For Disclaimers, see Part One


Part Twenty-two

by  Shadowriter

Cam, Tess and Kruise took turns watching over me for the first two days.  I slept most of the time. When I asked where everyone else was, Cam said Jesse had lent Tess her apartment, while she moved in with Nix for a while. Dayle was spending a lot of time working, and playing cab service for Kruise, who would stay with me in the evenings, while Cam took the day shift. Tess was always around, but mostly stayed in the background.

How people can actually like heroin I didn't know. The initial moments of high were okay, but the shaking, the nausea, the not being able to breathe kind of overwhelmed any pleasure. When I told Jesse that, she smiled and said most people don't have an overdose for the first shot, and of those that do, not many survive.

I felt rather lucky.

Christmas was less than a week away. With everything that had happened, I'd almost forgotten the holiday. On Wednesday morning I woke up to Tess bringing a tree into my apartment. She and Cam made me drag out all the decorations that I'd had in the basement storage locker. In the afternoon they took  me to the mall, and we went Christmas shopping. I wasn't really in the mood, but after enough chocolate, I could handle just about any rendition of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

A meeting was called by the gang for Thursday night at my apartment, and since I lived there, I figured I had to attend. Besides, it was about me, or so Cam had hinted. I just shrugged. I hadn't yet told them everything Shelby had done, and no one had explained to me what had happened to the bitch. I wasn't that interested, though. My imagination had said that she was dead, and that was good enough for me. A small part of me would have gladly watched as Nix drained her dry, but I didn't say that.

I was relaxing and watching TV about an hour before this meeting was supposed to start. Cam was in the kitchen, and I had heard her and Tess quietly talking, though I couldn't hear the words.

Moments later Tess came out and sat next to me on the couch. At first she didn't say anything, but eventually she reached out and took the remote from my hand, stopping my channel flipping.

"What was that for?"

"Well, for one thing you were making me dizzy." She put on BBC America and set the remote down on the table, out of my easy reach. "For another, I love this show."

"I do too, but I saw this episode."

She raised an eyebrow. "So?"

I shrugged and we watched.

British comedies are only about twenty minutes long, and it didn't take long for the show to end. As it did, Tess turned off the television and turned to me. At that point I would have watched a hundred reruns to get out of the conversation I thought was coming.

"I wanna talk to you, Trey."

"'Kay." I stared straight ahead, not looking at her.

"I know what happened between you and Cam."

Giving her a nod, I half pulled my collar down. "Shall I just offer you my throat now, or do you want me to put up a token fight?"

She shook her head. "I'm not gonna hurt you, Trey. You didn't do anything wrong."

That made me turn my head. "You're not going to blame this all on Cam, are you? I was --"

"No, I'm not blaming Cam, and I'm not blaming you. Neither of you are to blame." She sighed and leaned back against the couch. "I should never have left Cam, and once I did -- well, I can't blame anyone else for what happened. She needed someone, and you were there. You needed someone and she was there. How can I blame either of you for that?"

I didn't answer her, and she didn't press for one. We were both quiet for a few moments.

"Trey, did you leave that night cause you thought I'd hurt you?"

I had to laugh at that. "Oh, hell, no. I mean, I considered the possibility of you ripping me apart, but no, that wasn't why I took off."

"No? Then why?"

I shrugged. "Cause I was hurting, and I didn't know what to do about it. I ended up at a bar, planning on getting drunk."

"And then?"

"And then -- I decided not to." Another shrug. "Took me a while, but I got it through my head that I was angry, mostly at me, and getting drunk and even more depressed really wouldn't do anything to help. So, I left the bar."

"Where'd you go?"

"No where. I was hailing a cab when Shelby put a knife to my ribs."


We went quiet again. Tess kept flipping the remote in her hand. I just watched it, letting myself relax and almost be hypnotized by the movement.



"I'm sorry my coming back hurt you."

I waved a hand at her. "Don't worry about it. You would have hurt Cam even worse if you hadn't come back."

"Well, yeah, but -- I still hate the fact that you got hurt just because -- well, just because." She sighed. "Guess Star strikes again."

After thinking about that for a moment, I found myself getting angry. "No. It wasn't Star."

