Home > Last Breath (The Morganville Vampires #11)

Last Breath (The Morganville Vampires #11)
Author: Rachel Caine

Chapter One


Shane's lips felt like velvet against the nape of her neck, and Claire shivered in delight as his breath warmed the skin there. She leaned back against him with a sigh. Her boyfriend's body felt solid and safe, and his arms went around her, wrapping her in comfort. He was taller than she was, so he had to bend to rest his chin on her shoulder and whisper, "You sure about this?"

Claire nodded. "You got the overdue notice, didn't you? It's this or they come to collect. You don't want that."

"Well, you don't have to be here," he pointed out - not for the first time today. "Don't you have classes?"

"Not today," she said. "I had an oh-my-God a.m. lab, but now I'm all done."

"Okay, then, you don't have to do this because you're tax-exempt."

By tax-exempt, he meant that she didn't have to pay . . . in blood. Taxes in Morganville were collected three ways: the polite way, via the collection center downtown, or the not-so-polite way, when the Bloodmobile showed up like a sleek black shark at your front door, with Men in Black - style "technicians" to ensure you did your civic duty.

The third way was by force, in the dark, when you ventured out un-Protected and got bitten.

Vampires. A total pain in the neck - literally.

Shane was entirely right: Claire had a legal document that said she was free from the responsibility of donations. The popular wisdom - and it wasn't wrong - was that she'd already given enough blood to Morganville.

Of course, so had Shane . . . but he hadn't always been on the vampires' side, at the time.

"I know I don't have to do it," she said. "I want to. I'll go with."

"In case you're worried, I'm not girly-scared or anything."

"Hey!" She smacked his arm. "I'm a girl. What exactly are you saying? That I'm not brave or something?"

"Eeek," Shane said. "Nothing. Right, Amazon princess. I get the point."

Claire turned in his arms and kissed him, a sweet burst of heat as their lips met. The lovely joy of that released a burst of bubbles inside her, bubbles full of happiness. God, she loved this. Loved him. It had been a rough year, and he'd . . . stumbled, was the best way she could think of it. Shane had dark streaks, and he'd struggled with them. Was still struggling.

But he'd worked so hard to make it up - not just to her, but to everyone he felt he'd let down. Michael, his best (vampire) friend. Eve, his other (nonvampire) best friend (and Claire's best friend, too). Even Claire's parents had gotten genuine attention: he'd gone with her to see them twice, with exit permission from the vampires, and he'd been earnest and steady even under her father's stern cross-examination.

He wanted to be different. She knew that.

When the kiss finally ended, Shane had a drugged, vague look in his eyes, and he seemed to have trouble letting go of her. "You know," he said, moving her hair back from her cheek with a big, warm hand, "we could just blow this off and go home instead of letting them suck our blood. Try it tomorrow."

"Bloodmobile," she reminded him. "People holding you down. You really want that?"

He shuddered. "Hell, no. Okay, right, after you." They were standing on the sidewalk of Morganville's blood bank, with its big cheerful blood-drop character sign and scrupulously clean public entrance. Claire pecked him lightly on the cheek, escaped before he could pull her close again, and pushed the door open.

Inside, the place looked like they'd given it a makeover - more brightly, warmly lit than the last time she'd been in, and the new furniture looked comfortable and homey. They'd even installed a tank full of colorful tropical fish flitting around living coral. Nice. Clearly, the vampires were trying to put forth their best efforts to reassure the human community, for a change.

The lady sitting behind the counter looked up and smiled. She was human, and sort of motherly, and she pulled Claire's records and raised her thin, graying eyebrows. "Oh," she said. "You know, you're entirely paid up for the year. There's no need - "

"It's voluntary," Claire said. "Is that okay?"

"Voluntary?" The woman repeated the word as if it were something from a foreign language. "Well, I suppose . . ." She shook her head, clearly thinking Claire was mental, and turned her smile on Shane. "And you, honey?"

"Collins," he said. "Shane Collins."

She pulled out his card, and up went the eyebrows again. "You are definitely not paid up, Mr. Collins. In fact, you're sixty days behind. Again."

"I've been busy." He didn't crack a smile. Neither did she.

She stamped his card, wrote something on it, and returned it to the file, then handed them both slips of paper. "Through the door," she said. "Do you want to be in the room together or separately?"

"Together," they chorused, and looked at each other. Claire couldn't help a bit of a smirk, and Shane rolled his eyes. "She's kind of a coward," he said. "Faints at the sight of blood."

"Oh, please," Claire said with a sigh. "That does describe one of us, though."

The receptionist, for all her motherly looks, clearly wasn't sympathetic. "Fine," she said briskly. "Second door on the right. There are two chairs in there. I'll get an attendant for you."

"Yeah, about that . . . Could you get us a human?" Shane asked. "It creeps me out when a guy's draining my blood and I hear his stomach rumble."

Claire punched him in the arm this time, an unmistakable shut up, and gave the receptionist a sunny smile as she dragged him toward the door that had been indicated. "Really," she said to him, "would it be that hard just to not say anything?"

"Kinda." He shrugged, then opened the door and held it for her. "Ladies first."

"I'm really starting to think you are a scaredy-cat."

"No, I'm just flawlessly polite." He gave her a sideways glance, and with a curious seriousness said, "I'd go first in any fight, for you."

Shane had always been someone who best expressed love by being protective, but now it was deliberate, a way for him to make up for how he'd let his anger and aggression get the best of him. Even at his worst he hadn't hurt her, but he'd come close - frighteningly close - and that lingered between them like a shadow.

"Shane," she said, and paused to look him full in the face. "If it comes to that, I'd fight beside you. Not behind you."

He smiled a little, and nodded as they started moving again. "I'd still jump in front of the first bullet. Hope you're okay with that."

She shouldn't have been, really, but the thought, and the emotion behind it, gave her another little flush of warmth as she walked into the room. Like the rest of the human side of the collection center, the space felt warm and comfortable. The reclining chairs were leather, or some vinyl approximation. The speakers overhead were playing something acoustic and soft, and Claire relaxed in the chair as Shane wriggled around in his.

He went very still as the door opened and their attendant stepped inside.

"No way," Claire said. First, their attendant was a vampire. Second, it was Oliver. Oh, he was wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard and looked vaguely official, but it was Oliver. "What exactly is the second in command of vampire affairs doing drawing blood?"

"Yeah, and aren't you needed pulling espresso at the coffee shop?" Shane added with a totally unnecessary edge of snark. Oliver was often found behind the counter at the coffee shop, but he wasn't needed there. He just liked doing it, and Shane knew that. When you were as (presumably) rich and (absolutely) powerful a vampire as Oliver, you could do whatever you damn well wanted.

"There's been flu going around," Oliver said, ignoring Shane's tone as he took out his supplies and laid them out on trays. "I understand they're short staffed today. Occasionally, I do pitch in."

Somehow that didn't quite feel like the whole story, even if it was true. Claire eyed him mistrustfully as he scooted a rolling stool up beside her and tied the tourniquet in place on her upper arm, then handed her a red rubber ball to squeeze as he prepared the needle. "I assume you're going first," he said, "given Shane's usual attitude." That was delivered with every bit as dry an edge as Shane's sarcasm, and Shane opened his mouth, then stopped himself, his lips thinning into a stubborn line. Good, she thought. He was trying, at least.

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