CHAPTER 7

Stevie Rae

Feeling like a total butthead, Stevie Rae slammed the abbey door and retreated into the icy night. She wasn’t really pissed at Zoey, or at the super-nice, if slightly delusional, nun. Actually, she wasn’t pissed at anyone but herself.

“Dang it! I hate that I’m messin’ this up!” she yelled at herself. She hadn’t meant to screw things up royally, but it seemed like she was diggin’ through a pile of shit that just kept getting deeper and deeper no matter how fast she shoveled.

Zoey wasn’t a moron. She knew something was wrong. That was obvious, but how could Stevie Rae even start to tell her? There was just so much to explain. He was just so much to explain. And she’d never meant for any of it to happen. Especially not the Raven Mocker part. Dang it! Before she’d discovered him almost dead, she wouldn’t have even thought it was possible. Had someone told her about him before, she would have laughed and said, “Nope, that ain’t gonna happen!”

But it was possible because it had happened. He had happened.

As Stevie Rae prowled around the silent abbey grounds looking for pain-in-the-butt Erik, who might very well discover this last, most terrible secret and really throw a wrench in the dang tractor motor, she tried to figure out just how the hell she’d gotten herself into such a gawd-awful mess. Why had she saved him? Why hadn’t she just hollered for Dallas and the rest of ’em, and had them finish it?

That had even been what he’d said he wanted before he passed out.

But he’d spoken. He’d sounded so human. And she hadn’t been able to kill him.

“Erik!” Where the heck was he? “Erik, come here!” She paused her internal battle and called into the night. Night? Stevie Rae squinted to the east and swore she could see the darkness there beginning to turn the ripe plum color of predawn. “Erik! Time to report in!” Stevie Rae yelled for the third time. She stopped and peered around the silent abbey grounds.

Stevie Rae’s gaze slid over to the green house that had been turned into a temporary stable for the horses Z and the rest of the gang had ridden in their escape from the House of Night. But it wasn’t so much the green house that drew her gaze. It was the innocent-looking equipment shed next to it that she couldn’t quit staring at. The shed appeared totally normal—just an add-on building with no windows. The door hadn’t even been locked. She should know. She’d been inside it not too long ago.

“Hey, what’s wrong? Did you see something over there?”

“Oh, shit!” Stevie Rae jumped and spun around, heart hammering so hard in her chest she almost couldn’t breathe. “Erik! You scared the bejesus right outta me! Would you make some dang noise or somethin’ before you bust up on someone like that?”

“Sorry, Stevie Rae, but you were calling me.

Stevie Rae brushed a blond curl back behind her ear and tried to ignore the fact that her hand was shaking. She was just seriously no good at this sneaking-around-and-hiding-things-from-your-friends stuff. But she lifted her chin and forced her nerves to settle down, and the easiest way to do that was to take a chomp out of pain-in-the-butt Erik.

Stevie Rae narrowed her eyes at him. “Yeah, I was callin’ you because you’re supposed to be inside with everyone else. What the heck are ya still doin’ out here, anyway? You’re worrying Zoey—like she needs any more stress from you right now?”

“Zoey was looking for me?”

With an effort, Stevie Rae didn’t roll her eyes at Erik. He was sooooo annoying. He acted like Mr. Perfect Boyfriend part of the time, and then would suddenly change up and be an arrogant jerk. She was gonna have to tell Z about him—that was if Z would still listen to her. The two of them hadn’t exactly been very close lately. Too many secrets… too many issues sitting squarely between them…

“Stevie Rae! Pay attention. Did you say Zoey was looking for me?”

Stevie Rae did roll her eyes then. “You’re supposed to be inside. Heath and Dallas and the rest of the kids are. Zoey knows that. She wanted to know where the heck you were and why you’re not where you’re supposed to be.”

“If she was that worried she could have come out here herself.”

“I didn’t say she was worried!” Stevie Rae snapped, exasperated with Erik’s self-absorption. “And Z has way too much on her plate to be out here babysittin’ you.”

“I don’t need a damn babysitter.”

“Really? Then why did I have to come get you?”

“I don’t know, why did you? I was on my way inside. I just wanted to do one more sweep of the perimeter. I thought it’d be smart to go over what Heath was supposed to check. You know humans can’t see shit at night.”

“Johnny B isn’t a human and he was with Heath.” Stevie Rae sighed. “Just go on inside. Get something to eat and some dry clothes. One of the nuns will tell you where you’re sleepin’. I’ll take one more check around the grounds before the sun comes up,” Stevie Rae said.

If the sun comes up,” Erik said, squinting up at the sky.

Stevie Rae followed his gaze, and with a sense of gawd-how-clueless-could-I-be, realized it was raining again, only the temperature was still on that line between freeze and non-freeze, so the sky was, once again, spitting ice.

“This crappy weather is not what we need,” Stevie Rae muttered.

“Well, at least it’ll help cover the blood from those Raven Mockers,” Erik said.

