Soulbound – Book 1: Chapter 1


The Connections Trilogy_Soulbound_1


The First Connection

Chapter 1

Lower being, you have come before the Oracles with questions in your heart. Such selfish pursuits are normally unworthy of our attention, but the actions of our champion have granted you passage this day. Know that the answers you seek are already within you. Though it is within our power to fold time, to turn back the clock, it is not always for the greater good. Behold the flash point of events leading to this moment.

Friday night at the Bronze meant a noisy packed club. The din of the music made it hard to hear anything else. Cordelia Chase and her friends stood in a tight circle near the main entrance allowing them to see if anyone interesting walked in. So far, the only one who met that description was Owen Thurman, tall, blond, and broody smart guy. As far as Cordelia was concerned he had one major flaw: an interest in the new girl, aka Buffy Summers.

What was the 411 on her anyway? Being from L.A. made her potentially cool, but she turned out to be a big weirdo. Cordelia just didn’t get it. Who turned down a chance to be around the most popular girl in school to hang out with Sunnydale High’s biggest losers instead? Cordelia was left in serious doubt about Buffy’s taste, though she did have to give her kudos for snagging Owen so quickly.

Of course, if Cordelia really wanted Owen—or any guy— for herself, she knew she could have him twisted around her little finger in no time. Checking him out again she decided that on the surface, he looked like a nice, handsome guy. Upon closer scrutiny he seemed a little dull from this angle. Maybe it was the company he kept. He was smiling at Buffy, but it didn’t seem to reach his eyes.

Buffy, on the other hand, was turning on the charm. Desperate, much? Pfft.

Deciding neither one of them was worth further attention, Cordelia turned back to the ongoing conversation in time to hear Aphrodesia squeal, “Cor, you’re wearing new Choos!”

“Only all night, hello.” It had only taken Aura 30 seconds to notice her designer shoes. “I think someone needs her eyes examined.”

Grinning, she told the girls the details of her recent shopping experience. They hung on every word, envy written on their faces. It rocked to be the center of attention and why not? She was a Chase, after all.

Caught up in the excitement, Cordelia forgot about Buffy and Owen. Halfway through her story the main doors opened and closed causing a momentary flash of bright light from the outside. She blinked as her eyes adjusted making out the shape of a tall man standing in the shadows. Something about him held her attention, her pulse quickening in her veins as she silently willed him to step closer.

He moved easily through the crowd, scanning it. Now this was someone worth giving her full attention. Gorgeous in a way that defined tall, dark and handsome, he made her forget all about shoes and shopping. Her brain short circuited. “Hello, salty goodness!”

The music nearly drowned out the rest of her words so that the Cordettes had difficulty hearing her, but somehow her stranger managed to notice. Head cocked, he turned toward her, his eyes dark and impenetrable, somehow mysterious. Cordelia felt as if he had reached out to touch her skin. She shivered and took one step closer to show her interest expecting him to walk the rest of the way.

Cordelia pegged him for a student at the university. Sizing him up, after another head to toe glance, she considered that he might be a grad student instead. The trendy clothes were just a little bland for her taste, but that was easy to fix. She pictured him in something more dramatic and wondered what else he had in his closet. The idea of going through his belongings somehow appealed.

Though his eyes lingered on hers for another moment he made no move to close the gap between them. A shadow fell over his eyes as he frowned, like a hint of guilt, something that she couldn’t quite fathom. Before she could make the first move, he walked away.

Stunned by his behavior, Cordelia stood frozen as he quickly scanned the crowd again, apparently finding his quarry. He made a beeline for Buffy and Owen. From the body language, she could tell this was the first time the guys had met. That meant Tall, Dark and Mysterious was here because of Buffy.

A hard pang stabbed at her chest.

Her head swarmed with questions. Did they know each other from L.A. or did Buffy really move that fast? Her shoulders tightened with tension. Overlooked by two guys in one day for the likes of Buffy Summers. She couldn’t believe it.

It was as if the Earth turned on its axis, or some great universal force turned the world inside out. Like Versace just announced that orange was the new black. That Buffy girl was just bad news. “Why is this happening to me?” she wondered aloud. She flicked one last glance in their direction before turning back to the girls.

“Looks like you’re the one in need of oxygen,” Aura sniggered referring to Cordelia’s boast about planning to leave him breathless. “He sucked the wind out of your sails fast enough.”

The other two started giggling until Cordelia stared them down with a single scorching glance. Just because she’d come back sans man attached to her side didn’t mean she’d failed to catch his attention.

Human nature evokes a base attraction designed to propagate the species. The female is drawn to the male, yet sees not his true form. He is a predator. A demon with the face of an angel, a creature of lust and darkness bound by a soul, now following the call to join forces with its natural enemy: the Slayer.

Buffy glanced up at Angel through the veil of her lashes, trying to contain the secret thrill sending shivers through her taut body. He was here in her room, having slept next to her bed the night before. Maybe being attacked by those three vamps, getting caught by her mom and the oh-so-embarrassing discussion about her diary was worth this moment.

“I did a lot of thinking today,” revealed Angel making Buffy’s heart flutter at the wicked thoughts flashing through her head. Then he said, “I really can’t be around you. Because when I am—”

This didn’t sound good. Buffy wanted him around. She liked him way too much even if she didn’t really know anything about him. No way could she let Angel think she was the clingy type even if it was the truth. With a shrug, she said, “Hey, no big. Water over the bridge, under the bridge—”

He was close. So close. Buffy leaned in, Angel’s dark head tilting toward her as he kept on despite her interruption, “—when I am, all I can ever think about is how badly I want to kiss you.”

Muttering turned into surprise, “—over the dam. Kiss me?” Her green eyes widened at the confession.

Buffy’s cheek was soft as he caressed her face, so soft and warm. Angel knew this was trouble. Trying to be sensible, “I am older than you, and this can’t ever— I better go,” he tried to convince himself to listen.

But he didn’t seem to be moving.

She felt a lump catch in her throat and swallowed heavily. “H—how much older?”

Trick question. There was a simple answer. One Angel had no intention of revealing. He wasn’t planning on answering anything that gave away his true identity. He was here to provide help, to guide her, not take advantage of her youthful naiveté. “I should go.”