She looked up at me.

"Don't try and blame this on Star. She hurt you, she hurt all of us, but she's dead. Don't try and lay your own guilt, or anyone else's, at her feet."

One eyebrow rose, and Tess's eyes widened as her mouth opened. "But --"

"No, Tess. Look, Star may have been the instigator of things, but we all made our own choices. Nix chose not to tell you about how your mom really died. When she was forced to tell you, you got angry, and maybe that was a spur of the moment thing, but then you chose to leave. Nix chose to leave." I stopped and swallowed. "Jace chose to leave, but I chose to be angry about that and take it out on everyone, including myself. Nix and I chose to go into the house where we thought Cam was, I chose not to back off even when Cam warned me to, and I chose to leave here the other night and get drunk." Stopping for breath, I inhaled deeply and let it out slowly. "I accept what happened because of my choices. I'm done blaming people. It wasn't Jace's fault, it wasn't Star's fault, nor Cam's, nor Kruise's, and definitely not yours. Got it?"

Tess nodded.

"Good. Now, give me the remote; I wanna see if Buffy is on yet."

She smiled and handed me the controller.

The front door opened before I could turn the television back on, and Nix entered.

"Did Kruise make copies of my keys for all of you or what?" I asked Tess. She snickered.

Nix saw Tess and I and stopped dead in her tracks.

"Everything okay with you two?"

Tess and I looked at each other, then nodded. Nix let out a breath and smiled. "Good." She closed the door behind her and came over to us, stopping only to drop her jacket on the back of a chair. She stood in front of the tv. "I wanted to talk with you anyway."

I groaned and tossed the remote back to Tess, who grinned and put it back on the coffee table.

Nix frowned. "I thought you said you were okay, Trey."

"I am. I just wanted to see Buffy."

She shrugged. "It's a rerun anyway."

"They're all reruns; it's FX." I shook my head. "What did you want? Don't you think you should wait till this meeting gets going?"

She shook her head. "No. Because this has nothing to do with the meeting. It has to do with a certain question you asked me, that I couldn't answer."

I frowned, trying to remember.

We'd been looking for Cam, in the cold and snow.

I stopped and turned to her. "You're fifteen hundred years old. You've been around almost as long as the Christian religion. You've probably watched hundreds, if not thousands, of friends and lovers die."

She seemed to be holding her breath.

"I just --" I shrugged helplessly. "Why? Why stay?"

A little smile crossed her face, and she put an arm around my shoulders. "I wonder that myself sometimes, Trey."

"Okay, yeah, I remember."

"I have an answer for you."

I raised an eyebrow. "Do you?"

"Yeah. Got one for me?"

I shrugged. "Not really."

"That's okay. I want to share this with you anyway."

Tess cleared her throat. "Um, look, this sounds like it's kind of private between the two of you, so I'm heading back to the kitchen." She leaned over and kissed my cheek. "We're okay, right?"

I nodded, only half understanding what she was saying. Nix had my curiousity up and sniffing around, and I was totally focused on her at the moment.

"Okay, she's gone; talk to me."

Nix laughed. "Still the investigator, huh, Trey?"

I smiled. "Yeah, I think that part of me is coming back to life." I leaned forward. "What's your answer, Nix?"

She moved to the couch, curling one leg up before sitting down. "You remember the question?"


"Well, let's see if I can explain." She took a deep breath. "I could say that it has to do with Jesse, and while that wouldn't be wrong, it wouldn't be completely accurate either. I could say it's because of Cam and Tess, but it's not." A frown of concentration appeared on her face, I found myself more interested in what she was saying than I had been in anything for quite a long time.

"I think at the time you asked, my answer, if I'd been able to really think about it, would have been that I just hadn't died yet. Before I met Jesse it might have been something totally different. But now, I think it's actually pretty simple."

"And that is?"

She smiled. "I'm alive. And life, my friend, is to be lived. No matter what else happens, there's always something new waiting for you. There's an idea you've never heard, a friend you haven't made, a story you've never read. There's always something happening, or about to happen, that's just waiting for you to show up, or speak up. Something more to investigate, something more to experience." Her hand came to rest on my arm. "Fifteen hundred years, Trey, and there are still things I haven't experienced."

