A comedic paranormal romance about a vampire concierge, set in Molly Harper’s popular world of Half-Moon Hollow.
“The thing to remember about a ‘stray’ vampire is that there is probably a good reason he is friendless, alone, and wounded. Approach with caution.”
Iris Scanlon, Half-Moon Hollow’s only daytime vampire concierge, knows more about the undead than she’d like. Running their daylight errands—from letting in the plumber to picking up some chilled Faux Type O—gives her a look at the not-so-glamorous side of vamps. Her rules are strict; relationships are purely business, not friendship—and certainly not anything more. Then she finds her newest client, Cal, poisoned on his kitchen floor, and her quiet life turns upside down.
Cal—who would be devastatingly sexy, if Iris thought vampires were sexy—offers Iris a hefty fee for hiding him at her place. And even though he’s imperious, unfriendly, and doesn’t seem to understand the difference between “employee” and “servant,” she agrees. But as they search for who wants him permanently dead, Iris is breaking more and more of her own rules . . . particularly those about nudity. Could it be that what she really needs is some intrigue and romance—and her very own stray vampire?
The thing to remember about a “stray” vampire is that there is probably a good reason he is friendless, alone, and wounded. Approach with caution.
—The Care and Feeding of Stray Vampires
How did an internal debate regarding flavored sexual aids become part of my workday?
I was a good person. I went to church on the “big days.” I was a college graduate. Nice, God-fearing people with bachelor’s degrees in botany should not end up standing in the pharmacy aisle at Walmart debating which variety of flavored lube is best.
“Ugh, forget it, I’m going with Sensual Strawberry.” I sighed, throwing the obscenely pink box into the basket.
Diandra Starr—a poorly thought-out pole name if I’d ever heard one—had managed to snag the world’s only codependent vampire. My client, Mr. Rychek. When she made her quarterly visits to Half-Moon Hollow, I was turned into some bizarre hybrid of Cinderella and the Fairy Godmother, waking up at dawn to find voicemails and e-mails detailing the numerous needs that must be attended to at once. Mr. Rychek seemed convinced that Diandra would flounce away on her designer platform heels unless her every whim was anticipated. No demand for custom-blended bath salts was considered too extravagant. No organic, free-trade food requirement was too extreme. And the lady liked her sexual aids to taste of summer fruits.
I surveyed the contents of the cart against the list. Iron supplements? Check. Organic almond milk? Check. Flavored lube? Check.
I did not pretend to understand the dynamics of human-vampire relationships.
Shopping in the “special dietary needs” aisle was always an adventure. An unexpected side effect of the Great Coming Out in 1999 was the emergence of all-night industries, special products, and cottage businesses, like mine, that catered to the needs of “undead Americans.” Companies were tripping over one another to come up with products for a spanking-new marketing demographic: synthetic blood, protein additives, dental-care accessories, lifelike bronzers. The problem was that those companies still hadn’t figured out packaging for the undead and tended to jump on bizarre trending bandwagons, the most recent being a brand of plasma concentrate that came pouring out of what looked like a Kewpie doll. You had to flip back the head to open it.
It’s even more creepy than it sounds.
Between that and the sporty, aggressively neon tubes of Razor Wire Floss, the clear bubble-shaped pots of Solar Shield SPF-500 sunblock, and the black Gothic boxes of Forever Smooth moisturizing serum, the vampire aisle was ground zero for visual overstimulation.
I stopped in my tracks, pulling the cart to an abrupt halt in the middle of the pharmacy section as I recalled that Rychek’s girlfriend was a vegan. I started to review the label to determine whether the flavored lube was an animal by-product. But I found that I honestly didn’t care. It was 4:20, which meant that I had an hour to drop this stuff by Mr. Rychek’s house, drop the service contracts by a new client’s house in Deer Haven, and then get to Half-Moon Hollow High for the volleyball booster meeting. Such was the exotic and glamorous life of the Hollow’s only daytime vampire concierge.
My company, Beeline, was part special-event coordinator, part concierge service, part personal organizer. In addition to wedding planning, I took care of all the little details vampires didn’t have time for or just didn’t want to deal with themselves. Although it was appropriate, I tried to avoid the term “daywalker” unless I was dealing with established clients. It turns out that if you put an ad for a daywalker service in the Yellow Pages, you get a lot of calls from people who expect you to scoop Fluffy’s sidewalk leavings. And I was allergic to dogs—and their leavings.
