How to disappear completely
Phone calls at six in the morning were rarely good news, so it was with a frown that Natalie picked up the receiver. It had been her night off, and she had managed to get the bulk of her laundry done, as well as straighten out her apartment. Now, she was ready for a good soak in the tub before crawling into bed.
"Lambert," she answered the phone, expecting to be summoned to work in order to fill in for someone on day shift.
There was a moment of silence before a voice rasped, "Nat, it's me."
"Schanke, what's up?" Natalie raised her eyebrows as she became aware of the background noise -- the steady sounds of a heart monitor. "Where are you?"
"Mercy Hospital. I just came out of surgery. I took a hit in the shoulder, but it's no big deal."
"Oh my God, are you going to be alright? What happened? Where's your partner?"
For several moments, Natalie only heard the heart monitor as the silence stretched.
"He didn't make it, Nat," Schanke finally said.
"We were down by the docks, looking for a suspect from the Franklin case. We had seen him entering an empty warehouse, so Nick took the back and I entered through the front. By the time I reached the second storey, Nick had already collared the guy and brought him down. We put him in the backseat and called dispatch for backup. I was just commenting on how we would be able to wrap up this case neatly and book off early tonight when Nick got this weird look. The moment he shouted for me to get down, I was hit in the shoulder. It was this kid, just running at us with a semi." Schanke paused. "Instead of seeking cover behind the car, Nick remained right in front of me while this kid pumped an entire magazine into him." Agitation was evident in his voice. "Damn it, what was he thinking? That he was bulletproof or what? --- Anyway, he somehow managed to tackle the perp and broke his neck before collapsing on top of him. When I turned him over, his chest looked like a Swiss cheese." Schanke swallowed. "I called for paramedics, but there was nothing they could do. He was dead before they arrived."
For a moment, Natalie was speechless. Nick couldn't be dead! Of course he would survive being shot. She had lost count of the number of bullets she had already removed from his body and it never ceased to amaze her how his skin mended itself afterwards. "Where is he?" she demanded.
"I guess they brought him directly to the morgue. I'm sorry, Natalie. I thought it might be best if I told you. I didn't want an impersonal notification by a uniformed officer."
Natalie swallowed. The morgue. What if Nick sat up on the autopsy table again, scaring the hell out of one of her unsuspecting co-workers? "Listen, Schank, I --- I need to go."
Without waiting for another reply she ended the call, grabbed her coat and rushed out.
* * *
The morgue was eerily deserted, with most of the night shift already gone while the day shift had yet to arrive. Natalie scanned the records until she found the location of Nick's body. With a hint of anticipation, she opened the door to the cold storage. The gurney inside was empty.
Letting out the breath she had been holding, Natalie closed the door and left the morgue. On the way to the loft, she tried to figure out how they were going to explain another missing body.
* * *
"Nick?" Natalie called as she pulled open the lift door.
The loft was flooded by the morning sun, indicating the absence of its owner. Natalie took note of the row of empty green bottles on the kitchen counter, meticulously rinsed out to dispel any trace of their previous contents. Although not happy about the apparent indulgence, Natalie cut him some slack, since he probably needed it after the major injury. Yet she was surprised to discover that the only remaining contents of the refrigerator were a single protein shake and a half eaten box of Chinese take-out, which she identified as her own, left over from her last visit two nights ago.
"Damn it, Nick. Where are you?" Natalie could think of only one other place where he could be. She returned to her car and drove to the Raven.
* * *
The club looked forsaken in the glittering sunlight. Natalie rapped at the solid door, not really expecting someone to answer, given the nature of the Raven's inhabitants. After several minutes, she gave up and returned home.
"Might as well get some sleep," she thought, aware that she wouldn't get any further until the sun set.
* * *
She had been up for an hour when her door bell rang early in the evening.
"Grace!" Natalie was surprised to see her friend.
Her co-worker engulfed her into a hug. "Oh, Natalie, I'm so sorry. Schanke called you, didn't he?"
Natalie swallowed, only now realizing the repercussions. She really needed to talk to Nick about how they were going to handle the situation. "Yeah, I know what happened, Grace. Thanks for stopping by. Can I get you some coffee?"
"I'd like that." Grace followed Natalie into the kitchen. "You're handling this unusually well."
Natalie tried to focus on preparing the coffee. "Um, I guess I need some time to digest it. It kind of doesn't seem real yet."
"Of course, you're in denial. Take some time off, Nat. Don't you worry about a thing! I'll find someone to fill in."
Natalie filled two mugs and handed one to her friend. "Thanks, Grace. I could use tonight off. But I'll be back tomorrow night. How's Schanke doing? Is he going to be alright?"
"I called Myra. If he behaves himself, they'll release him tomorrow. He got lucky. You know," Grace hesitated, checking Natalie's reaction, "Schanke would've been killed, too, if it hadn't been for Nick shielding him."
"I got to run," Grace announced. "Let me know if you need anything. Or if you just want to talk."
"Thanks, Grace." Natalie hugged her again before she left.
Five minutes later, Natalie was in her car, heading to the Raven again. The club was already open when she arrived. She spotted Janette at the bar and pushed her way through the crowd.
"Dr. Lambert," the beautiful vampire acknowledged her.
"Where is he?" Natalie demanded.
An imperceptible nod towards a door marked Private was all the invitation Natalie needed. She headed through the door and down a hallway. The sound of Nick's voice led her into a living room. Dressed in black jeans and a black shirt, Nick was pacing the room while he talked on the phone.
"I'll call you back later, Aristotle," he ended the call as he saw Natalie stepping in.
The next instant, she was in his arms. "Nick!" Although she knew he'd be alright, it was a relief to see him without a scratch. "Nick, everybody thinks you're dead. How are we going to fix this?"
Carefully, Nick pried her arms from around him and looked at her sadly. "We can't, Nat. It's over. Too many people have seen my body."
"What? What are you talking about?"
"It's time to move on."
"Can't you hypnotize the people who've seen you and make them forget?"
Nick looked at her with a trace of humour. "It's strange hearing you say that. You're the one who always berated me for using that."
"You shouldn't do it to get your car washed, but this is a major crisis!"
Nick shook his head. "It's too far spread. Nick Knight is dead. It's already in the paper, haven't you seen it?" He picked up a newspaper page from the table and held it out to her.
Stunned, Natalie sat down on the couch and scanned the article that gave a minute description of last night's events, including a statement from Captain Cohen. "You're leaving," she breathed in shock. He wasn't dead, but yet he would be gone.
Nick sat down beside her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, squeezing gently. "I don't have a choice, Nat."
"As soon as I can make arrangements. I cannot be seen here anymore."
Natalie stared at him in panic, realizing that this might be their last time together.
"Where will you go?"
"I don't know yet. I hadn't expected this to happen. Europe maybe."
"Are you going to stay in touch?"
"It's too dangerous, Nat. I should avoid Toronto for the next fifty years."
"But what about --- " she wanted to say 'us' but stopped herself, knowing full well that there was no 'us' given their extraordinary circumstances. "---your cure?" she ended the question instead.
Nick stood and walked toward a sideboard where he picked up a full goblet to take a sip. "It nearly killed Schanke."
"What do you mean?" Natalie furrowed her brows.
"Normally, bullets don't affect me like this. The reason why I was knocked out was that I had one of your protein shakes instead of my usual. I really tried, Nat." His voice turned bitter. "See where it has gotten me."
Natalie walked over to him and placed a comforting hand on his arm. "You know, you should avoid getting shot at all when you become mortal," she reminded him.
"Easier said than done," Nick sighed. "I'm sorry I put you through this. This must be hard on you."
"Do you have any idea how this makes me feel?" She tried not to become angry, but it was there nonetheless. "First, Schanke tells me you were dead. Once I recovered from that shock, I realized that, of course, you were alive and well. That was a tremendous relief. Then Grace drops by, offering comfort because she thinks I'm a pile of devastation. I hardly know how to react to that, knowing that nothing was wrong. Now, you tell me you're leaving. And above all, I have to deal with another missing body at the morgue."
"You won't. It's already been taken care of. Since there was no doubt about the cause of death, my body has already been released. You will find the proper records."
Natalie felt a slight chill creeping up her bones. This went far too smoothly for her taste. "That was fast. Will you vanish as quickly?"
"Not tonight. I guess I'll still be here tomorrow."
"Just promise me you will say good-bye before you leave. You owe me at least that much." She didn't wait for a reply as tears were welling up in her eyes. She didn't want to break down in front of him. So she left without a backward glance.
* * *
"You do know that you will have to deal with her before you leave." Janette stepped into the living room shortly after Natalie had left.
