THAT NIGHT, Sheriff Cole Granger and Deputy Dave Hinton joined them for supper. Alex noticed that Cole was having a hard time meeting her eyes, but she attributed it to the stress everyone was under and turned her own attention to Beulah's delicious cooking.
It was interesting, Alex had to admit. Men had a tendency to band together based on their vocations: ranchers with ranchers, farmers with farmers. And they customarily maintained a certain ego-based distance, as well. Most men, whether in small towns or big cities, liked to swagger. Unless they were shy and made every effort to blend into the background.
And those men, she thought, could sometimes be far more dangerous than the swaggering kind.
Maybe it was the fact that all four men were joined together by their pursuit of Milo and his bloodthirsty gang-she almost smiled at her own choice of words-but they seemed to have formed an easy camaraderie, which she had to admit was nice. As they ate, Cole asked Cody about his past, which he ran through in an oddly cut-and-dried manner. His folks had owned land out this way, he said, but his father had been killed many years ago, and his mother had returned to her home in New Orleans. He'd grown up there, then gone on to Harvard. He'd found work in the capital and then in Northern Virginia, until war had broken out and he'd joined up with a Louisiana unit. Wounded and discharged, he'd been practicing medicine in New Orleans before he'd come west.
Brendan Vincent sat forward. "I actually went to New Orleans to find Cody. I'd heard word that he'd faced a killer like Milo before, and I needed his help out here."
"And how did you know there was trouble in Victory?" Cole Granger asked.
"I had family once in Hollow Tree," Brendan said. "A while back, they wrote to me about strange goings-on out this way. Then I met a soldier in New Orleans who had been through these parts, and he told me Victory was the only town still hanging on, that Brigsby and Hollow Tree were ghost towns."
Alex hesitated, then asked, "Trouble? Did other people tell you about the vampires?" she asked.
Cody looked at her. "No one believes in vampires-until they become one, or are killed by one and there's no coming back."
"Enough of this," Dave said suddenly. "We've still got to live like civilized people, and in my book that means no talking about murder at the dinner table, all right?" When no one challenged him, he went on. "Miss Alex, you've got to play for these folks. You never heard anything like her," he added to Cody and Brendan.
Alex laughed. "If we're being civilized, you gentlemen are supposed to move into my father's library for brandy and cigars."
"We'd rather hear you play," Cole told her.
"Perhaps Mr. Vincent or Mr. Fox would like a brandy and a cigar, and then I could help Beulah clean up after dinner," Alex suggested, suddenly feeling self-conscious and trying to get out of playing.
"A cigar over the company of a beautiful young woman?" Brendan asked, smiling. He reminded her of her father, though he was younger, maybe because he'd been regarding her sympathetically all evening. He was dignity made flesh, his voice gentle and kind. She knew he had been an officer, and she imagined he had commanded the respect of his men.
"You folks go on," Beulah said. "Bert and I can get this place picked up neat as a pin faster without none of you trying to help."
"So you play the piano?" Cody asked Alex.
"A bit," she admitted reluctantly.
As they moved to the parlor, she finally remembered to ask Cole, "Is John Snow all right?"
The sheriff nodded grimly. "He was missing livestock, and his oldest son-who has children of his own now-was worried about his eldest son. But the boy seemed fine when I was there. Thing is, now we have to get word to him, let him know what's happening. I should have had someone on that today, but things in town were-well, let's just say the day was full. It's important that we be prepared here first, then we can help others."
"Brendan and I will go first thing in the morning," Cody said.
"Enough of that kind of talk. Play something for us, Alex," Dave said.
"What would you like to hear?" she asked, wondering why Dave kept trying so hard to force the conversation away from their situation.
"Anything but a funeral dirge," he said.
She sat at the piano and played a Chopin prelude, followed by a reel.
"We ought to be dancing," Dave said.
"Hard to dance when the only woman in the room is at the piano," Cole pointed out.
To Alex's surprise, Cody suddenly smiled broadly and said, "That's because you never served under the right commander during a long campaign. Brigadier General Vincent, sir, may I have this dance?"
"Indeed, soldier. At ease," Vincent replied, grinning back. Then the two men began to whirl around the room, much to the delight of Dave and Cole. Beulah slipped her head in to see what was going on, and before she could retreat, Cole had pulled her into his arms for a dance.
