The Night After
Holy crap on a cracker. Wyatt Axelrod’s head hurt. Big time. He pried his eyes open and groaned as the ceiling came into focus. He felt like his neck was broken and he was paralyzed from the waist down. He moved a leg and an arm. Still working, which was a good thing, but damn, even that small movement made the blood vessels in his head threaten to burst.
He wasn’t sleeping in his bed. He was in a chair. And there was the most god-awful screaming coming from the other room. Righting his head and leaning forward, swallowing hard, he realized he was in his bandmate Cort’s apartment. Saxon, their keyboard player, was lying on the floor, holding his own head, blonde hair falling into his face.
Wyatt didn’t remember coming back to Cort’s. He didn’t remember leaving the riverboat they were having Johnny’s funeral on. He didn’t remember much of anything from the night before, and that was a first. A scary first.
What the hell happened last night?” he asked.
No one seemed to know. As Cort and Saxon blathered on and on about who the hell knew what, Wyatt checked his jeans pocket. He still had his phone and his wallet, fortunately. But he also still had a headache, which the shrieking wasn’t helping. Asking his friends what the awful noise was, he contemplated standing.
No one had the chance to answer his question before a woman came running into the room, looking more than a little hysterical. Wyatt felt his eyebrows raise as he recognized the mortal washboard player from the day band at the bar where their band worked. What the hell was Katie doing here?
I woke up in someone’s room . . .” she was saying to Cort, who had somehow mustered the energy to stand.
Wyatt knew what that meantsomeone had hooked up with Katie. He didn’t think it was Saxon. He knew it wasn’t him. So it was either Drake or Cort, and he had no interest in watching this very awkward morning after moment go down. Besides, speaking of hookups, he wanted to know where Stella was. The last thing he remembered was having a bit of an argument with her on the deck of the riverboat. He didn’t want to fight with Stella. He wanted to make love to Stella, all night long, like a classic rock song. He was head over ass for her, and now he was worried.
He opened his mouth to ask if anyone had seen her when Katie beat him to the punch.
I seem to be a vampire,” she said, her voice shaky, eyes panicked.
That would be the shit hitting the fan.
48 Hours Earlier
Ugh, it’s disgusting in here,” Stella Malone said as she stood in the middle of her brother Johnny’s apartment and gestured to the floor. Who just dumps an ashtray in the middle of the room?”
Wyatt knew his buddy Johnny was a two-pack-a-day vampire, but he didn’t think even he could create a pile of ash that high. With a piece of paper in it. And a necklace.
Oh, shit. He glanced toward the French doors a few feet away. The drapes were pulled open, and Wyatt knew for a fact that the New Orleans sun beat in those windows during the day.
It couldn’t be.
If he had a heartbeat, it would have been racing by now. As it was, his stomach was churning, the bag of blood he’d had an hour ago sitting like an anchor in his gut. Johnny wouldn’t do it.
It could have been an accident. A horrible, careless accident.
Wyatt pulled the piece of paper out of the ash carefully and shook it off.
It’s so typically Johnny to just run off without telling anyone where he’s going.”
Oh, actually, he left a note.” Wyatt scanned the piece of paper and cursed.
What? What does it say?” Stella snatched the paper away from him, kicking some of the ash as she moved toward him, a little gray cloud rising up to her ankles.
It seemed appropriate. Wyatt kind of wanted to kick Johnny himself. How the hell could he kill himself? It was selfish, stupid, so not like Johnny that Wyatt was reeling.
Stella . . .” Wyatt tried to take the note back, thinking he could break it to her more gently. Maybe you should . . .”
Too late. She gasped. Oh, my God. This is a suicide note.” It fell out of her hands, fluttering down to the ash pile. She suddenly seemed to realize she was standing in her brother’s remains and she jumped back. How could he do this?”