Stevie Rae’s gaze went quickly to Erik’s face. Shit! She hadn’t even thought about the blood! Had they tracked blood into the shed? Talk about leaving a glaring path that screamed Here I am! She realized Erik was expecting her to say something. “Yeah, um, you’re right. Maybe I’ll try to kick around some ice and broken branches and stuff to cover up the blood from those three birds,” she said with forced nonchalance.

“Probably a good idea in case some humans actually go outside during the day. Want some help?”

“No,” she answered too quickly, and then made herself shrug. “What with my super red vamp skills and all it’ll just take me a second. Not a big deal.”

“Well, okay then.” Erik started to walk away, but hesitated. “Hey, you might want to give some extra attention to the blood marks at the edge of the tree line by the condos next door and the road. It was pretty nasty down there.”

“Okay, yeah, I know the place.” She sure did.

“Oh, and, where did you say Zoey was?”

“Uh, Erik, I don’t believe I said.”

Erik frowned, waited, and when Stevie Rae just continued to look at him, finally asked, “Well? Where is she?”

“Last time I saw her she was talkin’ to Heath and Sister Mary Angela in the hall outside the basement. But my guess is by now she’s checked on Stark and is in bed. She looked tired as hell.”

“Stark…” Erik muttered something unintelligible after the kid’s name, and turned back toward the abbey.

“Erik!” Stevie Rae called while she silently cussed herself out ’cause it was stupid for her to have mentioned Heath or Stark. She waited until he looked over his shoulder at her and then said, “As Z’s BFF, let me give ya a little piece of advice: she’s been through too much today to want to deal with boyfriend issues. If she’s with Heath it’s because she’s making sure he’s okay—not because she’s all lovey-dovey with him. Same goes for Stark.”

“And?” Erik said, his face expressionless.

And that means you should get something to eat, change your clothes, and take your butt to bed without trackin’ her down and buggin’ her.”

“She and I are together, Stevie Rae. We’re going out. So how could her boyfriend caring enough about her to want to be with her be considered ‘buggin’ her’?”

Stevie Rae suppressed a smile. Zoey was going to eat him for breakfast, spit him out, and go on about her day. She shrugged. “Whatever. I’m just givin’ ya a little advice, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well, later.” Erik turned and stomped off to the abbey.

“For a smart guy, he sure makes some stupid choices,” Stevie Rae said softly as she watched his broad back disappear. “’Course me sayin’ that about him is what my mama would say was a hog callin’ a skunk stinky.”

Sighing, Stevie Rae’s gaze moved reluctantly down to the row of big trash bins half camouflaged by their placement next to the nuns’ carport. She averted her eyes, not wanting to think about the terrible crumpled bodies that had been dumped there. “With the trash.” She said the words slowly, as if they each held their own weight. Stevie Rae admitted to herself that Zoey and Sister Mary Angela might have been partially right in their mini counseling session with her, but that didn’t make what they’d said any less annoying.

Okay, sure, she’d overreacted, but the guys putting the bodies of the Raven Mockers in the trash had really jolted her, and not just because of him. Her eyes slid over to the shed that sat silently beside the green house.

What they had done with the bodies of the Raven Mockers had bothered her because she didn’t believe in life being devalued—any kind of life. It was a dangerous thing to think you were godlike and could decide who was worthy of life and who wasn’t. Stevie Rae knew that better than the nun or Zoey ever could. Not only had her life, well, actually, her death been messed with by a High Priestess who had begun believing she was actually a goddess, but Stevie Rae had once thought she had the right to snuff out lives according to her own needs or whims. Just remembering how it had been when she’d been caught up in that anger and violence made her feel sick. She’d left those dark times behind her—she’d made a choice for good and light and the Goddess, and that was the path she was staying on. So when anyone decided a life meant nothing, any life, it upset her.

Or at least that was what Stevie Rae told herself as she started walking across the abbey grounds, heading totally away from the garden shed.

Keep it together, girl… keep it together… she kept repeating over and over as she detoured quickly down the ditch and into the tree line, heading directly for the bloodstains she remembered all too well. She found a thick, broken branch that still had a bunch of twigs attached to it, and lifted it easily, glad for the extra strength that came with her new status as fully Changed red vampyre. Using the branch like a broom, she brushed over the blood, pausing every so often to toss another broken branch, or once, a whole side of a collapsed holly bush, onto the telltale crimson pools.

Following her earlier path, she turned to her left, away from the street and back onto the nuns’ lawn, staying inside the fence. She hadn’t gone far when, just like before, Stevie Rae found a big splotch of blood.

Only this time there wasn’t a body lying on top of it.

Distracting herself by humming Kenny Chesney’s “(Baby) You Save Me,” she hurriedly brushed over the bloodstains and then followed the trail of drops she knew she’d find, kicking ice and branches over the evidence, as the blood path led her directly to the little garden shed.

She stared hard at the door, sighed, and then turned away, walking around the shed to the green house. The door was unlocked and the handle turned easily. She entered the building and paused, breathing deeply and allowing the scents of earth and growing things, mixed with the new spice of the three horses that were temporarily housed there, to soothe her senses, as the warmth of the place thawed the icy dampness that seemed to have penetrated into her soul. But she didn’t allow herself to rest there long. She couldn’t. She had business to take care of and not much time before dawn. Even if the sun was going to be shrouded by clouds and ice, it was still never a comfortable thing for a red vampyre to be caught outside, exposed and vulnerable, during the day.