On my sprint to the checkout, I cast a longing glance at the candy aisle and its many forbidden sugary pleasures. With my compulsive sweet tooth, I did not discriminate against chocolate, gummies, taffy, lollipops, or even those weird so-sour-the-citric-acid-burns-off-your-tastebuds torture candies. But between my sister Gigi’s worries about the potential for adult-onset diabetes in our gene pool and my tendency toward what I prefer to call “curviness,” I only broke into the various candy caches I had stashed around the house under great personal stress. Or if it was a weekday.
Placating myself with a piece of sugarless gum, I whizzed through the express lane and loaded Mr. Rychek’s weekend supplies into what Gigi, in all her seventeen-year-old sarcastic glory, called the Dorkmobile. I agreed that an enormous yellow minivan was not exactly a sexy car. But until she could suggest another way to haul cases of synthetic blood, Gothic-themed wedding cakes, and, once, a pet crate large enough for a Bengal tiger, I’d told Gigi she had to suck it up and ride shotgun in the Dorkmobile. The next fall, she’d used her earnings from the Half-Moon Hollow Country Club and Catfish Farm snack bar to buy a secondhand VW Bug. Never underestimate a teenager’s work ethic if the end result is averted embarrassment.
I used my security pass to get past the gate into Deer Haven, a private, secure subdivision inhabited entirely by vampires and their human pets. It was always a little spooky driving through this perfectly maintained, cookie-cutter ghost suburb during the day. The streets and driveways were empty. The windows were shuttered tight against the sunlight. Sometimes I expected tumbleweeds to come bouncing past my car. Then again, I’d never seen the neighborhood awake and hopping after dark. I made it a policy to be well out of my clients’ homes before the sun set. With the exception of the clients whose newly legal weddings I helped plan, I rarely saw any of them face-to-face. (I allowed my wedding clients a little more leeway, because they were generally too distracted by their own issues to bother nibbling on me. And still, I only met with them in public places with a lot of witnesses present.)
Although it had been more than ten years since the Great Coming Out and vampire-human relations were vastly improved since the early pitchfork-and-torch days, some vampires were still a bit touchy about humans’ efforts to wipe out their species. They refused to let any human they hadn’t met in person near their homes while they were sleeping and vulnerable.
After years of working with them, I had no remaining romantic notions about vampires. They had the same capacity for good and evil that humans do. And despite what most TV evangelists preached, I believed they had souls. The problem was that the cruelest tendencies can emerge when a person is no longer restricted to the “no biting, no using people as food” rules that humans insist on. If you were a jerk in your original life, you’re probably going to be a bigger undead jerk. If you were a decent person, you’re probably not going to change much beyond your diet and skin-care regimen.
With vampires, you had to be able to operate from a distance, whether that distance was physical or emotional. My business was built on guarded, but optimistic, trust. And a can of vampire pepper spray that I kept in my purse.
I opened the back of my van and hitched the crate of supplies against my hip. I had pretty impressive upper-body strength for a petite gal, but it was at times like these, struggling to schlep the crate up Mr. Rychek’s front walk, that I wondered why I’d never hired an assistant.
Oh, right, because I couldn’t afford one.
Until my little business, Beeline, started showing a profit margin just above “lemonade stand,” I would have to continue toting my own barge and lifting my own bale. I looked forward to the day when heavy lifting wouldn’t determine my wardrobe or hairstyle. On days like this, I tended toward sensible flats, twin sets, and pencil skirts in dark, smudge-proof colors. I liked to throw in a pretty blouse every once in a while, but it depended on whether I could wash synthetic blood out of it. (No matter how careful you are, sometimes there are mishaps.)
And the hair. It was difficult for human companions, blood-bank staff, and storekeepers to take me seriously when I walked around with a crazy cloud of dark curls framing my head. Having Diana Ross’s ’do didn’t exactly inspire confidence, so I twisted my hair into a thick coil at the nape of my neck. Gigi called it my “sexy schoolmarm” look, having little sympathy for me and my frizz. But since we shared the same unpredictable follicles, I was biding my time until she got her first serious job and realized how difficult it was to be considered a professional when your hair was practically sentient.
