ladies. Have a seat.” She smiled and patted the couch. Mallory and I exchanged a glance and sat down. I took the seat next to Helen. Mallory sat on the matching love seat that faced the couch. Helen handed me the glass of water.
I brought it to my lips, but paused before sipping. “I can—eat and drink things other than blood?”
Helen’s laugh tinkled. “Of course, dear. You can eat whatever you’d like. But you’ll need blood for its nutritional value.” She leaned toward me, touched my bare knee with the tips of her fingers. “And I daresay you’ll enjoy it!” She said the words like she was imparting a delicious secret, sharing scandalous gossip about her next-door neighbor.
I sipped, discovered that water still tasted like water. I put the glass back on the table.
Helen tapped her hands against her knees, then favored us both with a bright smile. “Well, let’s get to it, shall we?” She reached into the satchel at her feet and pulled out a dictionary-sized leather-bound book. The deep burgundy cover was inscribed in embossed gold letters—Canon of the North American Houses, Desk Reference. “This is everything you need to know about joining Cadogan House. It’s not the full Canon, obviously, as the series is voluminous, but this will cover the basics”
“Cadogan House?” Mallory asked. “Seriously?”
I blinked at Mallory, then Helen. “What’s Cadogan House?”
Helen looked at me over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses. “That’s the House that you’ll be Commended into. One of Chicago’s three vampire Houses—Navarre, Cadogan, Grey. Only the Master of each House has the privilege of turning new vampires. You were turned by Cadogan’s Master—”
“Ethan Sullivan,” Mallory finished.
Helen nodded approvingly. “That’s right.”
I lifted brows at Mallory.
“Internet,” she said. “You’d be amazed.”
“Ethan is the House’s second Master. He followed Peter Cadogan into the dark, so to speak.”
If only Masters could turn new vampires, this Ethan Sullivan must have been the vamp in the quad, the one who bit me during round two.
“This House,” I began. “I’m, what, in a vampire sorority or something?”
Helen shook her head. “It’s more complicated than that. All legitimate vampires in the world are affiliated with one House or other. There are currently twelve Houses in the United States; Cadogan is the fourth-oldest among those.” Helen sat up even straighter, so I took a wild guess that she was also a flag-flying member of Cadogan House.
Helen handed me the book, which must have weighed ten pounds. I centered it in my lap, distributing the mass.
“You won’t need to memorize the rules, of course, but you’ll want to read the introductory sections and have at least a passing familiarity with the content. And of course you can refer to the text if you have specific questions. Make sure to read about the Commendation.”
“What’s the Commendation?”
“The initiation ceremony. You’ll become an official member of the House, and you’ll take your oaths to Ethan and the rest of the Cadogan vampires. And speaking of, payments typically begin two weeks after take the oath is taken.”
I blinked. “Payments?”
She gave me one of those over-the-glasses looks. “Your salary, dear.”
I laughed nervously, the sound strangled. “I don’t need a salary. I’m a student. Teaching assistant. Stipend.” I was three years into my graduate work, three chapters into my dissertation on romantic medieval literature.
Helen frowned. “Dear, you can’t go back to school. The university doesn’t admit vampires as students, and they certainly don’t employ them. Title VII doesn’t cover us yet. We went ahead and removed you, just to avoid the squabble, so you won’t have to worry about—”
My pulse thudded in my ears. “What do you mean, you removed me?”
Her expression softened. “Merit, you’re a vampire. A Cadogan Initiate. You can’t go back to that life.”
I was out the door before she was done talking, her voice echoing behind me as I rushed to the first floor bedroom that served as our office. I wiggled the mouse to wake my computer, brought up a Web browser, and logged into the university server. The system recognized me, and my stomach unclenched in relief.
Then I brought up my records.
Two days ago, my status had been changed. I was listed as “Not Enrolled.”
The world shifted.
I went back to the living room, my voice wavering as I fought through the quickly rising panic, and faced Helen. “What did you do? You had no right to take me out of school!”
Helen turned back to her satchel and pulled out a sheath of paper, her manner irritatingly calm. “Because Ethan feels your circumstances are . . . particular, you’ll receive your salary from the House within the next ten business days. We’ve already arranged the direct deposit. The Commendation is scheduled on your seventh day, six days from now. You will appear when commanded. At the ceremony, Ethan will assign your position of service within the House.” She smiled at me. “Perhaps something in public relations, given your family’s connections to the city.”
“Oh, lady. Wrong move, bringing up the parents,” Mallory muttered.
She was right. It was exactly the wrong thing to say, my parents being one of my least favorite topics. But it was at least jarring enough to wake me from my daze. “I think we’re done here,” I told her. “It’s time for you to leave.”
Helen winged up an eyebrow. “It’s not your house.”
Brave of her to piss off the new vampire. But we were on my turf now, and I had allies.