"Like Jesse?"

She laughed. "Well, okay, yeah, like Jesse, or my relationship with her." Nix sighed, but it wasn't smiled at the same time. "I haven't been in love with someone since Chris, and that was forty years ago. It's strange, Jesse is nothing like her, and yet I find myself thinking they'd have liked each other."

"Was Chris into kink as well?"

That got me a glance and a raised eyebrow. "No. I can't say that this is the first 's' and 'm' relationship I've been in, but Chris wasn't into leather at all."


She watched me, while I waited. Finally I sighed.

"Is that it?"

Nix frowned. "Is that what?"

"Is that your answer?"

She nodded.

"I'm sitting here waiting for some mystical secret of life, and you tell me that things are always new and life should be lived?"

One blond eyebrow rose, but she nodded again. "You asked me a question and I answered it. I'm sorry if you don't like what I came up with, Trey. It's the answer I needed to find."

"Good for you. I'm glad you found it. It's not the answer I needed."

She studied me for a moment, and I think she was trying to figure out if I was mad or just crazy. "And what's the answer you needed, Trey?"

"I don't know. I'll let you know when I do."

We faced each other, neither saying anything. After several more minutes, she nodded. "Fair enough." She stood, keeping her eyes on me. "But don't take too long to find it, Trey. Time can go faster than you could ever imagine."

I nodded, my eyes on the TV

She left me alone, and I kept staring at the blank screen. Part of me wanted to reach for the remote and get rid of the emptiness, but my mind was already playing with the screen, imagining things on it; arranging cameras and actors and giving them lines.

I heard the front door open again, and the scene faded away to a reflection of my living room. I shook my head and realized my name was being called.

"What, Kruise?"

"You okay?"

"Peachy. What's up?"

I saw her and Dayle trade glances. "Pizza okay for dinner? Dayle's treat?"

"Cam beat you to it. Pizza, homestyle, already in the oven." I stood. "Nix is here, so Jesse should be up soon. Shall we eat? Then you guys can tell me why you're once more invading my apartment."

I headed for the kitchen, eager to get this meeting thing over with.


Eight of us crammed into my living room. I had tried to hide in the cubby hole between the couch and the wall, but it didn't work. Jesse didn't even ask me to move, she simply grabbed my leg and pulled me out from there, forcing me to sit between her and Kruise. Nix was on the couch and Jesse was leaning back against her legs and keeping me from sliding backwards.

Also on the couch was Kelsey, and Cam. Tess was in the chair on the other side of the sofa, where she'd been earlier. Dayle had pulled a chair in from the dining room table and was sitting next to Tess. At first it seemed like everyone just wanted to have their own conversations, and I was happy to sit back and watch. Then Jesse whistled, and the room went silent.

"Okay. We have a lot to talk about tonight. Before we start, I just want to say thanks to everyone for helping us find and take care of Trey. It was a pretty scary night, and I'm just glad it's over with."

There were a lot of heads nodding and murmers of assent. I sighed but picked up Jesse's cue.

"Yeah, thanks, gang. I don't know if I said it or not, but -- thanks for keeping me alive."

I saw Nix raise an eyebrow at that. Kruise squeezed my hand and kissed my cheek. Jesse, trying not to blow her image, winked at me, then cleared her throat.

"Next item -- Tess, welcome back."

More head nodding, people telling Tess they were glad she was back. She smiled and ducked her head a bit, but didn't say anything.

Jesse's voice got a little deeper and softer, much more serious. "And, for the final item on my list, I need to turn it over to Kelsey. She's got the info on what's causing Nix's craving attacks."

Everyone perked up at that and turned to Kelsey, who looked up suddenly. The frown on her face showed some tension, but she nodded and licked her lips in preparation.

"Well, I don't know how much you all know about vampire physiology --"

"Quite a bit, actually, but please go on." Kruise grinned and winked. Everyone chuckled a little, and Kelsey looked a little less nervous.

