Once we got home, Ollie shooed me off to the parlor while she made the arrangements for delivery. Mateo had quickly retreated to his office, waving Salma -- who had been waiting to greet us -- in behind him. The door shut with a quiet, firm click.

Alone in the parlor, I collapsed into the cushions of Salma’s favorite pale pink settee. As always, I wondered how the cleaning crew got bloodstains out of the delicate, shiny fabric.

This time, I promised myself, I’d keep it clean. I’d try, at least.

My belly cramped, throbbing angrily as if I were deliberately denying it the sustenance it craved. Every move I made to get comfortable sent shocks of pain through my muscles. A wave of hunger punched through me, complete with a familiar surge of rage. I jackknifed to my feet, my lips parting on an instinctive hiss. Old blood, the magic stripped from it by my long-dead body, dripped from my fangs, streaming down the sides of my mouth like drool. I bent over, wrapped my arms around my middle, and spat a mouthful of the acidic fluid onto the green decorative rug. Rust-brown spittle sank into the fibers.

Damn it. So much for clean. I snatched the small metal trash can in the corner, sat down, and rested it on my knee.

Soon enough, dizziness would start to set in, my vision would go spotty, and eventually, my healed wounds would begin re-opening. The magic that held me together lived in the blood I drank, but it only lasted so long. The older I got, the less I needed, but I had a few more centuries before the shitty side effects of the hunger would fade.

It was twenty minutes of intermittent spitting into the can before Ollie walked into the parlor with my dinner trailing behind her. She presented “Ricky” to me with jazz hands and a chipper “Bon appetit!” before doing a graceful one-eighty and leaving.

I didn’t begrudge her the swift exit; she knew better than to linger.

The shifter they sent was surely too skinny. I wasn’t sure what species he was. Cat, maybe? Something languid. Predator, certainly. He had long fingers. The tips of his ears, slightly pointed. More so than your average non-Fae. The faint scent of sunlight and grass explained the green stains on his knees.

He hadn’t even looked at me yet, his eyes glued to Ollie’s ass in her latex outfit. He was a tall, lanky man with pale skin, acne and scars littered amongst thick-lined tattoos, chin-length luminescent green hair slicked back to show off the white tunnels in his earlobes. His red muscle tank and black gym shorts kept all the vampirically preferred access points vulnerable. His wrists and neck held no ink, but some recognizable scarring.

The volunteer at the hospital had hardly been a snack to help keep me from going feral while I healed, and this guy was meant to be a full meal? I tried to keep my examination judgment-free, but I was pretty sure I was going to break him entirely by accident. Shifter or not, this guy looked fragile.

Still, I was grateful for the moment to collect myself. I wiped my face dry with the back of my hand, hoping for a lack of smearing and that the faint scent of blood would be dismissed as par for the course in a vampire household. I returned the trash can to its home, ignoring the sound of sloshing liquid.

Recovered from his reaction to Ollie, he turned and caught my skeptical look. He grinned, his left incisor glinting as a rhinestone caught the light. I wondered if the jewel remained in place during his shift.

“Don’t worry ‘bout me none, sweetheart,” he said, slapping his chest with a flat hand “I’m more robust than I look.”

“If you say so.” I bit the words out, jaw clenched to keep my teeth to myself.

Hunger rode me hard, beating at me from the inside and snarling to get at the liquid gold in this man’s veins. He didn’t seem to notice as he looked around the room.

If this had been a social call, maybe I would have asked his opinion of the heavy, ornate decor. Perhaps even offered him refreshment. But I didn’t, and I could practically feel my mama’s spirit yelling from the afterlife at the lack of manners. The parlor was set up specifically for feeding -- Mateo and Salma preferred their prey come to them, so they subscribed to a local service that linked healthy volunteers with hungry vampires. Likely the same service Ollie had found this Ricky through. The loveseat in the low, intimate lighting felt too familiar for a donor I’d never met before, so I gestured to the recliner instead. The open door behind him allowed the hallway lighting to illuminate the chair, creating a more comfortable and casual atmosphere.

I’d be grateful for the dark corners before long, but for now, I needed the light.

He all but skipped his way to it, his eagerness to feed me obvious. Some people were like that; after all, pleasant was just one description for a vampire’s bite.

“Your profile said you preferred the wrist. But,” he said, hitting me with that grin again. He tipped his head back, his voice dropping to a low rumbly drawl. “My neck is yours if you want it.”

He laid one hand high on his thigh, inching upward toward his crotch, and wagged his brows at me. "Or any other spot you might like better.”

The invitation wasn’t new, or particularly surprising. The purring was an intriguing aspect, but I shook my head.

