Introducing your fiancé to your parents for the first time is always tough, but when you add that he’s a vampire . . . ?
Plus, add into that awkwardness that my parents and I have been benignly estranged since I turned eighteen, and I haven’t shared as much as a postcard in all that time, well . . .
Let’s just say: oy.
The four of us sat in a darkened booth at Porta Bella’s, a place voted by the local newspaper as one of the best romantic restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin. Sebastian and I occupied one of the tiny, pewlike wooden benches and my folks the other. Darkly colored tapestries hung on the walls. A candle flickered in a cut-glass container at the center of the wooden table. Pine garlands accented with glass icicles draped the wood beams of the ceiling.
The atmosphere at our table was as chilly as it was outside. Though the waitress had brought crusty bread and garlic-flavored oil, it remained untouched. We all hid our faces behind the red leather menus. Occasionally, my mother would peep out from behind hers to stare at the garlic and glance at Sebastian like she expected him to burst into flames.
Honestly, I hadn’t meant for everything to come spilling out like that during the introductions.
All last night I’d thought about clever ways to naturally insinuate the topic of my lover’s vampirism into everyday discussions about the price of chicken feed and egg production, but instead, just as soon as we met at the restaurant, I’d blurted, “This is Sebastian Von Traum, my fiancé. He’s a vampire.”
My mother had simply said, “Isn’t that interesting,” in that Minnesotan way that implied that I’d made a major faux pas. I blame the state’s Norwegian heritage that Minnesotans tend to be so polite that they won’t say what they mean.
Even so, silence had followed. No one had spoken a word for the last ten minutes and counting.
“So . . .” I started, but no one looked up from their menus.
I sighed and searched my parents for a safe avenue to start a discussion—any discussion—about. My folks are farmers, but they’re also pot-smoking hippies. Even though it had gone gray and thin, my dad still wore his hair long and straight; it hung in a tight braid down to the small of his back. A ball cap advertising some organic seed company kept his bangs from falling in his sun-brightened and weathered face. His plain cotton shirt revealed forearms that might have belonged to a younger man but for the dusting of fine white hairs. Where a watch usually would be he wore several woven friendship bracelets.
Mom wore a hand-dyed dress and a necklace she made herself with leather strips and beads imported from Africa. Her hair was cut short and utilitarian, but her shoes were Italian leather. She sported almost no makeup, just a little light brown mascara that highlighted pale blue eyes—the color mine used to be before the dark Goddess Lilith possessed me . . . another something I hadn’t quite gotten around to talking to my folks about.
Though she hadn’t said anything about my eyes, my mother had noticed my hair. She’d fussed and clucked about the pixie cut when I’d met them at their hotel last night. Finally she’d shaken her head and said, “The black dye just makes you look so severe, dear.” Dad pointed out he’d hardly recognized me, and he’d thought I was “some hooligan coming to cause mischief.” I probably should have told them I was intentionally in disguise, what with the Vatican witch hunters potentially still out there trying to kill me, but instead, all my teenage rebellion came flowing back, and I’d basically told them all the cool kids were doing it.
You can imagine the conversation that followed.
I had really hoped today would be different.
“How about them Packers?” I ventured, trying to make a joke. To ask about the local football team, in this case, the Green Bay Packers, was a well-seasoned conversation gambit, on a par with “How’s it going?” and “What’s up?” I knew my folks weren’t into sports, but they should get the funny and acknowledge my attempt to get conversation rolling again.
But my dad just grunted, and my mother rolled her eyes. Sebastian, at least, gave me a little smile. See, now, we could talk about how awesome Sebastian was, if my folks weren’t all hung up on the vampire thing.
I mean, what parents in their right minds wouldn’t want their only daughter married to a man this well-heeled and nicely put together? Sebastian’s shoulder-length black hair was pinned back at the nape of his neck. He was perfectly clean-shaven, which was actually kind of unusual for him, but he’d gone all out for tonight. You’d think he’d be every parent’s dream in his gray silk shirt and black dress pants.
I should never have mentioned the vampirism.
Sebastian, I could tell, brooded a bit. Because he could walk around in the daylight, Sebastian completely passed as human. He hated it when I felt the urge to out his supernatural origins. In fact, we hadn’t actually gotten around to agreeing that we would tell my folks. He’d said he thought the whole thing was on a need-to-know basis and, frankly, it was no one’s business but our own.
Right now I could totally see his point.
“The linguine’s good,” I offered into the stillness.
Without looking over the menu, Sebastian added, “Yes, I recommend any of their pastas. They make them fresh on the premises.”
It was a noncommittal show of support from Sebastian. I could tell he was still mad at me, but he was willing to put up a united front to the parents for my sake.
“I’m getting the goat cheese–filled ravioli,” I said, a note of cheer creeping into my voice. Maybe if I kept talking about mundane things, everyone would pretend to forget what I’d said earlier, and we could all have a do-over.
