Excerpt from: Light Up The Night
An Ugly Christmas Sweater Story
“What’s your pleasure, my girl?” Drew asked, even though he knew that the young woman seated at his bar would never give him the answer he was hopingfor—you—and that she was not now, nor ever would be, his.
Heather shrugged. “Nothing. I don’t know. I just thought I’d sit here for awhile. Is that okay?”
Of course,” Drew answered automatically. “You're free to do whatever you want in here. Mi casa es su casa.“
Heather flashed him a grateful smile. One that caused his heart to clench, and his conscience to pain him. Merciful heavens, he was spouting nothing but lies tonight.
She was certainly not free. Vampires in general were not, and neither of them were exceptions in that respect. This wasn't a house, nor was it his. It was a bar—a nightclub if he were feeling sufficiently grandiose. And even though Drew had been given free rein in the managing of it, ultimately it belonged to his sire, Conrad Quintano, who’d intended it to be a safe place for those of their kind to congregate, a place where they could feed in comfort, where they could dance and entertain themselves, and while away yet another endless night.
As manager, Drew generally refrained from feeding while he was here. But Heather was unconstrained by any such sense of duty. She was young, beautiful, vibrant. She should be out there on the dance floor enjoying herself, or enticing humans into one of the curtained alcoves for a quick snack. She should not be sitting here, wasting her time talking to him of all people.
For that matter, if dancing or feeding—or even just a place to sit, and someone to talk to—was all she was here for, she might just as well have stayed home.
The warehouse where she lived with the rest of her clan also doubled as a nightclub, albeit a part-time, and largely illegal one. And yet it hadn’t escaped Drew’s attention that over the past few weeks Heather had been hanging out in here more and more often.
“So what’s up with you?” he asked, as he busied himself behind the bar putting together a drink he hoped she might like. “You’ve been in here a lot lately. No parties at home?” He asked it not because he particularly wanted to know the answer, but because it was the kind of thing a friend might do, the type of question a bartender might ask. And, like it or not, those two things were all he could ever be to her.
“Other way around,” Heather replied with a sigh. “There’s nothing but parties. It’s too noisy, too crowded. Not to mention all the new ferals Marc’s brought home. They’re constantly underfoot, always bugging me about something.”
Drew had to set his jaw to keep his fangs from emerging. He stopped what he was doing to stare at her. “Someone’s been bothering you? Does Marc know?” Marc was Heather’s sire, and Drew’s friend. It wasn’t Drew’s place to interfere, but all the same, “If someone’s been taking advantage of you, you know he'd want you to tell him.”
Heather shook her head. “No, not like that. They’re not doing anything wrong, exactly. They’re just there. You know? They’re there all the time. And there are so many of them. And I’m just... I’m so over it.”
Drew suspected the opposite was true, that what was really bothering her was something she wasn’t over—her girlish, and entirely understandable crush on her sire. But one thing she’d said—or, more specifically, one word she’d used—still struck him as being odd. Feral.
Not so long ago, Heather had identified as feral too—as orphaned vampires, those who had lost their sires and had no one to care for them, were frequently termed. Ferals were crazy, dangerous, and generally considered beneath contempt. “But surely they can’t be considered feral any longer, since Marc’s adopted them?”
Heather shot him a dark, inscrutable look. “But that’s not how it works, is it? Once a feral, always a feral, isn’t that what everyone thinks? That there’s something fundamentally wrong with us, something that can never be made right? That we’d all be better off dead?”
Drew nodded gravely, acknowledging the truth of what she'd said, even while he went back to constructing her drink. “That is certainly what ‘everyone’ used to think. And, unfortunately, I suspect most people still do. As you know, I used to be one of those people. But I know better now, and I would have thought you did too.”
Inexplicably, that brought a smile to her lips. “You’re right. I’m just being bitchy. It’s not that they’re feral, it’s that they’re so damn thirsty—for food and attention. They take up all Marc’s time, and... I know it’s silly, but I guess I feel left out. You know?”
“That’s understandable. And not silly at all. You’re used to being the center of his attention.”
Heather shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. But what if I am? Why shouldn’t I be? I’m still his only legit spawn. That should mean something, shouldn’t it? Lately, I just feel lost in the crowd.”
“Here. Try this.” Drew slid a glass across the bar to her. “See what you think.”
“What is it?”
“Taste it and see.”
Heather shot him a suspicious look. Sizing me up, Drew thought. Trying to decide whether or not to trust me. And while, in theory, he approved of her being cautious—that and luck was what kept most vampires alive—in practice he found himself disappointed. “It’s not a trick—I promise. I’m not trying to drug you, or poison you, or whatever else you might be wondering.”
“That’s not what I was wondering!”
“You’re safe here.”
“Good. Then drink up.”
“I just... Why won’t you tell me what it is?”
“Because. I’m not sure I made it correctly. And I don’t want to influence your opinion.”
Heather rolled her eyes, muttering under her breath as she raised the glass to her lips. Drew held his breath as she took a small sip. Her eyes flew wide. “No way.”