I watched as he shrugged, and wiggled in the recliner, making himself comfortable. My lips parted, fangs weighing heavy, my veins heating up as my muscles tensed. Slowly, I circled around the room, keeping my eyes glued to him. The recliner was in the corner of the room, a position deliberately enticing to the monster in my veins.

He watched me back, shoulders relaxed and eyes lit with experienced anticipation. The predators that volunteered to donate to vampires tended to be more interested in dominance games, but he seemed to be waiting for me to take charge. I imagined that he was used to vampires who used their Charm to move the process along.

My vision narrowed, my surroundings taking a backseat to my prey.

Using Charm to acquire food, to keep yourself safe and hidden from your own prey, was no longer a matter of survival, and hadn’t been for centuries. The world was a far cry from the stories Mateo and Salma would tell of their younger days. The benefit of delivery really was that the food volunteered. It wasn’t necessary to catch the eye of your prey and lure them to a dark alley, hoping that they would remain susceptible long enough to feed and flee. It wasn’t necessary to blur their memories, to replace pain with an illusion of pleasure.

Now we filled out a simple form outlining our cravings in an app, and voila! Speedy and convenient.

I hadn’t used my Charm in years. My attempts to take control were too strong, and my skill clumsy. In my hands, Charm became a crude, blunt tool of destruction. I had no need to add another name to my list of accidental victims.

But thanks to Ollie’s X-rated extracurriculars, I learned that the Venn diagram between masochists and donors was nearly a perfect circle.

The longer I stared at him, the stronger the musk of his desire grew until it began to edge into a delicate bouquet of burgeoning fear. My fangs ached, throbbing against my lips as my hunger built. My peripheral vision blurred, and I knew my eyes had gone red.

I’d read his preferences too.

Before his scent could turn from exciting to sour, I struck.

In a blink, I stood over him. I grasped his face in one hand, his wrist in the other. The recliner squeaked under him as I shoved him firmly backward, dragging his wrist up to my lips. I sank my teeth into the taut flesh, tearing into it as cleanly as I could.

His cry of pain quickly turned to a moan of pleasure as the taste of hot pennies filled my mouth. He jerked under me, his squirming sending my teeth a little deeper.

I held my body away from his, keeping hands and mouth the only points of contact we shared. I kept him restrained carefully, pressing against his chest to keep him still even as he tried to shoot upward. His hips thrust rhythmically into the air while I swallowed down mouthfuls of his blood.

“Oh, fuck, yes,” he groaned, his movement dislodging my teeth. I growled, shaking him, not unlike a dog with a particularly juicy bone. He whimpered and I heard the sound of claws tearing through leather.

He needed to stop before I hurt him because I had no intention of spilling so much as a single drop of the scalding ambrosia pouring down my throat.

His moans morphed into quiet, rapid panting. Shoving aside the urge to tear away, knowing I hadn’t consumed enough, I tuned him out. I focused on the pounding of his heart, slamming hard against his ribs, the blood rushing through his veins and into my mouth. The faster his heart beat, the faster I drank.

It was only moments before his heart did begin to slow down, his body deflating with a shaky sigh into the cushions. I allowed myself another mouthful before removing my hands and teeth from his wrist. The benefit of a shifter for dinner was that he would heal on his own, without my help.

With a sated sigh, I stepped away, wiping my mouth free of the few drops that had escaped. I licked the smear off the back of my hand. I closed my eyes, humming simply to enjoy the vibration while his flavor lingered on my tongue.

His grunting laughter dragged my eyes open to a narrow slit. His head rolled towards me, eyes heavy and lips tilted into a satisfied smirk. A tiny dimple appeared in his cheek.

“Was it as good for you as it was for me, darlin’?” He laughed, a raspy coughing sound.

Definitely a cat of some kind, I thought idly, as I stumbled back toward the settee. I ignored his question. As expected, the light from the hallway was painful in its intensity, the pulse of it pounding into my eyeballs. The power in his blood rushed through me, rapidly repairing the damage the hunger had done to my body, but setting all my senses to maximum.

I flinched away from the rasp of my t-shirt against my skin as I curled into the back of the settee. The cushions were extra-thick, providing a plush place to let my body re-acclimate to itself. Ricky’s heartbeat had evened out, a steady rhythm pounding on the inside of my head. I squeezed my eyes shut against the hum of the lightbulbs in the hallway, as if the inside of my eyelids could act as a barrier.

I heard the soft, familiar shuffle of Ollie’s approach long before she made it to the doorway, and knew she’d changed out of her shoes for me. All but pressing my nose into the crevasse between the seat cushion and the back, I listened as Ollie quietly guided the horny cat shifter out of the room, the door closing behind them with a gentle snick.

Alone in the dark at last.

