The Secret Ingredient


“There has to be parsley in there.”

The last thing Morena expected to be doing during a second course of Vampire 101 was challenging Jesper to name the ingredients in Nick’s gyoza recipe. But here they were, leaning over plates overloaded with the remnants of Nick’s sleepless night, testing Jesper’s super-sensory sniffer.

“You sure about that, pal?” Nick smiled, chopsticks halfway to his mouth. He proceeded to shovel noodles damp with broth so efficiently and effortlessly into his mouth that Morena didn’t wonder why entire nations found no use for spoons.

Jesper’s face screwed up in concentration. His face was right next to hers alleging that he could smell best as she released the flavors with her chewing. After getting over Nick’s gagging look and her own discomfort having a creature whose face had been even closer to other more private parts of her body, Morena had to admit this had become fun.

She sat on a floor cushion in front of the settee where Nick reclined. They had pulled over a coffee table to bear the weight of Nick’s culinary insomnia. Jesper sat in a straight back chair, wearing a tight navy short-sleeved T-shirt, dark relaxed jeans, his once-auburn now nearer to bronze shoulder length hair flared out around him in waves. The most noticeable difference? His eyes. They’d seemed grey before and now they were alive with all colors, but mostly hazel.

“Take another bite,” Jesper told her.

“Why don’t you just eat it?” she complained. She was stuffed. If she ate another gyoza, she was certain she’d pop the top button off her designer jeans.

Jesper jerked his head back, aghast at the suggestion. “Me? Oh no, I follow a strict non-vegan liquid diet.”

Nick laughed as Jesper played it totally over the top. Morena rolled her eyes and sighed, picking up one more. When she went to dip it into the soy sauce, Jesper halted her.

“Without the sauce this time, the sodium is throwing off the scent.”

As she tore the gyoza into two between her teeth, Jesper leaned in close, breathing deep. The playful look in his eyes earlier banished as he became all focus, closing his eyes.

“Now exhale at me,” he instructed, hands on his thighs.

She tossed Nick a look.

“That has to be cheating,” Nick commented.

She breathed openmouthed into Jesper’s face and he inhaled, straightening up and back away from her, eyes closed tightly.

“And that there is so gross.”

Morena almost choked on a laugh. “You stop it! You’d think you tried to rig this.”

Nick shrugged, “Yeah like I was totally thinking of putting crazy ingredients in there this morning as I was trying not to think of mind wrecking.” He sobered for a moment, burying his face into his bowl to try and cover it.

Morena couldn’t help the smile sliding from her face. The fear of this morning seemed so far away and yet, her hand was still covered by a bandage and she was packing Nepalese heat in her bag. The cut from the kukri had mostly healed; the bandage was more a reminder to be alert and wary. She hadn’t thought that would be to be on top of her tasting ability. It wasn’t a talent she pretended to have.

She looked over to Jesper to see if the mood shift had impacted him too to find him watching Nick very closely. Nick seemed to still be investigating the bottom of his bowl.

“Ask me, Nick.”

Nick shrugged, “I dunno. I just was wondering if you’d ever wrecked a human before.” Before Jesper had a chance to answer, Nick continued. “It’s just, it sounds so horrible. I mean, I don’t think too much of my brain. I’m not Einstein or Hermione but, it’s the only thing that’s really mine, you know. My thoughts.”

Jesper considered Nick for a moment, waited for Nick, who was lounging on the settee to meet his gaze. Then Jesper looked to Morena. She couldn’t help it. She wanted to know too. It was all fun and games, she knew, until she found out how badly her ex-whatever-he-had-been had behaved in his vampire life.

“It is horrible. Our minds, our memories in particular, are what shape us into what we are. But being what we are doesn’t come with instructions. Without proper guidance, our abilities can do a lot of damage, especially when we are first vampire born.”

“Is that supposed to be a yes or no?” Morena asked directly.

Jesper met her eyes. He lowered his eyes slowly, regret covering his face. “I’d like to be able to say no. But much of my early years I have no memory of. It happens sometimes, when there’s enough stress. I have to hope not. But I have never knowingly bound a human to me.”

“Why not? Isn’t it safer to have a companion?” Morena asked, suddenly concerned. She didn’t know his age but to think of him alone for all those years, with that horrible secret, it seemed unbearable. She had held his secret for only a few months and she found it so isolating, even with Camille sharing it.

Jesper raised his eyes to hers. “Safer for whom?”

She couldn’t fault that logic. It didn’t take the hurt away from him not sharing more about what he was truly capable of with her, but it gave her a hint of why he had kept it from her. It also let her know, all in a rush, that he never meant anything long term with her. She dropped her eyes realizing that.

“Uh, you guys want a moment?”

Morena slapped Nick’s leg and a smile crossed her face. Boy, he made her laugh. For now, that was worth a whole lot. His face was a strange mix of discomfort and naivety. He hadn’t really known what she was thinking, but somehow, he could tell she went into that darker part of her thinking, the place she normally dwelled with regards to her relationships.