"You've been listening," Nick scolded.
Janette gave him a dimpled smile. "Oui, of couse, mon cher. So, what will you do about her, hmm?"
Nick brushed his hand through his hair. "You know it's best to cut all ties."
"Oh chéri, you haven't thought about the consequences, have you?" Janette berated him. "She knows, Nicolas. She knows more about us than any mortal ever has before. It was fine as long as you were here to keep an eye on her. But when you're gone, her knowledge will no longer be tolerated."
Nick's eyes widened. "You mean they will come and kill her?"
"You know the Code," Janette shrugged.
"But she's a resistor. I can't make her forget. And I can't possibly ask her to come with me. Her life is here, among the living."
* * *
Natalie drove home in a daze. She sagged onto her couch and cuddled her afghan, as the tears began to run freely.
She must have dozed off because her door bell pulled her rudely awake. Checking the clock, she realized that it was ten in the morning. Not caring how she might look in the mirror, Natalie answered the door.
"I knew it would be getting to you eventually, girl," Grace observed.
During the embrace, Natalie started to cry again. "He will be gone, Grace," she lamented. "Just like that. No good-byes. Nothing."
Grace led Natalie back to the couch and comforted her until Natalie's tears dried up.
"Schanke is going to be released from the hospital this morning," Grace said in an attempt to cheer Natalie up.
Natalie blew her nose. "That's good. At least Myra and Jenny won't be left behind."
"I know this is hard right now, but they say it will get easier with time, Nat. Maybe you should take a vacation. You know, change of scenery. Get away for a while."
"A change of scenery," Natalie mumbled as an idea formed in her mind. Would it be too importunate to ask Nick to take her with him? She once thought that there might be more between them than mere friendship, but ever since last Valentine's Day, he had kept her at a distance. The worst that could happen was he'd refuse. But she would never know until she took the chance and asked him.
* * *
In the evening, Natalie returned to the Raven, making her way straight to the apartment in the back.
"He isn't here anymore."
Janette's words stopped her cold. "What?" A panic seized her, causing her heart to beat rapidly. "He's gone?"
Janette held her hands up in a soothing gesture and summoned her to the bar. "Detective Schanke dropped by to pay his condolences," she said, sounding slightly annoyed.
"Oh?" Good old Schanke.
"Nicolas no longer thought this was a safe place for him to hide." She wrote something down and handed the note to Natalie. "You will find him here."
Relieved, Natalie took the note. "Thank you!"
* * *
"Ward's Island?" Natalie wondered as she reread the address Janette had given her. She headed east and parked her car in a lot near Queen's Terminal. Fortunately, it was still early evening, so the ferries were running regularly.
* * *
After walking down Bayview Avenue, Natalie headed for the last house on the road, hidden behind several trees. Compared to the others she had passed, it had a unique architectural style, and no sign revealed the name of its owner. With a deep breath, Natalie raised her arm to knock on the door.
Before her hand touched the wood, the door opened and she found herself face to face with Lacroix.
"What are you doing here?" she gasped, trying to recover.
He regarded her with a rather amused expression. "What an odd question, Doctor Lambert, considering that it is you who knocked on my door."
"This is your place?"
"I assume you're here to see Nicholas," he stated without answering her question.
As he turned, Natalie followed him through the hall to a door that led into a parlour.
"Your problem is here, Nicholas. I will be in my study. Let me know when you require my assistance."
Natalie stared as the tall figure stalked away. She entered the parlour, taking in the tasteful furnishings, and spotted Nick on the couch, a glass of blood in front of him. "Is this really his place?"
Nick shrugged, a slight smile playing around his lips. "It's secluded, away from the lights. A perfect place to hide in the shadows."
"I guess he loves riding the ferry."
Nick gave her an amused look. "He doesn't need the ferry to get here."
"Right," Natalie mumbled and quickly changed the topic. "So I'm a problem now?"
Nick's features turned serious. "His wording, not mine. Sit down, Nat."
Curious, Natalie sat down beside him on the couch.
"I'm sorry I've put you in this situation, Nat. The problem is that you know far too much about us. It was tolerated as long as I was here. But when I'm gone, the Enforcers will interfere."
Natalie's eyes widened as he mentioned Enforcers, remembering when he had briefly described their purpose to her.
Nick reached for her hand. "Lacroix has agreed to alter your memories."
Natalie jumped from her seat. "Are you crazy? I will not let him meddle with my mind!"
"I can't do it, Nat. You're a resistor. He's able to work around that."
Natalie glared at him. "In case I didn't make myself clear, I will not let anyone meddle with my mind!"
"The alternative is not acceptable."
"Why don't you let me decide that, Nick? What is the alternative?"
"I can't ask that of you, Nat. It would mean too much of a change."
"What is it?" Natalie prepared herself for the worst.
Nick regarded her for a long moment as if uncertain how to phrase it. "If you would agree to come with me, we can continue the way we were."
Natalie couldn't believe what he was telling her. Her heart jumped in joy. "I think I could use a change in scenery. In fact, it's what Grace suggested to me today."
Nick regarded her probingly. "We are not talking about a two-week vacation, Nat. You would have to cut all your ties here and quit your friends, your family and your job. Are you prepared for that?"
"I'm aware of that. And you know that as a night-shift coroner, I do not have much of a social life, Nick. Any spare time I had usually revolved around you."
Nick raised his hand and drew his index finger tenderly along Natalie's cheek. "What have I done to you? I'm afraid I've utterly isolated you from the mortal world."
Although tempted to lean into the touch, Natalie drew back in response to his words. "Don't give me that stricken face. This has nothing to do with you, Nick. I worked the night shift before you sat up on my table. It pays better than day shift. And working in a morgue is, of course, a little removed from the mortal world. So yes, I could use a change in profession. I'd love to work with living patients again."
Sensing her determination, Nick nodded slowly. "It's a huge decision. Consider it for another day, Nat, and come back tomorrow evening. I'm going to make some calls."
"Where are we going?" she asked, excited at the prospect.
"Where would you like to go?"
Natalie thought for a moment. The question was unexpected, and so far she had focused all her energy on convincing him to take her with him. "I've never been to Europe. I'd like to see where you come from, Nick. Brabant, Paris…"
Nick smiled. "You shall, although not for a while." At Natalie's inquiring look, he continued. "We can't have you vanish too. Schanke is having a hard enough time as it is. Therefore, we will stay on the continent. That way, you can stay in touch by mail. Mortals have a tendency to decrease the frequency of contact over time due to the distance. Once this happens, we will move on completely."
Natalie wondered how often he had taken these steps.
"I'll walk you to the ferry," Nick interrupted her thoughts.
They arrived just in time for Natalie to catch the 10:15 p.m. departure. As the ferry pulled away from the pier, Natalie waved at Nick, feeling elated for the first time in days.
* * *
"Well?" A goblet in hand, Lacroix leaned against the mantel as Nick returned.
"She'll be accompanying me," Nick informed him.
"Permanently?" Lacroix raised his eyebrows.
"As a mortal," Nick emphasized.
"I see. Haven't you forgotten something?"
Nick had dreaded this particular conversation. "Our agreement," he mumbled.
"Apparently your untimely passing has not affected your memory." Lacroix's tone was laced with sarcasm. "Speaking of which, was it really necessary to list me as your next of kin? Imagine my surprise when your Captain walked into the studio and informed me of your heroic death. She even asked me to say a few words at your memorial service. I do not know whether to be flattered or annoyed, Nicholas."
Nick had utterly forgotten about that little detail in his file. It had been a prank from Larry Merlin when he had created Nick's background information two years ago. Nick hadn't cared because, at that time, he had believed Lacroix to be dead by his hand. He shrugged. "I didn't really expect to be killed on duty."
"It is my understanding that this wouldn't have happened on a healthy diet."
Nick hated it when Lacroix was right, but he couldn't deny the truth of his statement. The fact that he had to leave this life, which was the closest to a mortal existence he had ever managed to create, was due to his own doing. In his zeal to please Natalie, he had forfeited any chance to continue this life among their mutual friends in Toronto. "Probably not," Nick admitted after a pause.
"I'm so pleased that you're accessible to reason, Nicholas. I expect you to observe the same reason when you set up a household with Doctor Lambert. You will cease that ridiculous quest of yours."
"And if I refuse?"
"Then I will do with Doctor Lambert as I please." Before Nick opened his mouth to protest, Lacroix continued. "Certainly you will agree that you are far less hazardous to her health when you are on a proper diet."
"I don't even know if she wants to live under the same roof with me," Nick pointed out. He knew Natalie valued her independence, and he was certain that she would be repulsed if confronted with his lifestyle on a daily basis.
