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House of Night Book 3
P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast
"Yep, I have a seriously sucky birthday," I told my cat, Nala.
(Okay, truthfully she's not so much my cat as I'm her person. You know how it is with cats: They don't really have owners, they have staff. A fact I mostly try to ignore.)
Anyway, I kept talking to the cat as if she hung on my every word, which is soooo not the case. "It's been seventeen years of sucky December twenty-fourth birthdays. I'm totally used to it by now. No big deal." I knew I was saying the words just to convince myself. Nala "mee-uf-owed" at me in her grumpy-old-lady cat voice and then settled down to lick her privates, clearly showing that she understood I was full of b.s.
"Here's the deal," I continued as I finished smudging a little liner on my eyes. (And I mean a little—the line-your-eyes-till-you-look-like-a-scary-raccoon is definitely not the look for me. Actually, it's not the look for anyone.) "I'm gonna get a bunch of well-meaning presents that aren't really birthday presents— they're stuff that's Christmas themed because people always try to mush my birthday with Christmas, and that seriously doesn't work." I met Nala's big green eyes in the mirror. "But we're going to smile and pretend we're fine with the dorky birthmas gifts because people do not get that they can't mush a birthday into Christmas. At least not successfully."
"Exactly how I feel about it, but we'll be nice 'cause it's even worse when I say something. Then I get crappy gifts and everyone's upset and things turn all awkward." Nala didn't look convinced, so I focused my attention on my reflection. For a second I thought I might have gone too heavy on the eyeliner, but I looked closer and realized that what was making my eyes look so huge and dark wasn't anything as ordinary as eyeliner. Even though it had been two months since I'd been Marked to become a vampyre, the sapphire-colored crescent-moon tattoo between my eyes and the elaborate filigree of interlocking lacework tattoos that framed my face still had the ability to surprise me. I traced one of the curving jewel-blue spiral lines with the tip of my finger. Then almost without conscious thought I pulled the already wide neck of my black sweater down so that it exposed my left shoulder. With a flick of my head I tossed back my long dark hair so that the unusual pattern of tattoos that began at the base of my neck and spread over my shoulder and down either side of my spine to the small of my back was visible. As always, the sight of my tattoos gave me an electric thrill that was part wonder and part fear.
"You're not like anyone else," I whispered to my reflection. Then I cleared my throat and continued in an overly perky voice. "And it's okay not to be like anyone else." I rolled my eyes at myself. "Whatever." I looked up over my head, half surprised that it wasn't visible. I mean, I could definitely feel the ginormic dark cloud that had been following me around for the past month. "Hell, I'm surprised it's not raining in here. And wouldn't that be just great for my hair?" I sarcastically told my reflection. Then I sighed and picked up the envelope I'd laid on my desk, the heffer family was embossed in gold above the sparkling return address. "Speaking of depressing…" I muttered.
Nala sneezed again.
"You're right. Might as well get it over with." I reluctantly opened the envelope and pulled out the card. "Ah, hell. It's worse than I thought." There was a huge wooden cross on the front of the card. Staked to the middle of the cross (with a bloody nail) was an old time scroll-like paper. Written (in blood, of course) were the words: He IS the reason for the season. Inside the card was printed (in red letters): MERRY CHRISTMAS. Below that, in my mom's handwriting, it said: I hope you're remembering your family during this blessed time of the year. Happy Birthday, Love, Mom and Dad.
"That's so typical," I told Nala. My stomach hurt. "And he is not my dad." I ripped the card in two and threw it into the wastepaper basket, then stood staring at the torn pieces. "If my parents aren't ignoring me, they're insulting me. I like being ignored better."
The knock on my door made me jump.
"Zoey, everyone wants to know where you are." Damien's voice carried easily through the door.
"Hang on—I'm almost ready," I yelled, shook myself mentally, and gave my reflection one more look, deciding, with a definitely defensive edge, to leave my shoulder bare. "My Marks aren't like anyone else's. Might as well give the masses something to gawk at while they talk," I muttered.
Then I sighed. I'm usually not so grumpy. But my sucky birthday, my sucky parents…
No. I couldn't keep lying to myself.
"Wish Stevie Rae was here," I whispered.
And that was it, what had me withdrawing from my friends (including boyfriends—both of them) during the past month and impersonating a large, soggy, disgusting, rain cloud. I missed my best friend and ex-roommate, who everyone had watched die a month ago, but who I knew had actually been turned into an undead creature of the night. No matter how melodramatic and bad B movie that sounded. The truth was that right now, when Stevie Rae should have been downstairs puttering around with my lame birthday details, she was actually lurking about somewhere in the old tunnels under Tulsa, conspiring with other disgusting undead creatures who were truly evil, as well as definitely bad-smelling.
"Uh, Z? You okay in there?" Damien's voice called again, interrupting my mental blahs. I scooped up a complaining Nala, turned my back on the terrible birthmas card from my 'rentals, and hurried out the door, almost running over a worried-looking Damien.
"Sorry… sorry…" I mumbled. He fell in step beside me, giving me quick little sideways glances.
"I've never known anyone before who was as not excited as you about their birthday," Damien said.
I dropped the squirming Nala and shrugged, trying for a nonchalant smile. "I'm just practicing for when I'm old as dirt—like thirty—and I need to lie about my age."
Damien stopped and turned to face me. "Okayyyy." He dragged the word out. "We all know that thirty-year-old vamps still look roughly twenty and definitely hot. Actually one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old vamps still look roughly twenty and definitely hot. So the whole lying about your age issue is a nonissue. What's really going on with you?"
While I hesitated, trying to figure out what I should or could say to Damien, he raised one neatly plucked brow and, in his best schoolteacher voice, said, "You know how sensitive my people are to emotions, so you may as well just give up and tell me the truth."
I sighed again. "You gays are freakishly intuitive."
"That's us: homos—the few, the proud, the hypersensitive."
"Isn't homo a derogatory term?"
"Not if it's used by a homo. By the by, you're stalling and it's so not working for you." He actually put his hand on his hip and tapped his foot.
I smiled at him, but knew that the expression didn't reach my eyes. With an intensity that surprised me, I suddenly, desperately