The All Night Inn, Chapter 1 - First Blood

“You can’t work here without my mark, Ms. Colson. No one can.” Jonathan Marlburn leaned back in his chair, his unblinking, disconcertingly blue gaze watching her face, no doubt waiting for her refusal. Dark hair, so dark it might as well be black fell across his forehead and down to his shoulders, wide under the simply tailored, white shirt.

Once again Sharon noticed what a good-looking man he was. Or would be, if he were a man. For a moment she considered giving up and running into the night, but this was no time to be timid. Jonathan might be a vampire, but he needed a bartender and she needed the work.

No matter what it took to get the job.

“So mark me. I need the job and you’re the only one in town hiring.”

From the look on his face, she’d surprised him. “You don’t know what you are saying.”

He eyed her neck, and briefly his tongue appeared, touching his bottom lip, pulling it in. For an instant the twin fangs showed, glinted in the dim lighting of his office.

Sharon had noticed he kept the lights down, both here and out in the bar. Probably his eyes were photosensitive. Certainly it helped preserve his image as a normal human being. Without more light it would be hard to see the red tinge to his eyes, the deadly pallor of his skin. He’d probably had long practice at keeping his lip drawn across his upper teeth, hiding the most obvious indicators of what he was.

Only that once did she see them. Instinctively she drew back and for a moment saw something like relief in his eyes. But no, she needed this job. She was broke, dead broke, with a car to match. No way to repair her car, no way to raise any money short of finding a job. Thanks to her landlord locking her out, she didn’t even have access to her few belongings. At the moment the clothes on her back were all she had in the world.

Jonathan Marlburn’s tavern, the All Night Inn, was not only the only place hiring -- from what she’d heard it paid the best, too. She figured between salary and tips, she’d be able to clear her financial woes within a few months. It was even possible that she could save up enough to get her car repaired so she could blow the little coastal town of Los Niños and get back to Los Angeles where she belonged.

And there was another reason for wanting this; here she wouldn’t be expected to spread her legs for the boss. One of the benefits of working for a vampire was knowing up front what kind of monster you worked for. Letting him snack on her didn’t sound half as bad as some job interviews she’d been to. He had a good reputation in town, too, even with the local police. For some reason, everyone respected Jonathan, vampire or not.

That had surprised her. While no one officially admitted to the existence of paranormal types, many people knew their world existed. Her psychic abilities were too limited to be a member of any of the groups that populated the LA-underground, but still she’d heard rumors of those who existed on blood from living humans. If she’d known how good-looking a vampire could be, she might have tried harder to find one.

Still, for the sheriff to suggest she try getting a job here...clearly Jonathan Marlburn kept within the local law’s good graces. Odd, even if the bloodsucker was keeping the authorities well paid to ignore his alternative lifestyle.

After all, the All Night Inn tended to be open well past normal operation hours, clearly in violation of the state liquor laws. How the place had managed to achieve status as an after hours club was a salute to its proprietor’s persuasive skills – and bank account.

Dragging her long unused courage out of hibernation, Sharon leaned forward and placed her hands on the desk before him. “You’ve seen my references, you know I can do the job. If you get stuck for an entertainer, I can also sing and play the guitar if you have one handy. I don’t, I pawned mine weeks ago.”

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Do you know what it means to be marked by one such as I?”

He hadn’t once referred to himself as a vampire, as if he wasn’t comfortable with it. “I know it means that you’ve taken blood from me and left the mark to prove it. It means I’m your servant, like the man you have working the bar.”

“Marcus. He cooks, normally.” Jonathan folded his hands, a delicate gesture, strikingly graceful. Something that might have been a happy memory eased the severity of his expression. “He’s been with me for quite a while.”

The moment passed and once again she was the subject of his intense stare. “It means those things, yes. Marking you would mean taking you as my companion. That is much more than a job. As my companion, you are there for me when I need you. In return you have my help, my protection. For a very long time.” He emphasized the last of that and briefly Sharon wondered how long “long” could be.

