Letters from New York [Blood Magic, Book 2]

Until Mills and Keel, the sorcerer-vampire bond was solely the stuff of folklore and legend – a whispered myth with one hell of a body count.

Now Mills has returned to New York City, to human life, but the bond is reawakening.

And someone knows her secret.

All her secrets…

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4. Blood-Red Dress

 

Chapter 1: Blood-Red Dress

“You’re coming back to school next semester, right?” Jenny asked, her knock-off designer purse bumping uncomfortably on my leg as she walked beside me.

I was at the mall with her and Anna. Anna insisted she did her best shopping when she wasn’t tugging her hat and mitts on and off between stores, so we trekked out to this place, just as we had ever since we all started hanging out – only these days it was more of a festering reminder of the girl I had been, and would never be again. Still, I’d let myself be talked into it, because Bruce had been complaining that I was holing myself up in our apartment too much.  I would’ve used the “have an essay to write” excuse, but the last time I’d trotted it out, he’d called my tutor, whom he’d hired to catch me up to the rest of my class, and made him restructure my days. “Mildred’s recovery is our number-one priority,” I’d overheard him saying. I cringed at his use of my full name. “And part of that process demands that she has time to go out, socialize and reintegrate herself, so find a way to accomplish what you need to accomplish without all the busywork, okay?”

Now, here I was, fighting the tidal wave of deal-seeking Black Friday shoppers, pretending to be human and care about human things, like school and Christmas shopping, and sucking at all of it.

“Yeah, February,” I said, wondering if my fake cheerfulness would be read as sarcasm. Life back in New York was constricting, like a shirt that had shrunk in the wash, and cramming myself in only raised the risk of it bursting at the seams and sending buttons shooting all over the room. Or at least that’s how human-me would have described it. This me – sorcerer-me – wasn’t talking about it to anyone.

Jenny prattled on about school, launching into an upbeat laundry list of the classes she’d chosen for the following semester, during which she dropped several thinly veiled hints that I should select some of the same ones. I feigned interest, nodding in all the right places. Just like I’d practiced.

The spectre of school hung over me, a poltergeist whose cruelties had yet to manifest. There’d be more questions, more taunts; it was inevitable. You lose all anonymity when you disappear for half a year. And I couldn’t even blame the people who thought my amnesia story was a total scam, because it was. Bruce and Ephraim just figured that it was the best way to keep the human authorities from looking too deeply and, to their credit, it worked.

I’d healed my scars and had special, coloured contacts fitted before we'd showed up at a Pennsylvania police station with our carefully concocted tale; to human eyes, I appeared healthy and unharmed, if not particularly happy. No need to fake that bit. While the destruction of the cabin in Nevada and my kidnapping were crimes, there was no evidence any subsequent ones had occurred or that I was still in danger (we’d chosen a cop shop far enough from Mike’s motel that there was no chance they’d connect us to that too), so thankfully my case went cold quickly and media interest in my re-emergence waned soon after. The comments on the online articles about my disappearance suggested that most people thought I’d run away, got tangled up in drugs or prostitution or something equally unsavoury, and somehow managed to do this to myself – and that maybe whatever happened at the cabin was even something I’d planned.

“Here,” Anna said suddenly, grabbing our hands and dragging us across the aisle into a video game store. In the time that I’d been gone, she’d met Scott and forgotten all about the gorgeous, but ever-unattainable Henry. According to her, it’d played out just like something in a smutty romance novel: the two of them had hooked up at the pool where she’d worked concessions over the summer and he was a lifeguard—with the pecs of Adonis. Now, all that time she used to spend at my house, she spent at his. If there was any remaining doubt that she was in love, this sealed it, I couldn’t think of anything else that would make her step one foot into a gaming store – ever.

As my eyes trailed over the colourful box covers, I wondered what Keel would want for Christmas. The Nosferatu didn’t celebrate, but he’d probably like it because it was a human thing and he was obsessed with human things. Or rather, he had been, pre-transition. Maybe becoming full-blooded Nosferatu and having his own kingdom to lord over had quashed all of that.

It’d been almost three months since he’d turned, since I’d last seen him, but I still thought about him all the time. Even when I didn’t want to. Even when I told myself not to. Sometimes this made me angry, sometimes sad, but mostly it made me miss him in a world-crushing kind of way I hadn’t felt since right after the incident at the motel. Things had gotten better for a while, then worse again, and now nothing – not my friends, not my training, not my lessons, not my bi-weekly visits with my adoptive family – was enough to fill the void he’d left in my life. For a few months, he’d been my sole confidant, my oasis amongst monsters. Now he was one. And he’d transitioned willingly. Even knowing that and half-accepting it, it still bothered me that I couldn’t feel him, couldn’t sense him out there anywhere. The bond’s dormancy brought a whole other dimension to the emptiness. Compared to the dull, throbbing, perpetual ache of heartbreak, it was an amputation – its absence utterly unnatural. Bruce said the transition process would dampen our connection, but Keel never mentioned that the change could take more than two months.

