Wanted: Undead or Alive

(Book 12 in the Love at Stake series)

A novel by Kerrelyn Sparks


For my father, Les.

You are greatly loved

in this world and the next.

Stay strong.

Chapter One

“Get real, Phineas! You can’t expect me to believe this crap!”

Phineas McKinney frowned at his younger brother, who was clutching the steering wheel with white-knuckled desperation. Obviously, last night’s confession had not gone as well as he had thought. “Freemont, you gotta know I would never lie to you—”

“I know that!” Freemont shot him a frantic look, then turned the windshield wipers up to a higher speed to combat the rain that pelted his thirteen-year-old, dented Chevy Impala. “But that doesn’t leave me with a lot of options, you know? First I thought you’d gone crazy. Then I thought you must be doing drugs. Then when I tried to talk to you this afternoon, I thought you were dead! I mean, seriously, start-the-damned-funeral dead!”

“I’m not crazy,” Phineas muttered. “And I don’t do drugs.”

The atmosphere in the car sizzled with tension, interrupted only by the noise of the wipers swishing back and forth. A wet, slushy sound, followed by a high-pitched, prolonged screech reminiscent of fingernails on a blackboard.

Phineas winced. There were times when having supersensitive hearing was not an advantage.

Freemont gave him a wary look. “What—what about that last part? The . . . dead part?”

Slush-screech. Slush-screech.

Freemont gulped audibly. “You weren’t really dead, were you?”

Slush-screech. Slush-screech.

“I’m alive now,” Phineas said quietly, then gave his brother a reassuring smile. “Don’t I look alive to you?”

Freemont didn’t look reassured. His eyes had grown so wide, the whites gleamed as his gaze darted back and forth from his brother to the busy street in the Bronx. “You’re alive now? What the hell does that mean?”

“It means my heart is beating. I’m breathing—”

“You weren’t breathing this afternoon! You scared the shit out of me! I almost called Aunt Ruth—”

“I told you not to.” Phineas didn’t want his aunt and sister to know the truth. Aunt Ruth would probably drag him into church and insist the Reverend Washington perform an exorcism on him. Luckily, the female members of his family were out of town this weekend, singing with the choir at some event in Buffalo.

“I didn’t know what to do! I thought about calling an ambulance, but—” Freemont stomped on the brakes, tires spinning on the wet cement before the Impala halted with a lurch. He slammed a fist on the horn, and the blaring noise made Phineas grit his teeth.

“What the hell are you stopping for, asshole?” Freemont hollered at the car in front of them.

“People usually stop for red lights. You should try it sometime.” Phineas’s attempt at a joke fell flat. His brother was still looking at him like he’d grown a second head. “I have excellent night vision, you know. You want me to drive?”

No!” Freemont leaned forward, a possessive glint in his eyes as he squeezed the steering wheel with fisted hands. “I need to drive. It keeps me calm.”

This was calm? Phineas hadn’t expected a full-fledged panic attack this evening. Last night his brother had remained quiet during the confession, just nodding his head as if he accepted it all. But Phineas had to admit now that it was highly unusual for his brother to remain quiet for more than sixty seconds. Freemont had been stunned speechless.

“I did warn you,” Phineas reminded his brother. “I told you not to go down into the basement.”

“I thought you were quoting a line from a bad movie.”

“Why would I do that?”

“How the hell would I know?” Freemont yelled. “I told you, I thought you’d gone crazy!”

“I explained it all last night, how I ended up a vampire, and how I needed to do my death-sleep all day in the basement with the window boarded up.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t really catch that last part, you know what I’m saying? The minute you said ‘vampire,’ I thought you’d gone bat-shit on me. I didn’t hear nothin’ after that. I was too busy trying to figure out how we could afford to send you to a nut hut so you could get your head screwed back on.”

“I’m perfectly fine, Freemont. I was just . . . dead for a few hours.”

“That’s not normal, bro!”

“It is for a vampire.”

Freemont flinched, then turned to glare at the stoplight.

Slush-screech. Slush-screech.

The light turned green, and Freemont accelerated slowly. “You really believe this stuff, don’t you?”

“I’m not shittin’ you, Freemont. Didn’t you see me drink a bottle of blood?”

“You said it was blood, but what the hell, you could have had a V8. If you were really a vampire, wouldn’t you be chomping down on people’s necks? Not that I’m offering mine, you understand—”

“I hang with the good Vamps. We don’t bite people.” Phineas sighed. He’d explained all this last night, how some bad vampires had transformed him and held him prisoner until he’d been able to join the good Vamps and help them fight the bad vampires they called Malcontents. He’d even shown Freemont his fangs, although he hadn’t extended them. He’d tried his best not to freak his brother out. “You saw my fangs, remember?”

Freemont waved a hand in dismissal. “You could have had them filed into points. It’s totally wack, but there are crazy people who do weird shit to themselves. Hell, I saw a guy on TV who had his tongue split so he’d look like a snake.”

“I’m not crazy.”

“You think you’re a vampire. If that’s not seriously crazy, I don’t know what is.” Freemont took a deep breath. “We’ll get you better, Phin. I’ll get a full-time job, drop out of school—”

“No! You just finished your freshman year, and you’re doing great. I’m not letting you drop out.”

Freemont stiffened with an indignant look. “You can’t tell me what to do. You’ve been taking care of us, paying all the bills, for eight years. It’s my turn now. I can do this.”

“You’re finishing college,” Phineas said sharply, then noticed the stubborn clench of Freemont’s jaw. Sheesh. His little brother was becoming a man.

Five years ago, when Phineas had been transformed at the age of twenty-three, his brother had been a skinny fourteen-year-old, all bony elbows and knobby knees. The aging process had screeched to a halt for Phineas, so he tended to forget that his younger brother and sister kept growing. He and Freemont looked close to the same age now.

Phineas softened his voice. “I need your help, bro.”

“Anything, man. Whatever medical attention you need. I’ll get it for you. You can count on me.”

Phineas’s chest expanded with warmth. His brother had grown into a good man. Now if he could just

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