"Okay, then I can skip the part about them being basically human like, right? Good. Now, until about the age of 20, a vampire grows up much like a human. Then, what we call a vampire puberty begins. There's a strong craving for blood, since certain bodily changes are taking place, and only by ingesting blood can the changes become complete. Now, along with the organ development, other processes come to a complete stand still, including aging. After puberty, a vampire doesn't age, or does so at an extremely slow rate. Now, don't get me wrong, the body breaks down, just like a human's. It just is able to repair itself and maintain all normal functions, so long as it has a steady supply of human blood."

"Do we want to know how this happens?" Kruise asked with a grin.

"Well, it's actually quite fascinating." Kelsey leaned forward, into her topic now. "The enzymes absorbed function as catalysts for --" She stopped when Nix put a hand on her arm. "Oh. Right. Never mind, we can go into that another time." She blushed a little as more chuckles went around the room. "Okay, where was I? Oh, right, aging process stops. Anyway, vampires can go centuries looking almost exactly the same. I think you can all see that, since Nix is so very old, and yet she doesn't appear as old as Jesse does."

Jesse rolled her eyes. "We get that, Kels. Get on with it, okay?"

"Right. Now, the organs that open at puberty function to keep the vampire young, constantly repairing the body. However," she hesitated for just a moment, "these organs do not last forever. Despite what popular myth says, vampires are not immortal."

Kruise nodded. "We knew that. What does this have to do with Nix constantly craving blood?"

"Well, just as when a vampire goes into puberty and needs more blood, there comes a time when a vampire goes into -- well, some have called it menopausal in nature, and I guess that is a good way to put it. The organs inside begin to shut down. The vampire craves blood, but really can't process much of it at a time, so the craving develops, but only for short amounts."

I frowned. "So, you're telling us that Nix is going through a menopause for vampires?"

She nodded. "Essentially yes."

"And this means -- what? She's going to stop needing blood?"

Again, Kelsey nodded. "Yes. Actually, what will happen is that the organs that repair her body will stop functioning." She looked around at each of us, her face serious. "As they do so, she'll need less and less blood, and her body will only be able to process small amounts at a time. Right now, there's an imbalance in her body -- it still thinks it needs blood, but the organs are slowing, which creates the craving. That phase shouldn't last for more than another week or so. After that, she'll still need to drink some every week or so, but eventually that need will drop down to once every two or three months, and then even less often."

I noticed that Tess didn't look surprised, though she was gripping Cam's hand tightly. Jesse didn't look worried at all, and Nix seemed rather relaxed.

Dayle, on the other hand, was sitting up straight, her eyebrows knotted together over the bridge of her nose. "Wait. What are you telling us, Kelsey?"

With a sigh, Kelsey shrugged. "Nix is dying."

No one spoke for several long moments. Then Cam gasped slightly, and covered her mouth. Tess moved up and put an arm around her.

Kruise looked stunned.

I looked at Jesse, who didn't seem worried, but was holding Nix's hand. Nix was looking at her with a smile.

Suddenly, I understood the answer she'd given me.

Nix turned and reached over to Cam, across Kelsey's body. "Cam, easy. It's all right." She laughed. "It's not like I'm going to drop dead tomorrow or something. Kelsey forgot to mention that the breakdown will take a long time. I'll be around for a while yet."

Dayle swallowed hard. "How long?" Her voice was very soft. "Kelsey, do you have any idea how long?"

She got a shrug from Kelsey. "Beats me. Not many vampires in our time have actually gone through it. There are recorded cases in Europe, but nobody's really had a chance to study it and take notes, so --"

"No, Kelsey, I will not be your guinea pig." Nix gave her a mock glare, then glanced at Dayle. "She's right, not many of us make it to this phase of our lives. My mom did, though, and she died about twenty years after she stopped drinking blood." She shrugged. "Kelsey thinks I have at least that long, maybe longer."

I dropped back against the wall. "Damn. Don't fucking do that."

"Do what?" Jesse asked.

"Scare the fuck out of me." I shook my head. "I'm not well yet; you can't DO that to me." I put a hand on my chest and closed my eyes, breathing deeply.

Kruise laughed, but it was her high-pitched 'I'm nearly hysterical' laughter. "Damn, you guys. You have to give us a little more advanced warning. Trey's right. That was just SO not fair."