Dave suddenly slipped onto the bench next to Alex. "Go rescue one of the men, Miss Alex. My playing isn't as good as yours, but I can still manage a reel."
She allowed him to take her place and rescued Brendan Vincent. She danced with him for a bit, swapped with Beulah and danced with Cole, and then found herself with Cody.
She was both exhilarated and afraid.
It was just dancing, she told herself. But there was something different about dancing with Cody.
He held her the same way Brendan and Cole had held her, but she could feel the way Cody held her, and when she looked into his eyes, something about the golden fire she saw there seemed to steal her breath away far more effectively than the speed of the reel.
At last Brendan cried, "Mercy!"
Dave stopped playing. "Thank God you caved in first, sir. My fingers couldn't have gone on much longer. I'm not much of a musician, as you could probably tell."
"Why, Deputy," Brendan protested. "That was absolutely fine, and deeply appreciated. Though Cody may do as a partner in a pinch, Beulah and Miss Alex made far finer companions on the floor-no offense, Cody."
"None taken," Cody assured him.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, that was quite enough exercise for this old gent," Brendan said. "If you'll excuse me, I'm off to bed. Cody?"
"I'll be seeing to the house," Cody assured him.
Brendan nodded and went upstairs, and Cole and Dave announced that it was time they headed out.
"Why don't you go on upstairs?" Cody suggested to Alex. "I'll see them out and lock up."
"Thank you," she said. A few minutes later, as she stood in the privacy of her room, she could hear him walking around below, checking the windows and doors.
She slid into her nightgown and brushed out her hair, all too aware of his footsteps as he climbed the stairs and of the opening and closing of his door. A moment later there was a tap at the connecting door, and she froze. She'd never felt so torn. She wanted him to come in and do something as ridiculously dramatic as sweep her into his arms. And yet she was also afraid that he would do exactly that. She wasn't afraid on moral grounds, but because she thought she could so easily lose her heart and soul to this man. There was something about Cody. He was restless, not the type to stay in any one place for long. He came from Louisiana. If he had a home, that was it. No matter what happened between them, he wasn't the sort to stay around. Touching him, she was certain, would make her long for more. And that way lay heartbreak.
The tapping came again.
"Come in," she breathed, wondering if he could even hear her.
"I'm going to check your doors," he told her as he opened the door.
"I locked them," she told him.
"I'll just double check. If you don't mind."
She realized that she was sitting frozen at her dressing table, her brush still in her hand and raised halfway to her hair.
Cody checked the windows and French doors, then returned to the connecting doorway and paused. She heard the ticking of a clock, and then, when it speeded up, she realized she was listening to the beating of her own heart.
"Good night, Alex," he said at last.
And then he left, closing the door between them.
THE DREAM CAME SOMETIME in the very early hours of the morning.
Once again she knew it was a dream, that it wasn't real, but perhaps it was a vision of what might be....
She had ridden out to the plain. She knew there was danger, but something was driving her to go. She had no choice.
She rode hard, and Cheyenne, her mare, was swift, seeming to fly over the ground.
As she rode, she became aware of a silhouette in the distance. A man was standing there, facing away from her, and he was wearing a railroad duster and a hat, common attire out on the plain. But he stood tall and straight, and she knew him, though she couldn't see his face.
She reached the place at last.
The place where her father had died.
She dismounted. The man's back was still to her as she started to walk toward him. She had no choice; she was once again compelled. She had to see his face, though she knew in her heart who he was.
He turned to her, and her heart seemed to flip in her chest.
It was her father.
He stared at her, and his face twisted in agony, tears filling his eyes.
"Alex," he whispered.
He reached out to her, and she went to him.
"I love you, Dad," she whispered as he embraced her.
"Alex, I know you love me. And I love you, my dearest child. You have to know, you have to believe me when I say...it isn't me."
His arms were solid and real, and she felt the power of his love, but she drew away from him slightly and reached out, trying to smooth the lines of pain from his face.
"What's not you, Dad?" she asked, confused.
He paused, and she realized he was listening for something. And then she heard it, felt it, herself: the trembling of the ground that meant that riders were near.
"We have to go," he said. "Quickly. We have to go!"