"Oh?" Lacroix looked surprised. "You underestimate your charm, Nicholas. I doubt she will leave your side anytime soon."
"If you think I would bring her across, you're mistaken, Lacroix."
"Of course, you won't. We both know how this would end, don't we? I would hate to watch you mourn her over the next decade."
Nick's eyes widened as he caught Lacroix's intention. "She does not want to be a vampire."
"So you plan on dragging her along until she withers of old age? What a terrible waste."
"Can't we just wait and see if she wants to stay with me at all? If this doesn't work out for her, she might yet agree to have her memory altered."
"I highly doubt that," Lacroix remarked. "But as you wish, provided you stick to a change in your diet."
Nick nodded reluctantly. He would switch back to human blood for Natalie's sake. Although he would not give up his quest. Just put it on hold for a while.
* * *
Natalie was glad when she finally boarded the ferry at 9:30 p.m. to Ward's Island. Grace had dropped by again in the late afternoon, and then Schanke had visited. She had sat in silence across from him, listening for over three hours as he related the events that had led to Nick's apparent death over and over. She felt horrible for not being able to tell him the truth that all was well. It made her even more resolved in her decision to accompany Nick. She didn't think she would ever be able to look Schanke straight in the eyes again as long as she had to lie to him.
* * *
"You've changed your mind," Nick stated as he opened the door to let her in.
"What? No! What makes you think that?" Natalie asked, confused while she followed him into the parlour.
"You're late. And I can sense that you're upset. What happened?"
Slightly unnerved by his keen observation, Natalie sat down on the couch. "Schanke happened."
"Yes. He kept apologizing to me. I didn't know what to say, Nick. So, yes, I'm glad when I can leave all this behind with you."
"Are you really sure? You are aware that it won't be just me. I come with --- baggage."
Natalie's eyes widened. "You mean Lacroix? He's coming with us?"
"Not right now. But he followed me for eight centuries. I wouldn't expect him to stop now. Is that a problem?"
"Actually yes, if he wants to kill me!"
"Ah, we've talked about that last night. And I think we've reached an agreement. You will be safe," Nick assured her.
Natalie regarded him suspiciously. "What did you promise him?"
"It's not important. Let's talk about our destination," Nick changed the subject. "I've made some inquiries on the job market." Seeing that he had Natalie's curiosity piqued, he asked, "Ever been to New Orleans?"
"No. I've always wanted to."
"Good," Nick smiled and reached for a folder from a side table. "Here's a list of open positions in several hospitals and other medical institutions. Check it out, and if there's anything you're interested in, send your application."
Natalie opened the folder and scanned the neatly compiled information, covering job descriptions, contact information, and requirements. "That's thorough work. I wish I had been as organized after med school."
"It's been done by experts in the field," Nick smiled. "We'll do your relocation by the book since you're going to keep your name for now."
"What about you?"
Nick reached out again and retrieved an envelope from the table. He pulled out an ID card and handed it to Natalie.
Natalie studied the small card that showed Nick's photo. "Nicolas Dureau? Jeez, Nick, your birth date says you're younger than me!"
Nick took the card back and glanced at it as if reading the information provided for the first time. With a shrug, he declared, "We can stay longer in a place when we start out young."
"Where do you get these things?"
"We have our resources." Nick returned the card into the envelope. "Are you sure you're going to be okay with all this?" Concern was evident in his voice.
"I'll get used to it. I just feel like a conspirator in some sort of witness protection programme." She stood and stored the folder in her bag. "I want to get started on these."
Nick accompanied her to the ferry dock, but as they arrived at the gate, Natalie realized that the last ferry for the night had departed ten minutes ago. "Oh no, the next goes at 6:45!" She knew there were no hotels on the islands, and she certainly didn't want to stay under Lacroix's roof. She was glad that he hadn't made an appearance all evening. Natalie tried to decipher the printed information in the nearby showcase in the dim light. "Can you find a number for a water taxi?"
"I have a better idea," Nick stated calmly. Before Natalie anticipated his move, he picked her up. "Trust me?"
Natalie merely nodded, too excited at finding herself suddenly in his arms. She gasped as they became airborne. The cold wind caused her eyes to water, preventing her from seeing anything except blurred lights in the distance. For protection, she turned her face against Nick's chest.
"Where's your car?" he asked.
"Car park on lower Yonge," she managed.
A moment later, Nick carefully set her back on her feet but held onto her until he was sure she had her balance.
"Whew, that was ---" she stopped, aware that her heart rate had increased significantly and that Nick would be able to hear it. Looking around, she found herself in a shadowy corner of the car park. "---convenient," she finished. Then she looked up at Nick. "You never did that before!"
"You were never in lack of conventional transportation before." He kissed her brow briefly, before releasing her. "You okay? I should be going before anyone sees me."
Natalie nodded and fetched her car keys from her pocket. Nick waited until she had closed the car door. Then, he took to the air. Natalie took several calming breaths before she started the ignition.
* * *
Nick started at the sound of a heavy box being thumped onto the table. Looking up, he saw Lacroix staring down at him, an angry look on his face and wisps of smoke emanating from his skin. "I guess I fell asleep. What happened to you? It's past dawn."
"Thank you for pointing out the obvious, Nicholas," Lacroix seethed. "I spent the remainder of the night listening to your friend, Schanke."
Nick swallowed. "He came to the studio? Again?"
"Apparently he felt that I was entitled to receive your personal effects." He reached into the box and retrieved a key chain. "Including your car keys."
Nick's eyes lit up as he held out his hand. "Where's the Caddy now?"
"Still in the parking garage of your police station. I was about to reject the keys when I recognised the key to the Raven on the chain. Really, Nicholas, such negligence."
"Would you mind picking the car up for me?"
"And then what? Are you intending to drive it across the border?"
Nick slumped back into his seat. "Of course not," he mumbled. Maybe he could have it signed over to Natalie's name and have it shipped to New Orleans. "What else did Schanke want?"
"He had a strong desire to talk. I suppose I'm now acquainted with every single arrest you've made in the last two years. You are aware that he is still trying to figure out how you accomplished certain things?"
"Is he going to be a problem?" Nick dreaded the answer. The last thing he wanted for Schanke was a visit from the Enforcers.
"Probably not – provided he doesn't make inquiries in the wrong circles. I shall keep an eye on him."
Nick nodded in acknowledgement. "Thank you. I'm in your debt."
"That you are, Nicholas."
* * *
The next days went by in a flash. Natalie sent her records to several hospitals and universities and was very excited to receive a call from the Health Sciences Department of Tulane University. They wanted to see her for an interview regarding a research position at the Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics Laboratory. She agreed to a meeting in two weeks.
She went back to work to turn in her resignation and wrap up outstanding reports. Her co-workers were stunned but understood her decision.
Then there was Nick's memorial service. It had been scheduled early in the evening so that the night shift could attend before going on duty. Natalie was surprised to see Lacroix and Janette among the attendees, both looking utterly bored throughout the speeches that highlighted Nick's accomplishments at Metro Police. She held her breath when Lacroix stepped forward to accept the Canadian flag on behalf of Nick's family.
"When did they go public about it?" Natalie whispered to Janette.
"Detective Schanke was aware of the connection. Unfortunately, our dear Nicolas has the uncanny tendency to draw everyone into the mortal world we try to distance ourselves from. We hope Detective Schanke will stop bothering us after we go through with this ceremony. If he continues to visit the Raven and CERK to talk about Nicolas, we may have to move on as well."
Natalie considered this information, realizing that she would truly have Nick all to herself if Lacroix and Janette didn't follow immediately. She smiled. If she got that lab position, she would have access to all the equipment she needed to continue her research of Nick's blood.
Her attention was drawn back to Lacroix, who had stepped up to the microphone. "Allow me to say a few words on Nicholas' behalf," he addressed the crowd. "I know that Nicholas would have been quite pleased to see so many of you gathered here today. I can assure you that the sentiment was mutual. Nicholas valued his work with the police very highly, and the lives of each of you mattered to him more than you will ever know. In fact, in true fashion of his name, he was devoted to defend your lives regardless of his own. Certainly one cannot hope for a more satisfactory exit than the one fate had in store for him." Lacroix held Schanke's gaze for a long moment. "Do not jeopardize the lives he held in such high regard by lingering too long on his absence. You will only get distracted and become a liability. Nicholas would have wanted you to move on as he has done for good." Lacroix nodded towards Captain Cohen and stepped from the stage.
"That was actually quite nice," Natalie remarked as she observed the impression Lacroix's speech had made on the officers in the room.
