Chasing Shadows
Author:Christina Moore

chapter Three

Angel barked once and stood, turning abruptly and darting out of the pen. She ran for the open tack room door and I could hear her padding up the stairs, where she scratched on the door to the apartment and Mark let her in a moment later. I resisted the urge to follow her, knowing that I had no real excuse for going back up right now.

With a groan, I set about finishing my task, as I still had the chicken coop to clean. As I worked, my mind was abuzz with thoughts about Mark and what Angel was really up to, as well as how I needed to find a way to get out of tracking down my alter ego or falsify my attempts to find her, because I certainly couldn’t tell Diarmid that I was the one writing the books.

Or could I, I wondered? Despite the fact that I had disowned him, and eschewed the fact that I was half vampire by having as little as possible to do with anyone from that world, the fact remained that Diarmid Mackenna was my father, and he loved me…as much as a sociopathic, egomaniacal murderer loves anyone. He valued me above his other “children” because I was of his own flesh and blood, and even after I had told him how much I hated him, he still professed to love me. I was still his favorite even though I refused to return his calls or his letters, even though the only time I saw him was when he forced me to by showing up at my door.

I’d run out of my Coming of Age ceremony in a fit of rage because it was either leave or kill the bastard, and I knew there was no way I could win a fight against him—and believe me, I’d wanted to try. But I’m no fool. At the time he’d already been alive for over five hundred years and I was only fifty, and even though many years had passed since then, his being over half a millennium older than I meant he would be extremely difficult for me to kill. Plus, he was my father, and I don’t think that even in the grip of righteous anger I could have committed patricide.

I’d sworn off the vampire world and I’d sworn off human blood, and for twenty years I roamed the world seeking peace—and an escape from the horror that had been revealed to me. Diarmid had followed, had attempted to convince me of his sorrow and his regret. I believed not a word. After I bought my land and set up my farm in 1846, once he saw the lifestyle I was planning to lead he backed off, but he still sent me a gift every year on my birthday and at Christmas, and he would pop up for a visit on occasion—though I hadn’t actually set eyes on my father in almost two years. I had reason to wonder whether he would actually strike at me for being “the betrayer of vampire kind” when I supposedly meant so much to him.

Then again, Diarmid was always trying to make himself look good to the Ancients. I could only hope that if he ever found out, his love for me (as twisted as it was) was stronger than his ambition to be one of them.

By the time I finished clearing the indoor pig pen and had cleaned out the chicken coop, it was starting to get dark. Normally I’d have finished long before now, but Vangie and Mark (especially the latter) had proven to be major distractions. I quickly shooed the chickens into the coop for the night, making sure they had water and food inside before latching the door. I then turned my attention to the pigs, and was just getting the last of them inside when Mark came down from his apartment, followed closely by Angel. I tried not to let my wariness of the dog show on my face, and in truth it wasn’t all that difficult: One look at Mark and I found myself smiling.

I also tried to ignore the singing of my nerves as he drew nearer, but that task wasn’t as easy. “Are you, uh, getting yourself settled in alright up there?” I asked.

Mark smiled at me. “Yeah, getting there, except I forgot to stop and buy some food. I got nothin’ to eat up there and I’m kinda starving.”

“I’m hungry myself,” I admitted as I closed the gate that let the pigs outside and then eased myself out of their indoor pen. “But I’ve got cows and horses to get in yet. I kind of got behind schedule today.”

Mark glanced out at the slowly darkening sky. “Well since I’m probably to blame for that, why don’t you let me help you—I gotta learn how to round ‘em up anyway, right?”

I grinned. “Alright, why don’t you? But I think your dog should stay here in the barn. I’m afraid a strange dog might frighten the horses, and Angus is touchy enough without the added anxiety.”

His eyebrows rose. “Angus?”

I nodded. “My bull,” I said. “All the cattle are Holsteins because they make the best dairy cows. I harvest the girls’ milk when they’ve calved and it lasts me a long while. But bulls of all cattle breeds are notoriously temperamental. He’s not going to like having a stranger out in the pasture as it is, and the dog would just make it worse.”

Mark nodded and we headed out into the paddock, with Angel watching from the open doorway of the barn, where he had told her to stay. We came to the first pasture where the horses were and though they approached warily after I whistled, once they were near and had had a chance to smell Mark, they came quietly along, the two of us taking a halter in each hand and leading the four of them back to the barn. After stowing each away in their stall we made for the second pasture, and I kept my eye on Angus as I walked slowly across the grass to the first of the cows. Mark followed, also keeping his eye on the bull as he approached another. Again we both took a halter in each hand, guiding four of the cows back to their home.