"I have Cheyenne," she said, and he nodded, leaping up on the horse behind her. They started to race, but when they reached the base of the cliffs and stopped, he dismounted, pulling her down after him. He gave Cheyenne a firm slap on the rump, sending her home, and he grasped Alex's hand, drawing her forward along the towering stones.
They passed the burial caves of the Apache and kept running, until he finally drew her into a dark cavern.
She started to speak, but he lifted a finger to his lips to silence her.
She heard movement, laughter, and then she heard Milo call out orders to his men. "Search the place, and be thorough. She won't get away from me. I will have her, do you understand?"
Alex inhaled sharply. Did he mean her?
Footsteps came near, hurried footsteps, as Milo's men searched intently for her. Her father pressed her behind him, warning her again to silence.
"Wait!" Milo cried out. "I know where they've gone. He's taken her to Hollow Tree. Come on. Let's ride."
Alex waited for the footsteps to recede. "He's gone," she told her father. "Dad, we're safe. Oh, my God, they told me you were dead, but I knew it couldn't be true."
"Shh," he said again.
She didn't hear anything. Not a footfall, not a breath of air. But she froze, anyway, at her father's command.
"You have to let her be." It was the deep, calm voice of Cody Fox.
"She is my daughter," her father said, his voice strained.
"And Milo is using you," Cody said.
"I would never hurt my daughter," her father insisted.
"Cody, this is my father," Alex said, trying to make him understand.
But Cody didn't pay any attention to her; he was looking at her father, and the men were exchanging a look full of meaning that she couldn't begin to fathom.
"You have to believe me. I'm hiding. I am not a part of the horror," her father told Cody.
"Then send her back to me. She can't be part of this. Milo has a connection, and every minute she's with you, she's in danger."
Her father inhaled and exhaled deeply, then looked down at Alex. "Go with him. You have to."
"No! I've just found you again. I won't leave you," Alex protested.
"You must. I'm begging you, Alex, go with Cody."
Her father pushed her away and started to turn toward the deep darkness at the back of the cave.
"No!" she cried, then sat up in bed, trembling, and realized she'd cried out in truth, not just in the dream.
She blinked and told herself that was all it had been: a dream. Not a vision of a future she might prevent, because her father was dead and she would never see him again in this world.
Cody Fox called as he burst through the door that separated their rooms.
She was still too shaken by the dream to be hostile or play flirtatious games.
"Oh, Cody," she said, and tears welled in her eyes.
He rushed to her side, taking her into his arms, and though she was still trembling, his embrace felt so good. He held her close, and she felt as if she were on fire, her breasts and every inch of her skin tingling with an awareness of him. Despite her fear, she was aware that he aroused her in a way that was raw and undeniable.
"What happened, Alex?" he asked, pulling back to smooth her hair.
"I had a dream."
"A dream? Or a vision?" he asked carefully.
She shook her head. "No vision tonight. Just a wall of sadness, and I should have expected it. You were there." She smiled ruefully, seeking his eyes. "Trying to save me, as usual. But I didn't need to be saved."
"What was the dream about? Tell me," he insisted softly.
Her smile deepened. "It was a dream of the heart, I suppose. I miss my father...so much. I dreamed that I rode out to the plain, to the place where he died. But he wasn't dead. He was there waiting for me. But he knew the outlaws were coming, and that they were looking for me, and he made me ride to the cliffs with him. Milo and his men came, and they were searching the caves, looking for us. For me. But my father hid me, and they went away to Hollow Tree, and then you were there and...and you talked to my father. And he made me go back with you."
He didn't laugh at her dream, only studied her gravely and smoothed her hair back again. For a moment she thought that he was going to speak, but then he pulled her against him, soothing her again.
After a long moment he eased away from her, lifting her chin with one hand as his other palm slid over her cheek. She didn't know if she moved or he did, but suddenly their lips met. It was only a touch at first, and then it was a tangle of hunger and passion, their arms crushingly tight around each other, their mouths fusing, and their tongues hot and wet and seeking.
When he broke the kiss, Alex knew that her lips were wet and swollen, that she was panting, and that...her eyes were staring into his, lost.
"I'm not what you want?" she whispered.
"No," he told her, then took her face between his hands and spoke vehemently. "You're everything any man could want, and it's killing me to let you go. But I am not the man you want, and you can't even begin to understand why. But I'll be here to keep you safe. I promise before God, I'll be here. But I'm not what you want. I can't be."