"I'm sorry." Kelsey looked chagrined. "You're right. But -- I've never had to say anything like that. It's kind of freaky for me as well."

There seemed to be this collective sigh that passed through the room. The bombshell had been dropped, but it turned out to be more of a firecracker, which fizzled out. Nix was dying, but not today, not this month, nor year, nor probably in this decade. There would be changes to come, but we had time, each of us.

 Leaning over I asked Jesse, "You knew already, huh?"

She nodded. "Nix told me night before last. I had a while to get used to it."

I wondered what that conversation had been like.

Cam, however, didn't seem to be taking it as well as the rest of us. She still had tears on her face, and Tess motioned Kelsey to trade places with her. Nix noticed what was going on and she took hold of Cam's hand, pulling her gently to the middle of the sofa, which Kelsey had just vacated. Tess slid into Cam's now empty spot on the couch, and she and Nix folded the half-vampire into an embrace.

"Shh. Cam, it's okay. I'm fine, really." Nix kissed her friend's forehead and brushed the hair back from her face. "It's going to be a long time before I give up the ghost, okay?" She grinned. "And if there are such things as ghosts, you can bet I'll be back here to bug all of you."

That got a hesitant smile from Cam, who nodded, and tried to wipe her eyes. Kruise passed Jesse the box of Kleenex, which was handed to Nix, and then to Cam. After a few more sniffles, she got herself under control and nodded to Tess.

Tess cleared her throat. "Um, since Nix's news is out of the way, I guess Cam and I should go next."

Cam finished wiping her eyes and nodded.

"Um." I sat up a little bit. "Before we go any further, I just want to ask a question." I had no idea what possessed me to ask this, but I needed to know.

"What's up, Trey?" Jesse asked.

"What happened to Shelby?" I tilted my head and looked at Nix. "My imagination says you killed her, but -- did you?"

She smiled and shook her head. "No, Trey, I didn't kill her."

"Fuck." I dropped back. "Never mind."

"No, I think you need to hear this, Trey."

"Fuck you, Jesse. I just wanted to hear that she'd never bother me again, but --"

"She won't bother you, Trey."

"She's alive, Nix. You don't know --"

"I do know." Her voice was soft but very firm. "She's no longer in New York City, or even in the United States. Shelby is in Canada, and she's been turned into a slave. The GuardKeepers have her. At this point, she's probably had enough blood that she doesn't even remember you, or what she did to you."

I just stared at her, my mouth open. "Blood. Vampire blood?"

"Yes." Nix nodded. "The GuardKeepers are a vampire protection. Those humans that become too big a threat, either to vampires or to humans, are held by the Keepers. They're given enough vampire blood to take away their wills, and then they're assigned a job." She shook her head. "They don't live more than a couple of years, and they no longer have free will, which is why the Keepers aren't popular anymore. But, at least we don't just arbitrarily kill them."

I snorted. "Wouldn't that be more humane than slavery?"

Jesse shrugged. "Would it? I don't know. Either way, Shelby's gone, and Nix didn't kill her. I'm not cryin' here, Trey."

I looked around at all of them and nodded. No one there was worried about her. I knew I'd be asking more questions of Nix later, and by the half smile on her face and the way she was looking at me, she knew it too. But for now, I just shrugged and leaned back.

I didn't have to worry about Shelby. This was a good thing to me.

Dayle cleared her throat into the silence, and shifted. "What's going on with you two, Tess?" She asked quietly.

"Um, Cam told me about the council decision." Tess lowered her head. "I -- I wanted to thank all of you for taking care of Cam, and standing up for her." She looked up. "Especially you, Jess. From what I hear you were -- eloquent."

To my amazement, Jesse actually blushed as she shrugged. "Wasn't anything. Go on, Tess."

"You can call it nothing, but -- thank you." Tess pulled Cam a little closer. "Anyway, Cam and I talked to Kelsey, and we'll be getting to work on a special blood bank, which will be kept at our apartment." Kelsey nodded as Tess continued. "We also made contact with a couple of the people Justine suggested. One of them has a former partner that is half vampire. She's suggested that we take a trip and go visit her, and we agreed to do that."