Buffy sighed her discontent, her sweet breath spreading warmth across his skin. His gaze fell to the soft curve of her lips. He licked his own starving for a taste of innocence. “You said—”

The kiss was intense. It felt cool and hot at the same time, both tender and overpowering. Innocence melded into passion. Too much to control. Angel soaked up every sensation. Body heat jacked up another notch as her firm little breasts pressed against his chest. The air was scented by the tang of arousal. His mouth lost in the taste of hers.

It had been too long since he’d indulged in such pleasures. He’d kept himself isolated, disgusted by who and what he was, existing without a purpose until Whistler came along to give him one. Angel had himself convinced that a vampire cursed with a human soul had no place in the world of men. Not after everything he’d done to them.

Yet he’d taken Whistler up on his offer hoping to make some kind of restitution for his past evil deeds by helping the Chosen One until she found the strength and skill to stand on her own. He was drawn to that hope like a moth to a flame, drawn to her because of it and to the irresistible lure of innocence.

So eager in his arms, she was warm, sweetly passionate, and he felt the lure of his lustful nature wanting to bury his cock and teeth inside her. Too much need. Angel lost it. The constant control he exercised over his demon nature slipped. He tried desperately to hold back, but couldn’t. This couldn’t happen. Not here. Not now. Not with her.

Buffy sensed the shift even through the haze of her passion. Lifting away from his mouth, her body still tingling, she asked, “What? What is it? What’s wrong?” Suddenly realizing that she held a vampire in her arms, an involuntary blood-curdling scream erupted from her throat.

Truth: the essence of all that is and ever will be. Denial: an action of futility when faced with truth in its purest form. Slayer. Vampire. Opposites, yes. Enemies from the first dawn of their existence. Until love strikes its arrow unseen into the heart of the undead and blooms in the presence of innocence. A human emotion that will not be denied even in the face of death itself.

Darla’s fangs gleamed beneath the curl of her vampiric smile. The Slayer’s life was hers for the taking. After all, Angel would not stop her, not her beautiful boy. She made him. He was hers for eternity despite the pollution that was his soul.

It disgusted her, but Darla recognized that it hadn’t diminished her lust for him. He was hers to love or hate. Not that Angelus had ever loved her. He loved nothing but his little obsessions, pain and pleasure.

For so long that had been enough for her. She’d even put up with him for years after he was tainted by that soul. Until he stopped pretending that he was a real vampire and his revulsion for killing innocents was too obvious to ignore.

Now it seemed like he was playing for the other team: the good guys. He was here with the Slayer. He possessed feelings for the girl. It amused her that the object of his desires reminded her of herself in coloring and stature. Beyond that and the desire to kill each other, they had nothing in common.

This girl was still virginal. She recognized infatuation when she saw it. Darla couldn’t remember ever being that innocent. No wonder Angel was drawn to the girl. It amused her to think of him obsessing over his natural enemy, but her amusement was quickly replaced by a cold knot of jealousy.

Back when they were together Darla didn’t care how many girls Angelus fucked. They were just a bit of fun. He always did like to play with his food. Darla often liked to play too. This girl was different. Darla sensed it. She could see it in Angel’s eyes.

Letting Angel actually fall in love with someone other than her—Darla was never going to let that happen. “C’mon, Buffy,” she goaded her back into the fight. “Take it like a man.” She planned to enjoy every moment of this and wanted to see the look on Angel’s face when his little love’s dead body lay broken on the floor at his feet.

A wooden stake plunged from the darkness piercing her chest. Her attention had been on the Slayer and not Angel. Turning to face her attacker, Darla caught the guilt on his face. In the instant before she turned to dust, Darla felt her heart burst with a pain sharper than the stake imbedded there.

Love for a childe driven into the shadows, denied for a century because he was cursed with a soul. Her creation. Her lover. Her— “Angel?”

Opposites. Enemies. Fate often brings them together despite natural obstacles in their path. Slayers and Vampires. The same is true for all lower beings seeking what they need and finding it where least expected. Love. Companionship. Survival on a Hellmouth.

Cordelia Chase hurtled through the library doors in search of help. Just as she suspected, Buffy was there, along with her loser friends, Willow and Xander. Even Mr. Giles, the school librarian, seemed surprised to see her there. They stared at her like she had come from another planet. She did in a way—the one with tastefully dressed cool people.

Now that she was here there had to be some way of asking for help without sounding like a complete hypocrite. Maybe she didn’t know exactly what Buffy Summers was all about, but she’d learned quickly that it was safer to have her around in a crunch. And lately, she had experienced lots of weird crunchiness.

There was that gang at the Bronze that night trying to take hostages and threatening to kill people. Buffy had saved her from getting run over by a truck when she’d had that attack of sudden blindness. Her therapist said it was stress and suggested she cut down on caffeine. Finding headless Dr. Gregory in the school freezer was not of the fun either. It wasn’t that Cordelia hadn’t heard of strange goings-on in Sunnydale before. The fact that the strangeness was happening to her was the problem.

This was her day of glory as the school’s May Queen. Her one worry should be choosing something to wear to the Spring Fling, not the spooky things that had been happening.

The librarian stood from his perch on the edge of the table. “May I help you?”

Cordelia had no time for his stuffy British manners. “Not you. I’m looking for her.” She nodded toward Buffy and walked over to the table where they had books and papers spread everywhere.

“And you thought you’d make her day by showing up?” Xander snorted as he stepped in front of her partially blocking her view. Like she cared that they were looking at dusty old books.

Ignoring the irritating oaf who had recently ruined a two-hundred dollar pair of her shoes, Cordelia took a deep breath and decided to get this over with. “Look, Buffy, I— uh— I, I know we’ve had our differences, with you being so weird and all, and hanging out with these total losers—”

She paused seeing the pinched look on Buffy’s face. Veering in another direction, “Well, anyway, despite all of that, I know that you share this feeling that we have for each other, deep down.”

“Nausea?” Willow asked guilelessly.

Brushing off the comment, Cordelia’s fear came out as a whine. “Somebody is after me! They just tried to kill Ms. Miller when she was helping me with my homework. This is all about me! Me, me, me!”

Was nothing getting through? Buffy stood next to Xander with her arms folded as if she was trying to figure out if it was worth responding. Maybe she didn’t believe her. After a long pause, Buffy finally asked, “So you’ve come to me for help?”

Cordelia could not deny it. This was hardly her choice. There wasn’t anyone else to turn to. She explained, “Because you’re always around when all this weird stuff is happening. And I know you’re very strong, and you’ve got all those weapons. I was kind of hoping you were in a gang.”

