Home for the Holidays excerpt
At long last, here are the first three chapters from Home for the Holidays, my story in THE BITE BEFORE CHRISTMAS anthology. Very sorry for the delay posting this! As I’ve said before, look for big reveals in this, and it’s also quite long – nearly half the size of a normal book. This Cat and Bones story takes place right after the events in One Grave at a Time. Oh, and Ian fans, you’ll be glad to know that he plays a prominent role in Home for the Holidays. My apologies in advance if there are any wonky formatting issues. Pasting from Word into WordPress can break sentences in strange places at times. Hope you enjoy!
I glanced at my watch. Ten minutes to midnight. The vampire would be back soon, and despite hours of careful preparation, I wasn’t ready for him.
A ghost’s head popped through the wall, the rest of his body concealed by the wood barrier. He took one look around the room and a frown appeared on his filmy visage.
“You’re not going to make it.”
I yanked the wire through the hole I’d drilled into the ceiling’s rafter, careful not to shift my weight too far or I’d fall off the ladder I was balanced on. Fabian was right, but I wasn’t ready to concede defeat.
“When he pulls up, stall him.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” he asked.
Good question. Unlike humans, vampires could see ghosts, but tended to ignore them as a general rule. While this vampire showed more respect to the corporeal-impaired, he still wouldn’t stop to have a lengthy chat with one before entering his home.
“Can’t you improvise? You know, make some loud pounding noises or cause the outer walls to bleed?”
The ghost shot me a look that said my witticism wasn’t appreciated. “You watch too many movies, Cat.”
Then Fabian vanished from sight, but not before I heard him muttering about unfair stereotypes.
I finished twisting together the wires along the ceiling. If all went well, as soon as the vampire came through that door, I’d use my remote transmitter to unload a surprise onto his head. Now, to set up the last of the contraptions I’d planned –
The unmistakable sound of a car approaching almost startled me into falling off the ladder. Damn it, the vampire was back! No time to rig any other devices. I barely had enough time to conceal myself.
I leapt off the ladder and carried it as noiselessly as I could to the closet. The last thing I needed was a bunch of metallic clanging to announce that something unusual was going on. Then I swept up the silver knives I’d left on the floor. It wouldn’t do for the vampire to see those right off.
I’d just crouched behind one of the living room chairs when I heard a car door shut and then Fabian’s voice.
“You won’t believe what I found around the edge of your property,” the ghost announced. “A cave with prehistoric paintings inside it!”
I rolled my eyes. That was the best tactic Fabian could come up with? This was a vampire he was trying to stall. Not a paleontologist.
“Good on you,” an English voice replied, sounding utterly disinterested. Booted footsteps came to the door, but then paused before going further. I sucked in a breath I no longer needed. No cars were in the driveway, but did the vampire sense that several people lurked out of sight, waiting to pounce on him as soon as he crossed that threshold?
“Fabian,” that cultured voice said next. “Are you sure there isn’t anything else you want to tell me?”
A hint of menace colored the vampire’s tone. I could almost picture my friend quailing, but his reply was instant.
“No. Nothing else.”
“All right,” the vampire said after a pause. The knob turned. “Your exorcism if you’re lying.”
I stayed hidden behind the chair, a silver knife gripped in one hand and the remote transmitter in the other. When the sound of boots hit the wood floor inside the house, I pressed the button and leapt up at the same time.
Confetti unleashed from the ceiling onto the vampire’s head. With a whiplike motion, I threw my knife and severed the ribbon holding closed a bag of balloons above him. Those floated down more slowly, and by the time the first one hit the floor, the vampires who’d been concealed in the other rooms had come out.
“Happy Birthday,” they called out in unison.
“It’s not every day someone turns two hundred and forty five,” I added, kicking balloons aside as I made my way to the vampire in the doorway.
A slow smile spread across his features, changing them from gorgeous to heart-stopping. Of course, my heart had stopped beating – for the most part – over a year ago, so that was my normal condition.