When I considered the transition ritual as an experiment – something that came easy given all the tests Keel and I had done when we were figuring out how my magic worked – there were any number of variables and factors that could have made it go wonky, including my presence there and/or the fact that Keel had been drinking my blood in the days and hours leading up it. Both serious Nosferatu taboos.

Of course, as a sorcerer, I shouldn’t have been part of his world at all.

There was no shortage of time to fret over that, and over why I was bothering to fret over that – hello, Mills, Keel’s full-blooded Nosferatu now and you know what that means – as I limited my interactions with the human world to the minimum needed to convince Bruce that my emotional recovery was still progressing. It wasn’t. Not at all.

Because I didn’t have amnesia, I had the opposite of amnesia. The entirety of the time Keel and I had spent together was branded into my brain: how I used to throw rotting vegetables at his smirking face in the compound kitchen; the afternoons we picked through the precious box of random topside stuff that he kept secreted away under his bed; the day I’d led him dripping wet and naked to the motel bedroom, finally deciding to take it there. God, I wanted to talk about that. No, correction, I needed to talk about that, him, losing my virginity, all of it. I’d always confided in Anna and Jenny about guy stuff, but this time I couldn’t.

I had done things, gone places, that none of them ever would, and the truth needed to be kept walled up so they’d stay safe – and that meant walling me in with it.

Anna finally settled on a pair of games – the kind with impossibly buff militia guys holding gratuitously oversized weapons on the front cover – and paid for them. Then we were on the move again.

“Hold up,” I said, coming to a halt in front of a high-end boutique, nearly causing a pile-up behind me. A slinky, low-cut, floor-length, dark red sequinned dress hung in the window. I knew it was supposed to look festive, but the way it glistened under the display's spotlights reminded me of freshly spilled blood.

“You can’t afford that,” Jenny said bluntly. “Besides, where the hell would you wear it?”

I ignored her and walked into the store, scouring the racks of frilly finery. The prim, blonde sales girl shot me a look of derision. I ignored her too.

When I found the dress, I immediately flipped over the price tag: $350. More than I’d ever spent on any single item in my entire life. But Jenny was wrong. I did have the money. I still had the cash Bruce had given me to replace the sundress that had been ruined during Keel’s transition and I hadn’t been spending much of my weekly allowance either. Until now there hadn’t been anything I’d wanted. But this drew me like a moth to a flame.

Fire and blood. I knew the connections my subconscious was making and I didn’t care.

I plucked a size five off the rack and marched up to the counter. “Can I try this on?” I asked. The sales girl hesitated for a split second, then, unable to come up with any good excuse to deny me, nodded begrudgingly and led me to the fitting rooms at the back.

Once inside the mirrored stall, I stepped out of my black jeans and yanked my baggy green army sweater over my head. Realizing that this was not the kind of garment that could be worn with a bra, I unclasped that too. Then I dropped the gown over my head, the slippery satin lining flowed over my torso like cool, soothing water. I glanced down at the plummeting neckline and thought about how both Fredrick and Ephraim – and, hell, these days, probably Bruce too – would be absolutely scandalized by this. But I was no sweet sixteen.

I had magic. And a body count. And though it’d been short-lived – and Keel hadn’t yet turned into a pale, rot-scented, skeletal ghoul – I’d been the consort of a king. I could wear whatever I wanted.

Of course, I shouldn’t be thinking like that, but I couldn’t help it. I was who I was and I had done what I had done. I had to own it, or go mental. It was bad enough having to lie to everyone else, I refused lie to myself, as well

I didn’t belong in this world anymore, and no amount of trying to shoehorn me in was going to change that.

I peered at my reflection in mirror. This was definitely the sexiest, most grown-up thing I’d ever put on, and for once, my boyish figure proved itself an asset. I grinned. Confidence looked good with the blood-red dress. Power would probably look good with it, too. I dug my nails into my palms, until eight semi-circular pools of blood welled up around them. Then I thought “Fire.”

Flames burst from my hands. I was getting so good at basic spells that I could execute many of the simpler ones without the previous level of emotional investment; I still had to want it, but no longer needed to be under duress to perform. I held my palms up outwards and upwards, away from both the dress and the fitting room walls. The light from the fire sparkled off the sequins, bringing the gown to hypnotizing life. If only I could be this, I thought. Be who I was born to be, then maybe…

Suddenly, I was overcome with the urge to pop out my contact lenses, revealing my Keel-stained, red-ringed eyes, and truly let my freak flag fly, but before I could act on it, a clanging alarm blared out overhead and water from the store’s sprinkler system rained down on me, dousing my palms.

Shit! I thought, grabbing my street clothes and rushing out into the main part of the store, where it was dry.

Anna and Jenny were gaping at me. It could’ve been the dress or the howling alarm I’d left in my wake, perhaps both. Their eyes were trailing between me, the sales girl and the front of the store, where a large throng of shoppers had gathered, all staring in at us, as if we were starring in some reality stage show. Jenny seemed to shrink under the unexpected scrutiny, almost melding into one of the dress racks, but Anna held her ground, even if she couldn’t stop herself from fiddling with her long blonde hair. Nervous habit.

It was obvious they thought I had something to do with it. And even though I did, their suspicion packed a wallop.