As we were making our last trip into the pasture, Mark asked me, “Should I go for the cow or the bull?”

I looked over at Angus as we approached the gate of the second pasture. Now that four of his girls were gone he was a little more alert, and he lumbered over to the remaining cow’s side as we entered his domain, his eyes on Mark.

“Cow,” I said. “But let me take Angus’ halter first. We’re gonna let him smell your hand just like the others, like the horses.”

“You’re the boss,” Mark replied quietly, his eyes on Angus. I shook my head as it occurred to me to think that they were having a typical testosterone-induced staring contest, each wondering which man would look away first.

I approached the bull as slowly as I always did with my hands in plain sight, my voice low and soothing as I spoke to him. His gaze flickered between me and Mark and he stamped his feet a few times, but thankfully Angus didn’t make any aggressive moves. I reached him and put my hand on his halter, still talking soothingly, as I gestured for Mark to approach.

My new employee came over slowly, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed he was mimicking my hands-out approach. “Hey there, Angus,” Mark said when he reached my side.

“Give me your hand,” I said, and with one hand on the bull’s halter, I reached for Mark’s and held it under Angus’ nose. “Always approach Angus slowly—if you run at him he may believe you’re an aggressor and he’ll most likely charge. Obviously not a situation you want to be in. Talk to him in a calm voice when you come close and try not to show any fear. If you’re around long enough he’ll get used to you, but it’s always wise to be cautious around a bull.”

“I’m a Marine, Ms. Caldwell,” Mark said as he carefully turned his hand to scratch Angus lightly on the nose. “Fear is not a word in my vocabulary.”

“Hmph,” was my only reply. I then gestured for him to take the cow’s halter so we could get the animals inside.

Once the last of the animals were tucked away in their stalls and I had made sure—with Mark’s help—that they all had food and water, I turned to him and said, “Thank you for your help.”

He smiled. “You’re welcome. But didn’t you say something about brushing them down once they were inside?”

“Well, aren’t you an avid listener?” I mused. “Yes, Mr. Singleton, indeed I did. Why don’t we do that, and then we can close up for the night and each of us get our dinner.”

I went into the tack room and retrieved two curry brushes. When I came out, I tossed one to Mark as I walked toward Hasufeld’s stall. He caught the brush and walked over to Brego’s, who was right next to his brother. The two yearlings were a rare pair of twins, though they were fraternal as most equine twins were. After watching me work for a moment or two, Mark started running the comb along the young stallion’s neck.

“By the way,” Mark said, “I was wondering…you want to have dinner with me? I wouldn’t mind buying the boss some dinner my first night on the job.”

I was so surprised by the offer that for a moment I went still, then found myself grinning foolishly. To hide it, I made sure to keep my face turned away as I moved on to Hadhafang.

“Sure, I’d like to have dinner together. But why don’t you just let me cook something?” I offered. “I have fresh eggs from the chickens and I promise I make a mean omelet.”

Chancing a glance in his direction, I found him with his eyes on me, his expression curious—challenging even.

“Is that so?” he mused, patting Brego’s neck and then moving over to Herugrim. He looked the aging stallion in the eyes before he set to work with the brush. When he had finished he leaned against the gate to Herugrim’s stall and crossed his arms over his chest. “I do like a good omelet, Ms. Caldwell, but no one’s has ever compared to my mother’s. Be hard to even come close to that. Top it? Not a chance.”

“Well now, Mr. Singleton, I do think them are fightin’ words,” I said casually as I gave Hadhafang a pat on the neck and stepped out of her stall, adding silently, Guess no one ever told you never to challenge a vampire, kid.

After returning the brushes to the tack room, I closed the back doors of the barn. I then walked with Mark to the front end of the barn and after turning the lights off, shut those doors as well. Angel followed us as she had been throughout the last half hour or so, watching and staying out of the way—though a couple of times she had come close and Mark had had to shoo her away. This was all for the sake of keeping up appearances, of course. She had to keep acting like a dog would act or Mark would get suspicious. I suppose I had to give her points for the incredible performance—after all, she’d been at this for a year, so she had to have the act down pat to fool a trained soldier.

As we approached the house, I walked over to the kennel where Moe and Cissy were penned up and let them out. They immediately ran over to Angel and started dancing around her and barking, playing the dominance game. Despite knowing that Angel wasn’t really a dog, I couldn’t help thinking the display was rather cute; the tiny, three-pound Chihuahuas were hopping around her, one on either side, and the Siberian shapeshifter was yelping lightly in return, her head down on the ground on top of her forelegs, her hindquarters in the air and her tail waving madly.