“This is what you’ve been so secretive about lately?” Bones murmured, pulling me into his arms once I got close.
I brushed a dark curl from his ear. “They’re not just here for your birthday, they’re staying for the holidays, too. We’re going to have a normal, old-fashioned Christmas for once. Oh, and don’t exorcise Fabian; I made him try to stall you. If you were ten minutes later, I’d have had streamers set up, too.”
His chuckle preceded the brush of lips against my cheek; a cool, teasing stroke that made me lean closer in instinctive need for more.
“Quite all right. I’m sure I’ll find a use for them.”
Knowing my husband, he’d find several uses for them, and at least one of those would make me blush.
I moved aside to let Bones get enveloped in well wishes from our guests. In addition to Fabian and his equally transparent girlfriend floating above the room, Bones’s best friend, Spade, was here. So was Ian, the vampire who sired Bones; Mencheres, his young-looking vampire version of a grandfather; his girlfriend, Kira, and my best friend Denise. She was the only one in the room with a
heartbeat, making her seem human to anyone who didn’t know better. Our guest list was small because inviting everyone Bones knew for an extended birthday/holiday bash would require me renting a football stadium. Therefore, only Bones’s closest companions were present.
Well, all except one.
“Anybody heard from Annette?” I whispered to Denise when she left Bones’s side and returned to mine.
She shook her head. “Spade tried her twenty minutes ago, but she didn’t answer her cell.”
“Wonder what’s keeping her.”
Annette might not be my favorite person considering her previous, centuries-long “friends with benefits” relationship with Bones, but she’d be last on my list of people I’d expect to skip his birthday party. Her ties with Bones went all the way back to when both of them were human, and in fairness, Annette seemed to have accepted that her position in his life was now firmly in the “friends without benefits” category.
“She flew in from London to be here,” Denise noted. “Seems odd that she’d decide a thirty minute car commute was too much.”
“What’s this?” Bones asked, making his way over.
I waved a hand, not wanting to spoil the festive mood. “Nothing. Annette must be running behind.”
“Some bloke rang her right before we left the hotel. She said she’d catch up with us,” Spade said, coming to stand behind Denise. With his great height, her head was barely even with his shoulders, but neither of them seemed to mind. Black hair spilled across his face as he leaned down to kiss her neck.
“Why am I the only one without someone to snog?” Ian muttered, giving me an accusatory glance. “Knew I should’ve brought a date.”
“You didn’t get to bring a date because the type of girl you’d pick would want to liven things up with a group orgy before cutting the cake,” I pointed out.
His smile was shameless. “Exactly.”
I rolled my eyes. “Deal with not being the center of slutty attention for once, Ian. It’ll do you good.”
“No it won’t,” he said, shuddering as if in horror. “Think I’ll go to the hotel and see what’s taking Annette.”
Denise snorted. “Way to make do with who’s available.”
I bit back my laugh with difficulty. Denise’s opinion of Ian – and Annette – was even worse than my own, but that didn’t make her wrong. Still, out of respect for both of them being Bones’s friends, I contained my snicker.
Far from being offended, Ian archly rose his brows. “Just following the American adage about turning a frown upside down.”
Mencheres, ever the tactful one, chose that moment to glide over. “Perhaps we should turn our attention to gifts.”
Bones clapped Ian on the back. “Don’t take too long, mate.”
“I’ll try to limit myself to an hour,” Ian replied with a straight face.
“Pig,” I couldn’t help but mutter. Hey, I’d tried to rein myself in! If vampires could still get diseases, I’d wish a festering case of herpes on him, but I suppose it was a good thing that Ian’s ability to carry or transmit STD’s died with his humanity.
Ian left, chuckling to himself the whole time.
