The Viking and the Witch – Chapter 1

viking and the witch serial coverSo here lately, most of what I’ve been writing and publishing has not been historical romance. But y’all know me; I can’t just give it up. So I’ve been working sporadically on an old school paranormal just for my own amusement, and it occurs to me that y’all might want to see it, too. All the cool kids I know have started serializing stuff on their blogs and elsewhere to bring in more traffic, and that seemed like a good idea, and a good fit for this story. I’m not promising anything, but I’m going to try to put up a new chapter at least every couple of weeks. It’s a work-in-progress; the finished, published product might turn out very different. So by all means, let me know what you think.

xoxo Lucy

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Chapter One

The late summer raids had gone well. Asmund and his brother, Hagen, had seized much spoil and lost only one man in a month of sailing up and down the British coasts. But now a sudden squall with high waves and deadly lightning seemed determined to kill them all. Asmund leaned all his weight against the tiller, willing the longboat to come about to face the waves head on.

“We must turn back!” Hagen shouted over the roar of the wind. “We must try to find the shore!”

“Help the others bail!” Asmund shouted back. If his little brother wouldn’t keep his peace, he’d kick him overboard, prince or not. The shoreline was the last thing he wanted to see now. The storm would break them like twigs against the rocks and suck them down to oblivion under the cliffs. All that could save them now was the open sea where the water was deep enough to absorb the force of this storm. Hagen was young; this was his first long voyage. He didn’t understand. But Asmund had no time now to educate him.

“Row, you dogs!” he shouted as another great swell rose before them. “Faster! Faster!” The rowers obeyed, leaning into their oars, some of them with eyes closed in prayer or concentration as they trusted him and the gods to steer them through the tempest. Even Hagen had fallen to his task, scooping water in a leather bucket with his back to the storm. Only Asmund saw the dragon’s head prow silhouetted by a flash of lightning against the solid black wall of the sea. “Row!” he roared, holding the tiller with all his strength, muscles screaming with pain. Only when he felt the wood begin to bend under his hands did he let the tiller go. The ship lurched forward, and the dragon’s head broke through a crown of foam, cresting the wave and gliding down the other side.

In the sky ahead, he could see light through the clouds, the soft white glow of the moon. The worst was behind them. They were almost free. The storm would have blown them off course. They would have to wait for the clouds to clear in the open sea and use the stars to guide them. But they would be safe. He put his hands back on the tiller and turned his back on his men for just a moment to look back the way they’d come.

Suddenly the ship lurched forward again as he felt something strike him hard from behind. Sharp, burning pain stabbed through him as he was struck again. Before he could turn, he was swept over the side. The sea rose up to swallow him, sucking him down into the dark. He fought his way to the surface, then dove deep again to dodge the great black shape of the ship. He heard Hagen screaming his name as he went under. Then one of the oars struck the back of his head, and he sank and knew no more.

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Last night’s storm had washed all kinds of debris into the narrow inlet that ran beside Maeve’s hut. Two of her traps had been completely destroyed. But the third was still intact and held a fat, silver salmon. She slapped the fish against a rock, killing it quickly. She scooped out the smaller fish and tiny crabs that had gotten caught in the trap and set them free, then wrapped the salmon in wet ferns and tucked it into the pouch at her waist. Then she waded back into the water. She had three more traps to empty, and the tide was rising fast.  After three months alone on this beach, she had learned its rhythms well.

Half-buried in the sand near the next trap, she found an oiled leather sack. Inside were some eggs, a skin of fresh goat’s milk, and a haunch of salted meat—supplies left for her by someone from her village. Maeve had been exiled by her own mother, the queen of their tribe. But not everyone had agreed with Queen Asha’s decision. Maeve was magic born; the Lady was not likely to smile on a people who left her to starve. A tiny scrap of sheepskin inside the pouch was marked with the symbol of a half-moon—Luna, the blacksmith’s wife. She closed the bundle and tucked the scrap into her pocket, making a note to say a special blessing for the kindly woman and her house.

The tide in the inlet had risen to her thighs and begun to show tiny breakers of foam by the time she emptied her last trap. She was just about to head back to her hut when she noticed the ravens. Half a dozen of the black birds were circling over the beach in the distance, and as she watched, two more joined the circle. Either some dark magic was afoot, or something on the beach was dying. Shouldering the bundle of her broken traps, she headed for the water’s edge.

When she saw the man lying facedown in the sand, she broke into a run. But when she saw him more closely, she almost wished she’d never noticed him at all. From his weapons and the thick bronze bracelet on his wrist, she knew he was a Viking. His kind came every summer to raid up and down this coast, burning villages, slaughtering men and boys, carrying off women and girls and whatever treasure they could find. Only her mother’s magic had kept their own village safe so long by hiding them behind a glamour that made it look deserted and burned out already.

This one’s ship must have gone down in the storm. His skin was deathly white, and he had a nasty wound in his back. His blood had soaked the sand underneath him and stained the ripples of the incoming tide. Surely he was almost dead already. She put down her traps and picked up a rock, whispering a prayer to the Lady for his spirit. One hard, swift blow to the back of his head, and his travels in this realm would end.

Then he moved. He let out an angry-sounding groan, and his hands clutched at the sand, digging deep as if he were trying to push himself up or crawl forward. Without thinking, Maeve dropped the rock and helped him, rolling him over on his back so he could breathe.

He moaned again in pain. He looked younger than she would have expected, smooth-skinned under his beard, and his brow was high and fine, the brow of a sorcerer or poet, not a brute. But he was huge and obviously strong. On his feet, he would have towered head and shoulders over any man she had ever known. Broken or not, he was dangerous. If he recovered, she had no doubt he would bring destruction. It was the Viking way.

But he is only one man, a voice seemed to whisper in her head. What can one man do? Viking warriors had come to her people before, the wounded or deserters or outcasts left behind when the longboats sailed away. Grateful for sanctuary, they had married into the tribe and had fathered children and taught the people enough of their customs and language to help them defend themselves. But this man was no deserter. If he survived, she didn’t think he would be content to be some village woman’s husband.

“Lady, you must decide,” she prayed aloud. She walked back to her hut at a pace neither hurried nor slow to fetch her little raft. If the Lady wished the Viking to survive, he would. If not, it was not for her to question. She floated the raft back down the inlet to the beach, half-expecting to find he had died. But he was still alive.

She rolled him onto the raft, ignoring his groans, and dragged it back to the inlet. Treading water, she floated it back toward her hut. His weight made the raft bob and list in the breakers, and she told herself that if he rolled off into the water, she would let him drown. But he didn’t.

She dragged the raft into her hut and rolled him off it beside her fire. “As you will, Lady,” she sighed, setting about the magic that could make him well.

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Asmund wandered barefoot through a snowy forest. The ice burned his feet, and the wind cut through him like a thousand knives. Tall, black trees rose all around him, and the mist was thick as blood. The long winter’s night had fallen, but he saw no stars to guide him and no shimmering rainbow from the northern lights. He was abandoned and alone.

After what felt like hours, he emerged from the trees onto a broad, flat plain of pure ice—a frozen lake. But in the distance, he could see the glow of fires. Steeling himself against the pain, he started across the ice, leaving bloody footprints with every step. He walked on and on for what felt like miles, but the far shore seemed no closer. When he looked back, he saw no sign of the forest he had left, only a long trail of his own gleaming, black blood.

He fell to his knees. “All-Father!” he shouted in fury and pain. “Why have you forsaken me?”

“He cannot hear you.” A woman stood before him. She was as tall as any man with smooth, brown skin and long, straight, honey-colored hair. Her brow was crowned with silver, and she wore a long, white robe. “You did not fall in combat, warrior,” she said. “Your god of battle knows you not.”

“Who are you?” he demanded. “What is this place?”

“You were betrayed, Asmund,” she said. “One who held your trust struck you down as you saved him and the others from the storm.” A warm breeze swirled around the strange goddess, and he smelled summer flowers. “By the laws of your gods, he has stolen not only your life but your honor.”

“Who?” he said. “Who has done this?”

She smiled and touched his cheek with a hand that was soft and blissfully warm. “That is not the comfort I have brought you,” she said. “Your only hope is to survive. You must return to the living and take vengeance on the traitor. That is the way of your gods.” She stepped back from him, and the cold winds captured him again, crueler than before. “If you do not, you will wander this wasteland forever.”

“Help me, lady!” he beseeched her as she backed away from him. “Let me live!”