Janette leaned closer to her. "The man has commanded Roman armies. Surely he knows how to address a room of cops."
Natalie suppressed a giggle. "I suppose he loves to hear himself talk, doesn't he?"
"Why do you think he chose a radio show as his pastime?" Janette whispered back.
"You would do well to get used to it if you intend to join my family, Doctor Lambert," a velvet voice spoke behind her, causing the hair on the back of Natalie's neck to stand on edge.
Natalie gasped in surprise. "Join your family? I don't think so, Lacroix."
He raised his eyebrows. "No? I thought you were going to accompany my son."
"And you do love Nicholas, do you not?"
"I don't think that's any of your business," Natalie hissed angrily.
"And that's where you're wrong," he informed her before turning to Janette. "I believe we've lingered among Nicholas' associates long enough. Shall we?"
Janette nodded. "Au révoir, Natalie."
* * * *
Natalie was still disturbed by Lacroix's implications when she returned home. After sorting out her feelings, she realized that it wasn't so much what Lacroix had said about her joining the family that bothered her. It was her continued uncertainty where she stood with Nick. While she loved him enough to turn her life upside down on his behalf, his feelings seemed to have changed since last Valentine's Day. She knew he still cared deeply for her, but she feared he had gone back to regarding her as a sister. Did he merely take her with him because he felt responsible for her?
A rap on the balcony door roused her from her reverie. "Nick!" she exclaimed as the object of her contemplation stepped into her apartment. The black jacket, shirt and jeans he wore created a sharp contrast to his pale skin. His tousled hair confirmed his way of arrival by air, and her heart rate increased as she remembered her own recent experience with this mode of transportation.
"Are you okay?" Nick asked, taking note of the change in her heart rate. "Janette mentioned that you were upset during the service. How did it go?"
Natalie wasn't sure how to react to this information. "The memorial service? I'm glad it's over. It helped actually that I wasn't the only one who knew that you're alive." She paused briefly, glancing down on her hands. "Lacroix made some odd remarks about me joining the family. What did he mean?"
Nick tensed visibly. "He shouldn't have phrased it like that. He meant that you're going to accompany me to New Orleans."
"You think so? Nick, I heard his little speech tonight. Every word was well chosen to convey precisely what he wanted. If he had merely wanted to comment on me accompanying you, he would have said so."
Nick sighed. "All right. We have different views on what will happen in New Orleans."
Natalie furrowed her brows. "We haven't even left yet and you're already at odds about the outcome?"
When Nick merely shrugged, Natalie continued this line of thought. "If he thinks I'm going to stay, then you must think I would leave. I hate to agree with him, but why would you think that, Nick? Unless you don't want me to come with you. Am I just a burden? A left-over responsibility from your life here?"
Natalie choked on her last words as tears formed in her eyes, and she angrily turned away from him. Instantly, she felt his hands on her upper arms, gently turning her back to him. His hands lifted her face, and she felt his soft lips touching her own in a tender kiss.
"Not a burden, Nat," he assured her. "You're a precious jewel I would rather keep for all eternity."
Natalie felt immensely relieved. "All the more reason to stay with you." She raised herself up to her toes and kissed him again. When he pulled away, she saw a hue of gold in his eyes that vanished immediately as he blinked.
"Nat, you're far too smart to let yourself be drawn into my world," Nick warned.
"And I've already told you I won't have my memories altered if that's the alternative."
Nick smiled in response to her determination and retrieved a few documents from his coat pocket. "Okay, then. I've booked you a flight to New Orleans on Tuesday."
Natalie glanced at the flight information printed on the ticket. "Nick, that's during the day. Aren't we flying together?"
"I'm officially dead," he reminded her. "I can't board a plane in Toronto. I'll be flying out of Buffalo tonight."
"Tonight?" Natalie looked up anxiously.
He gave her a small card with a New Orleans address written on it. "Since you'll be arriving during the day, I can't pick you up. This is where you'll find me. There's enough room for you to stay as long as you wish." He handed her another business card. "This is a company specialized on moving entire households. Call them whenever you're ready. They'll handle everything from packing boxes to shipping them to New Orleans."
Natalie regarded the card suspiciously. "I suppose they work only at night?"
Nick grinned in the affirmative. "Should you run into any problems before you leave, call Janette. She knows how to reach me."
Natalie found this arrangement a little odd but refrained from commenting. Instead, she nodded and found her lips claimed again by Nick. "I'll see you in New Orleans," he whispered roughly into her ear before returning to the balcony. He was already gone when Natalie followed him.
* * * *
Natalie's excitement grew as the plane took a turn, giving her a fantastic first view of her new hometown on the Mississippi River. A few minutes later, the plane landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport. Her immigration did not go as smoothly as she had hoped because she didn't have a return ticket. Fortunately, she had the invitation letter from Tulane University handy, which satisfied the officers. If she got the job, she would have to apply for a Green Card. Her suitcase was already waiting for her when she got to the baggage claim area, and she proceeded to the bulky baggage counter to pick up Sydney in his travel cage.
"Dr. Lambert?" a man in a chauffeur's uniform addressed her as she stepped into the arrival area.
"Yes?" Natalie asked.
"Monsieur Dureau arranged for your transportation. If you would follow me." He relieved Natalie of her baggage.
"How did you know who I am?" Natalie wanted to know.
"Monsieur Dureau told me to look out for a lady with a cat."
"I see." Natalie smiled and followed the chauffeur to a waiting limousine. Although Nick had basically asked her to move in with him, she wasn't sure if that included Sydney. And he had departed before she could ask.
* * * *
The address Nick had given her was situated in the Garden District of New Orleans, featuring many of the well-restored historic southern mansions. Natalie gasped as the car pulled into the driveway of one of them. The chauffeur opened the car door, and Natalie exited, admiring the smooth marble columns that supported the roof, creating a shady porch.
"It's already taken care of," the chauffeur informed her as she handed him a tip. "Enjoy your stay, madame."
Nodding, Natalie took the two steps that led onto the porch and rang the bell. A moment later, the door was opened by Nick, who took care to keep out of the sunlight that flooded the entrance hall. Natalie quickly entered and put down her baggage as Nick closed the door behind her. "Don't tell me this was on sale on such short notice." She indicated the hall.
"It wasn't. Actually, it's been in the family for a while," Nick responded vaguely.
"For a while?"
"For one or two centuries. I've been using it on and off when I'm in New Orleans. Do you think you could feel comfortable here? Of course, if you'd rather prefer your own apartment, I can ---"
"Are you kidding? I love it! It's fantastic. I'm afraid to let Sydney romp around though."
"It survived the Civil War. It will certainly survive Sydney," Nick soothed her and picked up her belongings. "Come on, I'll show you around."
He led her up a curved staircase that dominated the entrance hall. On the upper level, there were several doors. He opened one of them and stepped aside to let her enter.
Natalie's eyes widened in awe. The room she entered was bigger than her entire apartment in Toronto. It featured a seating area, a writing desk, a dressing table and the bed. One door led to a dressing room and another into the bathroom. To her delight, she noticed that her boxes had already arrived and were piled up in a corner.
"It's facing east. You can watch the sunrise from the balcony," Nick provided.
Natalie couldn't remember when she had last consciously watched a sunrise, but apparently it was important for Nick to make her feel human in his presence. She turned to him and kissed his cheek. "I don't need the sunrise as long as I have you at my side, Nick." Taking care that he wasn't in the line of light, she pulled the curtain a bit to the side and stepped onto the balcony. She looked into a beautiful garden, surrounded by oak trees.
"It's amazing." She returned inside and put the curtain back in place.
"It was part of a plantation back in the early 19th century," Nick informed her.
Natalie regarded him squarely. "You ran a plantation?"
"Actually, Lacroix did. I was more into enjoying the social privileges that came along with it. You know, attending the Governor's ball and all that."
"I see." Natalie recalled the book by Emily Weiss she had read and could very well imagine the impression he must have made. Although he had denied the melodrama, Nick had admitted that Emily hit more than she missed.
They returned downstairs, where Nick showed her the library off to the left from the entrance hall. Natalie stopped to regard the stunning portrait of Janette above the mantelpiece. She wore a fashionable dress in the style of the early 19th century. Her hair was piled up high on her head, highlighting her slender neck that was adorned with a sparkling diamond necklace, matching her earrings.
"I probably should have taken that down," Nick said in an apologizing tone.
"Don't start redecorating on my account, Nick. It's beautiful, and it fits perfectly into this room. I know you have a past. But I'm here now and she's not. That's all that counts for me."
Nick squeezed her hand in affection and gestured to two of her boxes that had been stacked down here. "I'll clear off a shelf so that you can put your books here."