Mark chuckled. “Think this means they like each other?” he queried from beside me.

“Moe and Cissy are making sure Angel knows that this is their yard—she’s just a guest here. And I’m sure that somewhere in all that dog-speak they’re telling her that they can and will fight her to the death if she threatens me or the animals.” I looked over to find an incredulous expression on his face. “If you don’t believe me, just try making a threatening move. I guarantee you’ll have Chihuahua teeth in your ankle faster than you can spit.”

Mark laughed, and followed me as I turned to head into the house. As soon as I had opened the door, Moe and Cissy abandoned their new companion and made a beeline for the house. Angel stood and gazed at us curiously, a small whine escaping her throat.

“Can she come inside?” Mark asked. “I’m afraid she’ll tear up your door trying to get in if we leave her out here. Angel’s as protective of me as Moe and Cissy are of you.”

Protective, hmm? I wondered. Nodding, I said, “Any protector of my employee is welcome in my house.”

Turning, I walked into the house and retrieved the basket of eggs from the fridge, setting them on the counter next to the sink. “Come over here and wash your hands, Mr. Singleton,” I directed my companion, gesturing toward the faucet. “Then you can make yourself useful by cutting some potatoes.”

“I thought you were making dinner?” he chided, though he complied with my order and appeared next to me at the sink, where he dutifully washed his hands.

“I said I make a mean omelet,” I corrected him with a grin, washing my own hands as Mark dried his. “I didn’t say you weren’t going to help with the rest.”

Mark laughed. “Touché, Ms. Caldwell,” he said, and my response was preempted by a snarl from Moe. I glanced down and saw that Angel had wandered over to the dogs’ water dish.

“Moe, you stop that,” I scolded the little dog. “Let her have some of that water.”

Moe looked up at me, then back at Angel. Reluctantly, he moved aside and allowed her access to the water, which she took just a few laps from before trotting over to Mark’s side.

Mark nudged her with his leg. “Go lay down over by the door, girl,” he told her, and with a last look between the two of us, his shapeshifting companion did as she was told.

“Where are the potatoes, and how would you like me to slice them?” he then asked me.

“In that bin over there that says ‘Taters’ on it,” I said over my shoulder, reaching into a cabinet for the frying pans we would use. “Cut ‘em however you want.”

As we worked, Mark and I made lighthearted conversation. I felt so comfortable in his presence already, and I knew that I was flirting even though I wasn’t intentionally doing so—or at least not consciously. I wanted him to like me, sure, but if we were truly soulmates, wasn’t that already guaranteed? For the first time in a long time, I began to wish I knew more about the world my father lived in. I knew some of the myths and legends, but not all of them—my Coming of Age ceremony had been interrupted before I could learn everything I was meant to learn. I felt a little lost with this man whom I already felt I knew, yet also knew that I did not know at all, and I supposed it made sense that in my nervousness I was acting like a teenage girl with a crush.

It pleased me that I didn’t seem to be the only one. Mark, too, seemed to be openly yet subtly flirting, returning each of my sarcastic barbs with one of his own. He matched me joke for joke, smile for smile, and once or twice when our skin touched—when that electrical current raced through my veins and I drew my breath in surprise—I do believe he did the same.

Once we had sat down at the table with our cheese-and-pepper omelets and fried potatoes, Mt. Dew to drink again because Mark didn’t drink orange juice except in the morning, I was a little startled to see him bow his head to say grace. Pleased even. I bowed my head as well and said a silent prayer of thanks that he had at long last been brought into my life, and I asked for the guidance to handle our unique situation with tact and delicacy—and for a sign that would tell me when it was time to tell him the truth about me. I also asked for a calm temperament when I confronted Angel, which I hoped would be soon so that I could have the unpleasant business taken care of.

Digging into the food, Mark declared that my omelet was indeed delicious, and when I asked him if it compared to his mother’s, he told me that he was going to plead the Fifth—he didn’t want to get in trouble with her or me, so he was calling it a draw. I had to laugh at the comical expression on his face as he feigned innocence, and I wondered about the whine and huff Angel emitted from her place by the back door.

As we ate, we talked some more, and I learned that the mother he spoke of so fondly was indeed a stepmother. Though I was surprised he revealed the information so soon, I was also glad to have one of my questions about his past so quickly answered. He told me that his biological mother, Patricia, had been attacked while she was pregnant with him and that she had died in the emergency room—there’d barely been time to save him by cesarean. Monica, his stepmother, had been a nurse in the ER, a very sympathetic one who had offered to help the devastated Daniel Singleton take care of his newborn son. After some time, the deep gratitude he felt for Monica’s assistance turned into love, and two years after the loss of his first wife, he married again. After another three years, they gave Mark a little sister named Juliette.