“I have sent you help, Asmund.” Even her voice was fading. “But there will be a price.”

America’s Sweetheart Tells All

small-american-starletOkay, kids, we’re coming down to the end of this Valentine’s free-for-all over at Little Red Hen – two more days to download everything we’ve got for free. Here’s an excerpt from one of our full-length novels, American Starlet. Remember all those big, trashy, rat-smasher novels from the 1980s about fabulous women being fabulously sad about their fabulously tragic lives? Yeah, it’s just like that:

Spring 2004

Neither client had arrived, but the conference room was already buzzing. Paralegals hustled in and out, checking their PDAs and barking urgently into their headsets. One assistant was polishing the spotless black glass conference table—“That’s not lemon-scented is it?” a paralegal yapped, “Miss Cross is allergic!”—while another laid out legal pads and freshly sharpened pencils. The office manager, a woman of fifty who was paid more than the CEO of most mid-sized corporations, spent at least ten minutes counting and recounting chairs.

Ten minutes before go time, a catering cart turned up with coffee, tea, water, various sodas, fruit and pastries. “Caramel corn!” one of the paralegals snapped. “Halliwell-Brighton specifically said that Mr. Kidd would need caramel corn!” The head caterer herself rushed out to get some.

Setting up her equipment, the court reporter thought if a transcript of this settlement conference should go astray and end up with one of the less-scrupulous media outlets, she’d be able to move to her own private island. And she’d need to, too. Nowhere else would be safe.

Promptly at ten, the three lawyers who would be representing Scarlett Cross walked in, surveyed the scene, pronounced it acceptable, and left to wait in their offices for their client to arrive. Half an hour later, the office manager ushered in the three lawyers from Halliwell-Brighton, the second-most-expensive family law firm in Los Angeles. When they’d given the room their okay, an assistant they’d brought with them went back downstairs to the limo and brought back an up-and-coming model/actress no one had thought would have the brass to come and Gossip magazine’s three-time Juiciest Beefcake Alive, Romeo Kidd.

“Miss Cross isn’t here yet,” the office manager said. “We’re expecting her any minute. Can I offer you anything?”

“We’ll take care of it,” the youngest of the three lawyers said.

“Mrs. Kidd,” Romeo said. If anyone had expected him to dress up for the occasion, they were doomed to disappointment. As always, he looked like an exquisitely unmade bed. “Her name is still Mrs. Kidd.”

Forty-five more minutes passed. The actress/model binged on grapes and diet soda and played a noisy game on her PDA. She tried sitting on Romeo’s lap, but the oldest and scariest member of his legal team asked her very nicely but very firmly to please use a chair. Romeo scribbled on one of the legal pads, a strange little smile on his face.

At last a wave of conversation came rolling up the hall. The door opened, and Scarlett Cross Kidd swept in with the home team of lawyers behind her and a respected Shakespearean actor at her side. “Oh good,” Romeo said, standing up. “You brought a date, too.”

“Actually, I’m not staying,” the Shakespearean said, offering his hand. “Lovely to see you again.” He and Romeo shook hands as Scarlett watched and everyone else looked awkward.

“I love your work,” the actress/model blurted out.

“Thanks,” the Shakespearean said with a smile. “I like yours, too.” He turned to Scarlett, took her hand, and kissed it. “I’ll see you later.”

She held on to his hand for an extra moment. “See you later.” Unlike her husband, she was perfectly dressed for the occasion in a Carolina Herrara suit, but she seemed anxious and fragile while Romeo was calm.

“Let’s get started,” her lead lawyer suggested as the Shakespearean left and Scarlett took a seat directly opposite her husband. “Scarlett, can Marley get you something to drink?”

“No, thanks.” One of the lawyers set a chic pink satchel on the floor at her feet. “Thank you,” she said. “Sorry I’m late.”

“It’s okay,” Romeo said. “I still like watching you make an entrance.”

She smiled but didn’t answer.

“So I think we’ve all had a chance to look over the proposals and counterproposals,” Scarlett’s lead lawyer began. “Let’s start with real estate.”

“Hang on,” Romeo said. “Where’s Ranhosky?”

Scarlett’s team bristled as one. “Mr. Ranhosky won’t be joining us,” the leader said.

“Ranhosky died,” Scarlett said. “Three weeks ago. It was cancer.”

“Well, fuck me,” Romeo said, making the model/actress snicker over her PDA. “And the San Andreas Fault didn’t open up to suck him down to hell?”

“Not that I noticed,” Scarlett said.

“So you’re doing this without him or Daddy?” Romeo said. “Are you okay with that?”

She smiled, the flash of dazzling white teeth that had been lighting up movie screens since she was sixteen years old. “I am so okay with that.”

“Let’s take a look at these proposals then,” Romeo’s lead lawyer said, whipping out a sheaf of stapled papers. “I agree that we should start with the property settlement.”

“I don’t,” Romeo said. “Let’s start with the important stuff.”

“You’re not getting the kids,” Scarlett said.

“I think it would be better to save the more emotionally-charged issues until after we hammer out a settlement on the property,” Romeo’s lawyer said.

“Delilah wants to live with me,” Romeo said, talking over his lawyer.

“I don’t care,” Scarlett said, ignoring the lawyer, too.

“She’s sixteen years old.”

“You think I don’t know how old she is?”

“She isn’t even your daughter!”

“Romeo, please!” his lawyer said, putting a hand over his. She was very pretty and shiny like a lawyer on TV.

“Miss Cross?” Scarlett’s lawyer said. He was shiny, too, but maybe not quite so pretty.

Scarlett and Romeo sat back in their chairs. The actress/model was watching them like a kid at the movies, but the lawyers all looked miserable. The court reporter was just trying to catch up.

“Fine,” Romeo said. “Let’s talk about the beach house. I bought it.”

“You bought it for me,” Scarlett said with a tight smile on her lips and sparkling tears in her eyes.

“I bought it for my wife,” he said. “The mother of my child.”

“It’s good you said wife first,” she said. “Just to clarify.”

Romeo turned red. “This is ridiculous.”

“This meeting is your last chance to work these issues out privately,” Scarlett’s lawyer said. He had gone to Harvard and sounded like a Kennedy. “If we can’t come to some settlement here, we’ll have no choice but to fight it out in open court. Every detail will become public.”

“Let’s do it,” Romeo said. “I’ve got nothing to hide.” His smile at Scarlett was chilling. “What do you think, Mrs. Kidd? Shall we let it all hang out?”

To everyone’s shock, she smiled back. “It’s funny you should ask.”

She put the pink satchel on the table and took out a pair of thick, spiral-bound notebooks. Each one looked to have other papers stuffed between the pages at intervals, and both were obviously worn, as if they were written full. “I’ve been writing my memoirs,” Scarlett said.

Everybody looked shocked, no one more so than her lawyers. “Oo, wicked,” the actress/model said. “Can I see?”

“Eventually, maybe,” Scarlett said. “That’s all up to Romeo.”

“Trust me, honey, you don’t need to see,” Romeo said. “I can tell you right now everything she wrote.” He leaned back in his chair and laced his hands. “’My daddy is a saint; my brother is a genius; my husband is an asshole,’” he said in a cruel but accurate parody of Scarlett’s voice. “’And I don’t remember Mama.’”

They were glaring at one another with the kind of heat that had made millions at the box office, but again, Scarlett smiled. “You might be surprised.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Romeo’s lawyer said, addressing her counterpart, not either client. “Is this some kind of blackmail? He gives her whatever she wants, or she publishes some kind of trashy tell-all about both of them?”

“Sort of, but not exactly,” Scarlett said. “And don’t blame poor Alex, he knew nothing about it.” She was still looking at no one but Romeo. “No one has seen what I’ve written but me. There aren’t any other copies; it’s all written in longhand except for the clippings.”

“So when did you write all this?” Romeo said. She had his attention; he was leaning forward again.

“The past couple of weeks,” she said. “I went to Mexico.”

This seemed to mean something to him; a flicker of shock crossed his face. He watched her for another few seconds, a poker player gauging a bluff. Then he leaned back with a smile. “I think you should publish it, sweetheart,” he said. “I’ll read it when it comes out.”

“Hang on,” his lawyer said. “You can’t just publish a book like this without letting Romeo read it first. We would have to insist on first approval for the entire manuscript.”

Scarlett’s lawyer laughed. “Dream on.”