I used another keyless-entry code to let myself into Mr. Rychek’s tidy little town house. Some American vampires lived in groups of threes and fours in what vampire behaviorists called “nesting,” but most of my clients, like Mr. Rychek, were loners. They had little habits and quirks that would annoy anyone, human or immortal, after a few centuries. So they lived alone and relied on people like me to bring the outside world to them.
I put the almond milk in the fridge and discreetly tucked the other items into a kitchen cabinet. I checked the memo board for further requests and was relieved to find none. I only hoped I could get through Diandra’s visit without being called and ordered to find a twenty-four-hour emergency vet service for her hypoallergenic cat, Ginger. That stupid furball had some sort of weird fascination with prying open remote controls and swallowing the batteries. And somehow Diandra was always shocked when it happened.
As an afterthought, I moved Mr. Rychek’s remote from the coffee table to the top of the TV.
One more stop before I could put in my time at the booster meeting, go home, and bury myself in the romance novel I’d squirreled away inside the dust jacket for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. If Gigi saw the bare-chested gladiator on the cover, the mockery would be inventive and, most likely, public.
My new client’s house was conveniently located in the newer section of Deer Haven, at the end of a long row of matching beige condos. As usual, I had to count the house numbers three times before I was sure I was at the right door, and I wondered how wrong it would be to mark my clients’ doors with big fluorescent-yellow bumblebees. And yes, I knew it seemed inconsistent to name a company that dealt with vampires after a sunny, summer-loving insect. But bees were so efficient, zipping from one place to another, never forgetting the task at hand. That was the image I wanted to convey. Besides, way too many vampire-oriented businesses went with a Goth theme. My cheerful yellow logo stood out in the “undead services” section of the phone book.
Entering the security code provided on his new-client application, I popped the door open, carrying my usual “Thank you for supporting Beeline” floral arrangement inside. Most vampires enjoyed waking up to fresh flowers. The sight and smell reminded them of their human days, when they could wander around in the daylight unscathed. And they didn’t have to know that I’d harvested the artfully arranged roses, irises, and freesias from my own garden. The appearance of an expensive gift was more important than the actual cost of said gift.
Mr. C. Calix certainly hadn’t wasted any money on redecorating, I mused as I walked into the bare beige foyer and set the vase on the generic maple end table. The place was dark, which was to be expected, given the sunproof metal shades clamped over the windows. But there was little furniture in the living room, no dining-room table, no art or pictures on the clean taupe walls. The place looked barely lived in, even for a dead guy’s house.
Scraping past a few cardboard packing boxes, I walked into the kitchen, where I’d agreed to leave the contracts. My foot caught on a soft weight on the floor. “Mother of fudge!” I yelped, then fell flat on my face.
Have I mentioned that I haven’t cursed properly in about five years? With an impressionable kid around the house, I’d taken to using the “safe for network TV” versions of curse words. Although that impressionable kid was now seventeen, I couldn’t seem to break the habit. Even with my face smashed against cold tile.
“Frak-frakity-frak.” I moaned, rubbing my bruised mouth as I righted myself from the floor. I ran my tongue over my teeth to make sure I hadn’t broken any of them. Because, honestly, I wasn’t sure I could afford dental intervention at this point. My skinned knees—and my pride—stung viciously as I counted my teeth again for good measure.
What had I tripped over? I pushed myself to my feet, stumbled over to the fridge, and yanked the door open. The interior light clicked on, illuminating the body stretched across the floor.
Shrieking, I scrambled back against the fridge, my dress shoes skittering uselessly against the tile. I couldn’t seem to swallow the lump of panic hardening in my throat, keeping me from drawing a breath.
His shirtless torso was well built, long limbs strung with thick cords of muscle. Dark waves of hair sprang over his forehead in inky profusion. The face would have been beautiful if it hadn’t been covered in dried blood. A straight nose, high cheekbones, and full, generous lips that bowed slightly. He had that whole Michelangelo’s David thing going—if David had been an upsetting religious figurine that wept blood.
A half-empty donor packet of O positive lay splattered against the floor, which explained the rusty-looking dried splotches on his face. Had he been drinking it when he … passed out?
Vampires didn’t pass out. And most of them could sense when to get somewhere safe well before the sun rose. They didn’t get caught off guard and collapse wherever they were at dawn. What the hell was going on here?
I eyed my shoulder bag, flung across the room when I’d fallen on my face. Breathing steadily, I resolved that I’d call Ophelia at the local World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead office and leave her a message. She would know what to do. And I could get the hell out of there before the hungry, ill vampire rose for the night and made me his breakfast.