Seeing that he was going to have to be the grown up, Giles ushered the distraught teen toward a chair. “Please. Sit down, Cordelia.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

Watching her for a moment, Giles realized, “You know, I— I don’t recall ever seeing you here before.”

Her response was automatic, “Oh, no, I have a life.”

Cordelia intended to keep having one. They saved her from the Invisible freakazoid who was jealous of everything she represented: beauty, popularity, and confidence. She’d barely noticed that a couple of men in black types had taken the girl away. Tied up and traumatized, she was in hysterics when Buffy finally started to cut loose the ropes.

Just in time to provide a little comfort, the stranger from the Bronze stepped into the room. “The others are safe,” he assured Buffy who had crouched down to release the bonds tying her ankles. “I shut off the gas. Lucky I happened to come along when I did.”

It was fate, Cordelia decided, him being here now. Saving her. Maybe Buffy did all the rough stuff, but he’d arrived just in time. “Thank you.” She threw her arms around his neck and held on taking comfort in the sensation of his solid form against hers.

Buffy sounded a little miffed. “Uh, Cordelia.”

After what seemed like ages, his hands found the small of her back sliding higher. She wasn’t ready to let go. It felt safe there. No matter that she didn’t know his name. Cordy nuzzled her tear-streaked cheek into his shoulder. He was so calm he barely moved. He held his breath as if he was stunned by her gesture of thanks.

When his hands moved up her arms to pull them away from his neck, Cordelia didn’t struggle against it. She took a step back. Just far enough to really notice that his brown eyes held a hint of amusement and something else that made her tingle all the way to her toes.

“I’m Cordy,” she blurted, using the nickname only her closest friends had called her since childhood. Then realizing what she’d done decided to impress him by letting him know she was somebody. “Cordelia Chase.”

His attention had wandered. Not to Buffy, but to the superficial scrape across her cheek. Self-consciously, Cordelia gasped, now worried about her face. “Oh, God, is it bad?” Her fingers lifted up to the sticky substance clinging there and came away covered in blood.

She stared down at her red-tipped fingers nearly hyperventilating again at the sight of her own blood. “Let me see,” he tried to shush her, but it was impossible. Cordelia burst into tears and dipped her head down so they couldn’t see her cry.

“My face! It’s ugly. Scarred. Mutilated.”

Buffy grunted impatiently. “You’re not mutilated.”

Hopeful, Cordelia had to have a real opinion. One that counted. A male perspective. She tilted her face up to him knowing she’d be able to gauge the truth when asking, “Am I ugly now?”

Terrorized, tear-stained, and smeared with blood, Cordelia had no idea what she was asking. Watching from the sidelines, Buffy noticed that Angel was almost mesmerized by the sight of the clingy May Queen. Her mouth tightened as it occurred to her that Cor might be fishing for compliments, but she was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt considering she’d nearly been killed.

Calling out to Angel, she sounded out his name as a warning when she saw him lift his hand toward Cordelia’s bloody cheek. He wasn’t just any guy caught in Cor’s spidery web. He was a vampire. One with a soul, but still a vampire.

Angel’s hand trembled slightly. His thumb brushed across Cordelia’s cheek taking away most of the smeared blood. He could tell that the wound wasn’t deep and was nothing to be so concerned about. It would be the least of her concerns if she had any idea that the scent of blood and fear was turning him on.

He wanted to lick his tongue across the wound, taste the blood and her skin. Her brown eyes went wide and dark as he stared into them. Maybe she did know. The sound of Buffy’s voice snapping out his name again yanked Angel out of his lustful stupor. He dropped his hand to his side and reeled away.

“Hey, you didn’t answer my question,” Cordelia stalked after him. “Angel—is that your name?”

Angel gave a curt nod and then glanced toward Buffy who had every right to look pissed off the way she did. He’d been trying to stay away since the last time they kissed, but he was supposed to be here to help. His need to see her had won out over feeling guilty for wanting her. Now he had one more sin to add to his list of thousands.

Cordelia let out a tremulous sigh. “Am I so ugly now that you can’t even look at me?”

“Beautiful.” Just the one word accompanied the sweep of his dark gaze across her face. Angel’s attention dropped to the blood on his hand. He frowned, eyes flicking back up for a moment in an almost accusatory way before he turned and walked away.

“Does he always do that mysterious disappearing act?” Cordelia asked Buffy who just shrugged. They started to head back to the main part of the school. “I suppose I should thank you, too.”

Buffy’s eyes widened at the concept of receiving a little gratitude from Cordelia Chase. “I’ll skip the hug.”

“Good thing I wasn’t offering.”

A human life now entwined with that of her rival. A life bound by fate to a future as yet unseen. Opposites are they in the form of the Chosen One and the Seer-to-Be with only a single common connection between them. Fast forward now to the crisis that brings our Warrior back into play.

The scent of death led him closer. It wasn’t a fresh kill. Something older. Something that had been in the ground. Normally, Angel would have let it go without seeking out the source, but there was a whiff of something else on the night air, a hint of perfume that tantalized his senses rather than overwhelmed them.

Cordelia Chase. Cordy. He let her name sound out in his head remembering the night she threw her arms around him looking for comfort and wanting confirmation that her beauty wasn’t permanently spoiled. It wasn’t so simple a thing. Not when he kept his demonic instincts on a tight leash.

If she knew the way she’d reminded him of so many victims, of their warm, lush curves and the fear he could taste on the back of his tongue. Or the way his mouth had watered at the sight and scent of her blood. He’d forced himself to walk away. It was far easier to do that than wash her blood from his hand without tasting it.

Once upstairs, Angel had gone into the nearest bathroom with the intention of cleaning it off. But the wall to wall mirrors only reminded him that he was a vampire. No reflection. He wondered what she saw when she looked at him, if there was something beyond her feminine infatuation with a handsome face. Unlike Buffy, who knew what he was and now understood the measure of his guilt, Cordelia still thought he was human.

There was nothing human about him when he’d vamped out and lifted his bloodied hand toward his lips. Just a taste of what he denied himself every day wasn’t asking so much. At the last second, he’d heard her voice out in the hall. Hers and Buffy’s. Disgusted with himself, Angel had turned on the hot water and scrubbed his hands until there was no lingering trace.