“I don’t have a problem with that,” Scarlett said. “Well, not a big problem. How about this?” She pushed the top notebook across the table toward Romeo. “Take the first half. It’s got most of the stuff your lawyers are going to freak out about anyway, I think. Read it, sweetheart.” The southern accent she’d inherited from her mother came out in the word, or maybe she was imitating him. “If when you’re finished, you still don’t give a crap, fine. I’ll publish, and we’ll take it all to court. Like you said, we’ll let it all hang out. But if you want to read the second half, you’ll have to give me the beach house.”

Romeo’s smile was impossible to read. “You were right,” he said. “You don’t need Ranhosky at all.”

“So what do you think, my baby?” she said. “You always said I never told you anything. Want to see how truthful I can be?”

“Oh come on,” the actress/model said. “You know you have to do it.”

Romeo laughed. “She’s right,” he said. “I guess I have to read.”

 

Scandalous Sherlock Holmes

small-butterflyMy baby sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are both big Sherlock Holmes fans in almost every incarnation, and bless our hearts, we do write romance. So last year as a lark we challenged one another to each write a Victorian romance with a hero that was both romantic and a reasonably authentic version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. My offering was the story excerpted here, The Butterfly. (To read Lexie’s take, check out the excellent novella, Chasing the Dragon.)  Both stories are free to download through Saturday, February 16, 2017:

The glass-domed greenhouse stretched the entire width of the house and extended deeply into the patch of garden behind it. The late Lord Northrup, whose fortune had been greatly enlarged over two decades in India, had kept his own private jungle in the center of London. It was reported to have been his favorite room in the house, and he had died here, sprawled in an embarrassing attitude across a wicker chaise. The butler now led Holmes past the same spot which was now bare of furniture.

Lady Northrup was in a far corner near the glass wall. Her mourning costume had been augmented with a straw sun hat and a pair of gardening gloves. “Good morning, Mr. Holmes,” she said without turning around as she tended some large, rather ferocious-looking plant. “If your intent was to surprise me, you’ve succeeded.”

“No doubt you find it surprising that I would dare show my face here,” Holmes said, feeling uncomfortably like a small boy caught being naughty.

“Not at all.” She turned around with her hands full of colorful flowers. “I imagine you would dare anything.” She handed these to the butler. “Thank you, Mr. Poag.” Giving Holmes one last glare, the butler took his blossoms and left. “But I never dreamed you would come here to apologize.”

“It seemed appropriate.” After their last visit, Watson had declared Lady Northrup to be “quite striking.” Holmes was not the connoisseur of female beauty his friend was, but he couldn’t pretend the woman was unattractive. “Thank you for seeing me.”

“I could hardly resist.” She took off the hat and gloves. “Pray commence, sir.” She was almost smiling. “Apologize.”

“Of course.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “I deeply regret any embarrassment to yourself caused by my investigation of your husband’s death.”

“Embarrassment?” She walked past him, headed toward the rest of the house. “Is that what you’d call it?”

“Perhaps rather more than that.” He followed her. “Though in my defense, I must protest that I never once said you were a can-can dancer.” She led him out of the solarium into a cozy parlor with a grand piano and several overstuffed chairs. In contrast to what he’d seen of the rest of the house, these furnishings looked brand new. “I merely reported that you were a member of the ensemble at an establishment in Paris where the can-can is performed.”

“Was performed, Mr. Holmes.” She took one of the chairs and pointed him to another. “The nightclub has long since closed.” Tea had been laid on the table between them. “And I was not a member of the ensemble.” She poured a cup and smiled. “I was the star.” She held up the cup. “Cream and sugar?”

“Neither, thank you.” He took the tea and sipped, an act of faith, considering he had recently implied she might be a poisoner.

“You’re quite welcome.” She put sugar and cream in her own cup. “And your apology is accepted. I’m sure you only did what you felt was right.”

“I was engaged within the compass of my profession.” He would have turned the case down, but for some reason his brother, Mycroft, had insisted he take it. “And you must allow that the circumstances of your husband’s death bore investigation.”

“A man well past the prime of life in less-than-perfect health with a known fondness for tobacco, alcohol, and other indulgences drops dead with his trousers unbuttoned in the presence of a half-dressed upstairs maid,” she said, stirring her tea. “Yes, Mr. Holmes, very mysterious.”

“A maid who seemed to vanish into thin air immediately after making her report to the police,” Holmes pointed out.

“Indeed,” she said. “Are you certain I didn’t kill her, too?”

“Quite certain,” Holmes said. “I spoke to the young lady four days ago at her mother’s home in Brighton.”

“Oh, you found her.” Her tone and manner were calm, but he saw fury in her eyes. “I wonder that the papers didn’t mention it.”

“The papers weren’t told,” he said. “I saw no need to disrupt the poor creature’s life any further. She’s been through quite an ordeal already.”

“Indeed.” Her teacup rattled on the saucer. “How very chivalrous of you.”

“Lady Northrup, I had no idea your late husband’s nephew would go to the papers with my report.”

“Didn’t you?” she said, setting down her cup. “I thought you were meant to be clever. Having failed to deprive my son of his inheritance by sending me to the gallows, any fool could see his only recourse was to have me publicly declared a slut.”

“Lady Northrup—“

“By the time those papers went to press last night, he had already engaged his lawyers to enter a suit to declare my son, Sebastian illegitimate based on my—how do the documents phrase it?—my well-known history of lewd and immoral behavior.’ And with the help and faith of more fine, intelligent men like yourself, he’ll win his case.”

“Lady Northrup, I assure you—“

“You have made your apology, Mr. Holmes,” she cut him off as she stood up. “Your conscience is clear. And I have taxed my lowborn understanding of good manners to the utmost by not bouncing you out my front door on your arse. So really, we have nothing left to say to one another. I think it must be time for you to go.”

“Peter Northrup is the lowest form of weasel,” Holmes said. “I told him as much to his face the first day he came to see me. I only agreed to take the case to prove how petty and ridiculous it was. If you had shown the slightest genuine regret at the loss of your husband—“

“Dear god, man, why should I regret it?” she demanded. “He made my life a living hell for eleven years and died forcing his attentions on my maid.” She seemed to remember herself and sat back down. “No, Mr. Holmes, I do not grieve for my husband. I grieve for my son who will have no father. But for my husband, no.” She smiled slightly. “But that doesn’t mean I killed him.”

“When you and I first spoke, I knew very little of the circumstances of your husband’s death,” Holmes said.

“Only what Peter had told you.”

“Yes.” He felt a most uncomfortable heat on his face. “I do not like to think his prejudice against you influenced my perceptions.”

“I dare say it was my fault entirely,” she said. “I knew only too well what Peter must have told you. I could have easily played the grieving widow to perfection. I am a very accomplished actress—or at least I used to be.” She picked up her teacup again. “Would you be flattered to hear your reputation frightened me? That I was afraid you would see through my performance?”

“Flattered, yes, perhaps,” he said with a small smile of his own. “But not convinced.”

She laughed, a brief, musical lilt. “I was furious, Mr. Holmes, at my husband’s nephew and at you. How dare you come into my home and accuse me when I had suffered so much?”

Holmes found this much easier to believe. She looked like the sort of woman accustomed to fits of fury far beyond her own self-interest. “Rather a rotten husband, then?” he said, sipping his tea.

“Rather,” she drawled, mocking his diction. “He was a wealthy, titled Englishman. I was an Irish-born actress. Can you not picture our courtship?”

“Dr. Watson said it must have been quite romantic,” Holmes said.

“Dr. Watson was mistaken,” she said. “Bless him.” She set down her teacup and looked away as if she couldn’t decide what she should tell him. “Ours was very much a business arrangement. He gave me security of a kind, a name and a home for as long as I could play the part. It was quite understood that he would divorce me the moment anyone discovered my true identity. But no doubt you know that already.”

“Yes,” he said. “There were papers to that effect in the safe. I considered that your most likely motive for murdering him.”

“As well you might,” she said. “But before you exposed me, I played the role to perfection. Did you find anyone in England besides Richard’s solicitor who knew?”

“No one,” he admitted. “Even the nephew was fooled until the solicitor told him. So what did your husband receive in this contract, if I may ask?”

“You just have asked,” she said, laughing. “Why aren’t I surprised?”

“Your charms would certainly seem to be sufficient compensation for most men,” Holmes said. “But he was, as you say, giving chase to the chambermaids.”