I turned to Mallory with an evil grin. “How about we find out how much of the vampire myth is actually myth? Don’t vampires have to have an invitation to be in someone’s home?”
“I love the way you think,” Mal said, then went to the door and opened it. “Helen,” she said, “I want you out of my house.”
Something stirred in the air, a sudden breeze that blew through the doorway and ruffled Mallory’s hair—and raised goose bumps along my arms.
“This is incredibly rude,” Helen said, but yanked her satchel up. “Read the book, sign the forms. There’s blood in the refrigerator. Drink it—a pint every other day. Stay away from sunlight and aspen stakes, and come when he commands you.” She neared the door, and then, suddenly, like someone had flipped the switched on a vacuum, she was sucked onto the stoop.
I rushed to the doorway. Helen stood on the top step, glasses askew, staring back at us in disheveled shock. After a moment, she straightened her skirt and glasses, turned crisply, and walked down the stairs and toward the limo. “That was—very rude,” she called back. “Don’t think I won’t tell Ethan about this!”
I gave her a pageant wave—hand cupped, barely swiveling.
“You do that, Helen,” Mallory dared. “And tell him we said to fuck off while you’re at it.”
Helen turned to look me, eyes blazing silver. Like, supernaturally silver. “You were undeserving,” she sniped.
“I was unconsenting,” I corrected and slammed the heavy oak door shut with enough force that it rattled the hinges. After the scritch of rocks on asphalt signaled the limo’s retreat, I leaned back against the door and looked at Mallory.
She glared back. “They said you were on campus by yourself in the middle of the night!” She punched my arm, disgust obvious on her face. “What the hell were you thinking?”
That, I thought, was the release of the panic she’d suffered until she learned that I was coming home. It tightened my throat, knowing that she’d waited for me, worried for me.
“I had work to do.”
“In the middle of the night?!”
“I said I had work to do!” I threw up my hands, irritation rising. “God, Mallory, this isn’t my fault.” My knees began to shake. I moved the few steps back to the couch and sat down. Repressed fear, horror. and violation overwhelmed me. I covered my face with my hands as the tears began to fall. “It wasn’t my fault, Mallory. Everything—my life, school—is gone, and it wasn’t my fault.”
I felt the cushion dip beside me and an arm around my shoulders.
“Oh, God, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m freaked out. I was so scared, Mer, Jesus. I know it’s not your fault.” She held me while I sobbed, rubbed my back while I cried hard enough to hiccup, while I mourned the loss of my life, of my humanity.
We sat there together for a long time, my best friend and I. She offered Kleenex as I replayed the few things I cold remember—the attack, the second set of vampires, the cold and pain, the hazy limo ride.
When I’d sobbed my body empty of tears, Mallory stroked the hair from my face. “It’ll be okay. I promise. I’ll call the university in the morning. And if you can’t go back . . . we’ll figure something out. In the meantime, you should call your grandfather. He’ll want to know you’re okay.”
I shook my head, not yet ready to have that conversation. My grandfather’s love had always been unconditional, but then again, I’d always been human. I wasn’t ready to test the correlation. “I’ll start with Mom and Dad,” I promised. “Then I’ll let word trickle down.”
“Tacky,” Mallory accused, but let it go. “The House, I guess it was, did call me, but I don’t know who else they contacted. The call was pretty short. ‘Merit was attacked on campus two nights ago. In order to save her life, we’ve made her a vampire . She’ll return home tonight. She may be dizzy from the change, so please be home to assist her during the first crucial hours. Thank you.’ It sounded like a recording, to be real honest.”
“So this Ethan Sullivan’s a cheapo,” I concluded. “We’ll add that to the list of reasons we don’t like him.”
“Him turning you into a soul-sucking creature of the night being number one on that list?”
I nodded ruefully. “That’s definitely number one.” I shifted and glanced over at her. “They made me like them. He made me like them, this Sullivan.”
Mallory made a sound of frustration. “I know. I am so effing jealous.” Mal was a student of the paranormal; as long as I’d known her, she’d had a keen interest in all things fanged and freaky. She put her palm to her chest. “I’m the occultist in the family, and yet it’s you, the English Lit geek, they turn? Even Buffy would feel that sting. Although,” she said, her gaze appraising, “you will make damn good research material.”
I snorted. “But research material for what? Who the hell am I now?”
“You’re Merit,” she said with conviction that warmed my heart. “But kind of Merit 2.0. And I have to say, the phone call notwithstanding, this Sullivan’s not a cheapo about everything. Those shoes are Jimmy Choo, and that dress is runway-worthy.” She clucked her tongue. “He’s dressed you up like his own personal model. And frankly, Mer, you look good.”
Good, I thought, was relative. I looked down at the cocktail dress, smoothed my hands over the slick, black fabric. “I liked who I was, Mal. My life wasn’t perfect, but I was happy.”
“I know, hon. But maybe you’ll like this, too.”
I doubted it. Seriously.