At the sound of the small, sleepy voice, Tucker’s progress ground to a dramatic halt. Everything inside him paused, really, which was odd since none of his innards actually worked anymore. In the matter of a split second, however, his entire being turned vulnerable. Sensitive. He felt a dust mote land on his shoulder, an electrical current pass through him, head to toe. Almost as if he’d stuck his finger in a light socket.
Had everyone in Enders stopped moving, too, or was he caught in a time rift?
Tucker turned and saw her.
A young woman in an old-fashioned nightgown, messy, dark red hair. Barefooted.
Holding a broomstick.
Light seemed to swarm and cling to her, illuminating sensual features, innocent curiosity—and Tucker’s mouth went dry as a desert. The nightgown she wore was extremely thin, and despite his best effort, he couldn’t help tracing the top line of her panties through the cotton, his gums beginning to tingle, signaling the imminent dropping of his fangs. If his palms still had the ability to perspire, it would have been necessary to wipe them on his pant legs. Who…was this girl? Why was someone so visibly fragile in the midst of such ugliness?
Protectiveness ripped up the sides of his throat and held, choking off his breath.
Hunger, too, surprisingly. That rushing whisper of vitality that seemed to caress his ears and slip down his throat, enticing him to drink…was her blood doing that?
He didn’t know. This level of hunger hadn’t struck him in so long, maybe ever, and he barely recognized it. Suppressed the need with all his willpower.
She was so far beyond beautiful to him, it almost defied description.
Celestial. Not of this place. Too divine. Crafted with extra care by a higher power.
If she was a day over nineteen or twenty, he’d be shocked…and that made him a sicko, right? For noticing her so…thoroughly? He’d lost track of his age, but although he had the body of a twenty-six-year-old, he must be nearing goddamn forty in vampire years.
Did her head cock in his direction or was he dreaming?
“Mother?” called the young woman again.
“Mary, you’re supposed to be sleeping!” Tilda scolded the girl, hurrying in her direction. “Go on back up to bed now. Mummy is working.”
Mary the Mad?
No. No, that was impossible. This girl could never earn a nickname like that.
Mary the Harmless, maybe. Mary the Stunning.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” The girl stared in Tucker’s direction, looking right past him. He was used to that—the opposite sex staring through him to the other side—so it didn’t strike him as odd, until he realized she was using the broom to feel her way forward.
Blind? Was she…blind?
“Is it the marriage decree?” Mary asked anxiously. “Have you found it?”
“Yes, dear. Yes.” Tilda patted the girl’s arm, attempting to pull her back toward the staircase, in the direction of the rear office where they’d been headed before the chaos broke out. Tucker’s hackles rose at the display of force, well-meaning though it seemed, and he took an involuntary step forward. “I told you I would take care of everything, didn’t I?” Tilda added.
“Yes, but…” Mary’s breath came faster, as if she was in distress, and Tucker experienced that panic in the deepest regions of his chest. No one moved. Everyone stared at her in quiet veneration. Tucker was caught in a state of suspended animation himself, but he had the overwhelming instinct to calm her down. Make everything right in her world. Immediately. “Yes, but now will I have to go away and marry the—?”
Tilda interrupted with a high-pitched laugh, a flush breaking across on her cheeks. “This should be a family discussion, dear. Not a public one.”
“Will you tell my future husband I’m blind or are we going to surprise him?”
Tucker bit down on the inside of his cheek, his knees twinging like they might drop him.
The marriage decree. It was for her. He’d known that, of course.
But she’d been faceless until now. Inconsequential.
What was she now? What was happening to him?
“Mary, please. Come upstairs.”
Mary’s head jerked to one side, like a woman home alone at midnight who hears a stair creaking. Wary, curious. Her nose wrinkled and she advanced toward Tucker slightly, her bare feet moving on the filthy, unworthy floor of the bar. Slayers parted like a book being opened as she got closer to him, her hand lifting slowly, reaching out. Was she going to touch him? Jesus. He started breathing hard, even though oxygen meant nothing to him.
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