Bones’s arm slid across my shoulders, his fingers stroking my flesh along the way. I’d worn the backless halter dress because I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist that bare expanse of skin, and I was right. Heat spilled over my emotions in its own caress as Bones dropped his shields so I could access his feelings. The tie that existed between us wasn’t only forged in love. It was also the blood deep, eternal link between a vampire and their sire. Bones had changed me from a half vampire into a mostly-full one, and ever since, I could tap into his emotions like they were an extension of my own. There had been some serious drawbacks to my changing over, but I’d do it again just to have that level of intimacy between us.
Of course, that wasn’t the only undead perk. The ability to heal instantly, fly, and mesmerize people didn’t suck, either.
“Do you know how lovely you look?” he asked, his voice deepening in timber. Hints of glowing green appeared in his dark brown eyes, a visual cue of his appreciation.
I leaned in to whisper my reply. “Tell me later, when everyone’s gone.”
His laugh was low and promising. “That I will, Kitten.”
We went into the next room where a pile of presents awaited. Vampires had been called many things, but stingy usually wasn’t among them. Bones had barely made a dent in opening his gifts before his cell phone rang. He glanced at the number with
“Ian, don’t tell me you and Annette are too occupied to return,” he said in lieu of a hello.
Supernatural hearing meant that I picked up every word of Ian’s clipped reply.
“You need to get over here. Now.”
Bones and I were the only ones to enter the resort. The rest of our group stayed in the parking lot, keeping watch to make sure events didn’t go from bad to worse with an ambush. Most people at the inn were sleeping this time of night, which I was grateful for. No intrusive chatter barraging my mind thanks to my unwanted ability to overhear humans’ thoughts. Just the softer hum from dreams which was as easy to tune out as your average background noise.
Once I followed Bones inside the Appalachian suite Annette had rented, however, the tranquil atmosphere shattered. Crimson streaked the walls, wood floors, and in heavier quantities, the mattress. From the scent, it was Annette’s blood, not someone else’s. I expected the room to show signs of a fierce struggle, but not a stick of furniture seemed out of place.
Ian stood in the far corner of the room, his normally mocking countenance drawn into harsh lines of anger.
“In there,” he said, jerking his head at the closed bathroom door.
Bones reached it in three long strides, but I hesitated. Ian hadn’t told us if Annette was alive, just said to get here immediately. If Annette’s body waited on the other side of that door, maybe I should give Bones a minute alone. She was the first vampire he’d ever made; her death would hit him hard. But even as I braced myself to comfort him, I heard a feminine, chiding voice.
“Really, Crispin, you shouldn’t have come. You’re missing your own party.”
My brows shot up. Aside from calling Bones by his human name, which only a handful of people did, those uppercrust British tones identified the speaker as Annette. So much for her being dead. Hell, she didn’t even sound fazed, as if her blood wasn’t decorating the room in enough quantities to make it look like the inside of a slaughterhouse.
“I’m missing my own party? Have you lost your wits?” Bones asked her, echoing my own thoughts.
The door opened and Annette appeared. She wore only a robe, her strawberry blond hair wet from what I guessed was a recent shower. This was one of the rare occasions I’d seen her without her face perfectly made up or her hair styled to the nines, and it made her look more vulnerable. Less like the undead bombshell who’d tried to scare me off when we first met, and more like a woman who seemed on the verge of tears despite her unfaltering smile.
“What a state this room is in,” she said, letting out an embarrassed little laugh.
“Annette.” Bones grasped her shoulders and forced her to look at him. “Who hurt you?”
Her hands fluttered on his arms, as if she wanted to push him away but didn’t dare. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him before.”
Bones studied the room, no doubt picking up nuances that even my battle-practiced gaze had missed. Two hundred years as an undead hit man made him formidable when it came to noticing incriminating details. Annette remained silent, the faint lines on her face deeper from her frown.
“You’re lying,” Bones finally said. “No forced entry on the doors, no signs of jimmying, so you let him in. Then you didn’t struggle when he cut you, didn’t wake the other guests with cries for help, and didn’t call me though your bloody fingerprints are on your mobile. Ian, did you see who it was?”