“Perfectly expressed, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “The chase was the attraction for Richard, always. He married me because he couldn’t have me any other way. And in Paris, he had to have me.” He followed her gaze to a colorful painting hanging over the fireplace, a poster in the new French style depicting a woman in a striking black and blue gown. “I was La Papillon,” she said. “The Butterfly. The prize. Every man in Paris wanted to possess me.” She smiled her fragile smile again. “But no doubt you are immune to such attractions.”

“Generally speaking,” he said. “Though in your case, I believe I understand.”

“Why, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “You take my breath away.”

“I said I understand the disease, Lady Northrup,” he said. “I never said I was afflicted.” Watson had often accused him of willful cruelty, but that was almost never true. He rarely meant to wound anyone with his remarks; he simply had no tact. But something about this woman made him want to cut past her arrogant façade and lay her bare.

She obliged his base desire to hurt her by gasping slightly in shock, her eyes widening. Then she smiled. “Indeed,” she said. “So tell me, Mr. Holmes. Why have you decided I didn’t kill my husband after all?”

“Because I can determine no method nor opportunity by which you might have done so,” he said. “Your husband died suddenly while undertaking strenuous physical activity, though not of a nature unusual or outside his accustomed routine.”

“No,” she said. “Richard was always active.”

“The maid who was with him at the time testified that he exhibited only a brief period of distress during which his left arm appeared to stiffen and give him pain and his face first flushed then turned pale. She has not wavered in this account of his passing except to add, after my questioning, certain other details inappropriate for polite conversation that are also consistent with the sudden, violent onset of heart failure or stroke.”

“He lost control of his bowels but maintained an impressive erection,” Lady Northrup said. “You forget, Mr. Holmes, the butler and I were the first assistance the poor girl summoned to the scene.”

“Quite so,” Holmes said. “Marked dilation of the right pupil observed postmortem by Dr. Watson also indicated a strong possibility of stroke.”

“Then why suspect me at all?” she said.

“Mr. Northrup’s certainty of your guilt combined with your own apparent resignation to if not pleasure at your husband’s death made my suspicion inescapable,” he said. “No detective worthy of the name could have failed to investigate.”

“Oh yes, I forgot,” she said. “It was my fault. So what was your theory of the crime? How did you imagine I had done it?”

“As you were not present at the time of death, poison seemed the most likely method,” he said. He rather enjoyed talking it over with her this way; her lack of histrionics in the face of his deductions was far more charming to him than her looks. “Though until I spoke to the maid myself, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that she had lied to the police and was in fact your accomplice.”

“How relieved she must have been to hear you’d changed your mind,” she said, finishing her tea. “So why don’t you still think I poisoned him?”

“I consulted many sources within my own library and at the medical college and corresponded with several experts and determined that there is no poison available in London that could have produced precisely such a death,” he said. “Certain toxins injected directly into the bloodstream via syringe might conceivably produce similar symptoms, but they would have had to have been administered by someone in Lord Northrup’s presence when he was struck. You were upstairs in your dressing room with two other maids and Peter Northrup’s wife. More to the point, no needle marks were found on the body, only bug bites. Your husband’s valet testified that these were received on a hunting expedition the week before.

“Are they so different?” she said. “Bug bites and needle marks?”

“Chalk and cheese, Lady Northrup,” he said. “Or so Dr. Watson assures me.”

“So my husband died of a stroke.”

“Your husband died of a stroke.” Regret was not a luxury he allowed himself often, but sitting across the tea table from her now and remembering the boy he had met in the hall, he could hardly avoid it. “And I have done you harm.”

“I’ve lived through worse,” she said. “Though if you wanted to make amends, there is something you could do for me.”

He instantly regretted his regret. “Indeed?”

“I would very much like to go to the theatre this evening. The new Gilbert and Sullivan is opening at the Savoy, and my late husband and I have a box. Under the circumstances, I can hardly attend on my own.” She paused as if waiting for him to make a helpful suggestion, but he would sooner have taken a bite from his teacup, chewed it up and swallowed it. “As my current situation as a social pariah is at least partially your fault, would you be so kind as to accompany me?”

“Certainly not,” he said. “I do not care for the theatre, particularly the works of Gilbert and Sullivan.”

“My dear Mr. Holmes,” she said, laughing. “What you do or do not care for is entirely beside the point.” Her lovely smile was rather frightening. “I care for the theatre very much. And you owe me.”

He could have brushed off this challenge like a butterfly from his sleeve, but he found he didn’t want to. “So it’s to be torture, then?” he said, returning her smile.

“So it seems.” Her color was high and quite fetching in spite of her mourning gown. “Are you man enough to bear it?”

“We shall see.” He stood up. “Until this evening, Lady Northrup.”

She laughed. “Call for me at seven, Mr. Holmes,” she said. “I refuse to turn up late.”

Big Girls Love Fairy Tales, Too

winter-night-cover3Another Little Red Hen excerpt, this one from the contemporary fairy tale novel, The Last Winter Knight, free to download this week only:

The bedroom door opened on a long upstairs gallery that looked down on the entryway she’d seen when he carried her in. All of the gas lamps were lit, giving all the dark woodwork a cozy glow. The smell of something baking was coming from downstairs, and in the distance she was sure she could hear a woman singing. Closing the bedroom door behind her, she padded downstairs, the worn carpet runner soft and warm under her bare feet.

An archway down the hall from the library she had seen before led to a dining room. The windows were shuttered, and none of the lamps were lit. All of the furniture was covered with white dust cloths, even the chandelier over the long dining table and a huge, framed something hanging over the massive fireplace. But the swinging door to the kitchen was propped open, and she could see light beyond it. The singing and the smell were coming from there.

“Hello?” She passed through a narrow butcher’s pantry lined with glass-front cabinets full of china tucked away in quilted bags. “I don’t want to startle anyone.”

The singing stopped. “Not to worry, dear.” A white-haired woman in a black dress and a white apron was working at a long, wooden table in a kitchen straight out of a BBC country house drama. “You didn’t.” She was kneading a lump of pale brown dough. “Good morning.”

“Good morning.” The woman didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see her. “I’m Christabel.”

“Oh yes, dear, I know.” She sliced the dough into two lumps. “Bernard told me last night. I’m so glad to see you up and around.” Her accent was less obviously English than Bernard’s, but she was definitely not local. “I’m the housekeeper. Mrs. Sealy.” She finished shaping the second loaf and dropped it into a pan. “Can I get you some breakfast?”

“I can get it,” Christabel said. “I don’t want to be any trouble.” She was acutely aware of being naked under Bernard’s robe. Did Mrs. Sealy serve a lot of girls breakfast? she wondered.

“Don’t be silly. It’s no trouble.” She wiped her hands on a towel. “I just took a pan of cinnamon rolls out of the oven. Or we have chocolate croissants, if you’d rather.”

“They both smell amazing.”

“Sit yourself down. I’ll get you one of each.” She pulled a china plate down from a cupboard “And a glass of milk?”

“That sounds perfect.” She sat down at the table, the robe closed over her knees. The housekeeper set a plate of pastries in front of her and poured a tall glass of milk from a clay pitcher still beaded with moisture from the icebox. “Bernard is still asleep, I think.”

“I’m not the least bit surprised.” She set down the milk with a smile. “He’s always been a slugabed since he was a boy.” It was obvious from her tone that she was very fond of him. “Eat, dear, eat. You must be starving.”

She picked up the delicate croissant and took a bite. “Oh my god…” She thought she might be about to orgasm again. “That is so good.”

“Oh good,” Mrs. Sealy said, smiling as Christabel ate. “Did they come out all right? I was worried.”

“Trust me.” She took a big gulp of milk. “I don’t think I’ve ever had anything that good.” She was gobbling, she realized; the croissant was almost gone, and she had crumbs all down her front.

“Aren’t you sweet?” the housekeeper said, obviously pleased. “Try the cinnamon rolls. It’s a new recipe, and I’m afraid they won’t be fit to eat.”

Christabel took a bite. “Perfect,” she promised around a mouth full of sticky, spicy bliss. A sense of almost perfect well-being had come over her as she ate. A few moments ago she had felt embarrassed to be dressed in a robe; now she could easily contemplate dropping the robe and devouring the rest of the goodies naked.

“I’m so glad you’re enjoying them,” Mrs. Sealy said, setting the full plate of each within her reach. “You poor dear…Bernard said it was a terrible accident.”

