Buffy felt like a criminal creeping through the back of the main house. She was likely the worst guest Jerome had ever entertained, and though it wasn’t her fault, she couldn’t help the guilt. Twice now she’d snubbed him for breakfast, and the one time she’d made it to the dining room, she’d unwittingly dragged along the baddest, rudest vampire in the Western hemisphere. Jerome was much too clean, much too fussy to ever forgive her indiscretion, and now she was back because she needed help.
The immediacy of the apocalypse trumped etiquette. Buffy inhaled sharply and pushed the back door open, her senses instantly overwhelmed with the lingering aroma of whatever delicacy Jerome had whipped up for breakfast. And as always, rich, chocolatey cookies waited on the silver tray. Worrying a lip between her teeth, she caved and snagged one, her rumbling stomach reminding her she hadn’t eaten anything substantial since lunch the day before.
Well, excluding the plate of cellophane-wrapped cookies left on her doorstep by a mysterious benefactor. She and Spike had snacked on those throughout the day, and apparently, she hadn’t eaten her fill.
Buffy whirled around, licking chocolate from the corner of her mouth. “Ummm. Hi. Sorry. I—”
Jerome frowned, poised in the doorway leading to the kitchen and the owner’s quarters. “Are you all right?” he asked. “I was just getting ready to bring you something. Donna said you fainted last night, and when we didn’t hear from you…”
She blinked. God, had that been only last night? So much had happened since then.
“Oh, right,” Buffy replied, plastering on a quick, watery smile. She might feel guilty, but she wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to blame her bad manners on an illness. “Yeah, ummm… I was a little lightheaded. Spi—erm, William drove me back and…”
Jerome’s eyes darkened slightly, his worry lines receding. “Your friend’s still with you, then?”
Disapproval weighed his expression, but he was too much of a gracious host to vocalize it. “Well, I’m glad you had someone taking care of you. Have you eaten anything besides cookies? You must be starving.”
She grinned and nodded to the cookie plate. “I’m fine. These are delicious.”
“Let me make you some real food. The sort with proteins.”
“No… I mean, that sounds great, but I actually came in here to ask you something. Or see if you have any books or anything that would help.” Buffy drew in a deep breath, mind racing. “I, uh, am doing some research for a class.”
Damn. He’d noticed. “Right.”
“And…didn’t you just graduate?”
“Summer class,” she explained. “For Mr. Giles, actually. The guy who, you know, set me up here? He’s teaching it. The class. And we’re…umm…” God. She used to be so good at this. Like three days ago, she’d been good at this. Had sleeping with Spike completely fried her brain?
Especially when she had yet to stop spinning. Spike was a vicious, remorseless killer. A killer who kissed and stroked her. A killer who made her body sing. A killer who made her feel warm where she’d been cold.
A killer who loved her. Spike loved her.
Thankfully, Jerome threw her a lifeline. Either he pitied her or wanted to move onto the next thing. “What is it you need, Anne?”
“Places down here that have burned—caught fire. We need to research them. Like…umm…”
Jerome barked a laugh. “Well, that narrows it down—”
“I know. Really. And that’s sort of the problem. I thought maybe…you could tell us some of your top choices. Any place in particular that you’d…recommend?”
There was a long pause in which Jerome just studied her, as though trying to determine whether she was serious or stalling. As though expecting Spike to peek around the corner, arms full with the good china. But to his credit, he shook his head, slid his hands into his pockets and shrugged. “Well, historically, there are hundreds of places in the area.”
“There was a house on Clifton Avenue, right around that turn toward the cemetery? Looked just like Rosalie.”
Buffy nodded. “The house by the river.”
“Right. Well, local lore says a scorned Union officer torched the home when he did not receive an invitation.” Jerome frowned. “A factory explosion killed a bunch of girls in the ’20s. The turning angel in the cemetery—the namesake of that Greg Iles book?”