Still, it was irrelevant. If she had to make a long-term commitment, a year or more, that was fine. Marcus had told her about the mark when she’d asked at the bar about a job. She didn’t often use her psychic ability to read people, but she had that time. Marcus was one of the good guys, friendly and pleasant in spite of the twin scars on his neck, the vampire’s “mark.” If Marcus was comfortable in his position with Jonathan, how bad could it be?

“Listen, Mr. Marlburn, I’m desperate. I want to work here, and if you need a drink of me to trust me enough to give me a job, then so be it.”

He winced. “It’s not just a matter of trust, Ms. Colson, but safety. Others of my kind and similar types frequent my place, after normal hours, when I’m closed to the general public. An unmarked human would be a liability when those others come in. Any employee I have must be seen as belonging to me.” He studied the brief notes she’d brought that proclaimed her a skilled bartender and musician. She felt a questing tendril, a mental probe aimed at her. Immediately her mind slapped it away.

His startled gaze drove straight through her. “You have mental powers.”

“Some,” she admitted. “Not many, but I can block a probe like that one.”

Now he was truly interested. Again he eyed her neck, and this time she wondered if he didn’t see it the way she would a long-necked beer bottle.

He spoke softly. “It has been a long time since I’ve had a female companion.”

What did he mean by that? A tremor of uncertainty shook her determination but she forced herself to stand still and allow his piercing examination.

A brief smile flitted across his mouth. “Very well, Ms. Colson. We’ll do a trial, I think. I’m short-handed anyway and could use you to work the bar tonight. I believe none of my more special customers are likely to be around. If we’re both satisfied in the morning, I’ll hire you full time and we’ll take care of the mark then. Otherwise, I’ll pay you for the night’s work and let you go. Is that acceptable?”

Sharon nodded then followed him back to the main room of the inn. She’d fallen in love with the place the minute she’d walked through the door, the big open room with its dark wood paneling and hidden lights. The All Night Inn was warm, inviting with its worn but serviceable furnishings, scattered wooden tables and chairs, booths with red fabric seats along the long wall. Best of all was the solid maple bar that lined the back. On one side stood tall stools; on the other were the taps, glasses, bottles, bins of ice, and other paraphernalia that were the mainsprings of her vocation.

A big, bear-like man, Marcus raised his eyebrows and promptly checked her neck when his boss told him she was taking over. With a shake of his head, Jonathan waved away his questioning look, and the man headed toward the kitchen with an air of relief. Clearly he regarded his profession as cook with the same satisfaction Sharon felt for hers. Just as well; she hated to cook. To each their own domain.

She went to check her reflection in the mirror behind the bar, only to discover there was at least one difference in Jonathan’s establishment from other places she’d worked. A look of genuine amusement covered his face when she turned around. “I’m not fond of mirrors, Ms. Colson.” He reached over and gingerly moved a strand of her blond hair away her face, tucking it behind her ear. “You look fine.”

The brief caress of his hand left an uneasy feeling. Not repulsion; for some reason, totally irrational, she wished he’d do it again.

From the other end of the bar, a couple of customers hailed her. Happy to have something other than her handsome, undead boss to think about, she answered their call. She did her best that night, worked the bar with a professional zeal that surprised even her. Jonathan kept watch, silent, still as the grave from the corner of the room. She could feel his eyes on her, the patient quiet in his demeanor.

In keeping with the tavern’s name, it was approaching dawn when the last customer left. Marcus left the kitchen to sweep the floor while she cleaned the tables and finally the counter, polishing the smooth wood surface to a rich gleam. Ah, the joy of being back where she belonged; she was happy behind the bar of a well-kept tavern.

Still, tending bar was marking time, a way to earn money – that’s all. She was good at it, but it didn’t satisfy her deepest desire, the need to make music. For years she’d yearned to find a place in the entertainment business. She’d been singing in the small clubs in L.A. when her father had taken ill. With no one else to take care of him, she’d put her dreams on hold. Now, months had passed since she’d last performed. Poverty and trouble had stolen her music.

“Ms. Colson.” Jonathan came upon her so quietly, she startled, dropping the rag. He watched, silent as she recovered. “You did well tonight. I have no objection to continuing your employment.” He eyed the cloth on the counter, then turned his intense blue stare back to her. “What are your feelings about it?”