“No, but I think I scared the sod off,” Ian replied. “The window was open, and I heard something too fast to be human dashing away from the balcony, but I stayed with her instead of giving chase.”
That surprised me. Ian loved few things more than a nasty brawl. Annette must be one of the few people he cared about for him to be responsible by protecting her and calling for backup instead of indulging in a murderous game of hide-and-seek.
Though undead healing abilities meant there wasn’t a scratch on her now, sometime after the others left to come to my house, at least one vampire had shown up and tortured the hell out of Annette. What made no sense was why Annette wouldn’t tell us who it was, if Bones was right and she knew. Aside from the scent of blood, a harsh aroma hung in the room, a pungent combination of
chemicals that seared my nose when I took in a breath. No use trying to determine her attacker by scent.
Annette remained silent. Bones’s tone hardened.
“An attack against a member of my line is the same as an attack against me, so I’m no longer asking you as your friend. I’m commanding you as your sire to tell me who did this.”
With those last three words, Bones unleashed his aura and the weight of his power filled the room. This wasn’t the tingling caress of sensations I’d felt from him earlier, but chilling waves of building pressure and crackling currents, like being in the center of an ice storm. Anyone undead within a hundred yard radius would feel the force of Bones’s aura, but most especially those tied to him through blood as Annette and I were. She flinched as though he’d struck her, her champagne colored gaze flickering between Bones and the floor.
“Crispin, I…I can’t,” she said at last, bowing her head. “I told you, I don’t know.”
Anger pulsed in palpable waves from Bones, showing that he didn’t believe her. I was torn. Aside from one incident with me when we first met, Annette was as loyal to Bones as the day was long. She was still in love with him, too, and probably always would be. So why would she defy him over someone who’d tortured her? That was beyond my comprehension.
Unless she thought she was protecting Bones by her actions? I’d thrown myself in front of a few metaphorical trains for that reason. If Bones was right and Annette did know her attacker, maybe she thought whoever sliced and diced her was too powerful
for Bones to take on in retaliation.
“Let’s get her back to the house,” I said, placing my hand on his arm to soothe away some of that furious energy. “We can figure out our next move there.”
Bones gave Annette a look that promised he wasn’t done with this discussion, but he swept his hand toward the door.
“All right, Kitten. After you.”
To give us some privacy, Spade, Denise, Mencheres, and Kira went back to the guest cabin instead of rejoining us at our home. We hadn’t needed to update everyone on what happened. With their hearing, they’d gotten the full scoop while guarding the perimeter of the inn. Annette, Ian, Bones, and I filed back into my house where the balloons, confetti, and banners now seemed out of place with our new somber moods.
“Look at all these lovely gifts,” Annette remarked.
“All I want to hear from you is a name,” Bones cut her off. “Stop acting as though nothing happened and give it to me.”
Annette flounced onto the couch with none of her usual grace. “I told you. I’ve never seen him before.”
Bones sat on the couch across from her, stretching out his legs as though getting ready for an extended nap. “If that were true, you would have given me his description straightaway instead of trying to convince me that you don’t know who he is.”
“Not to mention you wouldn’t have let him in, and you would’ve fought instead of lying quiet while he carved into you,” Ian added, ignoring the dirty look Annette shot him.
Both men had very good points.
“You’re wasting your time hoping Bones will let this go,” I chimed in. “No self-respecting Master would allow the torture of one of his people to go unpunished. You told me that yourself a long time ago.”
Under these admonitions, Annette should have folded. Everything we’d said was true, and she knew it. Yet when I saw her lips compress together, I could tell she still wouldn’t budge even though it made no sense.
Fabian materialized in the center of the room. “There’s a vampire in the woods!”
I jumped to my feet, going to our nearest cache of weapons. Ian didn’t seem interested in armoring up first. He started toward the door.
The single word came from Bones. He hadn’t moved from his position on the couch, his lean body still sprawled as if totally relaxed. I knew better. The tension exuding from his aura made the air feel thicker.