Several people raised eyebrows this time.

"You're leaving?" Kruise didn't look happy.

"We won't be gone for long. New York is home, and we have a lot of friends here." Cam winked at me. "This group is more family than I've had in a couple centuries. I'm not just leaving you guys and not coming back."

"But you and Tess are taking off? For where?"

Tess spoke up. "Italy, Kruise. Outside of Florence. We've been invited to stay at the Villa Serena. The owner is Caterina Acquabianca."

Nix tilted her head. "I think I met her. She was involved in the recovery efforts in Alexandria, wasn't she?"

"I don't know, but if her collection is as big as Justine says it is, I wouldn't be surprised if the Alexandrian library was found there."

"She's not old enough to have been around for that, Cam," Tess protested.

"No, but she's almost as old as Nix, isn't she?"

Nix nodded slowly. "If it's the person I'm thinking of, she'd be only about a hundred years younger or so."

"How long will you be gone?" There was a catch in my throat. I'd gotten used to having Cam around, even with Tess hovering in the background.

"We're not sure, Trey." Cam smiled. "Neither of us wants to be gone too long, so we're making it three weeks, with the option to extend it if we want."

Tess nodded. "They told us the renovations on the apartment were going to take a little over a month, and we decided to leave right after the new year. That gets us back home in time to move in."

"Who's going to take care of anything the contractor needs?" Dayle asked.

Tess looked at her. "Actually, we were hoping you would, Dayle. You live closer than anyone, and you also know what we like. If there's a serious problem, you can call, of course, but if it's something like they've run out of the tile we chose and is this one okay, then I think we can trust you to handle it."

"You got it." Dayle nodded. "It's gonna be strange again without you two, but I hope you have a great trip."

"So, you leave in -- what, two weeks? That's fast." Nix shifted in her seat. "Can we help do anything to get you ready to go?"

Cam and Tess looked at each other, then turned back to Nix.

"Actually," Cam said softly, "there is one thing."

"Name it." Nix winked at her.

"We need you all to help us talk Trey into going with us."

Once again, no one spoke.


I just stared.

Kruise chuckled. "So, I guess this is the part of the meeting where we talk about Trey, huh?"

"No." I glared at her. "There will be no talking about Trey. You can talk to Trey, not about her. Got it?"

She nodded, but the smile stayed on her face.

"Well, Trey, what do you say? Will you join us in Florence?" Cam asked quietly.

I transferred my glare to her. "Why? Why do you want me to go?"

Tess was the one to answer me. "Because you need a break. You need to get the hell out of here, before you drive yourself mad."

"I'm fine, Tess." Even as I said it, I knew no one would believe it. How could they when my teeth were clenched so tight?

Right on cue, Kruise snorted. "Sure you are."

I turned on her. "You have something to say, Kruise?"

It was Jesse who answered me. "You need the break, Trey. Tess is right."

"Fuck you, Jesse."

I started to get up, only to get slammed back on the floor by one strong arm. Jesse turned to fully face me and put a hand in my chest.

"You're not running from this, Trey. Just stay put, or I'll fucking tie you down." She was serious, and I knew it. All I could do was stay there, but I put my knees up in front of me as a barrier.

Nix leaned forward and reached a hand over Jess to touch my knee. "Trey. We're not trying to gang up on you. We just want to make sure you're okay." She fidgeted a little. "This thing -- with you almost dying -- it made all of us really think, and what we realized is that you've been there for all of us. You've listened, you've searched, you've done everything needed. But none of us took any time to think about what you need, or be there for you." Her gaze locked with mine and held. I saw the sorrow she was trying to express, and I had to swallow hard to stop the tears from falling.

Kruise nodded. "Nix is right." She put a hesitant hand on my other knee, and as I turned to face her slightly, I could see the corner of her eye twist like it does when she's feeling guilty. "I mean, right after Jace broke things off, Dayle and I sent you to Canada to get Nix cause we were worried about Jesse. But we never even took the time to find out how you were handling it. None of us did."

I didn't say anything, but I bit my lip hard.