Shaken, but not deterred. With a boldness she didn’t feel, she stared back at him. “I still want the job.”
Just for an instant a smile slipped across his lips. “Very well.” He inclined his head, and pointed to the hallway leading to his office. “That way, please.”

She preceded him inside. It wasn’t a large room; Jonathan’s desk took up the bulk of the space in the middle. In one corner was a brown leather couch, easily six feet long, with a colorful striped blanket spread across the back. A mini-fridge sat next to it, doubling as a lamp stand. For a moment Sharon speculated as to what kind of drinks her boss kept cold. Little plastic bags from the local blood bank, perhaps?

Heart pounding, she eyed the couch and waited. Jonathan followed her gaze, and apparently decided against the intimacy that would afford. He directed her toward the desk with an elegant wave of his hand. “If you will sit there, Ms. Colson?”

She did as he instructed, facing him as he approached. For the first time since that brief caress in the bar, he touched her, placed his hands on her shoulders. She’d thought they’d be cold, clammy, but there was perceptible warmth to them; she felt it through the thin material of her blouse. Not warm enough to be human, but there.

For a moment he studied her face. “You’re sure about this?”

Sharon closed her eyes and steeled herself for the sensation of his mouth on her throat, the prick of his teeth piercing the skin. She hated pain; she used to insist on local anesthesia before allowing a splinter to be removed.

“Just do it,” she whispered.

He did nothing. She opened her eyes and his blue stare bore into her. “You must look into my eyes, Ms. Colson. Let me into your mind; I’ll take the fear from you and make it easy.”

Panic rose and she felt her resolve slip. He wanted to link minds with her? “No, not that. I won’t let you do that.”

He frowned. “You don’t understand. I can block what you feel and make it pleasurable for you. Without a mind link there will be pain.”

“I do understand; I expect the pain. I can deal with it.”

He shook his head, displeasure infusing his expression. “I’m not in the habit of causing discomfort. I enjoy feeding—“ One long finger traced the vein in her neck. “I’d rather you enjoyed it, too.”

“It isn’t important I enjoy it.” Her voice was desperate. How could she make him understand? Sharon took a deep and ragged breath. “There was a spell-user I met, did a mind link to me once.” She shuddered at the memory. It had been…awful. She’d felt like she’d been ripped apart and afterward...no, she couldn’t think about the “afterward.”

“It was months before I could think straight. I’m willing to let you feed off me, but I can’t let you into my mind.”

He let go of her and stepped back, disappointment in his face. “I’m very sorry, Ms. Colson. I would have enjoyed having you here... but the role of a Companion requires my being able to touch your mind.”
Moving to the door, he gestured to her. “Come with me to the bar, and I’ll pay you for this evening.”

“No!” Nervously she licked her lips. “Please... can’t you make an exception. I really need this job.”

Frustration showed in his face. “Exception to what? To the mark, no, it’s too dangerous for me to have unmarked humans here.”

Desperation made her bold. “What about the mind link, then. Just this once? Maybe when I know you better, can trust you more...I promise I’ll let you into my mind.”

For a moment she thought he was going to give up and send her on her way. Then she caught the hungry look in his eye and the way he studied her neck with a possessive stare. He wanted this, to taste her, to mark her as his own. He might not ever take her blood again, but he wanted it this time.

He even wanted it bad enough to forego his principles and bleed her without the mind link.

“As you wish, then.” He returned to her and took a different hold with his hands; one moved to the back of her head, the other to just below her shoulder blades. It was a more intimate embrace than the one he’d taken before. His hand caressed her hair, pulling it back, baring her neck. It might have been the prelude to a kiss.

Piercing blue eyes stared into hers. “I will hold you to that promise.”

His arms tightened and he moved so fast that she didn’t have a chance to say anything, couldn’t have pulled away if she wanted to. Held in his vise-like grip, a sharp pain stabbed through her as his fangs plunged into her neck, unerringly locating the artery. A burning sensation followed as strong lips drew the blood through the tiny holes.