“The car blew up,” Christabel said, still eating. Usually her tolerance for sweets was pretty low, but she could have eaten these all day. “If Bernard hadn’t been there…” She shuddered, remembering the smell of gas and the heat of the flames as he carried her away. And there was something else, something she had forgotten…she had dreamed about it…something horrible.

“Don’t think about it, dear.” The housekeeper was refilling her glass. “He was there. That’s all that matters.”

“Yes.” She took another bite of cinnamon roll, and the weird sense of foreboding faded away.

“What on earth were you doing in these mountains on your own in the middle of a blizzard?”

“I was lost.” She felt as if she could tell this woman anything. “I was supposed to be going to a spa. I had an appointment.”

Suddenly a door slammed open above them, and footsteps came thundering down the stairs. She turned to look just as Bernard came racing in, wearing nothing but a bedsheet.

Homicidal Lovers in Outer Space

small-geminiAlso available this week for absolutely no financial outlay whatsoever, my baby sister, Alexandra Christian’s amazing sci-fi romance, Gemini. Here’s an excerpt:

Xander sat straight up, gasping for air and startling Kaia.  She reached for him, but he thrashed violently and shoved her aside.  He was trying to move, but his limbs seemed to short-circuit. Kaia was reminded of a fish out of water as he desperately tried to get to his knees.  “Xander… just… calm down.  Let me help you,” she said, trying to grab hold of his arm.  Before she could touch him, he coughed and gagged until he was throwing up a bright white fluid.  It was the cryogenic chemical that they had pumped into his body ten years previous, holding him in this stasis.  She knew it was necessary, but it frightened her, and she turned away, weeping into her hands.  Surely it would kill him.  There was so much.  How could his body possibly repair itself after such trauma?

Finally he stilled, falling forward on the glassy floor and breathing heavily.  Kaia approached him carefully, not sure if she should touch him.  He still looked so frail.  His skin was so pale that it was almost blue, and his black hair hung in his face in wet, knotty tendrils.  His limbs were splayed awkwardly, almost as if he were broken.  “Xander?” she murmured. He didn’t answer, but he opened his eye, and a tear rolled down his cheek.  His pupil shrank in the light making his blue eye look like untouched ice.  “Do you know me?”  No recognition sparkled there, and Kaia felt her heart sink like a stone.  She reached for him, and this time he let her help him sit up.  His eyes never left her as she pushed his hair back from his brow and used the hem of her shirt to wipe at his mouth.  “It’s all right.  You’ll remember me in time.”  She hoped.  “Do you understand?” He raised a hand to her mouth as she spoke, feeling her lips as they formed the words.  Kaia smiled and grabbed his hand, placing it against her chest.  “Kaia,” she said. He didn’t speak, but she could see his lips moving as if trying to mimic her speech.  “I came here to help you.”  She smiled and stroked the back of his hand as if to reassure him. Slowly she stood up, letting him lean heavily against her.  Kaia prayed that he would remember how to use his feet.  There was no way she’d be able to carry him all the way to the small vessel that was docked on the other side of the prison.  After a few steps he seemed to get the hang of it, copying her movements as they made their way slowly down the corridor toward where the transporter waited for them.

“Hold on just a bit longer, love,” she soothed, holding him tight against her as the transporter carried them up to the docking bay. “Once we get on the ship you can rest.”  She tried not to think about the bodies of the guards that lay strewn at their feet all along the corridor leading to the ship.  It wasn’t that she was particularly disturbed by the carnage carried out by her own hand, but these men were innocents.  They had been doing their jobs, and she hadn’t relished having to dispose of them like vermin, but only Xander mattered.  Both of them, all of the Gemini in fact, had been trained as assassins, but the men they’d dealt with in the past were not “good men.”  They were enemies that brought destruction and death to innocents.  But no one is ever the villain of their own story.

The walk from the transporter to the landing dock was an eternity.  Xander could barely control his limbs, and they fell down several times.  At one point he’d begun to shake so violently that Kaia was afraid he’d pummel them both to death as they practically crawled onto the ship.  She took him immediately to the living quarters on board and helped him lie down across the bed.  Luckily, the ship she’d grabbed from the spaceport on Sirrine-10 was a small luxury vessel, fully equipped for a vacation in space.  Kaia had managed to knick it completely undetected from a poor maladjusted pop star fleeing from rehab.  The décor wasn’t much to her taste, but it had the most important things:  an interstellar system, food, and a bedroom.

Kaia sat down beside where he lay, breathing heavily after her exertions getting him this far.  In a moment she’d have to take off and comb the maps for a friendly planet far out of reach of the IU.  She wasn’t sure where they would go or if this craft would even get them there, but she couldn’t think of it that way.  She had to take this mission one step at a time, or she’d lose her mind completely.

“You mean you haven’t already?”

Kaia gasped as the cloudy recesses of her brain where Xander’s voice lived began to open up.  The wall that had resided there for so long was crumbling to dust as his body, mind and soul awakened.  “Xander?”

“Is there anyone else out there with whom you’ve formed a psychic bond?”

Kaia looked, and he was smiling weakly.  She began to laugh in spite of herself and threw her body against him.  “You do know me!  I… I thought perhaps you’d forgotten.  It’s been so long.”

“Of course not.  Your thoughts are much too loud to be forgotten.  But I do have questions.”

“Anything,” she choked, almost sobbing as she lay against his chest, reveling in the comforting rhythm of his breath.

“My body.  Why can’t I use my body?  And I can’t talk.”

“Shush now,” Kaia soothed, laying down by his side and cradling his head to her chest.  “Let your body rest.  You’ll be well soon enough.”  A blanket of relief settled around her as he nuzzled closer.  She took his hand in hers, raising it to a cool cheek.  He was getting warmer now, and she could feel a strengthening pulse in his wrist.  His mind went quiet, and his eyes closed, relaxing into her cradling arms.  They would lie there together until their bodies were once again synced.  Their heartbeats, the rhythm of their breath, the speed of the blood rushing through their veins would work in tandem until they were a united circuit through which their one soul could navigate.

 

Little Hen Romance Is Alive!

And this weekend, all the books are free to read on your handy-dandy Kindle device. Wanna see what we’ve got? (Click the image to go to the Amazon page.)

dragon gold

Celtic witch Rowan is taken from her Saxon captors by the Romans and given as a spoil of war to Titus, a Roman general.He treats her tenderly, but she is determined to be free. But when Titus is surrounded by traitors, she has to decide. Should she take advantage of the confusion and escape or use her magic to save him? Possible trigger warning: Some of the sexual activity described is not what I’d call consensual. While it falls far short of rape, readers with a particular sensitivity in this area might find it upsetting.  Paranormal historical/fantasy.

playing hamlet

A conversation with sex. Nick and Tara were drama school sweethearts before Nick became an international sensation and every geek girl’s dream. Now he’s home in London to play Hamlet opposite Tara’s Ophelia. With the help of the bard and a bottle of wine, they might find out they broke up too soon. Contemporary.

 

voodoo heartDEA Special Agent Hank West is ready to testify against the meth ring he’s just broken and leave the backwoods of Georgia behind. But on a dark and stormy night in a tin roof shack in the middle of nowhere, an ancient goddess in disguise might make him change his mind. Contemporary.

the king's tutor

As the former mistress of Louis XIV, Catriona is uniquely qualified to assist the musketeers who mean to replace him on the throne with his twin, Phillipe. While the old soldiers teach him war and politics, Cat is meant to teach him the royal methods of seduction. But when she meets her pupil, she finds herself falling in love. Episode one in an on-going series, The Sun King, based loosely on The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. Historical.

For more information about Little Red Hen, visit our website here: http://lucybluecastle.wix.com/littleredhenromance

Because life is too short to read crap

the king's tutor coverLike more than 20 million other people, I read e-books on a Kindle, and my favorite genre is romance. A quick search on Amazon for romance titles this morning yielded me 365,065 options to choose from. I know from experience that there are treasures to be found all the way up and down the charts. But the vast majority of these 365,065 e-books calling themselves romances are total, unmitigated, stinky, slimy, sloppy crap. The Wild West world of e-publishing combined with a media that continually broadcasts romance as that world’s most popular and therefore most potentially profitable genre have shaken stuff out of the bushes that would make Grace Livingston Hill say “Fuck this noise” and switch to thrillers. Well-meaning amateurs who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper sack with a box cutter and a blowtorch have unwittingly conspired with cynical assholes who say flat out they hate romance as they write the dumbass porno to prove it. Together they’ve created a digital Bog of Eternal Stench where readers who actually love the genre can only cling to the few writers they already know they can trust and pray for daylight—and better pricing.