I reached over him, aiming my arm away from his mouth. A strong hand clamped around my wrist. I am ashamed to say that I screamed like a little girl. I heard the telltale snick of fangs descending and panicked, yanking and struggling against a relentless vise grip. A tug-of-war ensued for control of the arm that he was pulling toward his chapped, bloodied lips. He tried to lunge for me, but the effort cost him, and his head thunked back to the floor with a heavy thud.
With my hand hovering precariously over his gaping, hungry mouth, I did the only thing I could think of—I poked him in the eye.
“Ow,” he said, dully registering pain as I jabbed my index finger against his eyelid. The other eye popped open, the long, sooty lashes fluttering. It was a deep, rich coffee color, the iris ringed in black.
“Ow!” he repeated indignantly, as if the sensation of the eye-poke was just breaking through his stupor.
With him distracted, I gave one final yank and broke free, holding my hand to my chest as I retreated against the fridge. I took another donor packet from the shelf. I popped it open and held it carefully to his lips, figuring that he wouldn’t care that it wasn’t heated to body temperature. He shook his head faintly, wheezing. “Bad blood.”
I checked the expiration date and offered it to him again. “No, it’s fine.”
His dry lips nearly cracked as they formed the words, “Poisoned … stupid.”
“OK … jerk,” I shot back.
The faintest flicker of amusement passed over his even features. “Need clean supply,” he whispered.
“Well, I’m not giving you mine,” I said, shrinking away from him. “I don’t do that.”
“Just wait to die, then,” he muttered.
I had to bite my lips to keep from snickering or giggling hysterically. I was sure that crouching over him, laughing, while he was vulnerable and agitated wouldn’t improve the situation.
Shouting for him to hold on, I scurried out to my car, carefully shutting the door behind me so that sunlight didn’t spill into the kitchen. I had a case of Faux Type O in the back, destined for Ms. Wexler’s house the next day. I grabbed three bottles from the package and ran back into the house. Sadly, it only occurred to me after I’d run back into the house that I should have just grabbed my purse, jumped into my van, and gunned it all the way home.
But no, I had to take care of vampires with figurative broken wings, because of my stupid Good Samaritan complex.
Kneeling beside the fallen vampire, I twisted the top off the first bottle and offered it to him. “I’m sure this is clean. I just bought it. The tamper-proof seal’s intact.”
He gave the bottle a doubtful, guarded look but took it from my hand. He greedily gulped his way through the first bottle, grimacing at the cold offering. Meanwhile, I popped the other two bottles into the microwave. I even dropped a penny into each one after heating them to give them a more authentic coppery taste.
“Thank you,” he murmured, forcing himself into a sitting position, although the effort clearly exhausted him. He slumped against the pine cabinets. Like all of the Deer Haven homes, the kitchen was done in pastel earth tones—buffs, beiges, and creams. Mr. Calix looked like a wax figure sagging against the pale wood. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my house?”
“I’m Iris Scanlon, from Beeline. The concierge service? Ophelia Lambert arranged your service contract before you arrived in the Hollow. I came by to drop off the paperwork.”
He nodded his magnificent dark head slowly. “She mentioned something about a daywalker, said I could trust you.”
I snorted. Ophelia only said that because I hadn’t asked questions that time she put heavy-duty trash bags, lime, and a shovel on her shopping list. The teenage leader of the local World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead office might have looked sweet sixteen, but at more than four hundred years old, Ophelia, I’m pretty sure, had committed felonies in every hemisphere.
“Well, you seem to be feeling a bit better. I’ll leave these papers here and be on my way,” I said, inching around him.
“Stop,” he commanded me, his voice losing its raspy quality as he pushed himself to his feet. I froze, looking up at him through lowered lashes. His face was fuller somehow, less haggard. He seemed to be growing a little stronger with every sip of blood. “I need your help.”
“How could I help you?”
“You already have helped.” As he spoke, I picked up the faint trace of an accent, a sort of caress of the tongue against each finishing syllable. It sounded … old, which was a decidedly unhelpful concept when dealing with a vampire. And since most vamps didn’t like talking about their backstories, I ignored the sexy lilt and its effects on my pulse rate. “And now I need you to take me home with you.”