Pain. It was worse than she’d imagined. Sharon wanted to cry out, but couldn’t. He held her so close, she was crushed into his chest. His throat rippled as he swallowed and she felt his heartbeat stutter, pick up pace, growing faster, almost matching the furious pounding of hers.

She hadn’t expected him to take so much, just a few swallows, a snack. This was more like a banquet for him as he guzzled her life’s-blood. Fear grew inside her... fear of what she’d promised, of what she would become at his hands.

A vampire and companion linked minds, it was “required.” How was she ever going to deal with that?

As her body chilled, his grew warmer. A rushing noise sounded in her ears and dizziness greeted her mind. She grew weak and faint.

Still he took from her until she began to wonder if he intended to stop feeding at all, if her life would end in his arms.

Was she going to die?

A gasp of fear and pain escaped her. Abruptly his mouth stopped moving and simply rested. He breathed heavily, the heat of his breath scorching her throat. The worst of the pain ended at the same time, but the relief from it put tears into her eyes.

His grip eased, and he allowed her to pull back, but only briefly. “A moment,” he whispered. “I must stop the flow.” He pressed down, covering the aching places where his teeth had pierced the skin.

She felt the touch of his tongue move across the holes, sealing them but not healing as he would normally. He gently licked the rest of her neck, cleaning the remaining blood and soothing her skin. The throbbing abated under his tender ministrations.

The vampire drew back, a warm possessive glow in his eyes. An odd thought slid into her mind. He was a neat eater. Only the smallest amount of blood lingered at the corners of his mouth, and as she watched his flitting tongue removed even that evidence.

Deep amusement laced his voice when he spoke. “Congratulations, Ms. Colson. You have the job.”

She tried to stand, but her legs wouldn’t hold. Instantly, he caught her up in his arms and carried her to the couch. He laid her down gently, pulling the blanket from the back to cover her as a shudder passed through her body. Pulling her into his arms, he stroked her cheek with a gentle hand. “I took too much, I think. Without the mind link it’s hard to know when to stop and your taste was…unique.”

He left her side and opened the mini-fridge. Moments later, he pressed a glass of sweet juice into her hands. With odd gentleness he forced her to drink it in slow sips. When she finished, he continued to hold her until the shaking ended and her breathing became regular again.

It was so disturbing. He’d hurt her, fed off of her to the point of injury. Yet now, he was so protective. For the first time in as long as she could remember, she felt safe, almost cherished.

“Ms. Colson…”

His feeding from her had been more intimate than the most romantic encounter she’d known. “D-d-don’t you think you should be using my f-f-first name?”

Amusement tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Very well, Sharon. And you should call me Jonathan.” He pressed two fingers against the marks on her neck then shifted his hand to lift her chin so her gaze met his. His eyes glowed in ice-blue intensity.

“I take you as my companion, to serve me as long as you bear my mark. In return you have my protection and support, from this time on.” His voice intoned the words carefully. It sounded like an oath.

Unexpectedly she felt tears slip from her eyes. “Do I say something?” Her voice trembled.

His was calm, soothing. “It isn’t necessary.” One finger pulled a tear from her cheek and he raised it to his eyes, seemed to study it. “It’s been a long time since I’ve hurt anyone, much less someone like you. I’ll not do it again nor will I risk losing you to my hunger. Next time we’ll do this with the mind link.”

Horror at reliving the last few minutes gripped her, and she felt faint again. “Next time? Does there have to be a next time?”

He actually did smile, brief, enigmatic, then it was gone. “Not until you are ready to accept my mental touch, Sharon. That I promise.”

For a moment Jonathan paused, cocked his head as if he heard a cockcrow, sensed the movement of the earth, the approach of dawn. “I must seek my rest. You can stay here until you feel well enough to return to your home. I’ll send Marcus in to take care of you.” He released her, rose, and moved to the door, every movement as graceful as a dancer. Pausing, he regarded her once more with his intense blue eyes. “I’ll see you this evening.”

After he’d gone, Sharon touched the twin pinprick scars he’d left in her neck, marking her as his. His what, she wondered.

Time would tell.