Life is too short to read crap. That’s the idea that inspired Little Red Hen Romance, a smallest-of-the-small-time e-book publisher that I hope will give me and readers like me a better option. The plan is to publish at least four new romance short story titles every month starting on May 1. The stories will be absolutely free for their first week of release (and only available through Amazon) then 99 cents forever thereafter (and available from B&N and iTunes, too). If things go well, we’ll do longer anthologies and maybe even full-length books, but for now, we’re trying it out with the shorties, 3000-8000 words each. But short as they are, every story will be an actual romance by a criteria that might be entirely subjective to me but that I really think a lot of readers have been missing. When I started thinking about what I wanted and wasn’t getting from new romance, I came up with a list of three things:

1 – Sparkling dialogue: Nothing kills a love connection for me faster than dull, flat, lifeless talk, and what passes for romance these days even on the bestest of bestseller lists is full of it. Before I can care about people falling in love, I have to like them; I have to want to listen to them; I have to see the sparks fly between them. Not every story has to be a laugh-a-minute romantic rollick (though there will definitely be some of that, too), but I promise, the characters in the stories from Little Red Hen will be able to carry on a conversation before they start stripping off their clothes—and after.

 2 – Tender sensuality: I love me some smut. Explicit sexuality has been a hallmark (and some would say the major selling point) for romance since the 1970s, and as a reader, I want and expect it. And I’m not squeamish about the mechanics—twosomes, threesomes, up, down and sideways, with handcuffs or without; I’ve read books that rocked my world from all of these, books that I would definitely call romance. What set them apart was the attitude of the characters getting it on toward one another, their reasons for hopping in the sack (or the haystack or the space bunk or that big ol’ hot tub full of banana puddin’) in the first place. Not every character who has sex in a Little Red Hen book will be madly in love when they start, but they’ll at least be considering it by the time they finish. The person or persons they’re sexing will have value to them as people, and their physical actions toward them will reflect that. Nobody is going to get genuinely humiliated in a LRH book (and no monster will ever “turn anybody gay” because that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of in my life, and I work at a law firm). We in the Hen House want to turn our readers on and make their toes curl but let them still feel clean and able to look their preacher in the eye afterwards.

 3 – Heart-melting romance: This one is the most important. It’s what’s most often missing from the books I hate, and I think it’s what embarrasses the haters most about romance, far more than any kind of sexual content ever could. If a story is going to be a romance by the genre definition (not the literary, which is a whole different thing involving a much wider range of happy endings), it has to be a love story; it has to be the series of events which leads the characters into (or deeper into) love. It doesn’t have to end in marriage or a marriage proposal or a declaration of eternal devotion. But it’s got to mean more than an orgasm, a contract, or the acquisition of a business partner to pay the household expenses. It’s about people touching soul to soul, something I believe in very strongly. Otherwise, for me, it’s not a romance. Every Little Red Hen story, whether it’s historical, contemporary, paranormal, steampunk, straight, LGBT, funny, dramatic, or just plain weird will be a love story by this definition.

For more information about the press or the individual titles coming up at our launch on May 1, please drop by the website at http://lucybluecastle.wix.com/littleredhenromance or come like us on Facebook. And by all means, come hang out at our Facebook launch party on Wednesday, April 29, at 8 pm EDT—yes, we’ll mention the books, and yes, there will be preview giveaway swag, but mostly it’ll be a bunch of romance lovers chatting and snarking and having fun, and we’d love to see you there: https://www.facebook.com/events/807514879343283/

Have yourself a fang-y little Christmas . . . a free read giftie just for you

emma stone cabaretHeya Kittens! I hope you’re all having a magnificent holiday season and that it only gets better. And while I haven’t been around the blogness much lately, I have been thinking of you, and I wanted to write you something festive and sexy to read if you find a free moment. A vampire glamour puss plays fairy godmother to the geek girl videogame designer she saved as a baby and finds her own Christmas miracle, and a geek girl discovers vamps are real – and that she has a thing for pirates. Trust me; it all makes sense in the end.

Note #1: If you’re a long-time reader of the blogness (or one of the half a dozen or so darlings who purchased Tender Bites, my short story collection), you’ll recognize elements of this story.

Note #2: The illustration is a publicity still of the gorgeous Emma Stone as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, which is exactly what I’d be going to see if I were on Broadway right now.

Note #3: This story is sexually explicit and violent, but also very heartwarming and sweet. Mind your cockles.

* * * * * *

Christmas Vamps – A Tale of Two Kitties (sorry, I couldn’t resist)

New York City

Christmas Eve, 1989

Cat didn’t care much for Yuri or his game. She preferred living blood, too; any healthy vampire girl would. And she had no problem feeding from a willing thrall. But hanging out on Christmas Eve in a derelict hotel trading heroin for blood with mortals too addicted to refuse was not her idea of a good time. “You take me to the nicest places, darling,” she said as she picked her way over the rubble and broken floor tiles of what had once been an art deco lobby.

Yuri just laughed. “Trust me, baby,” he said. “You’ll love it.” He threw a meaty arm around her shoulders and led her up the stairs.

The party as he called it was in what was left of a huge suite on the penthouse floor. Loud music thundered and groaned from speakers as tall as she was, the hollow moaning of the grungy dead. Bare, dim light bulbs hung from the ceiling, swaying slightly in the frigid wind blowing in from both sides through the open windows and providing just enough light to confuse her vampire vision. As soon as they walked in, Yuri was surrounded on every side by desperate mortals, wide-eyed, pale-skinned, shockingly beautiful, horribly thin. Cat recognized one blonde and her torn Versace dress from a billboard in Times Square. “Do you have it?” she demanded, reaching for Yuri and touching Cat’s bare arm with hands so hot they burned. “Did you bring it?”

“Of course I have it,” he sneered, shoving the girl away. “But I can do better than you.”

“Please,” a boy said, falling to his knees in front of Cat. “I taste amazing . . . I’ve been eating chocolate and drinking Courvoisier all day.”

“Tourist,” Yuri said, drawing Cat aside to kick the boy and send him sprawling.  “Come on, baby. Let me show you the good stuff.”

The good stuff was apparently kept behind the closed double doors of the bedroom. The velvet drapes still hung in tatters, and there were candles lit in heavy silver candlesticks set on the floor and in sconces mounted on the walls. On mattresses and couches strewn around the room, a dozen or more vampires fed from less than half that many mortals, most of whom entertained at least three. “The smack makes them strong,” Yuri said. “They can go all night.”

“How convenient,” Cat said, feeling sick. How she had ever let Indo talk her into this madness, she would never know. His squad of Enforcers had been looking for this den for months, he had said. Her being their only hope of saving innocents had been mentioned. The bastard—she should kick him in the nuts. “Everybody looks really busy, darling,” she said to her present charming escort. “Maybe we should just go.”

“No, no, my favorite will still be free,” he said, grabbing her hand and dragging her behind him as he wended his way through the darkness. “She knows to wait for me.”

In an alcove around the corner, they found what was left of a massive brass bed set against the wall like an altar, the mattress stripped bare and tall candelabras set on either side of the headboard. Propped against the pillows was a beautiful girl with curly red hair and a face painted like a gothic doll’s, eyes rimmed in black, lips smeared with red. She was wearing the tatters of a lacy white slip, and her hands rested slack in her lap. The tourniquet was still tied around her arm.

She was dead.

“No,” Yuri roared, letting go of Cat’s hand to go to the corpse. “No, no, no, no, no.” He snatched the dead girl up by the shoulders, and her head lolled back. “Little bitch!” He slapped the poor thing’s face.

“Yuri, darling,” Cat said as he continued to swear at the corpse, knowing he wouldn’t hear. “I’m not sure we’re accomplishing all we might have hoped.”  Under the roar of the Russian, she heard a soft sound like the coo of a dove. For half a moment, she thought maybe she’d been wrong about the girl, that maybe she was alive after all. Then she saw a tiny fist emerge and wave from a pile of blankets in the corner. “Oh for pity’s sake.”

The infant looked remarkably healthy, plump and pink. She looked up at the vampire with clear blue eyes, and her tiny head was covered in golden down. Cat crouched closer, and the little mortal thing reached out for her and smiled. “Oh no, you don’t,” the vampire said.

