The Broken City by Mary E. Twomey

1

The Vampire and the Deadblood

Colette

It’s hard to keep my nerves at bay when Rome and my father have their scheduled meetings.

Though our relationship is new and predictably rocky, we have struck a deal. Rome agreed not to bring up my embarrassing “I love you” slip I made a few days ago on the phone while I was at the movie theater, and I agreed not to mention him almost breaking up with me because things are most certainly going to be complicated going forward.

It’s going as well as one might expect the very first vampire-human pairing in history to unfold.

If anyone found out that the head of the Valentino family was calling me—the Last Deadblood—every night, they wouldn’t believe it.

Of course, no one would believe Rome has a poetic soul in the first place. They assume just because he inherited the mess of the West End from his father, that he doesn’t appreciate the finer things.

But the man makes me raspberry cannoli from scratch. He reads me poetry on the phone at night.

He kisses like a filthy, filthy dream.

We have fallen into our rhythm of clandestine phone calls and precious flirts, as well as a once-a-week Wednesday date. Though I wish we could have a normal relationship, I’ve always known that was not in the cards for me, no matter which man is at my side. Frankly, I’m surprised I haven’t received any threats from the revolution, claiming they will abduct me if I don’t give them my blood voluntarily.

Of course they want my blood; it’s the one thing that can kill vampires without fail. People fear what they don’t understand.

They certainly don’t understand Rome, or the entire race of people who were given a raw deal. The vampires are too beaten down to demand better.

Or perhaps the humans have stopped listening.

That’s what these meetings between my father and Rome are supposed to be. The sheriff is supposed to listen and be helpful (imagine that), while Rome makes an attempt at trust.

It’s a stretch for them both, but it happens twice a month outside my salon, and I love it every time. I want people to walk by my salon and see progress. I want them to see my sign that reads Vampires and Humans Welcome and feel a sense of peace about the world.

I really wish other businesses would follow suit. Midtown is a neutral space between the East and West sides of Mayfield. Still, my salon is one of the very few businesses that will actually cater to both races.

One step at a time, even if that step is tiny and feels like it is getting us nowhere.

The salon is busy, which makes me happy. But when the two show up for their biweekly chat, it’s like a cloud comes over the lighthearted atmosphere. People inch away from the window but keep their eyes on the two heads of the rival families who used to be close.

Instead of lighting up like a giant Christmas tree at the sight of Rome entering my salon, I let Rachel greet him because she is tending to the front desk for this hour. Rome hands her a sealed envelope and tells her it’s for the owner without meeting my eyes. Usually it’s an effort to pretend I am uncomfortable with him in my business, but not such an effort today, given that he tried to break up with me the last time I saw him.

Rome is stunning, even from a distance. His obsidian hair highlights the brightness of his ice blue eyes. His angular jaw is strong and casts emotion so well that he rarely has need for a smile. He is tall and leonine, with broad shoulders and a trim waist. I never cared much about the uniform the Valentino men all wear—white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled, black fitted trousers and a silver belt buckle—but on Rome, it is perfection.

Then my father enters a minute later.

Now I’m sweating.

The sheriff doesn’t know I am dating a vampire. He couldn’t possibly, I tell myself. I’m being perfectly normal.

My father and I exchange a few words to convince each other that we have absolutely no bad blood between us, which is a constant dance we do. We don’t talk about the fact that he sent me away when I was sick. We don’t talk about him letting us all down by alienating the West End and doing a bad job at law enforcement for so long. Because of his bigoted negligence, there is precious little hope we will be able to dig Mayfield out of the hole in which it is mired.

No, we don’t talk about any of it. I’m a good daughter.

Mostly.

“I’ll be out there with the Valentinos. You still okay with us meeting here?” my father asks, his chin lowered as if he actually cares about my response.

His hair is thinner these days, his skin dry and sagging. Even his thick neck is wrinkled. Though he is only in his sixties, he looks far more weathered. I’m not sure if it’s the job or if something deeper is going on, but if not for his dismissive attitude toward the things that matter, I might think him an older relative of the man who sent me away when I was only fifteen. That man was scary to argue with. This man—the aged one standing before me—still inspires fear in my soul, but there is a weariness to him that makes me think new ideas might actually have a fighting chance.