He may not have tasted her, but he knew her scent. The back of the school was otherwise deserted. Angel couldn’t fathom a reason for someone like Cordy to be here at this time of night. The scent of her perfume grew faint as the overpowering stench of dead flesh led him along an otherwise invisible trail.

It ended at a dumpster where the increasing sound of a single beating heart revealed he’d found his quarry. Peering behind it, Angel confirmed that the heartbeat was coming from inside. He waited for her to emerge, but there was no visible movement.

Angel knocked on the side of the dumpster to get her attention. A short shriek followed.

“Xander Harris,” she called out shakily, “if this is some kind of sick joke—”

The trash rustled inside the bin as Cordelia struggled to her find her balance. Muttering about what she’d do to Xander when she got her hands on him, she gripped the side and pulled herself to her feet. “Oh! It’s you.”

Cordelia looked startled, but relieved at the same time. He noticed that the cut on her cheek had completely healed leaving nothing but smooth skin behind. She was wearing her cheerleader outfit—and a piece of day old lettuce in her hair. “This is the last place I expected you to hang out,” he told her while fighting off a smile.

Not much in a joking kind of mood, she huffed, “There was someone following me.”

She’d mentioned, “Xander.” Angel suppressed a growl as he said the name. The boy was in love with Buffy, hadn’t denied it. He felt a wave of possessiveness sweep over him and waited a moment to ask, “The thought of him scared you into hiding in the trash?”

“Scared of that moron?” Looking confused, she rolled her eyes at him telling him that he had got it wrong. Angel had to agree with her that the Harris boy was far more annoying than frightening. “I thought it might be the killer zombie looking for more victims,” she explained while glancing around the empty lot.

“A killer zombie.” Angel mulled over the idea and decided it was time to get Cordelia out of the dumpster before she discovered the reason it smelled like death.

Shifting her feet amongst the trash bags, trying to maneuver herself closer to the top of the pile, Cordy defended her actions, “You can’t blame me for not wanting to become some zombie’s meal.”

“No.” He couldn’t, really, but the zombie wouldn’t appreciate her the way he would.

Angel muttered a low curse. He had to stop thinking that way. She was a temptation he didn’t need and he really didn’t understand it. Normally, he tried to suppress thoughts of food when he was around humans, especially human women. Sex, biting, and feeding made a compelling fantasy when there was a beautiful face and body to add to it.

This was exactly why he’d stayed away from human society for so long. Living on the streets was preferable to listening to the demands of his demon instincts. He hated having those desires, but knew them for what they were. When controlled, he could put them aside. He could look at Cordelia without seeing her as a potential victim.

She was Buffy’s friend—or close enough to it that it made no difference. Angel respected that and simply wanted to ensure Cordelia’s safety. That protective urge seemed out of place considering the way his demon reacted whenever she was near.

“Let’s get you out of there.” Confirming his suspicions about the trash contents with a glance, Angel cautioned her, “Don’t look down.”

“W-what do you mean?” Cordelia gulped as she followed Angel’s gaze. From this angle, with the light of the street lamp shining down she realized that the bags of trash were littered with castoff hands, feet and miscellaneous other human body parts.

Letting out a loud shriek, she scrambled out of the dumpster with gymnastic ease if not grace. Instantly, Cordelia was wrapped in Angel’s strong arms, trembling against his muscular frame. Holding her, Angel tried to think friendly thoughts. He brushed the lettuce out of her hair and waited until she was ready to let go.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Cordelia’s warm breath brushed against his cheek as she pulled back from their embrace.

“Huh?”

“Following me.”

“Unintentionally,” Angel quickly replied. “I’m looking for Buffy.”

Of course you are, she thought sourly. What else would he be doing? “Buffy? Well, she’s, uh— big shock, she’s at the graveyard.”

“She said she’d be home.”

“Well, she lied. Isn’t she a rascal?”

Annoyed, Angel figured the Boy Wonder was tagging along. Xander saw more of Buffy than he did. A jealous knot formed in his gut. He felt a growl welling up from the deep of his chest and only suppressed it at the last second upon seeing Cordelia watching for his reaction. Fisting his hands, he shoved them in his jacket pockets.

“It’s late. You shouldn’t be wandering around on your own.”

“I have my car,” she admitted reluctantly. “But I’m still fragile. Can you take me home?”

As Cordelia drove towards home with Angel sitting beside her in the passenger seat, she wondered what she was doing. They would be alone in the mansion. She really didn’t know him that well. “My parents are in Europe.”

That got his attention. “Where?” Angel asked before he realized she meant they would be there without supervision. He could handle that. Maybe. He wondered what she had in mind considering how clingy she’d been.

“Um, Switzerland, I think. I just meant we wouldn’t have to worry about being bothered. So it’s okay if you want to stick around for a while.” One glance and she let her worries fly out the window. “We could watch a movie or listen to some music—after I shower. I’m sure I smell of the eww right now. You don’t mind, do you?”

Angel felt like beating his head against the dashboard. He was about to tell her it was a bad idea, that it wasn’t fair to Buffy. Even if it was just a friendly evening, he wasn’t sure he knew how to have one.

Fortunately, Cordelia’s cell phone rang preventing him from making a fool of himself.

Grabbing the telephone, “What?!” The caller better not be Harmony or Aura whining about their lackluster performance at cheerleading practice.

A tiny voice sounded from the other end of the line. “Uh—Cordy? Is that you?”

“Willow?” Why was Willow Rosenberg calling her cell phone? “How did you get this number?”

“I hacked into the telephone company database,” the redhead sounded sheepishly proud of her achievement.

There was a long pause as Cordelia waited for Willow to reveal the reason for her call. “Not that I care that you’re such a geek, Willow, but surely you didn’t call my private number just to tell me that you could.”

Having pulled up to a stoplight, Cordelia turned her head to find Angel watching her, obviously listening in on the one-sided conversation. She rolled her eyes and caught the corner of his mouth twitch into a small smile.

“Could you come to the school library?” Willow asked, strangely nervous.

No, a thousand times no. “Now?” Not when she had Angel right where she wanted him and the prospect of some serious mackage ahead.

“Yeah.”

This chance with Angel was not likely to come again. A pleading tone crept into her voice. She was about to hang up when she realized there had to be a reason they were calling. It’s not like she actually helped them with the demon slayage. “Why now?”