"We decided, that night after we got you back here, that it was going to change." Jesse's voice was quiet. "So, if you want to yell at us, fine. If you want to talk to us about Jace, that's cool too. And if you want to hire a hit man to go after her --"

I looked up at her, just as Nix inhaled to speak.

"--well, I'll be here to talk you out of that idea." Jesse winked at me. I couldn't help but smile a little.

Cam nodded. "We all love you, Trey, and if it wasn't for you, I -- well, I might still be out there, or worse, dead." She shivered slightly.

"Okay, fine, you're all worried about me." I shrugged and waved a hand at them. "I'm fine. I spent a few hours thinking about things, and I'm okay." I knew I wasn't, and I knew they knew it, but I really didn't want to talk about it now.

"No, you're not." Kelsey shook her head.

"How do you know?"

"Because . . ." She sighed deeply, sounding exasperated. "Look, I'll be the first to admit that I don't know you as well as the others do, Trey. But whenever you and I have talked, I've been impressed with your intelligence and the way you think. Tonight, though, you've been different. Brusque. Angry. It's different." She paused. "You're different." Leaning forward, Kelsey put her elbows on her knees. "Maybe you should really think about going with Cam and Tess. It sounds like you really need a change of pace -- either that, or some counseling."

My eyebrows shot up at that, and I almost shouted. "Counseling?"

"You know," Cam said quietly, "you never did tell us what all happened between you and Shelby."

I tensed. That was a subject I just didn't want to talk about yet.

"So, what do you say? Will you come with us?" Tess asked.

They all turned to look at me again. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized they weren't going to force me to talk -- yet.

"So, I should just spend the last of my savings trotting off to a foreign country with you, huh?"

"You wouldn't be paying for the trip, Trey."

I looked at Nix, puzzled. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about the money Evan left at the club. Lista and I looked at the renovations we wanted for the vamp club, and then estimated it would take about six grand. Evan left twelve thousand with Lista, so when Tess and Cam came to me with this idea, I gave them the money to hold for you. You won't have to spend a dime of your own." She winked at me, obviously feeling proud of herself.

"I thought he was supposed to leave ten grand," Kruise said.

Nix shrugged. "He said he was supposed to split it with Shelby, so it only made sense that he split it with us instead. Lista said he was very exact. Twelve thousand, two hundred, and fifty four dollars."

I didn't know whether to be angry at her or not. She'd taken out one obstacle that would keep me from going with Tess and Cam, but it was also one excuse I couldn't use. "I -- I have to find a job. The writing isn't paying money, and --"

"Funny you should bring up the writing." Cam pulled an envelope out of her pocket and unfolded it. "I knocked over the trash can the other day and found this. It was unopened, but -- well, it got torn somehow and the letter just fell out." She passed it to Nix, who handed it to Jesse, who dropped it in my lap."I think you should read it."

I recognized it as a letter from a publisher that I'd tossed away without reading. It had arrived on Monday, the same day Tess got home, and I had decided I didn't want to deal with another rejection, so I'd thrown it in the trash. Cam had probably been watching, and she must have decided to rescue it. Again, I hung between anger and gratitude.

Jesse smacked my leg. "Would you stop staring at it and read it?"

She got a glare in return, but I yanked the letter out, tossing the envelope back in Jesse's lap before I opened the sheet of paper and read it.

"Out loud, Trey."

I glanced at Cam, but this time didn't glare. The first line of the letter had caught my attention.

"Dear Ms. Rawlings, thank you for sending your manuscript for publication consideration. We are interested in talking with you further. Unfortunately, we do not believe that it would be possible to publish your manuscript at this time, since our book publishing division is currently overwhelmed. We do, however, have several magazines that we publish. I have read many of your articles and pieces of short fiction in other magazines, and would like to offer you a position as a columnist and reviewer for our literary magazine, Feminine Pens."

Nix let out a whoop and started applauding. Kruise joined in, as did Dayle and Cam and Tess, and even Kelsey. Jesse put an arm over my shoulders and squeezed.

"Good going, Trey."