Natalie nodded, although she wasn't sure how her medical books and romance novels would look beside what she suspected to be first editions.
Across the hall was a huge parlour. Natalie recognized several items from the loft, among them Nick's piano and the big flat screen television set.
In the back of the house was a small kitchen. "I've bought some essentials." Nick opened the cupboards to show her coffee and tea. "But I thought I'd rather leave the details to you."
"Coffee is just what I need," Natalie said enthusiastically and proceeded to prepare herself a mug.
"Milk's in the fridge." Nick quickly retrieved a container from the fridge and handed it to her. He watched as Natalie poured a portion into her mug and tensed when she opened the fridge to return the milk.
Natalie stared at the green bottles filling the upper shelf. "These are labelled," she remarked.
"Different town, different supplier," Nick shrugged noncommittally. "We can get a second fridge if you're bothered."
"Don't be silly. I've stored my chocolate with worse than animal blood at the morgue." Natalie busied herself with her coffee, missing the guilty look that flashed across Nick's face.
"I'm going to take you out for dinner tonight," he announced.
"Sounds delicious," Natalie smiled, enjoying the attention.
* * * *
Natalie watched as Nick sipped repeatedly from the dark liquid in his glass while she savoured her seafood dish at Chez Antoine. Nick had placed the order in French, so she hadn't understood what he had ordered for himself. But from the ease he displayed, she suspected the contents in his glass weren't red wine. She looked around discreetly, trying to search for clues that confirmed her suspicion. For all outer appearance, Chez Antoine seemed to be a fancy restaurant in the French Quarter, specializing in Creole food. All tables were occupied, and the patrons were all eating solid food except for Nick.
"Nicolas!" a male voice caught her attention. "I've heard rumours that you were back in town." A tall, dark-haired man in a chef's coat made his way over to their table and engaged Nick in a bear hug, followed by kisses on each cheek. "C'est magnifique. And you're as handsome as ever, mon ami."
"Natalie, this is Antoine, the chef of this establishment and an old friend, as you may have guessed," Nick made the introductions. "Antoine, meet Natalie Lambert, who agreed to accompany me from Toronto."
"How refreshing. Enchanté, madame," Antoine bowed over her hand. "Are you enjoying your meal?"
Antoine picked up Nick's empty glass. "I'll get a refill for you." He squeezed Nick's shoulder and left towards the kitchen.
Natalie watched Nick for a moment in silence before venturing, "He's really the chef? He's not bothered by preparing mortal food?"
"He was the sous-chef at the court of Louis XVI when he was mortal."
"Uh huh. Am I wrong or does he have a crush on you?"
Nick looked slightly embarrassed. "He's pretty obvious about it, isn't he?"
Natalie's curiosity was piqued. "So, have you ever?"
Nick shook his head. "He wouldn't dare. He knows I'm not available."
"Let me guess, Janette had a few words with him," Natalie said lightly.
Nick shook his head. "She wouldn't mind. It's not Janette he fears."
Natalie choked on the rice corn she was about to swallow. "Seriously?"
Nick merely shrugged and quickly changed the topic. "Did everything go well before you left Toronto?"
"Schanke was overwhelmed when he received word from your lawyer that you had provided for Jenny's college fund in your last will."
"It's the least I could do," Nick smiled and exchanged a few French words with the waiter who set another glass in front of him.
"You know, I probably should learn French before we go to France," Natalie remarked.
Nick leaned onto the table and smiled at her broadly. "You could take an evening course at Loyola. I happen to know that they just hired a new tutor for French and history. A course in basic French is starting next month."
Natalie instantly caught his meaning and leaned in closer, their lips only inches apart. "Will I be entitled to receive private extra lessons?"
"I think that can be arranged." Nick closed the distance and allowed their lips to touch in a tender kiss.
The arrival of Natalie's dessert ended the intimate exchange sooner than Natalie cared for. She was glad that she had chosen ice cream, which was a welcoming relief for her hot cheeks. "So, French and history?" she asked casually, trying not to think of how he probably took note of her elevated heart beat and coloured cheeks.
Nick nodded. "I've wanted to resume teaching for a while. I enjoyed working with students a lot in Chicago. What do you think?"
"It's so completely different from police work." Natalie couldn't imagine working in anything other than the medical field.
"It's generally not recommended to change identities and keep the profession. Sooner or later, one is bound to run into old contacts, which would be disastrous."
After Natalie had finished her dessert, Nick took her on a stroll through the French quarter, pointing out various sights and acquainting her with the rich history of several buildings. Nick stopped in front of a hotel on Iberville Street, lost in thought.
"Nick?" Natalie nudged him gently.
"La Louisiane," Nick nodded at the neon sign. "It used to be a gambling room in the 1830s. Interesting, that they kept the name."
Natalie sensed that there was more to the story and looked at him curiously. "We had arrived with a Mississippi steamer to meet Lacroix on his estate. During the journey on the river, Janette had taken a fancy to the gambling tables. She regretted that they were solely for men while the ladies were huddled in a separate room. She had this grand idea to set up an establishment where couples could go together, with gambling tables in the middle and a gallery where the ladies could have their tea and watch their spouses at the gambling tables from above. Lacroix bought the building under his name, and she set everything up from the drapes in the dining room to the fabrics on the faro tables."
Natalie listened in fascination. She knew Janette was a successful business woman in the present, yet it surprised her that she had already shown the same tenacity in the 19th century, when the world was still predominantly ruled by men.
"On the night of the big opening, I overheard someone making allusions about Lacroix and Janette. That he had financed the establishment in return for amorous services. I demanded an apology from the mortal, and when he didn't provide one, I challenged him in a duel."
Natalie's eyes widened in excitement.
"My only concern was to be done with it before sunrise. Duels were usually set at dawn, but I convinced the man to meet me thirty minutes earlier when it was already light enough for him to see and still safe enough for me. I even gave him a fair chance by choosing pistols instead of the usual rapier. However, he was far too excited and fired before the stewards had finished the counting. He missed. I still had my shot and aimed at him. Then, I realized what a waste it would be to shoot him. I dropped the gun to the ground and watched as he took off towards the woods." Nick stopped, keeping the following action to himself.
"Anyway, instead of appreciating my efforts to defend her honour, Janette gave me a run down for missing most of her opening, and Lacroix was furious when I turned up with my skin scorched by the sun."
"They didn't know what you did?"
"I was too proud to tell them. When they did find out, Lacroix was still furious and Janette was – appreciative." Nick smiled and kissed the knuckles of Natalie's hand he held entwined with his own.
* * * *
After returning home, Natalie went to her room to prepare for bed. When she returned from the bathroom, she looked around for Sydney but couldn't find him in her room. Putting on her bathrobe, she ventured downstairs, where the sounds of a light jazz tune drew her to the parlour where Nick sat at his piano.
"I can't find Sydney," she said when he had ended the song. "Have you seen him?"
Nick focused a moment to locate a second heartbeat. "Try the library."
When Natalie entered the library, Sydney lay curled up on the rug in front of the fireplace. "You do know where it's cozy, don't you, Syd?" She picked the cat up and cuddled it. "You wanna stay down here?" Taking his purr as confirmation, she placed him back on the rug and returned to the parlour. "Seems Sydney already found his favourite spot."
"Right in front of the fireplace."
Nick smiled. "I'm glad he feels at home. I hope you do, too."
"I'm sure I will. This house is a dream. Thanks, Nick. It's been a wonderful evening."
Nick didn't move from the piano bench. "Good night, Natalie." There was something of a dismissal in his tone.
Natalie walked over to him and kissed his brow. "Good night, Nick." When he remained motionless, she left the room and returned upstairs. As she had reached her room, she heard him resuming his piano play. She left the door to her room ajar and let his music lull her to sleep.
* * * *
Natalie woke up around 9:00 a.m. and decided to get dressed in order to find a grocery store. She noticed that her door was closed, although she was certain that she had left it ajar. Upon exiting her room, she was startled to find one skylight window uncovered, allowing a wide cone of light to separate her room from the rest of the house. Natalie wondered if Nick had left it open on purpose or by coincidence. It certainly provided a successful barrier against a vampire trying to enter her room. Natalie was suddenly getting second thoughts about her stay here. What if this wasn't working out for Nick? She didn't want him to make adjustments for her sake. Determinedly, she closed the blind on the skylight and headed down towards the kitchen.
She was on her second cup of coffee when the door bell rang. She went to answer and was surprised to find a delivery from Chez Antoine awaiting her. It turned out to be a bag of steaming beignets. The attached note read, "Un petit-déjeuner pour mademoiselle avec des compléments d'Antoine." Her French was well enough to understand that this was for breakfast. Just what she needed.