I gave myself an hour before I forced myself to my feet. The sensory overload hadn’t yet fully faded, but I couldn’t justify staying any longer in the parlor. I still had to die for the day, and -- fuck. Shiloh.

I charged out of the parlor as fast as my hazy brain would let me, the weight of new blood in my system lay heaviest in my limbs, and I fumbled with the doorknob. I had a heartbeat’s warning to jump backward -- which I heeded -- before Ollie slammed into the room at full speed, her eyes narrowed and fangs bared.

Bracing myself against the settee, I froze. She barely glanced at me before grabbing my arm and pulling me towards the door.

“Let’s go,” she snarled. “I want to see the bitch that put Shiloh in a gods-be-fucked coma.”

I snatched my arm away from her grasp. We stood in the hallway, with her blocking the exit. She had changed out of her kink attire into black sweatpants, a loose tank top, and a silk hair wrap. Her face was free from make-up, though I noted the shine of her moisturizer. She’d stuck her bare feet into a pair of black combat boots, but had left the laces untied.

With a sigh, I folded my arms over my chest, and shook my head. “No. She’s a child, in the very literal sense, and she didn’t do it on purpose.”

“I don’t give a goose-shat fuck how old she is or if she meant to do it,” Ollie said, lifting her chin. Her voice shook as she gestured to me, and then to the study. “You nearly died protecting her, and now Shiloh is on life support and Mateo is crying in Salma’s arms right now.”

I sighed and rubbed a hand over my face. Fuck. She got me right in the chest with that one, and I knew he wouldn’t thank her for telling me.

“He called Viktor, Bunny,” she said, keeping her voice lowered.

Ah, double fuck.

Viktor Magnusson was Mateo’s sire, and his sister, Petra, was Salma’s. The siblings had met, seduced, and turned the two humans within a week of each other, and then summarily abandoned them to deal with it all on their own. The results hadn’t been pretty.

Things were different back then, Salma would say, defending their respective sires with furtive glances at her brother. She and Petra had buried the hatchet, so to speak, centuries ago, and got together every so often for a meal and gossip. Salma was a very forgiving person. It was one of her best traits.

Mateo didn’t talk about or to Viktor.

For him to pick up the phone and deliberately reach out meant Mateo had no idea what to do. He was grasping at straws, praying and hoping that something would pay off. 

“Did he pick up?” I asked, matching her volume.

She cocked a brow at me. “What do you think?”

I imagined Mateo, crying in Salma’s arms. No. Viktor wouldn’t answer. A bad conversation would’ve energized my sire, would’ve lit him up with bitter rage and sent him on the warpath. It would’ve been him, rather than Ollie, desperate to do anything other than sit and wait for a miracle.

Ignoring Mateo completely was Viktor’s weapon of choice, and it had always been devastatingly effective.

“You can’t hurt the kid. She really didn’t do it on purpose, and,” I added, grunting in annoyance. “Not to victim-blame here, but it was self-defense. Shy started it, or it wouldn’t have been possible for the kid to deflect it back.”

Ollie’s manic energy faded, and she leaned back against the wall, burying her face in her hands. Her voice was thick with unshed tears. I stepped beside her, bumping her shoulder with mine.

“We’re gonna figure this out, and it’s gonna be okay.”

“What the hell is going on, man? One day, everything is fine, and now, it’s all headed to Satan’s sweaty ballsack in a broken, leaky condom.”

“I fuckin’ wish I knew,” I said, letting my own weariness color my voice. “It’s not long ‘til dawn, Ollie-bee. Let’s get some rest, and we’ll look at it all fresh tonight.”

“I’m so worried about you, Cottontail," she said, looking up at me. "Don’t get me wrong, I always worry about you, but I don’t have a good feeling about any of this.”

There was nothing I could say to that. I tried to think of some comforting platitude to sooth her, because the concern in her eyes was too familiar, and I couldn’t stand it. Instead, I gave her a small, weak smile, and hugged her close. She tucked her head under my chin, her arms going under mine to wrap around me. After a long pause, both of us just soaking in the mutual solace, I pulled away. I threw my arm over her shoulders, and began guiding her back towards the stairs and the bedrooms. Nuzzling the collar, she sniffed at my shirt.

“You smell like cat,” she murmured.

“That’s nothing new,” I said lightly. She hummed in a vague, sleepy response, drained and exhausted enough that she dragged her feet up the stairs. Halfway to the top, I rolled my eyes and lifted her into my arms to carry her the rest of the way.

Once I’d deposited her, carefully tucked into her lush four-poster monstrosity of a bed, I staggered my way down the hall to my own room. When the sun fully broke past the horizon, the new magic in my veins raced through me like fireworks.

I crashed into my bed to the fading sound of the house locking down.

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