“Oh baby,” Yuri said, looming over her from behind. “Score.” The hunger in his eyes made even her vampire blood run cold. “Give it to me.”

“Oh sweetie, come on,” Cat said, making herself laugh. “You can’t be serious.” She picked up the baby and tried not to clutch it too obviously. “We couldn’t. This is an innocent. The Enforcers would stake us dead.”

“And how would they know?” he asked, his grin turning ugly. How had she ever thought this ape was handsome?

The baby cooed, batting at a lock of Cat’s long red hair. I must remind her of her mother, she thought, a horrifying notion. “You make a good point.” Stall, Catriona. Stall. “So let’s make this interesting.” She turned her most seductive smile on the brute, still holding the baby in her arms. “I’ll dice you for it.”

The only thing the Russian loved more than blood was gambling. “Sure, baby,” he said, smiling back. “Whatever you want.” He took the dice out of his pocket. “One roll each for all?”

She thought she heard familiar footsteps on the stairs, but she couldn’t be sure. “High roll takes the prize.” She sank to her knees on the dirty floor, still holding the baby, licking her lips as she looked up at him. “You wanna go first?”

He laughed. “Hell yeah.” He threw a ten and laughed again. “Beat that.”

“Right.”  She shifted the baby to her hip, trying not to picture how she must look. “No problem.” She rolled the dice. “Shit.” She had crapped out, snake eyes, double ones.

“Awww,” Yuri said as the baby started to cry. “Don’t worry, baby. I’ll share.”

She was climbing back to her feet, wondering just how fast she could run with a screaming, squirming mortal infant in her arms, when the doors were kicked open and the room was flooded with Enforcers. To her great relief, her lover, Indo, drove a stake through Yuri’s heart just as the Russian was reaching for her, dropping him in a puddle of dust and goo at her feet. She didn’t even mind the mess he made all over her expensive shoes.

She was less relieved to see the rest of Indo’s squad systematically staking every other vampire in the room. “What are you doing?” she demanded over the squalls of the mortal infant. “Stop it!”

“Cat, stay out of the way,” Indo said, taking her gently by the arm and pulling her back. A fledgling who couldn’t have been a year old yet reached out for them and screamed out once in terror as the stake pierced her from behind. “They were feeding on the innocent.”

“The innocent? You don’t know that!” She bounced the baby in her arms, feeling utterly ridiculous. “These mortals gave their blood willingly. You should have seen them when we came in. They were begging for us to feed from them.”

“They were begging for drugs because they can’t help themselves,” Indo said, his face becoming the self-righteous mask she always longed to claw right off his skull. “They’re addicted—“

“Like we’re addicted to blood,” she finished for him. Some of the vampires in the outer room were trying to run away, and the Enforcers were shooting them, dropping them to the floor in agony with holy water bullets to stop them so they could be staked, too. “I can’t watch this.”

“Cat!” He followed her out of the suite and down the hall. “Catriona, stop, please.” He caught up and put his hands on her shoulders. “I’m sorry.” He drew her into his arms, and the baby stopped crying as if by magic, obviously unaware she was cradled between two creatures of the night. “I’m sorry you had to see this. I’m sorry I put you in this position. When I asked you to shadow Yuri, I had no idea it would be this bad.”

“You were late,” she pointed out.

“I know, and I’m sorry about that, too. You were great.” He kissed her forehead. “You were perfect.”

“I almost had to watch Yuri make an appetizer out of this piglet.” She looked down at the baby. “You look too delicious,” she informed the child, who giggled.

“Don’t even joke,” Indo said.

“Yes, I know. Vampires don’t eat pork any more.” He opened his mouth to argue then saw her smirk. “Lighten up, Indo,” she told him.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was scared for you.”

“For me?” she said.

“You couldn’t have let him hurt the baby.” He had the sappy look on his face that always made her want to run. “You would have let him rip you apart before you let him have her.”

Whether this was true or not was hardly the point; the fact that he thought so was appalling. She was his dark beloved, his trickster, his mistress of the night. Not Mary Poppins. “Oh please,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“You would.” He smiled. “Admit it. You would.”

She had no intention of admitting any such thing. “Just don’t be late next time,” she said, holding out the baby to him.

“Wait.” He drew a dagger from his belt.

“What are you doing?” Was he going to kill the baby as a possible witness? Did her mother’s sin as a blood whore transfer to the child in the Enforcer’s reckoning now? She instinctively drew the little thing close to her again.

“I want you to have this.” He wrapped the blade in a rag and handed the dagger to her hilt first. “Be careful; the blade is blessed by a priest, and it’s very, very sharp.”

She took the dagger slowly, shocked. She wasn’t an Enforcer. She spent most of her time on their list of usual suspects. For him to give her one of their blessed blades was a serious violation of his oath. “Indo, are you sure about this?”

“Positive. That will take down an ox like Yuri with one stab to the heart.” He put his hand on her cheek. “I need you to be safe.”

She took a step back from him. “Thanks.” She slipped the dagger into her boot, the blade still carefully wrapped. She’d have to find a better way to stow it later when she was alone, away from this horrible place, away from him. “Now here, take this.” She pushed the baby into his arms. “I’ve got to get out of here.”

“Don’t you want to know what’s going to happen to Lacey?” he said.

“Lacey?” she echoed.

He grinned. “Her name is on her pajamas.” The baby was smiling up at him like he might have been Santa Claus. “I’ll take her to a priest I know. He’ll find good parents for her, a good home.”

“Awesome,” Cat said. She kissed his cheek and started for the stairs. But at the top, she stopped and looked back at him. “What priest?”

He was still grinning. “I’ll give you the name and address.”

 

 

Indo watched his undead life’s eternal torment walk away from him again, graceful in her sky high heels. The baby in his arms gurgled, and he bounced her the way Cat had done. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” he said, smiling down at the little mortal thing. Down the block, Cat was climbing into a cab, not looking back just as he’d known she wouldn’t. “Don’t worry,” he told the baby. “She’ll be back.”

 

††††††

 

Budapest

Halloween, 2014

Cat climbed out of her lead-lined coffin, stumbled, and nearly fell flat on her face.  It was barely sunset; she was still mostly asleep.  The pounding on the door started again, louder this time.  “Who is it?” she demanded, her eyes darting around the barely-familiar hotel room.  Where the hell had she put her dagger?  She grabbed the gun with holy water bullets from the nightstand instead—less reliable, particularly against atheist vampires, but hopefully in Budapest, that wouldn’t be an issue.

“Richard,” the door replied.  “Catriona, let me in.”

“Oh for pity’s sake . . .”  She fumbled the deadbolt open and reached for the handle.  “What are you doing here?”

“You’re not an easy girl to find,” he muttered, pushing past her.

“That was rather the idea,” she retorted.

Richard was Indo’s oldest friend.  In fact, rumor had it Richard was the oldest friend any vampire had, that he was the oldest vampire left roaming the earth.  She had never thought he looked the part.  Tall, thin, and blond with a patrician nose and the squint of a perpetual scholar, he always looked like an unmade bed.  Tonight he was even more rumpled than usual, his wrinkled coat far too thin for the chill winds of Eastern Europe.  Her nostrils flared, picking up the smell of blood, faded faint but still distinct, the smell of a powerful death – vampire blood, not human.  His black coat was covered with it.  This was not normal.  She had known Richard for three hundred years, and she had never once seen him take a living victim.  He had been the first vampire of her acquaintance to attempt to live on cow’s blood, and he was rumored to be one of the so-called “Blessed Nine” scientists and alchemists who had been working for decades on creating a synthetic.  If he were stained with vampire blood, something bad had happened.  “Richard, where is Indo?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea.”  Indo had left her six months before, swearing once again she was too wicked, too savage for bearing.  She had accidentally taken too much from a perfectly willing thrall and put the stupid girl in the hospital where she had recovered completely in the space of a day.  But Indo, Enforcer that he was, had completely overreacted, as he always did, and had taken off in a huff.  He always went to Richard when they had these fights.  Richard was his sanctuary, his monastery, his ashram, his calm.  But now Richard was covered in vampire blood, and he looked anything but calm.   He was prowling the room like a cat, peering into the bathroom, the closet.  “I suppose he could have gone back home to Tokyo.”  He yanked back the drapes, exposing her impressive view of the city.  “I honestly don’t know.”

“But he is alive.”  She put her hand on his shoulder.  “Richard?”