I wave my hand to dismiss his words. “It’s fine. Don’t shoot up the place when you two bulls disagree over which one of you knits the prettiest tea cozy.”

The sheriff snorts an airy laugh at my quip before exiting.

Huh. My father hasn’t been coming in to greet me before his meetings with Rome. He did once when I cut his hair, but never since. We do a pleasant “you don’t exist if I don’t look at you” sort of dance, which has served us both well.

My steps are measured as I retrieve the sealed envelope from my mailbox slot and slip into my office. My door locks and I rush to my desk, tearing open the envelope to find…

What am I looking at? Ledger sheets?

A small note from Rome slips out. “I know Martin’s Dry Cleaners is involved in the drug game that’s killing the West End. Stayed up late trying to find the hole in their books. Stayed up later thinking of you. Maybe you can be my second pair of eyes.”

A girlish smile takes over my features as an exhale rocks my body. He’s not going to call me out on my embarrassing “I love you” slip, nor is he breaking up with me in a letter.

Thank goodness. We can pretend neither of those things ever happened.

Memories of our most recent dip in the lake flood my mind, bringing my gaze to my wrist.

The white gold diamond bracelet is far too dressy for work, but I can’t help myself. He clasped it around my wrist the last time we went to our beach. I was in cutoffs and a sweatshirt, my hood on to fend off the brunt of the chilly autumn weather. We’d been laughing together and making out under our favorite tree when he fixed it on my wrist.

We get one date a week, and we spend it on a stretch of beach no one frequents this time of year. We wanted to be so far away that no one from Mayfield would see us.

When I gaped at the luxury, he held up a hand to stave off my spluttering. “For the record, this is me holding myself back. I put back the necklace I wanted to buy you last week, and I walked away from the bulletproof windows I wanted your car outfitted with two weeks ago.”

I’d stared at the bracelet, much like I am doing now, wondering how my life took such a dramatic turn. Rome’s affection is lavish and loud, even when we have to be silent about it.

Rome is a constant puzzle. He is committed to us completely, but whenever he realizes the danger to me that might come because of our relationship, he gets this altruistic streak that tells him to break things off for my safety.

I do my best to enjoy our relationship while it’s here. While the world will still leave us alone.

Though I have an appointment in ten minutes, I comb over the copy of the ledger from Martin’s Dry Cleaners. At first glance, things appear in order, but I know better than to brush off Rome’s gut. If he thinks this business has something to do with the dreaded and highly addictive halluci-blend coming into Mayfield, then this is the place to look.

Some of the products they are buying I am not educated on, so I look up every single one, making a note of each business they’ve bought from so I can investigate their dealings, too.

This is turning into a longer project than I had anticipated. The spreadsheet I am putting together on my laptop is practically groaning at the amount of data that might actually lead to nothing important.

When I am interrupted by a knock, I cringe at the time. I am five minutes late for my client, which is not acceptable.

Victor pops his head in with a smile. “I shampooed your one o’clock. You want me to cut her, too?” He adjusts the brunette bun atop his head.

There’s not a drop of judgment or anything passive aggressive in his question. Victor is being a team player, which is a truly good feeling. I love that I have surrounded myself with such solid people.

However, I despise that I am the one for which they are picking up slack. That’s not me. “I’ve got it. Thank you, Victor. Count on taking my tip from this one, okay? Sorry. I got caught up.”

Victor high-fives me and then runs a finger over his eyebrows to straighten them. “Don’t sweat it. I’ve got your back, Boss.”

To make up for my tardiness, I am extra chatty and on the ball while I tend to my client. When the next one comes in after I finish up with her, I notice that Rome is still at the table with my father.

They are usually done by now.

Orlando stands behind his cousin like a sentry, silent but visible enough to enforce respect. I hate that my father needs the visual reminder to be a decent person.

Orlando looks much like Rome, only taller and with a more intimidating musculature.

Also, I’ve seen Rome smile, but Orlando doesn’t bother with levity, as it doesn’t get the job done.

Usually, their meetings don’t last more than half an hour, but the two are glaring at each other with an intensity that twists my stomach.