“We’re back from the graveyard.” Willow revealed. “It involves cheerleaders, so we figured you need to know the scoop before school tomorrow.”

Cordelia let out a deep sigh. “I’ll be there in five minutes.”

“Trouble?” asked Angel.

“With Buffy’s little Scooby Gang there always is.” Cordelia put the phone down and turned her car in the direction of Sunnydale High.

Within minutes, they arrived back at the high school. After putting the car into park, the cheerleader caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. “Oh, God, Angel! Why didn’t you tell me that I look like this? They can’t see me like this.”

Frantically, Cordelia began smoothing her hair with both hands, but stopped when Angel reached out to rub her cheek. “You’re a little smudged,” he said, “but still beautiful.”

Cordelia sat stunned for a moment until she realized that Angel was waiting for her. She turned off the engine and stepped out of the car.

“Well if it isn’t the return of the living dead,” Xander greeted them as the library door swung open.

Cordelia misinterpreted the remark as being directed to her rather than Angel. “I may look like zombie leftovers, Xander Harris, but there is no need to insult me.”

“I’d say there was every need,” Xander quipped. “Can’t let an opportunity like that go to waste even if I was talking about—”

“Angel!” Buffy caught sight of the vampire standing in the doorway as she emerged from the library office. This was a surprise. After last night, she had not expected to see him for a while. When she accused him of being jealous of Xander just because she danced with him their plans for a midnight stroll ended swiftly.

Buffy had forgotten that Angel wasn’t a teenage boy who had more hormones than sense. He was angry. Legitimately angry. Being all avoidy about it wasn’t helping matters. He looked at Xander as if acknowledging the presence of a rival. Nodding, “Xander.”

Gulping, Xander responded likewise. “Angel.”

“I thought you were taking the night off,” his attention was back on her again.

It made Buffy nervous. She started pacing and finally came to a halt next to Willow who gave her an I-told-you-so look. “I— I was— um—but something came up.” That was the truth. Mostly.

“Cordelia told me.”

For the first time, Buffy saw that Cordelia was clinging to him so closely that Angel’s arm was tucked between her shoulder and the curve of her breast. His hand was entwined in both of hers as she clutched them together. This wasn’t the first time Cordelia got all touchy-feely with Angel, though the time before hadn’t been entirely his fault.

Jealousy flared instantly. “What are you doing here with my— with Angel?” Buffy face flushed red as she realized that she had almost called him her vampire. Even calling him a boyfriend was a stretch.

Willow nudged her with an elbow. “You asked me to call Cordelia.”

“Huh?” Buffy was flustered. Remembering that Willow was right about that she pointed out, “That still doesn’t explain why she’s here with Angel.”

Angel offered no explanations. Neither did Cordelia, though she was kind of annoyed that he was using her to make Buffy jealous. Oh well, tough job, but she’d do it.

Giles, who had followed Buffy out from his office decided to get back on track. “Um, as long as you’re here, Angel, perhaps you could be of some help.”

The stoic vampire merely waited. Giles prodded Buffy to take the hint and stop staring at the way Cordelia Chase’s nubile body was pressed against Angel’s. Clearing his throat, he removed his glasses to clean them. Blurry vision came in handy now and again.

Tonight wasn’t all about avoidance. Buffy explained the reason for their detour into the graveyard. “We were investigating. Somebody’s been digging up the bodies of dead girls.”

To their surprise, Angel was already aware of it. “I know.” He glanced at Cordelia and back at her. “We found some of them.”

Wanting to ask why he was with Cordelia and why she kept hanging on like a leech, she chose to stick to the business at hand. “You mean you found, like, two of the three girls?”

Angel corrected her, “I mean— like some of them. Like parts of girls.”

Beside him, Cordelia gasped as she remembered what Willow told her on the telephone. “Oh, God! They were cheerleader parts, weren’t they?”

Offering what little comfort he could, Angel squeezed her hand a little tighter. She had good reason to be terrified. It was only natural that she was still a bit clingy. He hadn’t made any attempt to break her hold on his arm even with Buffy only a few feet away. The demon inside him delighted at the pained look of green-eyed jealousy on the Slayer’s face, especially since she had far less cause for jealousy than he did. After all, Angel had been comforting a scared girl, not gyrating against her like Buffy did when dancing with Xander at the Bronze.

“Non-Sunnydale cheerleader parts,” Willow rushed to reassure Cordelia that the girls were from a Razorbacks rival.

Giles explained about their discovery of the recent auto accident that killed three girls from Fondren High. They were all cheerleaders. Though their initial research had not been specific, the theories still in play ranged from necrophiliac grave robbers to cultists intent upon creating zombies.

“We are unclear if the car crash was an accident or whether the three cheerleaders were targeted by whomever dug them up,” Giles revealed. Lifting his glasses, he tapped one end on his teeth. “We thought it best to warn Cordelia since she was already aware of our— uh, research. As one of the varsity cheerleaders, she can keep an eye on the rest of them.”

“There is a game tomorrow night,” Willow nodded to her computer screen where the Razorbacks’ schedule was posted on the school website.

Before he realized he was saying it, Angel barked, “She’s not going,” outraged that her friends were planning to put Cordelia in such a dangerous position.

“What?” Cordelia was not the only one to say it. Buffy and Xander had also asked the question in response to his surprising comment.

Ever since finding Cordelia at the bottom of the school dumpster, Angel had been feeling this overprotective vibe. The more he heard, the less he felt like letting her leave his side. Until now, it had not been a problem with all of the pressing and clinging. Until Cordelia moved away sharply leaving his shoulder devoid of her warmth.

“Nobody tells me what to do, Angel,” she warned standing with her hands on her hips in an obvious show of irritation.

He had good reason to say what he did. “If the school cheerleaders aren’t safe, Cordelia, I think you should stay out of harm’s way until we catch this guy.”

“No way I’m gonna let someone wacko get his hands on my girl parts.”

Xander snickered.

“Shut up, Xander!” Cordelia was livid when she realized what she had said. “You wish. Just keep your hands and thoughts to yourself.”

Still grinning, Xander rolled his eyes and glanced at Willow who was still sitting by the computer. “Cordy has girl parts.”

“No kidding,” Willow frowned at her lifelong friend.

Cordelia Chase and her many perfectly formed parts were a sore subject for the petite redhead who thought herself lacking in comparison. Having Xander’s attention focused on curvy girl parts that weren’t hers was strangely upsetting.