Wyatt shook his head, bewildered. He’d known Johnny for forty years and he’d never thought of him as anything but happy-go-lucky. I don’t know, sweetheart. I didn’t see this coming at all. He seemed fine. I just saw him last night.” When Stella had told him Johnny wasn’t answering his phone, he hadn’t thought it was any big deal. He’d figured she was overreacting, but he had agreed to come check on Johnny with her.
It seemed her worry had been well founded.
Reaching down, he picked up the note and scanned it again.
To Whom It May Concern,
I have walked in darkness far too long.
Today I will step into the sun.
Don’t grieve me. But if you throw an Irish wake, which you really should, please don’t let Saxon do backup vocals on any Boston songs. He sings like a cat in heat.
P.S. Stella, the fifty bucks I owe you is in the cookie jar.
He was fine. This is insane.” Stella grabbed the note from him again. And To Whom It May Fucking Concern? Really? That’s how he starts a suicide note?”
It sounds like a bit of last-minute humor. You know Johnny.” Wyatt was still in shock himself and he honestly had no clue what to say to Stella, how to calm her down. It had been a long time since any vampire he knew had died. He had watched hundreds of humans leave this life, but he’d gotten used to the idea that he and his vampire buddies were exempt from death. Immortal was immortal, right?
Except when you threw open the blinds and went sunbathing.
Yeah, I know Johnny. I’ve spent my whole life being the responsible one while my brother screws around and does whatever he feels like.” Stella crumpled the note and threw it at the wall in a fit of fury. How dare he? How dare he just kill himself without even saying good-bye? Without talking to me about whatever was bothering him?” With an exclamation of frustration, she kicked the coffee table. I’ll give you To Whom It May Concern. Concern this.”
Wyatt’s gut told him to just let Stella have her rant. She started swearing and spinning around, tossing Johnny’s lamp on the floor with a resounding crash. She threw the pillows from the couch in the direction of the kitchen and knocked over a breakfast bar stool. It was almost as shocking as Johnny’s suicide. Stella was one of the most controlled women Wyatt knew. She was never late to work. She paid her bills on time. She drank her blood delicately, in a glass. She never swore. Ever.
And now she was cursing with a creativity that astounded him, her eyes blazing with fury, her finger bleeding from the lamp she’d shattered.
Finally, she seemed spent, her face crumpling. She gave one final kick, right through Johnny’s ashes. She seemed to instantly regret it, her heavy breathing the only sound in the room as she bent to try to cup his ashes back into a pile, then thought better of it.
She burst into tears as she stood back up, fingers flexing.
He moved toward her. Oh, Stella, sweetie, I’m so sorry.” He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into his chest. She let him, which showed him she was really a hot mess. Stella didn’t like to be touchednot by him, anyway. She thought of him as the goofy guitar player. Fine for friendship, but nothing else. And she’d never let him get particularly close to her.
For yearsokay, decadeshe’d had a crush on her. But she was out of his league and he knew it. He was just a dusty old cowboy-turned-vampire guitar player, and she was all that was class and intelligence.
If he could be there for her in any way, hell, he was grateful. He held her and murmured words of comfort in her ear, his hand rubbing up and down her back. It was so damn hard to process the fact that Johnny was gone. It was surreal, mind-boggling. So he focused on the feel of Stella in his arms, the soft floral scent of her hair, and the sound of her sobbing as it slowed into snuffled crying. He was glad she hadn’t found Johnny alone.
I’m really sorry,” he told her again. But eternity is a long time. Maybe Johnny was just tired of the ride.”
I don’t understand,” she said, her words muffled against his chest. I need a glass of wine. My stomach is upset.”
Wyatt wasn’t sure that alcohol was the best thing for her, but he kissed the top of her head and moved to Johnny’s sparse kitchen. He found vodka and rum, but no wine. He poured some vodka into a glass and brought it to Stella. She tossed it back in one quick motion.
Holy shit. Wyatt wiped the tears off her cheeks, debating whether he should suggest they clean up Johnny or if he should wait and let her take the lead. She was a control freak, so chances were she’d want to handle it, but he was a lit...