Because he had been so forthcoming with his own painful past, I felt it my obligation to share mine. I told him that my own mother had also died giving birth to me, and that my father had been through a string of mistresses ever since, never staying with any one woman for very long—although I did have a younger sister. I told him how I did not get along very well with my father or my sister, who was deeply jealous of me, but that I adored my older brother. When Mark asked about my mother’s side of the family, whom I had earlier claimed the farm had come from, I told him that I honestly did not know if any more of them were living. The truth, of course, was that I had some distant cousins, descendants of my mother’s twin brother Clarence, but I did not have any contact with them. I thought that was for the best even though I did keep track of some of them, and when my cousin Kendra (fourth or fifth cousin, I’m not sure which) had wanted to go to UC San Diego as a visual arts major, I used my various contacts to make sure she got a full-ride scholarship.

It was well past full dark by the time we finished our meal. Mark offered to stay and help me wash the dishes, but I let him off the hook, saying he needed to get plenty of sleep for his first full day of work. I could tell that while he wouldn’t have minded helping out with the cleanup, he was also glad to get out of doing it like men usually were. I shook my head and smiled as he bid me good night and left for his new apartment, making sure to give his ‘dog’ a pointed stare behind his back. Her I was definitely not letting off the hook—and I hoped the shapeshifter understood that I wanted her to come back for a little chat as soon as she was able to get away.

Having the dishes to do and the kitchen to clean up after the late dinner was a good distraction, but I was still finished in about half an hour. I began to pace, wondering if Angel was going to come back tonight, wondering if she’d even understood my silent message. I then sat back down and chided myself for being ridiculous—I was a dhampyr, for goodness sake! I should not be nervous!

Except I was nervous—anxious, to be more specific. I was worried as well, wondering what in the world Angel knew about Mark and what she was up to. She was a supernatural and so was he—obviously not a coincidence. So what was the story there? Could I trust her to tell me the truth when Mark didn’t even know?

Or so it appeared. It occurred to me as I sat in my kitchen spinning my mental wheels that it was entirely possible Mark knew all about the supernatural world, that he knew what Angel really was, and that they were both putting on a show for my benefit. But to what purpose? What could they hope to gain by lying to me and going through the charade of his needing the job on my farm? Was it possible someone from my father’s world already knew I was Vivian Drake, or suspected I knew who she was? Was he simply sent to keep an eye on me to make sure I actually looked for her?

So many questions spun through my mind. I hated not knowing, I hated the “what ifs?” I was not one to give myself over to paranoia, but the introduction of my other half into my life had obviously thrown me off my axis. I also hated the fact that I was doubting Mark. If he really was my soulmate, and I knew there could be no denying that, then I shouldn’t doubt him at all—trust in him should be implicit. There were just too many unknown variables right now for me to be completely comfortable. I had to get answers, and soon.

A light knock at the back door made me jump. I felt ridiculous, and chastised myself accordingly. The knock came again as I was crossing the worn rug over the wood flooring, somehow sounding more insistent even though it had not changed in volume. I opened the door to find a nude young woman, probably mid-twenties, standing on the small stoop. She looked oddly familiar, yet I knew that I had never met her before—at least, not in this form.

“Are you going to let me in, or do you really want Mark to look out the French doors to see his sister standing naked on his new boss’s back porch?”

“Sister?” I hissed, though I still stepped back to give her room to come inside.

Juliette Singleton nodded as she turned around to face me. “May I please borrow a robe? I’m no prude, but I certainly don’t like talking to strangers in naught but my skin.”

I nodded as I pushed the door shut again. Moe and Cissy came trotting into the kitchen then, and of course they barked until Juliette knelt and let them sniff her. They stopped yapping almost instantly; I knew that while their little minds wouldn’t be able to place where they knew her from, she would still smell somewhat familiar to them.

Because to all three of us, Juliette still smelled like a dog.

I ran to my bedroom and grabbed one of my long terry-cloth robes, and returned to the kitchen seconds later, just in time to find Juliette reaching into the refrigerator.

“Oh, go right ahead—help yourself,” I said sardonically, holding out the robe.

She offered me an apologetic smile. “Sorry, but I’ve never been able to stomach eating dog food, or hunting and eating raw meat. Mom and I made sure Mark understood that Angel was a picky dog that would only eat what he ate, but as you saw tonight, that didn’t happen.”