All eyes in the room were on Cordelia and while she would normally eat up the attention, she didn’t want it now when she probably smelled like trash and corpses. “Stare much?” She gave them all an icy glare.

Guilty silence followed. The first to break the quiet, Giles stammered, “I— I concur with Cordelia. I believe that her parents are out of the country for a few weeks. She will be far safer in a crowd than at home.”

Xander wasn’t so sure about that. “You obviously haven’t seen the security gates at the Chase house.”

Ignoring Xander’s comment, Cordelia shrugged as though it did not matter that her parents had left her alone. It was strange that Giles knew about it. “They’re on a business trip. I suppose my father informed Principal Snyder who asked you to keep an eye on me.”

“No,” Giles had no idea if Mr. Chase had left such a directive. “I read it in the newspaper. South America, I believe.”

“Oh.” Cordelia seemed puzzled by the news. Last time she checked, South America was not in Europe.

Giles quietly suggested she stay with Buffy at the Summers’ house. Both girls reacted with instantaneous horrification. Recovering slowly, Buffy made an offer she hoped would be refused. “I’m sure my mom wouldn’t mind lending you the spare bedroom for a day or two.”

Catching on to the fact that his suggestion was less than welcome, Giles altered it, “Or maybe Willow would—”

Willow’s eyes were wide saucers, but she could only squeak a response. “Eep!”

“Next you’ll suggest that I stay at Xander’s house,” Cordelia huffed. “Does that mean I get the top bunkbed?”

Already knowing her answer, Xander challenged her, “How about the fold out couch in my basement?”

“Pfft! I’d rather sleep in the dumpster.” Cordelia addressed the entire group. “I am going home now. I have to take a long, hot bath and burn my clothes.”

“You have to go?” In mock disappointment, Xander appeared devastated at the news before twisting his mouth into a smirk. “Aw, too bad. Keep in touch. Buh-bye.”

Before she could storm out of the library, Angel reached back to grasp her slender wrist. “Wait, Cordelia. We weren’t finished. There’s still a decision to make about keeping you safe.”

Cordelia tugged against his hold, her eyes bright with anger. “We have so finished it.”

“No, we haven’t.” He wasn’t letting go. Angel pulled her close, grabbed the other wrist when she had the gall to slap at his hand.

Somewhere in the background there was laughter—and the sound of one outraged Slayer. “Hey! Stop that.”

Too focused on trying to wrestle out of Angel’s grasp, Cordelia didn’t notice. “Have too! Decision made. I made it.”

“The hell you have.” Angel crossed her arms behind her in a tight grip and yanked her hard against him. She was breathing hard, breasts heaving against his chest. Fire blazing in her eyes.

Kicking his shin with the toe of her tennis shoe didn’t do much more than irritate him. It was Willow’s little voice that reached him. “I think you’re hurting her.”

Cordelia was too stubborn to admit it if he was, but Angel realized it had to be true. She got him so angry so fast. The demon in him loved it wanting more than just words and stolen warmth. “Do what you want,” he said, releasing her so suddenly she flailed her arms to keep her balance.

“I will.” Cordelia rubbed her left wrist trying to erase the sensation of his fingers there. “First I’m going home and then I’m going to the game tomorrow. Hello, cheerleader! I’m the apex of the pyramid. People depend on me. I have to be there.”

Buffy’s hand brushed against Angel’s arm slipping her fingers through his. It was sweet that he was concerned about her friends— even if Cordelia wasn’t one. “I doubt even a bodysnatching necro-whatsis would bother. The first thing he would want to cut out would be her tongue.”

“And that would be a bad thing?” Xander asked straight-faced.

“Bite me, Harris!”

“You’d leave a bad taste in my mouth,” he protested. “Besides, I don’t bite. That’s a job for—”

He started to say ‘Deadboy’ when Giles finally tired of the entire scene and offered to walk Cordelia to her car. “Come on, my dear. You head home and try not to dwell on your trash bin experience. The rest of us will do what must be done to stop this from happening again.”

As the library doors swung shut behind them, Angel restrained the urge to follow. Then it occurred to him that he didn’t own her in any way despite his temporary self-appointed role as her protector. Let it go, he cautioned himself. Let it go. He focused instead on Buffy’s gentle touch letting her distracted him from his thoughts. When she smiled up at him Angel leaned down to catch her lips in an unexpected kiss. One that made her moan hotly and stand on her toes to reach him.

Maybe Angel should have felt a twinge of guilt over using Buffy to erase thoughts of Cordelia from his head, or because the display left Xander in no doubt that the Slayer belonged to him. But he didn’t.

Willow grinned ear to ear at the sight. Every time she saw Buffy and Angel together, she felt like a big puddle of goo inside. They looked so good together. Small and tall. Light and dark. Slayer and vampire. Hmm. Well, what did the latter really matter when there was an obvious connection there? It made her happy to see her friends happy and there was no doubt that Angel was the center of Buffy’s happy world.

Upon Giles’ return from the parking lot, he noted that his Slayer was once again lost in making goo-goo eyes at Angel. Despite his many lectures on the matter of getting emotionally tied to one’s prey, he realized he was standing in the path of a runaway train. Nevertheless, he would add another lecture during their training session tomorrow.

Back to work. “I have an idea.”

An illegal search of the Science Club’s lockers suggested the identity of the grave robber. Copies of Gray’s Anatomy, Mortician’s Desk Reference and Robicheaux’s Guide to Muscles and Tendons were found in Chris Epps’ locker.

“Looks like we’ve got a suspect,” Xander confirmed as he saw the contents. He made a face and shuddered. “Yuck! To think this sicko really is a high school student.”

Angel watched over Buffy’s shoulder as she opened another locker. There was a collage taped to the inner door of a pieced-together girl. “Eric’s got the Bride of Frankenstein in his locker. Well, it’s her picture anyway.”

“What is this?” Xander asked curious and weirded at the same time. “Build your own girlfriend?”

Replacing the issue of Scientific American found in the locker she had been searching, Willow took a look at the picture. Realizing the connection between it and the body parts found by Cordelia and Angel, she made a face. “Ugh! Eric’s sick enough to do something like this, but what about Chris? He seems like a human person.”

“Sometimes they’re the most insidious,” Giles pointed out.