After devouring the entire portion, Natalie resumed her original plan to go food shopping but realized that Nick hadn't provided her with a key yet. Since she didn't want to wake him by ringing the bell when she returned, she postponed the trip and went into the library instead. Nick had made room for her books, as he had promised. Natalie started to unpack her boxes and placed her belongings on the shelf. An academic book of immunology caught her attention, and she settled into an armchair by the fireplace and started to freshen up her knowledge in preparation of the following day's job interview.
* * * *
A sudden hiss from Sydney alerted Natalie to look up from her book. She jumped as she discovered Nick standing close behind her chair, a glass of blood in his hand. "Jeez, I didn't hear you coming in."
"Sorry." Nick raised the glass to his lips. "I didn't mean to startle you."
Natalie quickly recovered. "It's okay. I was probably totally absorbed in the book." She held it up for Nick to read the title. "I thought it wouldn't hurt to reacquaint myself with the basics of immunology."
"I see. Do you want to go out for dinner?"
"Actually, I'd rather have a quiet evening at home, considering that I have the interview tomorrow morning. However, I need to go shopping. I could bring a pizza along." She hesitated. "I was planning to do the shopping during the day, but I didn't have any keys to get back in."
Nick looked thoroughly dismayed. He left the room and returned a short time later with a key chain. "I'm sorry. I should have thought of that before." He held out the key chain and indicated each individual key. "Front door, garage door, car keys. Feel free to take the car whenever you need it."
At Natalie's questioning look, he explained. "I won't use it during the day. And I don't really need it at night."
"Well, you're going to need it tonight because I'm not going in the dark searching for a supermarket in an unfamiliar town."
Nick inclined his head in agreement. "I wouldn't let you venture out alone in the dark anyway. Your carriage waits whenever you're ready."
Natalie smiled at the bow he sketched. "Let me just grab my purse."
* * * *
An hour later, they returned home with three bags full of what Natalie had deemed basic food items. She put a frozen pizza in the oven and stored the other items away. On the way home, they had stopped at a video store. They had agreed on Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief," which Nick had already popped into the VCR when Natalie joined him in the parlour.
They sat side by side on the couch while Natalie ate her pizza. When she was finished, she snuggled closer to Nick and was overjoyed when he loosely placed his arm around her shoulder.
Nick's embrace tightened during the intimate scene between Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in the hotel room. When Natalie turned her head to look at him, he caught her lips with his own and initiated a deep kiss that Natalie answered eagerly. All too soon, Nick ended the kiss and reached hastily for his goblet. Natalie noticed the tension leaving his body after he had emptied it, yet he kept to his side of the couch and didn't resume his embrace.
"Have you been to Nice?" Natalie asked when the end credits rolled over the screen.
"Oh yes." Nick's eyes became distant.
Natalie nudged him. "Wanna share?"
"It was a long time ago."
When nothing else was forthcoming, Natalie gathered her plate and carried it back into the kitchen. She wondered if Nick would ever be fully open about his past with her.
Nick sat still brooding on the couch when she returned. "I need to get up early tomorrow. So, I'll just head to bed," she roused him from his reverie.
Nick stood and walked over to her. "I'm heading out for a while." Kissing her brow, he added. "Good luck tomorrow."
Natalie watched as he left, wondering where he was going. Was there a similar club like the Raven in New Orleans? Where an old acquaintance from his past waited for him? Natalie suppressed a wave of jealousy and went to her room in order to get ready for bed.
* * * *
When Natalie stepped out of her room in the morning, the skylight window was again uncovered, flooding the access to her room with sunlight. Shaking her head, Natalie closed the blind and went downstairs.
Her interview went well. The position was part of a small research group investigating immunological reactions to transplants. The aim was to prevent transplant rejection. The leader of the group, Dr. Elaine Whittaker, was a woman in her early fifties and a key opinion leader in the field. She shared Natalie's enthusiasm to solve scientific puzzles, which caused Natalie to accept the position immediately when it became clear that she had been the only candidate that had been invited for a personal interview. The position also included a part-time shift at the Tulane Medical Center, preferably at night. Natalie explained that this suited her well because her boyfriend also worked nights.
It was early afternoon when Natalie returned home. Expecting Nick not to be up for several hours, she made herself comfortable in the garden and started to write a letter to Grace, keeping it strictly to her first impressions of the city and her new job.
In the evening, Nick took her dining and dancing to celebrate her successful interview. Natalie thoroughly enjoyed the attention. When they returned home, she broached the subject that had been foremost on her mind since accepting the job, not wanting to discuss it in public. "Nick, the best thing with this position is that I have access to a lot of modern equipment that I can use to study your blood. I don't need to call in favours anymore in order to use the electron microscope."
Instead of the gleam of hope she had expected in Nick's eyes, his face fell. "Nat, don't."
She stared at him, confused. "Don't what?"
"Don't waste your time searching for a cure."
"What?" She was dumbfounded by his answer. "You don't want to become mortal anymore?"
"I still do," he assured her quickly. "I've merely stopped my quest for now."
He wasn't making much sense to Natalie. "Why?"
Nick sighed. "Remember when you asked what Lacroix wanted in return for your safety?" He paused. "This was his price."
Tears welled up in Natalie's eyes as she grabbed for his hands. "Oh Nick! I never wanted you to give up your dream because of me."
"It's okay, Nat." He framed her face with his hands and spoke softly. "You're far too precious to me to consider the alternative."
Natalie was too upset about him giving up his quest on her behalf to register the admission of his feelings for her. "We don't need to tell him. If you'd give me an occasional sample, I could still run some tests at the lab."
Nick shook his head. "It's impossible to keep such things from him, Nat. Sooner or later, he would find out. And I won't jeopardize your life like that."
"But – you don't want to live like that anymore," Natalie reminded him.
Nick hushed her with a kiss. "I can go on as long as you're by my side."
* * * *
Over the next months, they developed a routine. Natalie quickly adapted to her new work and colleagues. There were four other scientists working on Dr. Whittaker's team – two women and two men. Both men, Shawn and Jared, were apparently bachelors and tried to outwit each other in order to gain Natalie's favour and possibly a dinner date. Although Natalie considered none of them a potential rival for Nick, she secretly enjoyed the attention. It lasted until she introduced Nick, who had dropped by to pick her up one evening. She wasn't aware that he did anything except putting his arm possessively around her, but from that night on, Shawn and Jared had backed away. They were still amicable, but they no longer pressed her for a date.
Once a week, she accompanied Nick to Loyola University and sat in his French class. The majority of students were female, and Natalie soon discovered that she wasn't the only one who stared dreamy-eyed at the teacher in the front. Natalie admired his skills at conveying a complex language in a way that was easy to follow. Natalie soon found herself able to read a small volume of short stories in French which she had found in the library.
Privately, they were still dancing around each other every night. Their relationship hadn't progressed beyond the stage of kissing accompanied by a gentle embrace. Nick would always quickly back away and usually went out for a couple of hours without stating his destination.
Natalie was beginning to worry. Ever since he had declared the end of his quest, Natalie had watched him closely. The way he savoured his blood roused her suspicion. One morning, while she was sure he was asleep, she had taken a sample from a bottle in the fridge and analyzed it in the lab. In shock, she stared at the results. The blood was human and came from one individual. Natalie remembered his vague reply when she had commented on the labelled bottles. A different supplier indeed, she thought bitterly. Oh Nick, what else has Lacroix demanded from you?
She noticed that he was always more at ease when he returned from his mysterious trips at night. She refused to think about what this could possibly mean. Again she wished she had someone to confide in. Tired of the questions in the letters from Grace about her male coworkers and her love life, Natalie had mentioned that she had started dating her French teacher. Yet writing wasn't the same as talking to someone. She missed the girl-talk with Grace. Although Natalie could never disclose the real problem, Grace had always been eager to lend a friendly ear when the situation became too frustrating for Natalie.
Now she only had Nick to talk to. While staring at the painting in the library, Natalie realized that wasn't quite true. She searched in her purse for the phone number Nick had given her months ago in case of an emergency. When she was sure that Nick had left for his nightly errand, Natalie dialed the number, wondering briefly if the number was still valid.
"Oui?" a female voice answered the phone.
"Janette? Is that you? This is Natalie."
"Natalie! Quelle surprise. How are you?"
"I got the job in the research facility. That's all fine. I hope you don't mind me calling."
"Not at all. What has he done?"
Natalie smiled at the woman's insight. "Do you happen to know if New Orleans has a place like the Raven?"
"Every major city has a place for the community to indulge. Why are you asking?"
