Chapter 17

"Since there are vampires, I hope there are ghosts, too."

Startled, Sam looked at Marla, walking beside him. He wasn't sure which of them had been more taken aback that he'd been detailed to fetch her to the conference room. "What?"

"Because after they kill me, I'm going to haunt you. If at all possible." Marla's voice was low and steady, even if her face was pale.

Sam pursed his lips, thoughtful. "You don't know that. They wouldn't just kill you."

Marla twisted her mouth. "I know vampires. It's the easiest solution for them."

"I don't think Sir would do that."

It was Marla's turn to be startled. "Who?"

Sam ducked his head a little, shy at speaking the name. "Mr. Kostan. Josef Kostan." He paused, and a soft smile curved his mouth. "He saved me."

"He seduced you." Marla snorted. "So you're his freshie now." She knew the signs, she thought. "And if you think he's not a killer, you don't know him very well."

"I'm not stupid, Marla. He's not my first vamp. And if he were so anxious to kill, he'd have killed me the night he met me. He had reason." Sam tossed the blond hair back out of his eyes.

"He's only one of five, Sam."

The door of the conference room was in front of them, and one of the assistants opened it as they walked up.

Josef was deep in conversation with Harald Bergman, the Chicago vampire frowning at whatever Kostan had proposed. Lewis and duBois were similarly engaged, and Weston was again leaned back with his feet propped up, observing his elders. He was looking uncommonly pleased with himself, and Marla wondered uneasily if she was the canary this cat had just swallowed.

Bergman shook his head, the movement disrupting the rich fall of his red hair. "I don't know. It seems chancy to me. Too trusting." He spared a glance at the two humans, and his frown deepened.

Making a dismissive gesture, Josef smirked. "It's not as though we won't have controls in place. You need to change with the times, Harald. You're getting fossilized."

"My ways have served me well enough so far," he grunted.

This time, it was Philip Lewis who brought the meeting to order. "Since the humans are here, can we get on with it?"

"Agreed," Michel responded at once. "Immortality is too precious to waste on meetings."

The vampires returned to their seats, and even Weston sat up, swinging his feet off the table. Marla could see he'd left an ugly scratch in the surface, and frowned, even as she wondered why in the world she should care about such a thing now.

"I think we're all in agreement," Josef said, addressing the other vampires as though the humans in the room were not present, "that the current management of the Posada has not been conducted in the best interests of the guests, and through them, the best interests of the vampires. However, I think this can best be addressed without disrupting operations more than necessary. And I have a proposal to make. We take out Marla as chief administrator, and replace her with someone we can shape to suit us."

"You have someone in mind, I presume?" Bergman asked. "Perhaps we should each put forward a candidate for the job."

"Do you have someone in mind?"

"Well, not as such, but—"

"Then perhaps we should hear out what Kostan has to say," Philip interjected. "If you disagree, there is time to propose alternatives later." He shifted his gaze to Josef. "So who are you suggesting, then?"

Josef gestured. "Sam Logan."

The freshie was thunderstruck. He knew Josef had intended to find him a position here, but he'd had no idea of this. Marla huffed out a breath of surprise and dismay. The other vampires were muttering, as well.

"This baby?" Michel duBois asked incredulously. "How is this feasible?"

Philip Lewis looked thoughtful. "And is Logan your freshie now, Kostan? I thought he belonged to our sister, Melissa Fairbright."

Sam looked down at his feet, embarrassed, waiting to hear what Josef would say.

"Let's just say, there's been a change in his contract," Josef replied. "And who better to change this place, than someone who knows it well?"

"That's all fine, Josef, but there's a lot left in the air," Slade commented.

"If you want to sit here for hours working out details, Slade, I'd be more than happy to accommodate you," Josef returned. "But first I think I'd like to hear what Sam has to say."

Sam looked Josef directly in the eye. "I have a choice, Sir?"

Josef's lips twitched. "Sam, haven't you learned with me there are always choices?" He paused. "So, what do you think?"