My father’s menu hit the table with a snap. “So, Sebastian, is it?” My father’s voice was full of judgment. His shoulders squared against the hard back of the bench, and he crossed his arms in front of his chest. “What is it you do for a living, then?”
The then implying “since you’re some kind of freak.” I could hear it in my father’s tone.
I chewed the edge of my fingernail, my eyes darting to Sebastian anxiously.
Folding his menu, Sebastian very carefully and deliberately tucked it under the bread plate. He laced his fingers on the tabletop in front of him and leaned forward slightly, like a CEO brokering the big deal. “I’m a car mechanic.”
My dad nodded, considering. “That’s a pretty good living.”
Mom was less sure. “Did you go to college, dear? Education is very important in our family.”
Which was a nice little dig at me, of course. I’d gotten a degree in English, but I was in the middle of a long, extended, all-but-thesis master’s when the Vatican paramilitaries assassinated my coven and sent me into hiding. I’d always figured my folks disapproved of my career in bookselling, even though I now owned Mercury Crossing, the premier occult bookstore and herb emporium of Madison.
“Sebastian has a Ph.D. and teaches an extension class at the UW in herbalism,” I offered, hoping my folks would choose to bond with him over the growing of things.
“If you can teach, why work on cars?” My mother again. Despite the fact that she and dad were farmers, she was a snob when it came to collar colors. She preferred white.
“Magic,” Sebastian said with a nod and a smile. “Alchemy.”
I loved him for that answer, but I could see the confusion in my parents’ eyes. He’d told me the same thing when we first met, and I’d understood instantly that he was talking about elemental magic: fire, air, water, earth. My mom looked to me for a translation. My dad gave a little snort that seemed to say, “Yep, crazy as a loon.”
“No, seriously,” I started. “Carburetors bring in air, see, and spark plugs, fire. Gas and steel are earth—” Thank the Goddess the waitress interrupted my attempt to “clarify” Sebastian’s comment.
My father opened his mouth and, afraid he was going to ask for more time so that he could grill Sebastian about his answer, I yelled out my choice, “Goat cheese–filled ravioli for me!”
“Honestly, Garnet. No need to shout, she’s only right here,” my mother admonished.
“Sorry,” I muttered, my cheeks brightening to crimson. Could I feel any more like a four-year-old?
Somehow we managed to talk about the weather before the food arrived. For my parents, this hardly constituted small talk. The fall had been dry again, so all the Finlayson farmers were hoping for a heavy snowpack now that the winter had started. Even though my folks only raise chickens, the ins and outs of the climate are serious considerations. Until I lived in Wisconsin, I never realized how Minnesotans use the term weather. “That was some weather that blew in last night,” my dad said. “How many inches did you get?”
Enough that my arms still ached from snowblowing the length of Sebastian’s driveway, but I’d done my homework. I’d had the news on at breakfast just so I could answer this question authoritatively. “Six inches in some places, they said.”
My mother made a comment about the previous season’s drought, and Sebastian mentioned how much snowier he remembered winters being generally. We were all getting along nicely for the moment. I should have realized that meant we were doomed.
I noticed the smell first. A combination of rotten meat and sickly sweet flowers, the scent tickled the edges of my nose. I had to hold back a sneeze. Looking around for an open kitchen door or exposed garbage can, I saw nothing. I chalked it up to some odoriferous anomaly and was returning my attention to the riveting discussion of snow, when a figure lurched toward us.
A low hiss caused everyone at the table to look up.
“I curse you,” said a woman in a harsh whisper. Still dressed for outside, she had on a knee-length down coat, and snow clung in clumps to her windswept long black hair. She could have been beautiful in a haughty, aristocratic way, except for her too-thin face—plus the dead-bluish lips and wild eyes, which stared possessively at Sebastian.
I might have mistaken her for some random, deranged druggie, but that Lilith growled low in the back of my throat. I knew instantly this woman was some kind of creature of magic and a dangerous one at that. Given the smell and the trouble we’ve had in the past, my first thought was, Zombie!
“Teréza!” Sebastian said at the same moment.
“Teréza?” I looked at Sebastian for confirmation. Teréza was his . . . what?—Betrothed? Fiancée?—only she was supposed to be, well, not quite dead, but definitely not up and moving around.
Well, this was certainly awkward.
“Who is this?” my mother asked, clearly miffed that I hadn’t instantly offered introductions.
“Uh . . .” I was really hoping for help from Sebastian here, but he was still gaping, openmouthed, at Teréza. “Well, this is Teréza. She’s Sebastian’s . . . uh. Sebastian and she . . . uh . . . Teréza is Sebastian’s late—really late—uh, almost wife?”
How was I supposed to explain Teréza anyway? Back in eighteen-something she’d been dying of consumption, and Sebastian had tried to turn her into a vampire. Since his vampirism came from alchemy and not from a Sire of the blood, he failed—kind of. She didn’t die. But she didn’t exactly live either.
“She’s mostly dead,” I added. “That is, until recently, she was . . .”
I was stumbling over my words so much that I was actually kind of grateful when Teréza lunged at Sebastian, trying to kill him.