“Why would I take an unstable, hungry vampire home with me? Do I look particularly stupid to you?”
He snorted. “No, which is why you should take me home with you. I already know where you live. While you were running to your car, I looked in your purse and memorized your driver’s license. Imagine how irritated I would be, how motivated I would be to find you and repay your kindness, after I am well again.”
I gasped, clutching my bag closer to my chest. “Don’t you threaten me! There seem to be a lot of handy, breakable wooden objects in this room. I’m not above living out my fonder Buffy fantasies.”
His expression was annoyed but contrite. Mostly annoyed. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. That was out of line. But I need to find a safe shelter before dark falls. I have a feeling someone may be coming by to finish me off. No sane person would attack me while I was at full strength.”
I believed it, but it didn’t stop me from thinking that Mr. Calix was a bit full of himself. “How do I know that you won’t drain me as soon as you stabilize?”
“I don’t do that,” he said, echoing my earlier pronouncement while he swept my bag from my hands. I tried snatching it back, but he held it just out of my grasp, like some elementary-school bully with a My Little Pony backpack.
Scowling at him, I crossed my arms over my chest. “Considering you just vaguely threatened me, I have a hard time believing that.”
“Check my wallet, on the counter.”
I flipped open the expensive-looking leather folio and found what looked like a shiny gold policeman’s badge. “You’re a ‘consultant’ for the Council? In terms of credibility, that means nothing to me. I’ve met Ophelia.”
His lips twitched at my reference to the cunning but unpredictable teen vampire.
“Why can’t you just call her?” I asked. “She’s your Council rep. This should be reported to her anyway.”
“I can’t call her. The Council supplied me with that blood. Left here in a gift basket before I arrived,” he said, giving a significant look to the discarded packet on the floor. “Therefore, I can’t trust the Council. I can’t check into a hotel or seek help from friends without being tracked.”
“I have a little sister who lives with me. I don’t care how you ended up on the floor. We don’t need to be a part of it.” I grunted, making a grab for my bag as his tired arms drooped. “I am not running a stop on the vampire underground railroad.”
“I can pay you an obscene amount of money.”
I’m ashamed to say that this stilled my hand. If anything would make me consider this bizarre scheme, it was money. My parents had died nearly five years ago, leaving me to raise my little sister without much in the way of life insurance or savings. I needed money for Gigi’s ever-looming college tuition. I needed money to keep up the house, to pay off the home-equity loan I’d taken out for Beeline’s start-up capital. I needed money to keep us in the food that Gigi insisted on eating. And despite the fact that the business was finally becoming somewhat successful, I always seemed to just cover our expenses, with a tiny bit left over to throw at my own rabid student-loan officers. Something always seemed to pop up and eat away at our extra cash—car repair, school trip, explosive air-conditioning failure.
An obscene amount of money would provide enough of a cushion that I might be able to sleep for more than a handful of hours per night. Mr. Calix slid to the floor, apparently drained by the effort of playing purse keep-away.
“How obscene?” I asked, coughing suddenly to chase the meek note from my voice.
“Ten thousand dollars for a week.”
I quickly calculated the estimate to replace the aging pipes in my house, plus Gigi’s first-semester tuition and the loan payment due next month, against what the Council paid even the lowliest of its underlings. I shook my head and made a counteroffer. “Twenty-five thousand.”
I pursed my lips. “I’m still saying twenty-five thousand.”
“Which means you never quite learned how negotiating works.”
It was a struggle, tensing my lips enough to avoid smirking. “How badly do you want to get off that floor, Mr. Calix?”
He grumbled. “Done.”
“One week,” I said as I knelt in front of him, my voice firmer than I would have thought possible under the circumstances. “That means seven nights. Not seven days and eight nights. Not seven and a half nights. Seven nights.”
“Excellent.” I gave him my sunniest “professional” smile and offered my hand for a shake.
“Don’t push it,” he muttered, closing his eyes.
I sighed, pulling my cell phone out of my bag to call Gigi. I wasn’t going to make that booster meeting, after all.
Molly Harper is the author of two popular series of paranormal romance, the Half-Moon Hollow series and the Naked Werewolf series. She also writes the Bluegrass ebook series of contemporary romance. A former humor columnist and newspaper reporter, she lives in Michigan with her family, where she is currently working on the next Southern Eclectic novel. Visit her on the web at MollyHarper.com.