“I hoped we’d be followed here,” Bones went on in that same quiet, unyielding voice. “Now we don’t need Annette to tell us who her attacker was. We’ll find out for ourselves.”
“Crispin, wait,” Annette began, alarm crossing her features.
“You had your chance,” he said shortly. Then he glanced at Ian and nodded in Annette’s direction. Whatever else she was about to say was cut off when Ian slapped his hand over her mouth. Only faint, muffled grunts came from her as Ian settled on the couch behind Annette, dragging her tight up against him.
“Don’t fret. She’ll stay quiet like a good girl, won’t you, poppet?” Ian drawled in her ear.
Annette’s grunts now sounded furious, but there was no way she could overpower Ian. That was also why I wasn’t too worried about our uninvited guest. Either he was suicidal, or he had no idea that he was sneaking up a hill where there were several Master vampires, one of whom whom could rip his head off with merely his thoughts.
“Fabian, you only saw one vampire?”
The ghost bobbed his head. “On the lower half of the hill.”
Must be why the others didn’t sense him yet. Our house and guest house were on the highest point of this hill, deliberately less accessible to any passersby.
“Kitten, come with me,” Bones said, rising at last. “Fabian, tell the others to stay inside and talk as though nothing’s amiss.”
I finished strapping more silver knives to the sheaths lining my arms. Wooden stakes would’ve been cheaper, but those only worked in the movies. Then I threw a coat on, not for warmth against the frigid November evening, but to conceal all my weapons.
“Ready,” I said, my fangs popping out of their own accord.
Ian snorted. “Appears as if Christmas has come early for you, Cat.”
I glowered at him, but the exhilaration coursing through me must be evident from my aura. I hadn’t wanted a knife-happy intruder to crash Bones’s birthday party, but it had been weeks since I’d indulged in a little ass kicking. Who could blame me for wanting to show this vampire what happened to anyone coming around my house looking for trouble?
“Remember we need him alive, luv,” Bones said. His gaze flared emerald with his own form of predatory anticipation. “For now at least.”
Frost-coated leaves crunched underneath my feet as I walked through the woods. My strappy heeled sandals were the worst choice of footwear for any normal person navigating these steep hills, but vampires had great reflexes and couldn’t catch cold, so I hadn’t bothered to change my shoes. Plus, if it made me look more vulnerable to whoever was prowling out here in the dark with me, so much the better.
Bones was somewhere flying above, but I didn’t see him due to his clothing blending against the night sky, or him being too high up. I didn’t see Fabian or his ghostly girlfriend, either, but I knew they were out here, ready to notify our friends if our prowler turned out to have an entourage. We’d guarded the location of our Blue Ridge home from all but close friends and family, yet if one enemy had found us, others might have, too.
Twigs snapped about a hundred yards to my left. I didn’t jerk my head in that direction, but continued on my way as if I were out for a leisurely midnight stroll. I doubted our trespasser would fall for the act, but he had to be somewhat stupid or he wouldn’t have attacked Annette while Bones was within striking distance. No Master vampire worth their fangs would stand for that.
More crackling noises sounded, too close for me to pretend not to hear them anymore. I turned in that direction, widening my eyes as if I hadn’t already noticed the shadowy figure lurking behind the trees.
“Is someone there?” I called out, edging my tone with worry.
Laughter rolled across the cold night air. “You’d make a terrible horror movie heroine. You neglected to hunch your shoulders, clutch your coat, and bite your bottom lip ever so tremulously.”
His accent was English, and his manner of speaking sounded more like Spade and Annette’s aristocratic dialect than Bones and Ian’s less formal vernacular. Shoulder length blond hair caught the moonlight as he stepped out from behind the trees.
It wasn’t his looks that made me stare, though the vampire’s chiseled cheekbones and finely sculpted features reminded me of Bones’s flawless beauty. Or his height, and he had to be at least six two. It was his shirt. Lace spilled out from under his coat sleeves to almost cover his hands. More of that frothy white stuff gathered at his neck and hung midway down his chest. I almost forgot to scan him for weapons, it was so distracting.