His heart plunged. “Not right?”
“You made me an egg cream?”
“I think so? Is it all right?”
“Well, yeah!” She took another, longer sip, then asked. “Do you even know how long it’s been since I’ve had one of these?”
“Not that long, I’d imagine.”
“It’s been ages!”
“Impossible.” If she’d hit her first quarter-century mark, Drew would be amazed. Meanwhile, tonight, he was feeling everyone of his three hundred and fifty-four years. “So it’s really okay?”
“It’s perfect.” She sipped again and sighed happily. Then her expression shifted back to wary. “Wait a minute. This isn’t some sneaky way of saying you think I’m acting like a kid, is it?”
Drew shook his head. “No, it’s my sneaky way of saying life is always going to change. So it’s important to celebrate what you have while you have it, and to take as much pleasure as you can from the ordinary things in life.”
“Like egg creams?” she asked in mischievous tones.
He returned her smile. “Exactly.” Then he turned serious. “Look, I suspect most have us have been through something not so different from what you’re experiencing. One day we’re loved, cherished, the object of someone’s deepest desires, the next—our world is upended, and we find ourselves lost, unloved, unwanted. And that’s if we’re lucky.”
Heather ducked her head. “I know.”
Her downcast expression tore at his heart. “But remember,” he said as he reached across the bar to squeeze her hand. “You always have a place here. If you need someone to talk to, or if you just want to sit here and not talk, or...or whatever you need.”
Heather studied their joined hands for a moment, when she lifted her gaze to his face he saw she was smiling faintly. “Thanks.”
Drew gave her hand a final squeeze then let her go. “You’re most welcome. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s getting late. I have to see about closing up.”
“Oh!” She glanced at the clock over the bar. “Shit. I’m sorry. I should go. I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“No, stay. You’re fine,” he said, putting out a hand to stop her. “Please. Finish your drink. Why don’t you give me a few minutes and I’ll walk you home?”
Heather watched as Drew went about his business. He was good at his job. Quick, efficient, competent. He remembered people, paid attention to what they liked or didn’t like, and did what he could to ensure that anyone who frequented his bar felt safe here, comfortable, welcome. Even her.
Not that that had always been the case. He’d just about scared her to death the first time she’d encountered him. There'd been no suggestion then of her being welcome here. Quite the opposite. He'd told her in no uncertain terms to get out of his club, and to stay out. And if she hadn't been lost and confused, so desperately hungry that she could hardly think, she'd have done just that.
Even after Marc had intervened, fixing things for her so that she could hang out here without fear of being hassled, it had still taken her a long time to warm up to Drew. But now...
Now, he was one of her favorite people to talk to. She liked that he took her seriously, that he didn’t make fun of her. That he listened to her complaints with grave-eyed sympathy and made suggestions that actually helped. Then there were all the little things he did for her—like taking the time to make her special drinks, or to walk her home. He made her feel special.
He had to like her too, right? Because it wasn’t like she needed protection. There weren’t many perks to being a bloodsucker, but that was definitely one of them. Anyone stupid enough to mess with her would get what he deserved. Still, she appreciated the gesture. It was nice to feel like someone had her back, that someone cared...
No. She knew better than that. It would be stupid to read too much into the offer. Drew went out of his way for a lot of people. And he often stopped by the warehouse after work to see Marc. Why should tonight be any different?
Still, it didn’t hurt to pretend.
The night was cool and damp as they emerged into the alley behind the bar. Heather breathed deeply. This late, the city air was thick with fog, laden with the scent of food. So many people, so little time. She probably should have eaten at the bar, after all. Now she’d have to wait until she got back to the warehouse and hope that someone had brought home a snack and didn’t mind sharing. “So what are you and Marc up to tonight?” she asked, watching as Drew secured the building—locking the door and engaging the alarm.
A small frown creased Drew’s brow. “Nothing that I’m aware of. Why? Did he say he was expecting me?”
Heather shook her head. “Not to me. I just assumed. I mean, well, you usually do, don’t you? Whenever the two of you get together, after work like this, it always seems like you’ve got something in the works. Some plan, one of your mysterious missions...”
“Ah. Fair point. But no, Marc and I had nothing planned for tonight.” Drew hesitated before adding, “That’s not why I’m seeing you home, if that’s what you’re wondering. I just thought that...that you should have an escort. You know, given the lateness of the hour.”
“Oh.” Heather took a moment to digest the idea then she slanted a curious glance in Drew’s direction. He wasn’t looking at her. And there was a hint of color in his cheeks, that she supposed could be due to the cool air—but if she’d been asked to bet on that being the cause, she wouldn’t have. She was young, but not that young.
For one thing, it wasn’t even that late—at least, not for vampires. It was nowhere near to dawn. For another, if her safety really was the issue, there were plenty of other options. He could have called her a cab, or insisted she call one herself. He could have kicked her out hours earlier, or—at the very least—found someone else to accompany her. Emboldened, she slipped her arm through his. “Well, thank you,” she said as they headed off into the night. “That’s very gentlemanly of you.”