I grumble at the two under my breath, even though I know they cannot hear me. “Nice attempt at peace, guys. I’m sure everyone in Mayfield is convinced.”

I don’t hold my father in the high esteem many girls do their fathers, but part of me does wish he could take a shine to Rome. I also don’t care if my eldest brother, Fintan, gets along with Rome, but it would be nice. Fintan doesn’t really like me all that much, so I can’t expect him to like my boyfriend.

But if Declan—my favorite brother and closest friend in the world—lives his whole life hating my secret boyfriend, that is going to be hard to swallow. One day, I will have to tell Declan. We don’t keep secrets from each other. Not like this one.

My mouth goes dry as a horrible thought occurs to me.

I very much care if Rome is telling my father that we are dating.

He wouldn’t do that. It’s suicide.

My palms are sweating. My fingers start to twitch, so as soon as I finish the cut I am working on, I quickly excuse myself to my office once more, digging through my purse for my pills.

I swallow one without the need for water to choke it down. I can’t take chances today, or I’ll have a flareup at work. Stress is a major contributor to setting off the condition I swore to my doctor up and down I had mastered.

I count to sixty, knowing the fast-acting stuff is well on its way to helping me regain control before I lose myself completely.

Cutting hair with trembling hands is a bad idea. My condition leaves no room for my pride or trying to muscle through.

I place the flat of my hands atop my desk, breathing in and out slowly to make sure no part of me is shaking.

This is my business. My salon. I don’t need to feel anxious here.

When I walk back into the bustle of my business, I notice the two bulldogs outside at the table have traded up from glares to a full-on argument. My father is talking wildly with his hands while Rome is sitting back in his seat, adding a word here and there with a curled upper lip.

The people sitting on my white leather couches in the waiting area aren’t reading their magazines or looking at their phones. They are staring out the picture window at the burgeoning feud framed perfectly before them in front of my business.

My stylists are more intent on their work than ever before, only they’re all silent, pretending they don’t see the storm brewing outside.

This is not the atmosphere I set out to create. I have lavender walls, for crying out loud. That color bespeaks civility, not angry men gunning for each other.

I am wearing a short, teal high-waisted pencil skirt with a fitted baby blue blouse tucked into it. My hair has been woven into two French braids that twist into a chocolate-brown bun at the base of my neck.

I clearly dressed for a fun, peaceful environment.

I did not get out of bed today to referee their fighting.

I am an adult. I don’t have to tolerate my father’s tantrums anymore. I can stand up to him. I can make my voice matter.

“Be right back,” I sing to Rachel and Victor, who stiffen and cast me warning looks to be careful.

Nah.Careful gets you nowhere.

I roll my shoulders back, draw myself up and stalk outside. I pull strength from the click of my heels. The formidable sound lets people know that a reckoning is coming.

“You think I have the resources to deal with your mess?” my father booms.

“Good afternoon, Miss Kennedy,” Rome greets me, ignoring my father’s temper.

How it’s not clear that I am infatuated with this man, I’m not sure.

Rome meets my gaze and I wet my lower lip on instinct.

Not now, dummy.

I pull over a third chair to join the two heads at the table—something not even Orlando has the gall to do. I cross my left leg over my right and drum my fingertips on the lavender-painted table. “Good afternoon, Rome. Sheriff. Seems we have a bit of a problem, here. I’ve got it in my silly little head that I’m running a business, but you two seem to think that this salon exists solely for you to yell at each other. Care to share with the teacher what it is we’re shouting about?”

My father doesn’t like my condescending sing-song tone, which is exactly why I’m using it. He combs his fingers through his thinning light brown curls. Then he sniffs and swipes at his bulbous nose. “None of your business.”

I force a throaty laugh. “Actually, it’s none of their business.” I point to my customers inside the building. “But this whole place is my business. All my business. So you’re going to tell me what’s going on, and you’re going to do it with a smile. The peace treaty is only as solid as the smiles on your faces, so sell it better than this.” My grin has a maniacal gleam to it as I lock eyes on my father. “Come on, now. Smile for the cameras. Everyone is watching us.”

My father flinches because those are the exact words he used to say to me every time we went out in public when I was a little girl.

No, I am not about to make this easy for him.