She nodded again, searching her memory. Her first day in Natchez hadn’t been entirely eventful, but she remembered talking with a few ladies about the local celebrity author everyone in town loved to hate. A tell-all novelist whose fictional stories relied on local Natchez secrets, typically tattling on rich-blood families. His novel, Turning Angel, had made famous the actual turning angel monument in the cemetery.
“There’s also Avonlea.”
Jerome nodded. “The house on Main. Owned by Palmer West. He—”
“Right! That big one.”
“Caught fire and he just let it burn. Of course, his entire family is batshit crazy.” Jerome laughed hard at that as though he’d said something really funny, which led Buffy to believe he just loved gossip. “You know about Avonlea, right? The owners were reclusive, hardly ever seen in town and flat-out refused to let anyone into the house. They had this book collection, the locals compared it to the Library”—he pronounced this lieberry—“of Alexandria. Worth millions. It all went up in the fire. And we’ve had buyer after buyer come here with offers like you wouldn’t believe, and Palmer turns them down.”
Buffy balked. “Why?”
“He’s crazy. Also, I think he knows it’d make a lot of people happy to see Avonlea restored. But yeah, that’s very hush. A big tomb on the side of the road, overgrown with trees and things. It’s really sad.”
And it was her best bet. All other places in town would be too pristine, too managed, too well-lit to attract the Reaper. If Spike was right, and she had every faith he was, they needed someplace in the shadows. Someplace remote. The skeleton of a mansion was ideal.
It was where the Reaper would go.
“Thanks, Jerome,” Buffy said, turning for the door. “That…that’s exactly what I needed.”
“Where are you going?”
Jerome’s eyes went wide. “Oh no. You can’t. It’s private property.”
“Well, I won’t tell if you won’t.”
“If Palmer’s in town, he’ll be there guarding the place.”
Buffy frowned and paused, glancing back. “Guarding a burned down house?”
“Crazy,” Jerome explained again. “He’s been known to shoot at cars if they turn up his drive.”
Well, crap. She’d just have to hope Crazy Palmer wasn’t in town. And if he was, Spike would have to lead. Not that she wanted him shot, but vampires could withstand a lot more than humans, slayer strength or not.
She favored Jerome with a small smile. “I’ll be super careful.”
“And if I get shot, I’ll tell them you did your best to talk me out of it.”
“I really can’t advise—”
“You really can’t stop me.” The smile turned saccharine. “Thanks for the cookie, Jerome.”
Then, without awaiting a reply, she spun on her heel and marched intently out the door.
“I’ll give you this, love,” Spike drawled, slinging a particularly lethal ax over his shoulder. “The place is damn spooky.”
Buffy arched an eyebrow. “You do remember you’re a vampire, right? You thrive in the spooky.”
“Yeah, that’s the point.” He sighed and glanced to the starless sky. “No light at all. Even in good ole Sunnyhell, you got the moon shinin’ down on you, right? These bloody trees block even the headlights from the road.”
“I like the trees.”
Spike exhaled. They were at the footstool of the mansion. It was a great, two-story piece of history, rotted with burnt wood and crumbled plaster. A lamppost entwined with strings of ivy guarded what had once been a grand circle drive. Scorched columns held up a slanted veranda. It was a solid silhouette, cold, unfeeling, abandoned.
“Strange, innit?” he said softly, turning to face the road. “I forget at times.”
He nodded. “How quiet it gets outside the big city scene, right? Dru and me… We used to lie on our backs in fields and look at the stars. She showed me things I…” Spike stopped abruptly, noting the distant look on her face. She shone brightly in the darkness. So bright. And she looked…upset.
Spike stared at her for a long minute, a slow grin stretching across his lips. “You’re gorgeous.”
Buffy blinked and crossed her arms, avoiding his eyes. “What?”
“I am not!”
“I mention Dru and you shut down.”
“I was…thinking.” She pouted, and god, if that didn’t make her even lovelier. “About…apocalypse stuff. Are you getting any vib—ooommm!”