I glanced up at all of them and smiled hesitantly. Looking back down at the letter, I resumed reading. "As I stated before, our publishing division is rather backed up; however, as soon as there is a break in their scheduling, we would like to talk with you about publishing your manuscript. We feel you have an exceptional talent, and we would love to have you become a part of our team, both as magazine writer, and an author."

There was more clapping and I waited it out.

"Please call my office to set up an appointment so we can discuss what it would take to bring you on board our staff. I'm looking forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Rachel Twillings, President, Collins and Twillings Publishers."

I put the paper down and looked around the room. Kruise seemed truly surprised, as did Dayle and Kelsey. The other four all wore identical grins that told me they'd all known the content of the letter.

"You knew I had a job offer here and you still want me to go to Florence?"

Cam nodded. "Yep. Number one, you've been through a traumatic experience and need the time. Two, you'll have access to a computer and can send them drafts of anything they want. Three, you'll only be gone for three weeks. It sounds to me like they really want you to work for them, and they'll give you a little leeway."

"Yeah," Nix chimed in. "Besides, you could always suggest a piece on Italy, or Florence in particular. Women in the Renaissance, or something like that."

I snorted a little, but filed the idea away.

Jesse nudged me. "You should go, Trey."

That earned her a glare, but I didn't say no.

"Let me think about it, okay? And let me make this phone call tomorrrow. After that, we'll talk. All right?"

Everyone seemed happy about that. I folded the letter and leaned back, hoping not to be the center of attention anymore.

Dayle cleared her throat. "Well, since that's out of the way -- I have a little piece of news to announce."

Kelsey smiled. "If it's what I think it is, then it's good news indeed."

Rolling her eyes, Dayle nodded. "It's what you think, Kels, but I don't know if that makes it good or not."

Shaking her head, Kruise 'tsked'. "Just tell them, babe."

"Well," Dayle took a deep breath, "I called Justine. She officially offered me the empty chair on the New York council -- and I accepted."

Nix grinned. "Really? They actually offered the chair to someone who wasn't born on this continent?"

Dayle nodded.

"That's great, Dayle." Tess's voice was low, surprise softening the tones. "How the hell did you pull that off?"

"Not a clue." She shrugged. "But I'm glad I did. Justine and I had a long talk, and she has a great many ideas. She may have been born here, but she has a lot of old world ideas, and I for one am glad she's in charge." Dayle frowned for a moment, realizing what she'd just said. "Kelsey, I --"

"No." Kelsey held up her hand. "No apologies. I did my best on the council, but I was never strong enough to lead it properly. Besides, I'm no politician, and that's what the head of the council really does need to be -- a politician, or at least a diplomat. I'm just a doctor. Give me my lab and I'm happy." She smiled. "I was glad to hear you were going to be joining us, though. It'll be nice to have someone who has a sense of history on the board."

Dayle nodded. "I'm excited about it. My first meeting is right after Christmas."

"Cool." Nix grinned. "So, next time I think the board is screwing up, I can just go to you, right?"

After frowning for a moment, Dayle chuckled. "Sure, why not? Hopefully we won't screw up too badly."

Another short silence fell across the room. We all kind of looked at each other, not saying anything.

Nix shifted forward on the sofa. "So, does anyone else have anything they want to talk about?" No one spoke. A few heads shook no. "Good. Then this is my final statement. Jesse and I would like to invite you all over for Christmas dinner. We'll do gifts in the morning, with hot chocolate and coffee cake, and then a nice big dinner. And," she paused for effect, "Jesse has agreed to help cook the turkey."

"Wait, wait." Kruise started to get up. "I need to stand up so I can faint effectively here."

Jesse reached across me and yanked Kruise back to the floor. Everyone else was laughing, including me.

"Jesse, cooking?" Dayle grinned. "Now how could I pass that up?"

"Might be better if you did, I can't cook worth a damn," Jesse grumbled.

I elbowed her gently. "Not true. I remember last year you gave that wonderful recipe to --"

She elbowed me back and whispered through the corner of her mouth. "You're not supposed to say anything about that, Trey."

I rubbed my side. "Oh, right. Sorry."

Cam tilted her head. "I have a feeling this is going to be a Christmas dinner not to be missed."

I had to agree.

End Part Twenty-two

 Part 23

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