"I know he switched back to human blood on Lacroix's insistence, and I'm a little worried. He goes out almost every night for a couple of hours. When he returns, he's always more relaxed. I was wondering if he was seeing someone."
"Écoute, Natalie. Nicolas has gone through quite some effort to protect you from the community. He wouldn't risk that by sharing blood with an outsider."
"Sharing blood?" Natalie asked, confused.
There was a pause before Janette breathed, "Oh, ma petite, you haven't had that talk yet?"
"That talk in which Nicolas should explain why he hasn't made love to you yet. I assume his attentions do not progress beyond the stage of kissing, no?"
Natalie was glad that her blush couldn't be seen through the phone. "No. We aren't any further than what we had in Toronto." The frustration was evident in Natalie's voice. "Every time we kiss, he backs away. I know he has these centuries of experience. Am I doing something wrong?"
"Believe me, it's not your fault, Natalie. It's more a matter of incompatibility."
"I don't understand." Natalie had a feeling that she was trying the other woman's patience, but she had to know.
"This is not the kind of talk one should have over the phone, Natalie. Let me see how I can phrase this delicately. You're a scientist. Certainly you know that a trigger is required to ---"
"I'm an adult, Janette," Natalie interrupted her angrily. She didn't need a repetition in basic biology from Janette.
"A mortal adult," Janette reminded her patiently. "For us, the trigger is blood. You see, biting is inevitable."
"Oh." Natalie's spirits sank. "How much blood?"
"Do not even consider it, ma chère. Once Nicolas tastes your blood, he won't be able to stop. The blood of a lover is quite overwhelming."
"So, you're telling me, the problem is insurmountable? We can't go further? Unless Nick becomes mortal, which Lacroix forced him to quit trying?"
"Tell me, Natalie, have you ever considered the alternative?"
Natalie remained silent. Secretly, she had fantasized what it would be like. It would be amazing to experience medicine evolving over the centuries. Although she doubted her ability to consume blood, she couldn't deny that vampires were utterly fascinating creatures.
"I see that you have," Janette interpreted her silence. "If I may suggest, do not allow Nicolas to bring you across. At least not without supervision."
"Why? What's wrong with him?"
"Let's just say, there are a lot of things Nicolas excels in. Bringing someone across is not one of them." Natalie painfully remembered the disaster with her own brother, although she mainly blamed herself for pushing Nick to bring him across while he was having second thoughts. "Besides," Janette continued, oblivious to the horror replaying in Natalie's mind, "a romantic relationship with one's master is bound to fail. I've witnessed that at close range."
Natalie couldn't imagine Janette in a romantic relationship with Lacroix. In fact, she couldn't picture any woman in a romantic relationship with Lacroix. "If not Nick, then ---" she thought aloud.
"I suppose you do not wish to become a child of Lacroix."
"No, thank you. I've heard my fair share of stories from Nick."
"Yet, it does have advantages to join his family. Think about it, Natalie. And when you require my assistance, call."
"You mean, you would bring me across?" Natalie was slightly stunned by the offer. Yet, something she had said alerted her suspicion. Her words resembled Lacroix's a bit too closely to escape Natalie's notice. "What's in it for you?"
"We all wish to see our Nicolas happy. Losing you either through age or by his own hand would be a blow we do not think he would recover from."
Natalie swallowed. She hadn't deemed Janette capable of such a selfless act. She knew they had been lovers. Now Janette was offering to create an eternal rival in her affections for Nick? "I will think about it, Janette. I have to discuss this with Nick before I decide anything."
"Of course. You know how to reach me."
"Thank you, Janette."
"Au révoir, Natalie."
The dial tone alerted Natalie that the connection had been severed. She sat a long time in the dark and contemplated what Janette had said. Would Nick be upset that she even considered becoming a vampire? He had refused outright to bring her across during the asteroid scare. Was it her mortality he loved or all of her?
At least now she could be sure that Nick wasn't seeing another vampire, which was a huge relief. But what was he doing instead? Natalie fervently hoped it wasn't the one thing she wouldn't be able to forgive him.
* * * *
Natalie wasn't sure how much time had passed when she heard the door of the refrigerator being opened. She went to join Nick in the kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks upon finding him leaning heavily against the fridge, drinking straight from a bottle. His leather jacket sported a bullet hole, and his shirt was soaked in blood.
"My God, Nick! What happened? Where have you been?"
Nick finished the bottle and retrieved a second from the fridge, which he carried over to the table. He sat down on a chair and began to remove his jacket. "I've been shot. The bullet is still stuck."
Natalie quickly helped him remove his jacket as well as his shirt. She stared in fascination at his chest. From the state of his shirt, she had expected worse, however, his skin was unblemished except for an indentation below his collarbone. "It's already healed? Let me get my instruments."
After a few minutes, she returned with her emergency bag and retrieved a scalpel and a pair of tweezers. "I need to make a cut. Do you want an anaesthetic?"
Nick shook his head.
Natalie pulled on a pair of surgery gloves and sat astride his left thigh. Nick closed his eyes and averted his face as she made a deep cut underneath his collarbone. It took some probing before Natalie was able to extract the bullet with her tweezers. "Nine millimetres," she observed after studying the object closely. "Do you mind telling me where you got this?"
Instead of giving a reply, Nick suddenly reached out and grabbed the bottle from the table.
Natalie yelped as the momentum of his movement accidentally brought the sharp tip of the tweezers in contact with her left index finger. Looking up, she caught a glimpse of fangs and golden eyes before he upended the bottle and gulped down half of its contents. She removed the glove and frowned at the blood welling up from the wound.
"I'm sorry," Nick rasped as she turned towards the table in order to fetch the bandage she had laid out for him. Startled when he reached for her hand, she turned back to him. Nick was staring mesmerized at her finger.
Natalie's heart rate sped up, and she felt a moment of panic as Nick raised her finger to his mouth. "Nick?" she queried softly and tried to pull her hand away, but Nick held onto it. Her breath caught as she looked into his eyes. She had expected to see yellow or worse. Instead Nick's eyes were blue, radiating a love she hadn't seen before. Entranced, she watched as he closed his lips over the small cut and sucked briefly, while his eyes never left hers. The sensation he produced on her finger was incredible. In fact, the act seemed more intimate to Natalie than all her previous experiences with mortal men.
When Nick released her, Natalie swallowed, realizing that her throat was dry from hyperventilating. "That was incredible!"
Nick smiled innocently. "I know."
She examined her finger and found the cut already healed over, just like Nick's shoulder. Amazed, she gently touched the tender skin and leaned forward to place a soft kiss on the spot beneath his collarbone. Nick's hand caught in her hair, caressing her head gently, while her lips moved up onto his shoulder, where she began to kiss a wet trail towards his neck.
The moment she reached the base of his neck, Nick tensed. "Nat, don't!"
Natalie stopped her exploration of his skin and pulled away, slightly startled to find his eyes golden again and his fangs clearly visible. She moved from his thigh and busied herself putting the gauze and instruments away. "I think you were about to tell me how you got shot before I cut myself," Natalie said lightly when the silence was getting awkward.
"I was stopping a fugitive from a robbery scene. He shot at me when I stepped into his way."
"You stepped into his way," Natalie repeated questioningly.
"Kind of, from above."
"I see. And where is that shooter now?"
"In custody. With no memory of how he ended up unconscious on the sidewalk for the police to find him."
"Nick, you aren't a cop anymore," Natalie reminded him.
Nick reached for her hands. "Nat, I may have given up my quest to become mortal, but I still wish to atone. There isn't much opportunity for that as a teacher. So I spend a couple of hours now and then soaring over the city. New Orleans has a lot of dark corners where muggings are daily fare."
"That's what you've been doing when you disappear every night?" Natalie felt hugely relieved. He wasn't seeing another vampire or doing worse. He was bringing criminals to justice and probably saving a few lives in the process. She beamed at him. "I'm so proud of you."
* * * *
Over the following weeks, Natalie was at ease with herself. Her finger had healed without leaving a scar. Yet, it tingled oddly whenever Nick was near. She liked that because it made sneaking up on her impossible, and it kept reminding her of that brief moment of intimacy they had shared. She even pondered what it would be like to feel her blood taken from her neck but quickly discarded this very dangerous train of thought.
Even her co-workers noticed her frequent smiles and asked if her boyfriend was responsible and if she wished to make an announcement. In response, her smile intensified, yet she insisted that there was nothing to disclose.
* * * *
It was an afternoon of her day off when the door bell rang. She opened and stared in shock at the man she had never expected to see again in her life. "Schanke!"