The ax clamored to the cement walkway. He had her pressed against one of the columns before she could utter another syllable, mouth ravaging hers with all the passion he’d forced himself to bottle since leaving the privacy of her rented room. But seeing her like that—seeing the evidence of her desire for him in her eyes…he lost all reason. Lost everything aside from the need to taste her. And taste her he did. Her warmth. Her fire. The hint of her toothpaste colliding with warm chocolate and diet soda. She whimpered and clung to him, teeth scraping against his lips as she fought his mouth with desperate, fiery strokes, sucking fiercely at his tongue. Spike growled, pressing his body hard against hers. He parted her legs with his knee, tugging her forward until her pussy rested against his thigh.
God, she could melt his clothes right off his body. She was so hot. So fiery. So fucking intense.
He wanted her here. Wanted her wet and writhing against him. Singing his name against the quiet night as he marked her body—as he eradicated any thought of the man who had dared touch her in the past. The man whose grubby hands had so presumptuously explored what belonged to Spike. What had always belonged to Spike. Buffy’s hot, desperate moans had him thoroughly unmade.
Spike hissed, sucking hard on her lip before pulling away, kissing his way to her ear. “You’re all I need, Slayer,” he growled, rubbing his leg against her molten center. “All I’ve ever needed. Just took me a bloody long to find you.”
“So wet,” he purred, tenderly stroking her belly. “Makes my mouth water.”
“Spike, we can’t…” Buffy sighed and pushed against his chest, her eyes large and apologetic. “Reaper.”
Fuck the Reaper, he wanted to say but knew he couldn’t. If the creature managed to unleash Hell on Earth… Well, Spike had liked this world before. Now? He didn’t figure there’d be much time for long snogs and longer shags if the Reaper had his way. The Slayer and all her goodness would be thrust into the fight, and she’d go down swinging.
He couldn’t have that. Hell, he figured he was a lost bloody cause all over. The Slayer attracted all manner of nasties, and loving her meant fighting alongside her, no matter what that made him. He had to keep her alive and kicking as long as he could. Forever, if he could.
“Bloody Reaper,” he drawled, stepping back and steadying her as she regained her footing. “I mean what I said, though. About Dru. About how you’re all I’ll ever need.”
He felt heat rise to her skin. Felt her pulse race and her heart thunder. Her eyes darted to the black space between them. “Spike…I don’t…”
“Feel the same. I know.”
“I just wanted you to know, love. Before we throw down and fight the good fight. What I said this morning is true. Fuck all if I know how it happened… I just do. Makes no bleeding sense to me, but I can’t shake it. I just know, you know? You’re what I’ve been meaning to find.” He paused, cupping her cheek. “Buffy…I love you.”
The same lost, awed look that had tickled her face that morning warmed her again. She bathed him in sunlight without a thought or a prayer. “I know,” she replied softly. “Spike…I just…I don’t know what’s going to happen from here. After we stop the world from ending and go… I’m just—uhh, confused. And I don’t know what I feel right now.”
Spike blinked and stepped back, combing his fingers through his hair with sudden awkwardness. He hadn’t wanted to make things strange for her, but at the same time, she had to know what was at stake. She had to know how deep this ran for him, and how seriously he took those words. He’d only said them to four women in his life, and only one of those had meant it when she said them back.
Well, that wasn’t entirely fair. He supposed Dru had meant it in her own, twisted way, but it hadn’t been enough for him, and that, as much as anything, had ultimately driven them apart. His need for all-encompassing love was unique, perhaps, but no less real. Living off what he had been offered wasn’t good enough anymore. Dru loved with whimsy. Spike loved with his whole being. In all his years, he’d only come across one person who loved the way he did. And she was standing at his side.
“Right,” he said shortly, glancing up. “Well, sorry to tell you, pet, I’m getting no tinglies here. I—”
“Props for the setting, though.”
“I didn’t mean for it to sound that way.”
He paused and met her eyes. “That way?”
“You told me something beautiful and I didn’t know how to react.” Buffy waved a hand. “I don’t know how to react to any of this. My life has turned completely on its head since I got here. I came here to do the job and get my mind back on track. To get—”
“To get over him.”