I relaxed just a little, and offered to make her a sandwich as she stepped back and put the robe on. She had chugged down nearly the whole can of Mt. Dew she’d grabbed from the fridge by the time I turned around and handed her a plate, on which was a thick turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato. I pulled a butter knife from the silverware drawer and the mayonnaise from the fridge, as well as another can of soda, and carried them over to the table.

“So your mother knows about you?” I asked as I set the items down and then sat across from her. “Does your dad?”

Juliette shook her head. After slathering on a generous helping of mayo, she put the sandwich back together, chewing and swallowing a huge bite before she answered. “Daddy doesn’t. But Mom knows, because she’s a shifter, too.”

“Your father doesn’t know anything?” I asked, a tinge of incredulity in my voice. “Don’t you think that’s being unfair to him?”

She looked at me. “Ms. Caldwell—”

“Saphrona, please. It’s going to be hard enough to break Mark of that habit,” I couldn’t help interjecting.

“Fine, Saphrona. I actually asked my mother that question once, when I first began shifting. Why didn’t we tell Daddy and Mark what we could do? And do you know what she told me? She said that my father had been completely devastated by the attack on Mark’s birth mother—so much so that she was surprised he had found the capacity to love again—and she honestly did not think he was capable of handling the shock of finding out what we are, too. Sometimes I wonder if she’s underestimating my dad, but then I see how he still gets around the anniversary of the attack, even after all these years, and I don’t wonder anymore. I’m not sure he could handle it either.”

I conceded her point with a nod. “But what about Mark? Don’t you think he has the right to know? Not just that his dog is actually his sister, or that his stepmother also turns into a dog, but about what he is? Does he even have a clue?”

Juliette took another bite of the sandwich, swallowed it after two chews, and then cracked open the second can of pop, which she chugged two good swallows of before she answered. “Obviously you have a lot of questions—I have a few of my own for you, but maybe I should start at the beginning.”

I sat back in my chair and crossed my arms. “Yeah, you just do that.”

Juliette took another bite of the sandwich and another swig of Dew. “Patricia Singleton, Mark’s mother, was attacked by a vampire during her eighth month of pregnancy—the vampire part you obviously already know. The vamp was a rogue newborn, one some other vamp had drained and left for dead, or thought he’d killed. Or maybe he’d been unbalanced before he’d been turned. Mom just said that by the time the shifters found him after the attack, he was completely unglued.”

“Why were the shifters going after him? Why not leave it to the vampire community to take care of him like you usually do?”

Mark’s sister scoffed, then polished off the sandwich I had made her and the second can of Mt. Dew. She sat forward with her hands together on the table. “For a half-breed, you seem to know so very little about your own kind. Vampires wouldn’t have acted unless he became a real menace to society.”

“I haven’t lived as a vampire since I was fifty and I hardly associate with anyone from that world,” I retorted.

“Really now?” Juliette asked, raising an eyebrow. “Then how come I can smell another vampire’s scent in this house?”

“I said ‘hardly,’ Juliette, not ‘never.’ I have a younger sister and an older brother. Both created, not born. Evangeline paid me a visit today, not that her doing so is any concern of yours.”

Juliette’s eyes blazed for a moment as she stood, leaning across my table at me. “It is every concern of mine now that my brother is living here. I am Mark’s guardian, and I will not allow you to put him at risk.”

I stood as well, slowly, and stepped closer. My proximity forced Juliette to stand upright, and so I moved even closer, until we were nose to nose. I could feel my canines descending, my sudden anger kicking up my adrenaline.

“Let’s get one thing clear right away, dog,” I seethed, my voice dangerously low so that she knew I meant business. “You will watch your tone when you speak to me in my own house—or didn’t your mommy ever tell you it was a bad idea to piss off a vampire?”

“Now you look here—”

“I told you before that Mark is very important to me. As such, I am not about to knowingly put his life at risk, and I am a dhampyr, so I daresay I can take care of him myself. I would even go so far as to say that your services as guardian, whatever the hell that means, are no longer required.”

Juliette surprised me then by laughing. She turned and dropped back into the chair she had vacated, throwing one arm over the back with an air of nonchalance. “I am astounded by your arrogance, half-breed. But please, tell me why my brother is so important to you, when you’ve obviously just met him today.”

“That’s where you’d be wrong, at least in part. Mark just met me today, but I met him over two hundred years ago.”

She scoffed again. “That’s impossible; he’s only thirty years old. The only way that could be is if…”

Juliette’s eyes widened when she looked up at me. “You mean vampires imprint too?! How can that be—you’re all dead!”