"I think…that I would need your help, Sir. Your advice." Sam bit his lip. "It's true that I'm not experienced."

The vampire smiled at him, and Sam wondered how it was Josef managed to make him feel they were the only two in the room. "You have that, Sam." Josef shrugged and looked around the room. "In my years, I've found experience is gained, whether you wish it or not." He turned his attention back to the freshie. "Anything you want to add?"

Sam nodded and drew a shaky breath. "The night they dragged me out of here, I'd gladly have burned this place to the ground and never looked back. But since then, I've had a little time to think, and I've come to some different conclusions. I do think this place does—has done—a lot of good." He paused and looked around at the Board members, then returned his gaze to Josef. "If you care about us—at all—it's a necessary place. And it does a good job of helping our bodies. But it's turned into a prison. I know you gentlemen are conservative. I know you hold to your traditions, and I don't blame you. Maybe when this place started, the humans—they might have been more used to the isolation. I don't know. But I do know that we're not. Not now. We need more communication, in and out. If the freshies here are so treasured, we need to have it okay for their vamps to visit them, see how they're doing. Who knows, this might become a spot where vamps could come as well, vacation without having to hide what they are so much. I—I don't have the experience to handle the day-to-day operations here. But I think with help I can make this place what it was always intended to be."

He fell silent, and the room was in stillness for a moment. Josef was measuring the reactions of the others to this, when Slade spoke up.

"Well, the boy does have fire, I'll give him that." He paused, gauging their attention. "Maybe I have an idea about some onsite help for him. He can't be running to you every night, Kostan." Slade looked at Josef, who gave him a slight nod. "Perhaps that day-to-day operations experience could come from my girl, there?" He gestured toward Marla.

"I don't like it. A clean break would be better. And this one has proven she is not fit," Michel said. "Are we each to put in a puppet of our own, then?"

Philip Lewis steepled his fingers, regarding everyone thoughtfully. "Gentlemen," he said, his refined tones carefully neutral, "it's a departure, to be sure, but on the other hand, with a bit closer control, I think the proposed changes are sound. And these decisions need not be permanent. Perhaps we can give it a year's trial?"

Bergman nodded. "That seems reasonable. Perhaps we should authorize funds for several freezer suites? I've never liked the idea of my girls coming here and being out of my sight for so long."

Josef waved a hand. "We can save the details for later. For now, it seems agreed to move forward with the changes." He stood. "Gentlemen, thank you for attending."

As the meeting broke up, Slade caught Marla's arm, and led her out of the room. "This wasn't easy, darlin', but I'm counting on you not to screw up."

Marla put her hand up once more to the marks on her neck. "You protected me," she whispered. "I won't let you down."

Slade shook his head with a wry smile. "You're not going to get the chance, sweetheart. I'll be here watching."

Josef, coming from a brief conference with Sam, clapped Slade on the shoulder. "Good to see you, horsethief."

"Bandit." He paused. "That went well."

The ancient vampire smiled. "This time, yes. We'll see how it goes."

"Are you sticking around?"

"Not long. I have business to attend to, then I'm headed back to civilization."

Slade nodded, and slung an arm around Marla. "I believe my first step is a tour of the place. Looks like I need to pick out a suite to remodel."

"Not a bad idea." He paused. "Marla, I'll be in close contact with Sam, so don't even think about sabotaging him."

She gulped. "I can't imagine that would be healthy, Josef."

He chucked her lightly under the chin. "Smart girl." And nodding once more to Slade, he walked away, whistling to himself.

Josef liked the way his footsteps rang on the red Saltillo tiles of the hallway. He was more used to moving silently, cat-like, on carpet, but today his mood was good. Sam would be well-placed here, and he could drop in from time to time, keep things sorted the way he wanted. He took a deep sniff, searching out a particular scent, and turned to open a door off the hallway.

"Gasol. We're going to be leaving in…half an hour. Do we need another seat for the trip to the airport? Or not? And I assume there would be baggage."