She balked but didn’t back down. Rather, swallowing hard, she offered a brave nod. “Well, yes. But not the way you think. Not even the way I thought. You showed up and changed everything. And it’s happened so fast, Spike. Everything has happened so fast. And now you love me.”
“I’ve loved you a long bloody time, Slayer. Just took seeing you to realize it.”
The admission nearly had her in tears, but nonetheless, she pushed on. “I can’t give you what you want. The most I can… I have feelings for you. As in much. And it’s so different from anything I felt with…” She paused and broke away. “It’s real. It feels…real. Angel never felt real. And I decided I loved him too quickly. I decided, and yeah, it grew into something else, but it began with a decision. He had the big broody, romance-novel-cover thing working for him, and it was so hopeless and romantic and I don’t… It was never really real, though. It was Romeo and Juliet, and that’s never real.” Buffy sighed. “I don’t want to decide I love you. If it happens, I want it to be real, too. As real as whatever we have now. If I decide I love you, like I decided with him, it becomes a fairytale, and we can’t be a fairytale, Spike. I haven’t had anything beyond the fairytale before. Everything you and me have had has been real. Everything we’ve done…and it has to stay that way. The feelings I have for you are real, too. And powerful. I just don’t know if I can call it love. I’ve known you forever, but I only saw you a couple of days ago.” A watery smile traced her lips. “Give me time?”
Spike could do nothing but stare. In all his years, he’d never come closer to perfection. Not before this instant. Before her words knew breath and her eyes gifted him with new life. It was more than he’d ever had. More than anything. Anything. She was the first woman in his life to speak plain truths—to give him something beyond lacy words and empty promises. Beyond… Christ…
“I know that it’s not what you want—”
“It’s perfect.” He cupped her cheeks and drew her mouth against his, tasting every delicious crevice. Treasuring every sinful stroke of her tongue. Loving this. Loving her. Needing more and more. Needing…but happy.
God, what a fucking notion.
“Perfect?” Buffy asked. Her eyes positively shone. “Really?”
“God yes.” Spike sighed, resting his brow against hers. “Thank you.”
“Giving me this.” He kissed her again before drawing away with finality. “More later, yeah? Right now we have bigger gits to worry about.” Spike rubbed her shoulders, his eyes hitting the sky again. “But I meant what I said before. I got nothing here, love. Either the Reaper found a way to shut off my trigger or we’re fuck all outta luck.”
She licked her lips. “Well, there are tons of places around town.”
“Doesn’t need to be in town, does it? Can be anywhere.”
A groan. “You’re not really helping with the encouragement.”
“Sorry, pet. We can drive around if you like. See if something snags me.”
“And if he did find a way to shut it off?”
Spike shrugged. “We’ll get there.”
“Time’s kinda of the essence, here. If the ritual’s going down tonight—”
“Yeah, yeah. Go fight the big fight. We’ll get there. I’m a bloody man of my word.” He leaned over and seized the handle of the fallen ax. “This bloke’s history. Just gotta find him and make sure he knows it.”
Buffy nodded distantly, rubbing her arms. They turned on the same foot and started back for the car. Whether her mind was with him or on their missing baddie, he didn’t know. All he knew was he had to get the Reaper out of the way so he could get back to more pressing matters.
So he could chain her to a bed and make love to her until the feelings she’d mentioned solidified, and she knew she felt the same thing he did.
It wasn’t until his hand curled under the door handle that his gut twinged.
Buffy’s head shot up. “What?”
“Get in the car.”
“Spike, what’s wrong?”
“Get in the sodding car.”
She blinked in surprise but obeyed without another question, not speaking again until the metallic clink of her seatbelt secured. “What is it?” she demanded. “Is it the Reaper?”
“We’re about to go for a ride,” Spike agreed, charging up the engine. “Hold on, kitten. Looks like the git finally sent our invite.”
The Desoto’s wheels squealed as he pulled back onto Main, and then they were off.
Chasing shadows into the night.