He gave her a tentative smile. She’d swung by to pick him up, partly to keep an eye on him, partly to help him haul the night’s dinner. He’d managed to get a good amount of sleep, like she had, and they’d had a pleasant chat on the ride over. That was when she wasn’t hounding him about how they were possibly going to eat that much food.

“Basil!”

“Are you shitting me? How the hell do you DO that?”

Jesper grinned ear to ear while Nick filled up his bowl for the fifth straight time. One thing was for sure: that boy could eat a mean streak. “Now, for our daily double,” he added, stuffing his mouth again with rice,”how much are you willing to bet in potent potables?”

“Hmm,” Jesper thought about it, index finger to his temple, fingers curled under his chin. “A new leather jacket?”

Nick’s eyes got wide, “Well ok then.”

He was obviously pleased with himself. This one was bound to be harder than Morena believed Jesper would expect. Jesper had already returned Nick’s leather jacket that he’d borrowed last night, just like she’d said he would. He’d even apologized for racing out. There had definitely been more unease there than she was used to seeing from him but she realized this Jesper was entirely new to her. It was like meeting him for the first time, the veil finally falling away. She had to admit, with an admiring look at him, it was rather bittersweet. All thanks to Sophie.

“Where do you think Sophie is?” she asked to no one.

Jesper stiffened, noticeably.

Nick shrugged. He knew but wasn’t saying. Quite the dutiful employee indeed.

“Would either of you tell me if you thought she were in danger?” Jesper asked bluntly.

“Um, what part of her job isn’t dangerous?” Nick retorted.

Jesper fell silent.

After a few moments silence, Morena targeted her harsh tone to Nick, ”She’s with that Castellan, isn’t she?”

“That’s not what it’s called,” Nick pouted.

Morena saw the tension all over Nick’s face and leveled a seething eye at him.

“I don’t actually know where she is. She didn’t tell me, alright?”

“She said she’d be here,” Jesper said stiffly.

Morena turned back to him. “You talked to her?”

“Not exactly.”

Morena looked between the two of them and realized that no one had, in fact, made sure Sophie wasn’t doing something stupid. Just as she was going to get up in a huff, Nick fished out his phone, tapping a few buttons.

A tremulous silence fell for a moment but Morena noticed that Jesper hadn’t moved an inch.

“Who’s the Carpathian? The woman from last night?” he lightly touched his chest.

Nick tightened his lips. He wasn’t about to say a word. He was trying to be the dutiful assistant.

Morena had no such compunction. “No, there’s another one. She told me she’d never successfully treated one; that she’d been killed by the last one she treated. Are they that powerful?”

Morena saw his eyes narrow in a way that made her realize that yes, there was something dangerous lurking there. She wished she understood more. The not knowing was the worst.

“She was right. There is a lot you two must be told. Like how to avoid us.”

Before Jesper could continue, Nick’s phone chirped back. Nick hastily grabbed up the phone.

“She’s on her way back to the office. Should be here shortly,” he announced, relieved. He looked up, smile on his face. Then, casting a glance at Morena, he asked, “You going to finish that?”

She shook her head and watched him finish off the last of the gyoza with a flourish, as if moments before they weren’t all thinking Sophie was in danger. It made her smile, how easily he let go of it. She tossed a look to Jesper, expecting him to be relieved as well.

But Jesper was lost in thought, hand moving over his chest idly.

She drew her brows together and then remembered the anecdote about Vampire healing. She didn’t really want to ask but found she couldn’t help it. “So, um, did you, uh, go out last night?”

When he turned a blank expression on her, she almost lost her nerve. The memories she had of sharing blood with him involved very little clothing and very pleasant sensations. She swallowed. The last time had been about a month ago, something she had tried not to think too much about as it had rattled her in lots of ways. Enough that she had broken her confidence, taken a business card, and made a call to a stranger.

“To heal, you know,” she continued. It had been different when she’d been helping him pick willing donors. She needed to get over it, needed to hear him say that he was with someone else. It would make it easier. It really would.

He blinked, his hand stopped moving. “No.”

“No? Are you healed?”

He nodded.

“Then how?”

The smile slowly spread over his face. “I followed doctor’s orders.”

She smiled back, shaking her head.

“Yeah, two blonde co-eds and a redhead chaser.”

“Nick,” she exclaimed, slapping his leg.

“What?”

“I think I’m ready for that potent potables now,” Jesper added.

“I don’t think you are but you can try.”

“Ah, I’ll take that challenge.”

“Yes, one Italian leather jacket.”

“Oh, it’s Italian now?” Morena accused.

She watched Nick and Jesper spar verbally, enjoyed seeing this side of Jesper, even though she realized she was so not over him. But yes, she could see it. There was a bond there. She’d seen it the first night after he and Sophie had talked. And she remembered the shock of seeing Jesper curled up in Sophie’s lap last night. It was something strong and she needed to get over it. Soon.

Just as she was about to re-engage the conversation, the office door creaked open and Sophie shuffled in. They all turned to look and one look was all they needed to know where she’d been and who with. And with his usual knack for the obvious, Nick addressed it.

“Damn, boss, you look like Death warmed over!”

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