Rena paced across Dante’s living room as both Briar and Dante were seated on their usual spot, watching her. “Briar, I really can’t do it.”
“Of course you can,” Briar said. “Let’s go over the plan once more.”
Rena sighed. “I know the plan, I just don’t think I’ll be able to do it.”
How Briar talked her into luring Clyde into a kiss she still wasn’t sure, but with every passing second, she was starting to regret it more and more.
“It doesn’t have to last long,” Dante offered, but it didn’t help to calm her nerves.
“That is not what I am worried about.”
Standing, Briar put her hands on Rena’s shoulders, forcing her to look at her. “Dante and I will be in the kitchen. If anything happens you can call us and we’ll be right there.”
“Can’t we ask him instead?” Briar shook her head, causing Rena’s shoulders to sag.
“We can’t trust a single thing he says, but he has to believe we do.” Briar slid her hands down Rena’s arms, squeezing it lightly as she gave her a sympathetic smile. “I know this is asking a lot, but please, Rena, for Jane.”
Taking a deep breath, Rena nodded. “For Jane.”
Both of them reached for their necklace, holding it close to their hearts as a knock on the front door sounded. Briar released both Rena and her necklace, reaching for Dante instead and pulled him out of his chair and into the kitchen. She gave Rena one last reassuring look before closing the door behind her.
Rena gripped her skirt, her hands already starting to shake. Slowly, she made her way to the front of the house. “Com—coming.”
She took another steadying breath before turning the doorknob. She had to force her eyes away from his feet, and she wished she hadn’t. His gaze was still turned away from her, either looking over her shoulder or somewhere above her. Why couldn’t he look at her? Was what Briar said even true about his feelings for her? From what she gathered he looked closer to hating her than hopelessly in love.
“You’re here,” she said, stepping back to let him in. “Dante and Briar will be here shortly, they went for a brief walk.”
“Alright,” Clyde said, passing by her without a second glance.
Dread filled her stomach as she closed the door behind him, leaning against it to distract her nerves with the cold wood pressed against her palms. She couldn’t stall now or he would become suspicious of Dante and Briar’s absence.
Like Briar had shown her, she started to undo the buttons of her jacket as she followed behind Clyde. “I hope you do not mind me taking off my jacket, vampire homes tend to be quite warm.”
“Not at all.” Taking off his hat, he started to remove his own coat. “Don’t mind if I do the same.”
His tone was different, his manner was different. He was watching his every move, minding his every word. There was careful precision to everything he did, and it became clear why Briar was convinced he kept on lying about even himself. Perhaps she hadn’t noticed it before, but now that he was watching himself around her as well, it was hard to miss.
Though it almost made her smile that he didn’t feel the need to pretend around her, it hurt more deeply than she expected that he did now.
Placing her jacket on the back of the couch, she shivered slightly as her bare shoulders, arms, and cleavage were now on display. The red-velvet strapless dress had been Briar’s idea, and when it made Dante blush there was no turning back from it. Though, she doubted it said much. Dante does get easily flustered.
“Make yourself at home.” She passed close by him, the hem of her skirt brushing his leg. He couldn’t avoid her bare skin now.
As she sat down, her unease started to fade into something else she couldn’t quite understand. The thought of him seeing her wasn’t quite as scary anymore, and she was left wishing he would spare her even a slight glance. Even now he kept his eyes from her, sitting opposite of her in Dante’s chair and staring into the fire instead.
Rena knew what she was supposed to do, what she was supposed to say, how she would be able to lure him to come to her. But did not say any of the words she was supposed to. Her stomach was nodded and a single question plagued her mind continuously.
“Why won’t you look at me, Clyde?” her voice was soft, and although she tried to keep the hurt from it, she could detect it that she was unsuccessful. His name had followed her question like most of her sentences directed to him had. It became a habit, one she had been unaware of until now. She simply enjoyed the way his eyes lit up when she said it and hated how he now almost seemed to flinch at the mention.
“You are quite undecadent at the moment,” he said. “I did not want to remark on your clothing style but since you bring it up I’ll speak my mind.”
Rena balled her fists, the monotone voice Clyde spoke with making her skin crawl. “I apologize, alright?”
Standing, she gathered all the courage she had, focusing only on the answers she needed like she always did. Perhaps it wasn’t all answers this time, but that did not mean she couldn’t apply the technique.
Leaning over him, she braced herself on the armrests on either side of him. She noticed him flinch again, though it pleased her this time.
“I did enjoy myself,” she whispered, needing the confession to be voiced but not to be heard. Not by anyone but him. “And you did distract me from the case. You were on my mind the whole day, so please, look at me like you did then.”
Clyde closed his eyes, rubbing them with his fingers as his brows furrowed. Rena wondered what he was thinking, what was going through his mind after her confession. She was relieved that she had finally voiced something that resembled a secret, but the relief was short-lived as Clyde refrained from speaking.
Rena started to move back, her skin already heating up with embarrassment, when Clyde took hold of her wrist in a similar manner as he had done in the pastry shop. The only difference was that he didn’t let go this time.
“I’ll be patient,” he finally said, removing his fingers from his eyes and finally meeting hers. “I promise I’ll treat your feelings with more respect. I won’t walk out on you again. I’ll do anything . . .”
Clyde pulled her closer, and she settled on his lap. Now was as perfect a time as any to capture his lips with her own, but that was the last thing on her mind. Rena’s fingers settled on his neck, but she refused to search for a pulse. Her nose was touching his, but she didn’t lean in any farther.