“Are you serious?” I couldn’t help but blurt. “Because Ru Paul would think twice before wearing that in public.”
His smile showed white teeth without any hint of fang. “A nod to my heritage. I drew the line at the tights, though, as you can see.”
He wore black jeans, so yes, far more modern than his top. The jeans also showed off the silver knife strapped to the vampire’s thigh, but aside from a long wooden walking stick, that was the only visible weapon he carried. Didn’t mean it was the only weapon he had; all my best stuff was hidden, too.
“Let me guess. You’re lost?”
I started to close the distance between us. Although he didn’t have a speck of blood on him, chances were, I was looking at Annette’s attacker. His aura marked him as a couple hundred years old, but I wasn’t afraid. Unless he was cloaking his power, he wasn’t a Master, which meant I could wipe the floor with him.
The vampire appraised me in the same way I looked him over; thorough, assessing, and unafraid. All the while, that little smirk never left his face.
“Beautiful, aren’t you, though I don’t care for the short hair. You’d look lovelier with long, flowing red locks.”
Something about him seemed familiar even though I was sure we’d never met. His cockiness would certainly make him memorable.
“Yeah, well, I got my hair styled by inferno three weeks ago, so it’s still growing back,” I said flippantly.
If I wasn’t a vampire, I wouldn’t have hair at all after neing nearly burned to death, but undead regenerative abilities meant I didn’t need to invest in wigs. Or skin grafts, thanks God.
“So, you want to talk more?” I went on. “Or should I just start whipping your ass for trespassing and probable assault?”
I was now close enough that I could see his eyes were the color of blueberries, but he didn’t react in anger. Instead, his grin widened.
“If you weren’t my relation, I’d be tempted to take you up on your flirting.”
The idiot thought I was hitting on him? That annoyed me into missing the first part of his sentence, but then I froze.
“What do you mean, relation?”
The only family I had above ground consisted of an imprisoned vampire father, a ghostly uncle, and a newly-undead mother. Yet the conviction in his tone and the steady way he held my gaze had me wondering if he was telling the truth. Good Lord, was it possible that my father wasn’t the only vampire in my family ancestry?
He traced a line in the dry leaves with that long stick, his brow arching in challenge.
“Haven’t figured it out yet?” He gave a mock sigh. “Thought out of everyone, you’d be most attuned to the similarities, but appears not.”
Word games weren’t the right move with me. I gave his long blond locks and intentionally outdated shirt a withering glance. “If you’re trying to double as Lestat, then sure, you nailed it with the similarities.”
He snorted. “Thick little kitten, aren’t you?”
Something dark dropped down behind him, but before the vampire could whirl around to defend himself, he was enveloped in a punishing embrace. Moonlight glinted off the blade Bones held to the vampire’s chest.
“No one calls my wife that but me,” he said in a deadly silken voice.
The vampire twisted in a futile attempt to free himself, but iron bars would’ve been easier to pry off. His thrashing drove the tip of Bones’s knife into his chest, darkening that white lacy shirt with crimson. More struggling would only shove the blade deeper, and if that silver twisted in his heart, the vampire would be dead the permanent way. He stilled, craning his neck to peer back at the man
In that moment, seeing their faces so close together, the first inkling of realization slammed into me. It seemed impossible, but…
“Bones, don’t hurt him!” I said, reeling at the implications. “I-I think maybe this isn’t about Annette’s attack.”
The vampire shot me an approving look. “Not so thick after all, are you?”
Bones didn’t move the blade, but his hand tightened around the hilt of the knife. “Insult her again and those will be your last words.”
A pained laugh came out of the vampire. “Here I thought teasing one’s relation was normal.”
“Relation?” Bones scoffed. “You’re claiming to be a member of her family?”
“Not by blood, but by marriage,” the vampire said, drawing each word out. “Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Wraith, and I’m your brother.”