It didn’t take Stevie Rae long to find what she needed. The nuns obviously liked the old-school way of doing things. Instead of a system of modern hoses, electric switches, and metallic thingies, the sisters had buckets and dippers, watering pails with long, perforated nozzles made for gently showering baby plants, and lots of tools that were obviously as well used as they were well cared for. Stevie Rae filled a bucket with fresh water from one of the many faucets, grabbed a dipper, a few towels from a clean pile she found on a shelf used to store garden gloves and spare pots, and then, on her way out, she paused near a tray of moss that reminded her of a thick, green carpet. She stood there chewing her lip indecisively as instinct warred with her conscious mind, until she finally gave in and pulled up a long row of the moss. Then, mumbling to herself about not knowing how she knew what she knew, Stevie Rae left the green house and returned to the shed.

At the door she stopped and focused her attention—keyed all of her keen, predator-like ability to sense, smell, see anyone, anything lurking around. Nothing. No one was outside. The sleet and the late hour were keeping everyone tucked safe and warm inside.

“Everyone with any dang sense,” she mumbled to herself.

She took one more look around, shifted her load so she had a free hand, and then touched the door latch. Okay—okay. Just get it over with. Maybe he’s dead and you won’t have to deal with this great bigassed new mistake you made.

Stevie Rae clicked the latch down and pushed open the door. Automatically, she wrinkled her nose. It was jolting after the earthy simplicity of the green house, this little building that smelled like gas and oil and musty crap, all mixed with the wrong scent of his blood.

She’d left him at the other end of the shed, behind the riding mower and the shelves that held lawn care stuff like garden shears, fertilizer, and spare sprinkler parts. She peered back there and could vaguely make out a dark shape, but it wasn’t moving. She listened hard and didn’t hear anything except the ice spitting against the roof.

Dreading the inevitable moment when she was going to have to face him, Stevie Rae forced herself to step into the shed and close the door firmly behind her. She made her way around the mower and shelves to the creature that lay at the far end of the shed. It didn’t look like he’d moved since she’d half dragged, half carried him there a couple of hours ago and literally tossed him into that back corner. He lay crumpled in on himself, curled into an awkward fetal position on his left side. The bullet that had torn through the upper right side of his chest, had ripped through his wing as it exited his body, utterly decimating it. The huge black wing lay bloody, shattered, and useless along his side. Stevie Rae also thought one of his ankles might be broken, as it was horribly swollen and, even in the darkness of the shed, she could see it looked bruised. Actually, his whole body looked pretty badly battered, which was no big surprise. He had been shot out of the sky and the big old oaks at the edge of the abbey’s property had broken his fall enough for him not to have been killed immediately, but she really had no way of knowing how badly he was wounded. For all she knew his insides were as broken as his outsides looked. For all she knew, he was dead. He sure looked dead. She watched his chest and couldn’t be 100 percent certain, but she didn’t think she saw it rising or falling with his breath. He was probably dead. She kept staring at him, unwilling to move closer, and unable to turn and walk away.

Was she batshit crazy? Why hadn’t she stopped to think before she’d dragged him in here? She stared at him. He wasn’t human. He wasn’t even animal. It wasn’t playing God to let him die; he should never have been born.

Stevie Rae shuddered. She continued to stand there as if she was frozen by the horror of what she’d done. What would her friends say if they found out she’d hidden a Raven Mocker? Would Zoey turn away from her? And what repercussions would this creature’s presence cause with the red fledglings, all of the red fledglings? As if they didn’t have enough dark, evil things to deal with?

The nun had been right. He shouldn’t evoke pity in her. She was going to take the towels and stuff back to the green house, go inside the abbey, find Darius and tell him that there was a Raven Mocker in the shed. Then she’d let the warrior do his job. If he wasn’t dead already, Darius would take care of business. It would actually be putting the bird guy out of his misery. She let out a long breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in relief at her decision, and his red eyes opened and met hers.

“Finish it…” the Raven Mocker’s voice was weak and filled with pain, but it was clearly, absolutely, undeniably human.

And that was it. Stevie Rae realized the reason she hadn’t called Dallas and the rest of them when she’d discovered him. When he’d spoken before and told her to kill him, he’d sounded like a real guy—one who had been hurt and abandoned and scared. She hadn’t been able to kill him then, and she wasn’t able to turn away from him now. His voice made all the difference, because even though he looked like a being that shouldn’t be possible, he sounded like a regular guy who was so desperate and in such pain that he expected the very worst to happen to him.

No, that was wrong. He didn’t just expect the very worst to happen to him, he wanted it to. What he had gone through was so horrible he couldn’t see any way out of it except through his own death. To Stevie Rae, even though what he’d been through was largely of his own making, that made him very, very human. She’d been there. She understood such complete hopelessness.

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