She didn’t want it to be true.
Clyde didn’t lean in either, but she convinced herself it was because he was waiting for her. To show the respect he mentioned.
Not because he knew his kiss would ruin things all over again.
Briar bit her lip, now being the one that paced around. It was hard not to worry about Rena. Even if she kept up a confident front, her worry was wrenching her gut. A thought had entertained her thoughts the moment Clyde lied about his identity, and it hasn’t left her mind ever since.
What is he was the vampire who killed Jane?
And what stopped him from doing the same to Rena?
She couldn’t lose both of them, Jane had already left a hole in her large enough that it would never mend. If he took Rena as well she wouldn’t know what to do. Not enough torture and suffering in the world could ever convey how much pain that would bring her.
“Briar.” Dante’s hand came to rest on her shoulder, stopping her in her pacing and turning her to face him. “You’re bleeding.”
With his other hand, Dante gently brushed his thumb against her bottom lip which she only then released from her teeth. Pulling back, he showed the blood that covered his thumb before licking it off.
Briar started to laugh, but the longer she looked at Dante the more Jane’s murder scene came back to her mind. Her laugh turned to a sob, which she tried to cover with her hand. Her head banged with the hot, unshed tears that threatened to spill.
“I—I have to check in on her,” she said, wiping at her eyes and her mouth.
Dante refused to let go as she tried to reach for the door, holding her firmly in place. “It’s almost been two weeks since Jane’s murder,” he whispered, taking a step closer. “This is the first time I’ve seen you cry over it.”
“I’m not crying.” Briar continued to wipe at her eyes, unaware of how she was only making the redness around them worse. “What are you trying to say?”
She glared up at him, but it could not stop her lip from quivering as he brushed a strand that had started to stick to her face away.
“That it’s okay.”
The softness of his voice, the gentle understanding in his eyes, it was what broke her. Tears started to fall and she couldn’t stop them. One after the other. Dante pulled her into his arms, sinking with her to the floor as she was unable to keep herself standing any longer.
Her chest ached.
Her head pounded.
Her soul ripped apart.
“I shouldn’t have left,” she whimpered into his shirt as he stroked her hair. “It’s—it’s all my fault, Dante. I left her—for—for some stupid boys. She was unwell, I—I should have taken car—care of her.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” he whispered, holding her tightly to him. “You couldn’t have known, no one could have known.”
“But I could have stopped it.” Another sob left her throat. “I can’t lose Rena as well.”
“He won’t hurt her, you said so yourself.”
Dante started to rock her gently, shushing her as he started to hum softly. “She’ll be fine, she can handle herself.”
It took Briar a while to calm down, but she didn’t leave Dante’s arms for a long time after. She would have stayed there forever if she could. His voice was soothing as he continued to hum. The protectiveness with which he held her made her believe she was actually safe there.
She wondered if this was how he felt within her arms.
She wondered why no other man had ever made her feel this way.
She wondered if she would ever have felt this way if she hadn’t broken Dante out.
Her eyes closed, Briar replayed the day she saw Dante for the first time, the day she saw Jane for the last time alive. What had happened was as clear as day, yet all of it blurred together as well.
Bringing Jane back to their cabin.
Bumping into Dante, followed by the man dressed in black.
“Excuse my friend,” he had said, “he’s not used to traveling.”
His voice was unrecognizable, recorded inaccurately in her mind as she didn’t think she needed to remember it.
She then talked with Mr. Smith, only to stumble upon Dante once more. Was this when Jane was murdered? When Briar thought it more important to talk down a man and a vampire than to look after her sick friend?
How did she even get sick? Jane wasn’t one to be troubled by travel sickness, neither did she show any signs of a stomach bug before—
“Jane was drugged,” Briar said, lifting her head. “Maybe even poisoned.”
Dante furrowed his brow as Briar sat upright.
“She started feeling unwell right after our lunch. Someone tampered with her food.”
“What does that matter now?” Dante asked.
“If we find the drug used we can potentially trace it back to where it was purchased and who had bought it.”
“Briar—” Dante reached out as she got to her feet, but she moved away before he could as much as graze her.
“I know it is a long shot, but Jane would never have laid back while being attacked, even when sick. She would have fought until she was unable to.” She walked to the end of the kitchen, turning back to Dante with a pointed finger. “We have to search through the waste of the train, the bottle or cup that contained the drug might still be there.”
“Briar,” Dante tried again, but she didn’t let him speak.
“If we find the container we can—”
“Briar!” Dante called a final time, standing. “It’s only a theory based on suspicion, don’t waste your time on it.”
Briar scoffed, crossing her arms. “Waste my time?”
“You want to know what a waste of time is?” She took a step closer, pressing her finger into his chest. “Comforting a full-grown man during the nights I could be out looking for the person who killed my best friend.”
He leveled her with a stare, not falling for her attempt to push him away. Her thoughts were everywhere, and so were her emotions, and somehow Dante knew what she was saying was not what she meant. She knew her theory was pointless, but she needed something to have her think they were making some progress.
“Have you been sleeping alright?” Dante asked instead, his voice calm. “Would it be better if we put an end to sharing a bed?”
“No.” The word had passed her lips faster than a breath, which followed after. “No, those are the only night I sleep well.”
A soft smile tugged at the corner of Dante’s mouth, his hand finding her hair before cupping her cheek. “Then who is comforting who, exactly?”
Her cheeks burned as her senses started to calm down and logic started to return to her mind. She looked away from his gaze but leaned into his cooling touch.
“Shut it,” she muttered.