His hands fell, and she saw the way his fingers curled, his nails digging into his palms.
Then he turned and left her.
And once again the door closed between them.
C ODY KNEW HE SHOULD expect the unexpected from Alex, and she proved him right the next morning, at the breakfast table.
She was cordial to everyone, including him. But as soon as she had finished eating, she dabbed at her lips, turned to him and said, "I'm going to take a ride out to Calico Jack's. I want to see John Snow and his family."
He sat back and looked at her speculatively. True, someone needed to ride out to Calico Jack's, but he and Brendan should go, or the sheriff or Dave, paired with one of the men from town.
"We'll check on him, Alex."
"No, I want to see him. It's important."
"It's broad daylight, and you're welcome to come with me. If you're busy, I'll ask someone else. But I am riding out to Calico Jack's," she said determinedly.
"Fine," he said. "Let's get saddled up and go." He glanced over at Brendan, who nodded.
The two of them had decided that it would be a good idea if one of them stayed in town at all times over the next few days, because trouble was bound to come soon. With Brigsby and Hollow Tree turned into ghost towns, he had no idea where Milo and his gang were feeding, nor even how big the gang had gotten. Milo was experienced enough to know that the food supply had to be monitored, so creating too many of his own kind to be fellow predators in one area was definitely a mistake. But the younger vampires wouldn't have the same knowledge or the self-control to be careful in choosing who they transformed and who they brought over. His experience at the graveyard yesterday had been proof of that.
They needed to round up a group of the locals and find Milo's hideout. It had to be in the caves, or in one of the deserted towns.
There was another problem, though.
Alex's dream was troubling, especially since her father's grave was empty. He had to find Eugene Gordon. He'd never heard of a new vampire, like Eugene, fighting the hunger. All vampires fed off animals when they couldn't find their prey of choice: humans. But the temptation to take human life was forever there, fused into their makeup. It took years to learn to control that hunger. Few had ever managed the feat, because few even cared enough to try.
Eugene was out there, and what was truly terrifying was that Milo had a mental connection with those he created, allowing him to bend them to his will. It was frightening to think of Alex standing out on that balcony the other night. Milo had been the one calling to her, but he had tapped into her love for her father to disguise his call, forcing her father to lure her outside, where Milo could get to her.
But how could he tell her what was really going on?
He was talking about her father, after all. She would fight tooth and nail against the reality that her father had become a vampire. And she would never believe that he could have become evil, even if he revealed his fangs and sank them straight into her throat.
"Cody?" she said, and he realized that she was standing impatiently by the door.
"Sorry. Just wool gathering," he said, and rose to join her.
"I'll keep watch around here, help folks get ready, set up an archery range...and take stock of what weapons we have," Brendan said. "Cole's going to send Dave and some men and stop by some of the ranches where folks might not know yet that...they're in danger."
Or might already be dead, or turned into soulless creatures of the night, Cody thought, but he only nodded and said, "Good." Then he turned to Alex and said, "I'll see you out back in ten minutes."
Without waiting for her response, he headed up to his room. He had a feeling that today he would need both his medical supplies and his weapons.
Levy saddled the horses while Alex waited, ready to go the minute Cody appeared. Which he did, and well within the ten minutes, his saddlebags thrown over his shoulder.
She was surprised by her own ability to behave civilly and calmly toward him as they mounted and headed out. She had never imagined putting her honor on the table, only to have it refused. But something in the way he had spoken last night had touched her.
I am not the man you want.
The words had seemed to come from his soul, filled with something that sounded very much like pain.
"So how are you with a bow and arrow?" he asked a few minutes later as they rode through town.
"Well, I'm a crack shot with a gun, but to tell you the truth, I've never even held a bow and arrow."
"I see. Then you, young lady, have target practice tomorrow," he said, his pitch-black stallion prancing under him, until he easily brought the animal back under control with the slightest command.
"I'm impressed," she said, looking admiringly at the horse.
"Taylor was a gift from Brendan's cousin, back in New Orleans. The man was crazy about President Zachary Taylor, and thus this fellow's name."
They fell silent after that, as he led the way through town. As they neared the edge of civilization, Alex found herself lagging for a moment.
She half expected to see her father standing there, looking toward the horizon, his hat lowered against the sun, his duster billowing in the breeze.
But there was no one there.