“What the hell were you doing back there?” the salesgirl said, her voice loaded with accusation.

“Nothing. Trying on the dress,” I told her, motioning to myself, since I was still wearing it.

She gave me a dirty look.

“I swear!” I insisted. “I want to buy it. Why would I try to ruin a dress I want to buy?”

Confusion replaced suspicion on the girl’s face and she rushed to the back of the store, presumably to see if anything was actually burning. Mall security arrived a moment later and, then, a squad of firefighters. After inspecting the shop, they asked me the same questions the sales girl had, along with a few more pointed ones, but I played dumb.

That’s when it struck me: this is my new prison  the choking confines of an absolutely ordinary life. I couldn’t believe that I’d actually wanted this once, and not that long ago either. I’d grown so stir-crazy at Ephraim’s safe house that I’d convinced myself that my old friends, the laptop full of sorcery texts Bruce had clandestinely given me, and the opportunity to practice magic again would be just the balm I needed. It wasn’t. But what could I do about it now?

After things had settled down, I paid for the dress, then slipped off to the mall bathroom to change back into my normal clothes. When I emerged, Anna and Jenny were waiting in the hallway to grill me all over again.

“Nothing. I don’t know,” I told them shortly. I was really starting to get annoyed now. What was this, the freakin’ inquisition? “The sprinklers went off, so I grabbed my stuff and got out of there. It’s not like I was going to stick around and investigate.” Anna and Jenny let it go after that and turned their attention to speculating on where and when I might attempt to wear my latest acquisition and what possessed me to buy it in the first place. Was it a clue to where I’d been? Perhaps something bubbling up from beneath the opaque fog of amnesia?

I looked down at the garment bag slung over my forearm and smiled. At least nothing about that dress was a lie.

* * *

I was standing in front of the floor-length mirror in my bedroom, wearing the dress again. No contacts this time. No suppressing of the magic that surged within, as integral a part of my being now that it had been awakened as my blood was. And it felt even better than it had in the store.

Anna and Jenny had gone home after our shopping expedition, probably feeling the same sense of relief that I was. Ever since I’d gotten back, things had been awkward, like I’d grown too odd and aloof, even for our little patchwork group. My habit of ignoring their texts and calls until Bruce gave me grief about it certainly didn't help. But lying was exhausting; it was a full-time job.

Worse, I knew my friends were determined to keep battling through the hard stuff until they found a way to fix me, because that’s what friends did and that’s what I would have done if our roles had been reversed. Only I wasn’t broken, just different, and there was no fixing different.

But I didn’t want to think about that or them right now and I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself either.

I spun around in front of the mirror, getting a good look at the dress from all angles. It was absolutely perfect. All slink and sass and sex, no shyness anywhere. This dress was who I wanted to be. Out and proud. Powerful. A blood sorceress: my biological birthright.

The next thought snuck in uninvited. What would Keel think of me in this dress?

I closed my eyes and pictured him standing in front of me as he had been – always as he had been – mischievous green eyes, messy chin-length brown hair and sharp features, exotic and bordering on inhuman. His hands reached out to touch me. I remembered just in time to mute the strange electricity that the bond oscillated between us so that I could feel his warm fingers drift down my bare arms, then back up over my shoulders, and across my back to unzip the dress, allowing it to slip off and pool on the floor at my feet, rendering me nearly naked in one fluid motion. I shivered, and imaginary Keel leaned in to kiss me, first my mouth, then my earlobe, then my neck, before he sank in his fangs – and I snapped myself out of the fantasy.

Really, Mills? You’re even willing to eroticize the biting now. You’re pathetic.

I removed the dress in an angry flurry of fabric, returned it to its garment bag and hung it up in my closet, all joy drained from the moment. My secrets were ghosts and just as effective at haunting.

After throwing on my pajamas, I dug out the faux leather-bound journal I kept in my underwear drawer. It was the only place I was sure Bruce wouldn’t snoop. Who knew what he’d think, if he found it? I hoped he’d understand, but I wasn’t confident enough to leave it lying out in the open in case he didn’t. It was a diary, sort of, but I didn’t write to the book, I wrote to Keel. Sixty-some never-to-be-sent, never-to-be-read letters. The place where I said everything I could never say aloud to anyone – but him.

I flopped down on my bed, grabbed a pen from the night table and cracked open the journal. It was more than half-full now.

Dear Keel, I wrote. You tried to prepare me for so many things but you never told me how I’m supposed to get over you. Blood contract or not, you may yet be the death of me. Worse, and this is going to sound really crazy – I’m sorry about that, I know you expect better/stronger from me – but I kind of want you to be, because it would mean you’re alive and I wouldn’t have to live with this great, big, gaping hole in my being anymore. Stupid, right? Well, you make me stupid. You always have. Also a little desperate, a little brave and a little wild, and you know what? I liked that. There, I admitted it! 

The thing is... you always had something to become, but who am I supposed to be? Sometimes I think my dreams burned down with the guest house, and I don’t know where to get new ones.  

Does that make any sense? Are you still out there somewhere? Screw it. I’m only talking to myself anyway.

Still, I think you’d like the dress I bought today.

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