After a moment of contemplation, Buffy suggested that they split up and check out Chris and Eric’s houses. “The cops can deal with anything we find. Giles, it’s late. We’ll fill you in on the gruesome details in the morning. Since it looks like it is just corpses being collected and not something mystical, I think we can handle it. Will. Xand. I want you two to check out Eric’s place. Angel and I will handle the Epps’ house.”

“Call me,” Giles watched his Slayer depart. Now that they were gone, he had important planning to accomplish. He was taking Jenny Calendar to tomorrow’s game and hadn’t a clue what to say to her without getting tongue-tied.

Chris Epps’ mother let them in, barely muttering an invitation to enter the house. She was haggard and obviously still in mourning for her football star son, Daryl, the Sunnydale High running back. Good old #5, who was the champion of last year’s playoffs. Cordelia Chase even clamored after the rugged player last year according to Willow, but being only a sophomore at the time even the supreme Queen C had been judged unworthy by the senior.

With Mrs. Epps staring at the television screen replaying the moment of her eldest son’s triumph, Buffy and Angel freely made their way through the door marked with warning signs. It led to the basement where they found detailed anatomical blueprints for piecing together body parts. Then Buffy’s hand brushed over a pile of photographs.

“These are the pictures Eric was taking,” she realized upon recognizing herself.

The next one was of Willow looking wide-eyed and holding the clipboard for the Science Fair Projects List. To think Willow was worried that her project on fruit flies would come in second place. Somehow, Buffy doubted that creation of a zombie girl would qualify as Chris’ entry in the competition.

“Who’s this?” Buffy saw that the next picture was cut into pieces. “The head is missing.”

Angel flipped through the blueprints, finding one with a photo attached. As if a cold hand punched him in the gut, he choked on the name, “Cordelia.”

They were up the stairs and out of the house within seconds, never noticing that the dank smell of the basement was also accompanied by the acrid odor of slightly decayed flesh. Daryl Epps watched them depart. His brother and Eric would have to act quickly if they were going to fulfill their promise to him. Soon, the head of Cordelia Chase would be one part of his beautiful bride-to-be, someone to love him forever.

With a burst of Slayer speed, Buffy caught up to Angel. He was running like a posse of demons was on his tail, making a beeline for his destination. Suddenly, the vampire stopped in the middle of the empty road causing Buffy to crash into him. As Angel kept her on her feet by pulling her close, he looked down into face.

“What is it? Why did you stop?” she asked in confusion. “We have to warn Cordelia.”

Angel confessed, “I don’t know where she lives.”

Pointing in the exact direction that he had been going, Buffy sent him a strange look, “It’s that way. Vampire instincts, much?”

As much as Angel hated to admit it, Buffy was dead-on target. There was no time for him to dwell on it. “Let’s go!”

A ten minute run brought them to the gates of the Chase mansion. Assessing the height and width of the barred gate attached to the wall encircling the complex, Angel realized that even he would have a difficult time getting inside. “I see what Xander meant about these gates. There is no way a human could get through or over these gates without the right equipment.”

“Unless Cordelia lets Chris in,” suggested Buffy darkly. “After all, he was Daryl’s brother.”

“Who’s Daryl?” Then Angel made the connection to the tape the woman at the Epps’ house was watching. “Oh, the dead football guy.”

Explaining about the circumstances, Buffy told him, “Cordelia had a thing for him, but he apparently broke her heart. Thus possibly proving its existence.”

The tag-on stab was typical of the comments Angel had heard them make about Cordelia Chase. From what he had seen, she could be self-centered and haughty, but also beautiful and vulnerable. There was just a hint of domineering bitch that reminded Angel of Darla, his sire, but in a way that stirred his bloodlust rather than reviled him.

Buffy did not notice his stoic reaction as she walked up to the intercom and pressed the buzzer. It was only after a few tries and several minutes that Cordelia finally responded. It reminded Angel of the way she answered Willow’s call on her cell phone.

“What?!”

“Cor, it’s Buffy.” Then she added, “And Angel.”

“Go away!” Cordelia huffed. “I’ve had enough grossness tonight.”

“Look, we have to talk,” Buffy told her, but got no response. “Cordelia? Cordy are you there?”

Angel shrugged when Buffy appeared to be at a loss. He reached around her to press and hold the buzzer. The intercom button lit up again. “I told you to go away. My bubble bath is getting cold.”

“Let us in, Cordelia,” commanded Angel.

“No. I’m not dressed and have plans to spend quality time with my loofah,” she blurted out her refusal.

Buffy muttered, “What a moron. We’re trying to save her life and all she can think about is scrubbing with bubbles.”

Blinking away the image in his head, Angel tried again. “Cordelia, open the gate. We’ll wait. There is something you need to know.”

Still on the thought of soaking in a piping hot bath full of foamy white bubbles, Buffy had to admit, “Geez that sounds really good.”

There was no further response from Cordelia Chase. Apparently, she had abandoned the intercom and gone through with her plans for a long, hot bath. Ignoring them.

“Damn that stubborn—,” Angel stopped himself from going further.

Buffy piped in with suggestions, “Cheerleader? Bitch? Vapid slut? Skanky—”

Her voice trailed off as she realized that Angel was staring at her in a non-pleasant way. Admitting, “Maybe that was a bit much.”

“We have to get word to Cordelia,” Angel was open for suggestions. “Maybe Willow can get her home phone number.”

“Cordelia probably left it off the hook if she didn’t want interruptions.”

Frustrated, Angel ran a hand through his spiky brown hair. “I’m not leaving. If Chris or Eric show up tonight, I’ll be waiting.”

Realizing that she did not like the idea of her almost-boyfriend to be hanging out at the Chase mansion even if it was outside the walls, Buffy suggested, “We could leave a note taped to the gate. You know, one telling her that Chris and Eric are zombie-making mad-scientists who want to cut off her head?”

“I’m not leaving.”

With a sigh, Buffy realized it was the only safe option. “I’ll check in with Giles. Willow and Xander should have reported in by now.”

“Get some sleep, Buffy,” the vampire implored. “When the sun comes up, Cordelia will have to depend on you to protect her.”

The serious tone to his voice and his obvious concern for her Sunnydale arch-nemesis was disconcerting. Nevertheless, Buffy agreed that his plan made sense. “Cordelia is in some of my classes. I should get an opportunity to tell her to stay away from Chris and Eric— if they even bother showing up tomorrow.”

