Josef frowned down at the piece of paper in his hand. It was slowly crumpling in the pressure of his grip. He didn't need to stare at it; he already knew what it said, but he also didn't wish to meet Lucky's distressed gaze. Nonetheless, it had to be done.
"Damn, Lucky, this is bad news," he said, feelingly. "And we both know what it means."
He could see her mouth tremble as she nodded, unable to trust her voice.
"Come sit down with me," Josef said, guiding her to the sofa with a hand at the small of her back. She was shaking, and this time not with desire. He turned from her to sit in his accustomed place, looking up at her as he sat from under raised eyebrows. He held out a hand, and when she took it, pulled her gently down into his lap, curled against his chest.
"You're going to send me away, aren't you?"
"I think you know I have to. If you stay here—the temptation is too great."
"Please, Josef—" She slid down to lie in his lap, knees pulled up in a defensive response. He dropped a hand to stroke her red hair.
"Lucky," he said softly, "it's not the end of the world."
"Not for you," she breathed. Her pain was palpable to him, and the feel of her head lying on his thigh was beginning to make him distinctly uncomfortable. There was a part of him that wanted nothing more than to slip his hands under her shoulders, and raise her up to where he could bend his head to that milk-white neck. He knew, and it was not without a certain irony, that to do so would ease her pain, quiet her fears. Just the opposite of what most believed of the vampire's bite.
Josef blinked, his thoughts coming back to focus on the issue at hand. Gratifying as it might be, that the freshie would react so, her distress seemed a little extreme. Then the light dawned.
"Shit," he said. "Lucky, sit up and look at me."
She complied, her large gray eyes brimming with tears. "Yes, Josef," she said.
"You didn't think I meant, 'Send you away forever,' did you, doll?"
She nodded. "Severe anemia, the doctor said. I—I can't feed you anymore."
"Remind me to fire that doctor. Better yet, remind me to have him—look, babe, there's nothing wrong with you. If you're anemic, it's my fault. We both know that."
"So all I want is for you to go away for awhile. Not forever."
She searched his face, and he could hear the hope spurring her heart. "Truly?"
His laugh was a low rumble in his broad chest, and somehow the sound reassured Lucky more than any words would have done. "Sweetheart, let me share a little something with you. Over the centuries I've learned a few things—most vamps do—and one of those is that freshies come and go. It's not hard to find blood donors. But—and this is the important part—freshies who are about more than the bite, or the money, are an infinitely precious resource." He paused thoughtfully. "Plus, we tend to get conservative. Hate change and all that. So any reasonable vamp will go to considerable lengths to hang onto a good freshie as long as possible. Whatever it takes to keep them feeding the monsters."
Lucky was regaining her composure, slowly. "I think you sell yourself short, Josef," she said, and reached up to caress his smooth cheek. "You're very—forgive me for saying it, but—lovable."
"You see only what I want you to see," he replied. "Most of me is not—lovable." He caught her slender hand in his and pressed her fingertips to his lips. Lucky thought it was like the touch of cool silk. "But I appreciate that you would say so. More than you realize." He gave her a falsely fierce glare. "Just don't go saying it to anyone else. I do have a reputation to maintain."
"Hey," she said, "I call 'em like I see 'em."
"And you wonder why I want to take care of my special girls?" He kissed her lightly on the lips, and she saw the hint of heat steal into his brown eyes, but he pulled back and turned businesslike. "Now, there are arrangements to be made, and you, doll, should be getting some rest. You'll be traveling tomorrow." Josef turned to pick up his phone, but stopped at her voice.
"Josef?" she asked. "Can I beg one favor before I go?"
He looked at her with a slight questioning jerk of his head, a half-smile on his lips. "What is it, Lucky?" he asked quietly.
She swallowed nervously. "I know you can't feed from me, but before we part, will you take—just a taste? I need—I need to see my blood on your lips once more before I go." She met his eyes steadily. "Please."
Josef smiled tightly and shook his head a little. "You are a constant test," he said, "of my control, Lucky." He paused, considering. "But how can I refuse you?"
He came and stood behind her, one strong arm around her waist as she raised her wrist for him. With her back against his chest, he could feel her heart begin to race as he drew in the scent of her skin. He bit down, the razor-sharp points of his fangs sliding so sweetly through her skin that she felt almost no pain. Josef lapped gently and briefly at the blood flowing for him, then kissed the wounds and turned her to face him, so that she could see the bright stain at his mouth. "This was not the last time for us, Lucky. I swear it on your blood." Then he touched his lips to hers once more. "Now go."
She smiled at him, reassured, but as she left, she heard him on the phone, speaking to one of the other freshies. "My study, babe. Half an hour."