Guillermo looked up from his study of Carmencita's hand, the one still held in his. He was stunned at the endless fascination he had found in something so mundane as a woman's hand, at the hypnotic quality of her voice. Maybe it was the life pulsing through her, the warmth he had missed for so long. They'd talked about a lot of things, this past hour or so. He had no idea where the time had gone. Yet he'd never really asked the question, if she was willing to come back to L.A. with him. He wasn't sure what he'd do with her, if she said yes. Come to think of it, he wasn't sure he'd know what to do with her if she said no, either. He couldn't just cut her loose…there were stipulations in the contract about that. He found, though, that he was hoping she was curious enough to take a chance. He hadn't felt such a stirring of enthusiasm in years.

He looked into her face, raising his eyebrows in a question. Without speaking, she bit her lower lip, dropping her eyes to his hand, gently enfolding hers. She nodded.

Josef quirked a smile. "Looks like that's settled then." He leaned back out into the hallway, looking to see if anyone was about. "Perfect," he said, and called out to the one human in sight, with a peremptory snap of his fingers. "Marla, I need you to help Carmencita get packed. Now." He didn't need to wait to see if she jumped.

&&

Lucky pulled her knees up tighter against her chest, trying to curl into as small a ball as she could. She'd feared from the beginning that coming here would drive a wedge between her and the life she'd had, the relationship she'd built with Josef. She'd always known it would end; freshies had a pretty short shelf life. But she'd felt so close to him, so valued, that to be ignored the way he had done…had he casually slashed at her with a knife, it could not have hurt worse. She'd never known him to fail so in courtesy. Even if he was enthralled at the sight of Carmencita, he could have spared a few seconds to greet her, to acknowledge her presence. A nod, a smile. She told herself with a sob, that would have been enough.

There were voices in the hallway, footsteps on the tile floor outside her room, but she paid no attention. When the knock sounded, she ignored it.

Josef knocked again. "Lucky?" No answer. "Lucky," he said mildly, "let me in."

She wanted to scream at him to just go away, but the habit of obedience to his voice was simply too strong. She rose and shuffled to the door, turning away even as it swung open.

Josef stood in the doorway, one hand in his trouser pocket, the unbuttoned jacket swept back carelessly. "Not a very cordial greeting, doll," he commented, his head tilted down, looking up from under his brows. She was not looking to see the warmth in his whiskey brown eyes.

He was surprised and pleased when she whirled around and threw herself toward him. He opened his arms to welcome her. "Now, this is more like it."

The first thud of her fists against his chest caught him off guard, and the subsequent furious flurry of blows, delivered with a soundtrack of broken phrases and sobs, rocked him back on his heels. Instinctively, he put his arms around her, not to stop her, but to comfort her with his embrace. It amused him, that she could be so passionate in her anger. He'd never seen that before.

She tried to push away, the tears streaming, but he kept her captive.

"Lucky, Lucky," he said, "what is it that I've done?"

The freshie took a deep gulp of air. "Carmencita. I don't care that she's one of yours now, Josef," she gasped. "But you didn't even look at me!"

"Carmencita? This is about Carmencita? She's contracted to my friend Guillermo."

Lucky looked up at him, her mouth falling open. "You mean….you let me think….you BASTARD!" She knew that hitting him had no effect, that she couldn't harm him with her assault, but it made her feel better. Even when he pulled her closer, she struck at him several times more, struggling against his grasp. His impish smile never faltered, and the scent of her anger was a new perfume to him, the rapid pound of her heart covering anything she had to say.

Finally, as he had known she would, she wound down and collapsed against his chest. He reached carefully around her and pulled out his pocket square, blotting the tears from her cheeks. "You got that all out of your system, sweetheart?"

"I don't know." Her voice was still breathy, distressed. "Josef, that was cruel. That was unnecessary and cruel."

"I did come here to tell you something, if you're interested."

Lucky sniffed, leaning against his chest. "What?"

Josef smiled down at her. "Pack your bags, doll. I think it's time you came home."