“Search the school. Since the extra body parts were in the dumpster, there is a chance that the rest of the evidence is there.” Angel silently berated himself for not connecting things earlier. “Those two little cretins probably have their lab hidden at the school. Where else would they get the equipment?”

Buffy shuddered to think about it. “Hopefully, they don’t keep the parts in the cafeteria freezer.”

Pulling her into a tight embrace, Angel kissed the top of her head. “See you after sunset.”

The night passed uneventfully. Several more attempts at the gate intercom continued to be ignored. Angel was tempted to scale the wall, but he felt certain that Cordelia would ignore him knocking on her front door as easily as she did the buzzer. So he stayed and paced and lurked in the shadows outside the Chase mansion until his vampire senses were tingling with the coming of the sunrise. Reluctantly, he headed for the shelter of his own apartment.

Angel awoke at sunset, the sound of sirens alarming in the distance. He thrust himself up from the bed with one thought, “Cordy!”

Dressing quickly, Angel ran in the direction of the sounds finding Buffy sitting on the hood of a car next to a boy he did not recognize. One of the older school buildings was on still ablaze, but the Fire Department was at work putting out the blaze. Policemen were all over the scene.

“I saw the fire,” he told Buffy. “I figured you’d be here. Is everyone okay?”

Buffy glanced up at Angel with a sad smile. She and Chris had been talking about his reasons for doing what he had done. He and Eric had planned everything. Chris was okay with it until the plan suddenly involved killing a live girl. Cordelia Chase had nearly died today because of him.

“Yeah,” Buffy somberly assured him. “We’re okay.”

Though relieved by her words, Angel’s gaze darted through the crowd and the smoky haze settling into the area in search of Cordelia. Giles was standing close to an attractive woman huddled in a blanket. Moving on, he spotted a long-limbed cheerleader walking toward Xander and Willow who were standing together next to one of the trucks. It was Cordelia. She was covered in sooty smudges, but appeared to be uninjured. With a sigh of contentment, Angel felt the tension leaving his body. Relaxing, he leaned back against the car waiting for Buffy to finish her talk with Chris Epps.

Xander dragged his eyes away from Buffy and Angel before falling upon Giles and Ms. Calendar also huddled closely together. “Well, I guess that makes it official. Everybody’s paired off. Vampires get dates. Hell, even the school librarian sees more action than me.”

Sympathetically, Willow stood by and listened closely. Xander asked, “You ever think that the world is a giant game of musical chairs, and the music’s stopped and we’re the only ones who don’t have a chair?”

He was so right, the clueless cutie, “All the time.”

Their moment of friendly bonding and self-pity was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Cordelia Chase. The cheerleader could not believe Xander Harris had saved her life. It wasn’t Buffy. It wasn’t Angel. It wasn’t even Giles. She owed Xander Harris her life and so it was necessary to give him his due.

“Xander?” Cordelia began nervously, but he was so used to ignoring her that her words were barely registering. “I just wanted to thank you for saving my life. What you did in there was really brave and heroic, and I just wanted to tell you if there was anything that I could ever do to—”

“Do you mind?” Xander cut her off. Indicating Willow’s presence, “We’re talking here.”

Taken aback by the rude response to her overture of thanks, Cordelia rolled her eyes and turned away in disgust. Some things never changed. A hero? Pfft! Xander Harris was just a big clown trying out the old cape and tights routine. In the shadow cast by the truck, she glanced over her shoulder. Then again, recalling the way he had leapt onto the stretcher in order to roll them through the barrier of the spreading fire, Cordelia admired his quick thinking. Xander Harris? Huh!

Cordelia headed for her car with a smile on her face.

Strolling through the mist of the cemetery, Angel held loosely to Buffy’s hand. They had been patrolling together for hours and recounting the events of the past couple of days. Seeing that Cordelia Chase was alive and out of danger had soothed Angel’s protective instincts for her into dormancy. She was human and needed someone to watch over her, unlike Buffy whose Slayer abilities made her more than a match for Chris and Eric.

“God, the whole thing was so creepy,” Buffy shuddered against his arm. Then she let out a little huff of air. “Well, at the same time, I mean— he did do it all for his brother.”

“Sounds like he took it a little over the edge,” Angel wasn’t about to condone it.

Whether intended or not, Chris’ collaboration nearly caused Cordelia’s beheading. When he got a chance to question Cordelia, he better find out that they hadn’t touched her other than to tie her to the gurney. Just the thought of their hands on her smooth flesh infuriated him, although Buffy had promised that no harm had come to anyone. Still, the teenager should consider himself lucky that Angel didn’t rip him apart.

“Love makes you do the wacky,” Buffy quoted Willow.

Startled out of his dark thoughts, Angel asked, “What?”

“Crazy stuff,” she clarified. “Chris doing all this to keep his brother alive. To make him a zombie girlfriend.”

“Oh.” Angel digested the information. He was certainly guilty of just as much wackiness if that was the gauge for his feelings. Muttering, “Crazy, like a two-hundred-and-forty-one-year-old being jealous of a high school junior?”

Blinking, Buffy recalled their conversation from two days earlier. Her accusation that he was jealous. “Are you fessing up?”

Angel shoved thoughts of Cordelia away, realizing the reference that Buffy was making. “I’ve thought about it,” he admitted truthfully. The sight of Xander Harris standing next to Buffy at the library yesterday had been enough to raise his hackles. “Maybe it bothers me a little.”

“I don’t love Xander.” Buffy hinted at her true feelings without actually saying the words.

“Yeah,” the vampire acknowledged. Angel knew that she had feelings for him, “but he’s in your life. He gets to be there when I can’t. Take your classes, eat your meals, hear your jokes and complaints. He gets to see you in sunlight.”

Melting inside at the sweet poetry of his words, Buffy gazed at him with adoration in her eyes. Teasing, “I don’t look that good in direct light.”

“It’ll be morning soon,” he sensed an end to the night.

“I should probably go.” Buffy did not want it to end. Hand-holding and cuddling and talking was nice even if it didn’t involve kissing or touching. Those things sounded very, very nice. It was easy to forget he was a vampire. She thought dreamily of goodnight kisses. “I could walk you home.”


SOULBOUND – BOOK ONE – THE FIRST CONNECTION: CHAPTER LINKS

Book One Home                     Book One Chapter 2


 

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