"Howdy," Schanke grinned and took in her stunned expression. "Nice house. Seems, you really hit it off." He indicated the mansion.
"How did you get here?" On Nick's advice, Natalie had always used a P.O. Box when corresponding with her friends in Toronto. Nobody knew this address.
"Myra is visiting her aunt in Tampa. I accompanied her, but I had to get back earlier. So, I thought, why not make a stop-over in New Orleans and see how Nat is doing. I went to your lab, but they told me it's your day off. When I asked where I would find you, they said you were staying with your boyfriend Nick. I said, 'What? Her boyfriend's name is Nick?' They told me he's giving evening classes at the university. Seems to be out and about only at night. And then they started raving about how utterly gorgeous he is, and the boys added that they didn't want to get on his bad side though. You know, that sounded eerily familiar."
Natalie had paled more with each sentence he uttered. "What are you implying, Schanke?"
"Did you know that the money order for Jenny's college fund had been issued two days after Nick had been shot? I thought this must have been a mistake, but now it's beginning to make sense. May I come in? I'd really like to meet this mysterious boyfriend of yours."
Natalie was at the border of panic. She stepped aside and showed him into the parlour. "Sit down, Schanke, I'll be right back."
Schanke whistled at the classy interior and took in the shuttered windows. "Sun allergy, huh?"
Natalie chose not to comment and hurried upstairs. She knocked softly on Nick's bedroom door before stepping in. Nick was asleep on his back, his hands folded over his heart.
"Nick?" Natalie shook him, first gently, then more forcefully. "Nick, wake up." She jumped as his eyes snapped open.
Immediately, he grabbed her wrist and pulled it to his mouth, releasing a low growl.
"Nick! Stop it!" Natalie hissed under her breath, afraid that Schanke might hear her if she screamed.
Coming fully awake, Nick looked at her, startled. He placed a soft kiss on her inner wrist and released it. "Nat? What's wrong?"
"Sorry to wake you up, but we have a problem. Schanke is downstairs."
"Schanke?" Nick sat up and reached for the bottle on the nightstand. "How---?"
"It's a long story. Apparently he knows, Nick. What are we going to do?"
Nick took several swigs from the bottle. "Don't worry, I'll handle it. Tell him I'll be down shortly."
Natalie stopped at the kitchen and prepared two mugs of coffee, which she carried into the parlour. "He'll be down shortly. So, how are things at Metro?" she steered the conversation to safer topics.
Schanke groaned. "They gave me a rookie for a new partner. Daughter of Commissioner Vetter. Totally green, fell asleep at her desk during her first night shift. But she seems to have good instincts. I have a feeling that she might become a good cop after she's been subjected to the famous Schanke School of Police 101."
Schanke jumped from his seat at the soft voice from behind him. He stared wide-eyed at the familiar figure, dressed all in black. "It's really true, then? You know, I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes. How the hell did you do it?"
Natalie watched in anticipation as Nick sauntered into the room and sat on the couch, patting the spot beside him. "You may want to sit down, Don."
Without taking his eyes off Nick, Schanke resumed his seat.
"Promise me that you won't tell anyone what I'm about to tell you."
"Sure, what's up?" Schanke furrowed his brows.
"I mean it, Don. The lives of quite a few people will depend on it," Nick emphasized.
"Okay, okay, I promise."
Natalie held her breath. Would Nick show him or just tell him? How would Schanke react to the existence of vampires?
Nick exchanged a brief glance with Natalie before turning back to Schanke. "I've been admitted into the witness protection programme."
Natalie was no less surprised than Schanke.
"Why? What happened?" Schanke asked.
"Remember when I covered for you on Father's Day? I got involved into something I shouldn't have."
Schanke thought back. "You mean the Constantine case? I knew there was more to it than you let on. Jeez, why didn't you say anything?"
"It would merely have endangered your life as well. And you have a family. I was approached by an agent from CSIS. They had been expecting an assault for some time. So we made preparations to let me disappear. That shooting was the ideal opportunity."
"But you were dead. I saw the holes in your chest."
"I wore a vest." Nick's voice dropped lower and Natalie recognized the tell-tale signs that Nick was using hypnotism. "My injuries weren't as severe as they seemed. The paramedics who pronounced me dead had been briefed by CSIS."
Schanke nodded, entranced. "You wore a vest --- not as severe as they seemed."
Nick released Schanke from his control and smiled briefly at Natalie. "I'm sorry for the pain I caused you, Schanke."
"I had a rough time. It's a huge relief to know that you're alive, Nick." Schanke turned to Natalie. "You knew?"
Nick moved to Natalie's seat and crouched on the arm of her chair. Wrapping an arm around her, he kissed her brow. "Natalie chose to come with me."
"Who else knew? Cohen?"
Nick shook his head. "We kept the circle as small as possible. Lacroix and Janette knew, but no one from the force."
Schanke nodded. "I thought they were acting strangely when notified of your death."
Nick tightened his arm around Natalie's shoulders and said, "In a few years, we plan to move on again. When you hear anything about Natalie having disappeared, you don't need to worry. Don't come looking for us."
Natalie shivered slightly at the prospect. The way he phrased it seemed so final. Obviously, Nick had already planned their next move. Then she would be completely cut off from her former friends.
"What about the money? Now that you're alive, I can't accept your last will." Schanke sketched quotation marks in the air.
"Don't worry about that. The government provided quite well for me." Nick indicated the house. "Make sure Jenny gets a good education."
Schanke brushed a tear from his eye and stood, extending his hand. "Thank you, Nick." When Nick returned the handshake, Schanke pulled him into a fierce embrace. "I guess I should be going. My flight to Toronto is scheduled in two hours."
They walked him to the door and waved until his rental car disappeared from their view.
"You thought I would tell him," Nick observed when they were alone.
"I couldn't have let him leave with that kind of knowledge."
"This was a clever solution. I'm glad he knows you're alive. He was absolutely miserable and felt guilty that he was alive and you were not."
"I know how that feels like," Nick said thoughtfully.
Natalie squeezed his hand in affection while they walked back into the house. "What you said, about moving on soon. Have you already set a date?" Although it had been over a year, Natalie still felt like they had just moved here. She liked the house and her job.
"I've been thinking in five years or so. Although after Schanke's visit, it might be a good idea to leave sooner. Provided, you still want to come along."
Natalie looked at him sharply. "Of course I want to."
Nick smiled and raised her hand to his lips. "Good." After gazing at her for a moment, he added, "I have a surprise for you. Wait here."
Startled by his sudden movement, she watched as he disappeared upstairs.
"Close your eyes," he called from the top of the stairs.
Natalie stood in silence with her eyes closed. After a while, her curiosity prevailed and she squinted.
"Don't cheat," Nick scolded.
Natalie let out a squeal. She knew from the tingling in her finger that he was close, but she hadn't realized that he was standing right in front of her.
"Keep them closed and come." Nick led her through the hall and into the parlour. "Now you may look," he whispered softly into her ear.
Natalie opened her eyes and gasped. She was standing facing the wall. Above the sideboard where an abstract painting used to rest was a new piece. It was a portrait of herself as she would sit in the garden in her spare time. The sunlight glinted off her hair, giving her an almost ethereal aura. Nick must have secretly watched her from the shadows to paint her like that. She was awed that he would go to such efforts for her.
"You look beautiful in the sunlight, Nat." He stood behind her, his hands loosely around her waist. "Think carefully before you decide to give it up."
The last comment caused her to turn in his arms and face him.
"I know what you've been contemplating," he answered her unspoken question.
How did he know? Had Janette told him? Natalie summoned all her courage. "I need to know, Nick. Could you still love me when I'm not mortal? Or is it my mortality that you love?"
Nick looked at her utterly dismayed. "I love the whole package, Nat. I don't want to lose you. I want to make love to you as only a vampire can. But for that, you would have to come across, and I can't condemn you to that. That would be utterly selfish."
Natalie beamed at his words of love. "It would be my decision, Nick. I don't want it any time soon, but I don't want to end up looking old enough to be your mother either."
Nick chuckled in spite of himself. "Whenever you're ready, Nat. But not before we've arrived in Europe. You should see Paris in daylight."
Natalie wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the mouth. "Agreed."
* * * *
Two years later, Detective Schanke received a notification that Dr. Natalie Lambert had gone missing after New Orleans had been hit by a heavy storm. Several bodies were never accounted for. At the same time, there was an article in the newspaper advertising the re-opening of a club formerly called The Raven under a new name and ownership. He also noticed that CERK was hiring a new host for the late night show.
With a smile, Schanke raised his glass of beer in the direction of his framed Partners of the Month award. "To a long and happy life, wherever you are, partner."