"Alex?" Cody said a little sharply, turning back to look at her.
"Coming!" she called.
They continued to ride in silence until they reached Calico Jack's.
Calico Jack's appeared to be deserted.
There were no wagons standing out front, whose owners might be inside buying supplies. Nor were there any Indian ponies about, or a single saddled horse.
"Don't get down," Cody told Alex, dismounting.
She waited and watched while he stepped carefully up on the porch and walked to the door. One hand on the gun in the holster at his hip, he used the other to throw open the door.
He strode inside, and Alex waited with her heart pounding and her breath held.
It was only seconds before Cody reappeared.
"Come in," he told her.
She slipped down from Cheyenne and tossed the reins over the hitching rail, then hurried up the steps. John was there, along with Mina, his mixed-blood wife, and they both greeted her with hugs and grim expressions.
"Let me get you some coffee," Mina said.
She was a striking woman, a perfect match for John. There must have been Scandinavian blood in her background, or perhaps Germanic; she was tall, at least five foot ten inches, and her hair was still a shimmering blond color, even though she was at least forty. Her bronzed features were Apache, but her eyes were green.
John Snow was a mix himself, though he had grown up among the Apache. He always said that though his mother had been a white captive, she had loved his father. He hadn't wanted to be part of any band, and he liked his trading post-and his relatively solitary existence-quite fine. Mina was his third wife, and he'd had children with each of his wives, creating his own band, in a way.
"Coffee would be wonderful, Mina, thank you," Alex said. Both Mina and John Snow seemed on edge. She glanced at Cody. "I'll go help Mina."
John and Cody sat down at the big rough wooden table standing in the middle of the room, a place for customers to sit down and chat, drink coffee and compare wares. She and Mina brought the coffee and joined them.
"There is evil afoot," John said. "Not the Apache, and not the white man. Evil from the bowels of the earth."
"I know," Cody said. "Sheriff Granger came to see you the other day, but when he came, he didn't understand. He thought his only problem was outlaws."
"Outlaws don't kill this way. I found carcasses...deer, cattle. Ripped open. Drained of blood. And then I knew. Evil has arisen from the earth, and it is not a ghost. This is different. This is the thing the Great Spirit Father and Earth Mother deplore. An abomination."
"We call them vampires," Cody said.
"Vampires," John repeated. "I have not heard this word before."
"John, I need to know-what about your family?"
John inhaled deeply and looked at his wife in misery. "April," he said.
"April?" Cody repeated.
"My son's daughter. Beautiful, and just sixteen. She is dying."
"Where is she, John? I need to see her," Cody said. "I'm a medical doctor. Please. There's a chance I can save your granddaughter."
"My son's land is just behind the trading post," John Snow said.
"Let's go," Cody said.
Coffee was forgotten. The four of them hurried out the back door and down the slope that led to his son's ranch.
When they entered the house, they found that most of the family was already gathered there. Alex recognized most of the older children, and surmised that some of the younger ones were Mina's and the rest were John's grandchildren.
"She is worse, Father," Jeremy, John's eldest son, said sadly, coming forward to meet them. He greeted Alex with an emotion-filled hug, then looked at Cody warily.
"Cody is a doctor," Alex said. "He believes he can help your daughter."
He led them into a typical young girl's room, with frilled curtains and dolls on shelves. The girl herself had sable hair and pale skin. She was lying still when they entered, but when Cody leaned down over her, she began to toss.
"You're making her worse," Jeremy said with dismay.
Cody ignored him and sat down on the bed, holding her wrists easily in one hand, opening her eyes one at a time, then parting her lips with his fingers.
Alex let out a gasp.
The girl's canine teeth had grown. They were...fangs.
The girl's mother cried out, and suddenly the girl's eyes flew open. She tried to bolt up and began gnashing her teeth, trying to bite Cody.
"We may not be in time," he said.
Alex flew across the room to him. "You have to save her. You have to!"
He looked back at her and sighed. "I'll do my best. Open my bag. You'll find needles there, and some tubing."
"Needles?" John Snow said worriedly.
"She needs blood," Cody said. "Believe me, it's very important."
Alex brought him the supplies he'd requested, and he looked down at the girl and murmured beneath his breath. It looked as if she heard him, though it was hard to be sure.
"I'm going to give her some of my blood. It's the only prayer we've got."