“Of course Indo is alive,” he said bitterly, his eyes searching the dark as if for predators or prey.  “If anyone ever truly threatened to kill Indo, I have no doubt some sort of samurai angel with a golden katana and a thousand tongues of fire would rush immediately to his defense.”

Cat suppressed an unbecoming snort.  “Did the two of you have a tiff?”

He gave her a lookcould have wilted a cactus.  “You could say that.”

“Oh dear . . . . So what do you want me to do about it?”  She started to move away, but he caught hold of her robe, silk clenched in a dirty fist.  “What’s wrong with you?” she asked, worried all over again.

“I’m very tired, Catriona.”  He was looking at her in a way he’d never looked at her before.  Other men had, of course – humans who thought they were predators before they realized they were prey; vampires who mistook her delicacy for weakness.  It was a hungry look, a conqueror’s look.  It looked strange on Richard . . . strange because in the dim light of the hotel room, it fit his face so well.

She reached down and disengaged his hand from her robe.  “Maybe you should tell me all about it.”

He clamped his hand around her wrist like he was grabbing a sword hilt, hard and sure and painfully tight–none of the adjectives she would ever have associated with being held by Richard.  She had never realized how big he was before, how powerful.  He had always seemed hunched, a spider, a scholar.  Now he was standing up quite straight, and she realized how broad he was at the shoulders, how big his hands were.  “No.”  For once he wasn’t squinting in the slightest.  She had never noticed how blue his eyes were, how intense his gaze could be.  “I don’t want to tell you anything about it.”  He dragged her closer, his free hand going to the draped closure of her robe.  “I don’t want to talk.”

“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, slightly breathless, as he untied the knot in her sash.  He parted the silk and slid his palm around her waist, leaving a smear of grime on her stomach.  Blood, she realized, touching the back of his wrist.  Dried blood . . . .

“This.”  His hand brushed upward as he stood, cradling her breast.  “I’m doing this.”

“Are you nuts?”  He let go of her wrist to take hold of her collar in both hands, sliding the robe off her shoulders, and she slapped him hard.  “Stop it–”

“Hush, Catriona,” he said mildly, letting the robe fall to the floor.

She brought up her knee, aiming squarely for his crotch, but he was faster, grabbing her leg and using her own momentum to push her over backwards to the floor.  Pinning her leg to the carpet with his own knee, he grabbed for her wrists scant moments before her fist crashed into his jaw.  “Listen to me,” he said, barely panting with the effort of holding her fast.  “Tomorrow I swear, I will kiss your feet, lick your toes, run your bath, and kill your enemies if you’ll only shut up right now.”  She stopped struggling and just glared, incredulous.  “I’m completely serious,” he promised.

“No!” she retorted, furious and calculating at once.  Whatever was wrong with him, he was stronger than she was, and he was expecting her to fight back.  In fact, unless she missed her guess, he wanted her to fight back, just not hard enough to get away.  She had enough experience in combat, she could have made him climb off her and be dreadfully sorry he’d ever climbed on, but she wasn’t completely certain she could win the final skirmish.  And even with him acting completely insane, she couldn’t imagine him really forcing himself on her if she really wanted him to stop. Better to see more of what he had in mind . . . .

He made no sign he had heard her, just leaned down to kiss her cheek, his tongue barely flickering over her skin.  His grip on her wrists softened somewhat as his mouth moved over hers, and she made no move to pull free, her tongue slack and passive beneath his invasion.  She closed her eyes as he lifted his head, and he dipped down to kiss the point of each breast, each nipple going hard at the first touch of saliva.  She wriggled her wrists free as his teeth grazed the sensitive flesh, and she thought she meant to push him away.  But her hands slid into his hair instead and drew him down closer, cradling him to her.

Peering down from beneath her lashes, she could see his eyes were closed.  Who was he really tasting?  She had known him for centuries, and he had never shown the slightest interest in fucking her.  It was the main reason she had never really warmed to him.  She’d never known quite how to manage him; she couldn’t quite trust him.  A man who didn’t want her was a man from another planet.  But now . . . She wrapped her free leg around his ass, cuddling him for a moment, then drew the knee up between them as his face came back up to hers, pushing at him as he kissed her mouth, not enough to push him away but enough to remind him this had not been her idea.  Kissing Richard?  The whole idea was absurd . . . absurd and strangely lovely.  He framed her face with his hands and kissed her deeper, his slender torso arched over her objecting knee, and she felt the muscles in her lower back relax as she reached for him.  Kissing Richard . . . . not half bad.  Usually she preferred to take a more active role in such matters, particularly early on, but a girl could stand to be pillaged once in a while.  Though he could at least take off his raincoat . . .

He braceleted her ankle with one hand, pressing her leg more firmly bent against her chest as he reached down to unfasten his fly.  She moaned into his mouth, her back arching again, a sound and movement that could have been a purr or a protest.  He pushed her knee to the side, pressing it flat to the floor, and she sank her teeth into his lip, though her hands still caressed his neck.  She tasted his blood, the blood of the ancients, as he slid his cock inside her.

Her eyes flew open wide as he sank deeper–where had he been hiding that?  “You’re taller than you look on television,” she mumbled, wrapping her leg around him again as he kissed a trail of blood smears down her jaw.  He reached up and took her hands from his neck, lacing his fingers with hers and pinning her to the floor, all animal concentration.  She tried to arch up to him, to match her rhythm to his, just to fucking well catch up, but he wouldn’t let her, wasn’t interested in her movement, much less her wants.  He was just pounding, hurting her, and she bit him again, the stitching on his t-shirt scratching her cheek as she nuzzled to the tender meat where his neck became his shoulder.  His blood was intoxicating, burning, making her drunk, and she bit harder, sucking greedily, hurting him, she knew.  But he never slowed down, and suddenly, she didn’t want him to, the first sliver of real pleasure slicing up from her cunt to her breasts.  She went limp in his grasp, her head falling back, mouth agape and panting as the desperate rhythm went on and on, her coming rising in waves that never broke and never lulled, and she couldn’t make him be still or go faster, couldn’t make her own friction until he came, a rush with no warning, and he drove in deep and held there, and she lurched up and finally she could come, the spasms of his cock finally tossing her over the edge.  “Bastard,” she mumbled, tied down and smothered in his clothes.  “You fucking well better make good.”

“I will.” He rolled off of her on to his back. “I promise.”

He watched her get up and slide out of what was left of her silk nightgown. She walked naked to the credenza and took a cigarette from a silver box. “Feel better?” she asked, lighting it with a wooden match she lit with one delicate thumb.

“Since when do you smoke?”  The wound she’d made in his shoulder was healing. She had a vicious little bite, just as he’d known she would.

“Since around 1550, give or take a few decades.  One of my many secret vices.”   She turned back to him with a kittenish smile, but he wasn’t fooled.  She was furious, and she was clever.  She’d make him pay for what he’d done.

“Secret from Indo, you mean.”  He sat up and gave his own tee-shirt a sniff.  Filthy . . . the smell of ancient blood made him suddenly feel sick.  He stood up and stripped it off.

“Oh, let’s don’t talk about him.”  He had always privately considered her the most beautiful female vampire in existence.  To his eyes, the change from life to undeath gave most women an unattractive hardness, a doll-like veneer of perfection that made him think of the carved figures of goddesses in the tombs of his youth.  But Indo’s Cat, with her auburn hair and sprinkling of freckles, was still soft, still feminine – a perilous illusion.  Right now, for example, she looked as sweet as a freshly-plucked virgin and just as harmless.  “Although if you’re interested, I do have a couple of Indo’s shirts in the bottom of my suitcase–something to snuggle with on the nights when no gentleman caller turns up to be so charming.”

He wisely let that remark die unanswered.  He went over to the suitcase and pulled out a flowing monstrosity of indigo silk.  “No straight man should wear this,” he muttered, tossing it back in.

“Not everyone dresses like a scarecrow, Richard.” She was still completely naked, completely without modesty or shame.  She picked up his discarded raincoat and took it over to one of the white leather couches as if to drape it over the back. “I bet you haven’t felt natural since you had to take that big bone out of your nose.”

“Actually, I prefer togas for comfort.”  He held up a plain white cotton tee-shirt and eyed it for size.

“Really?  I thought monk’s robes were more your style.  Maybe a hair shirt for color.” Too late, he remembered what was in the pocket of the raincoat. He turned just as she was pulling out the amulet. “What is this?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Catriona, give me that.”

“Ooo, nothing, is it?” She was putting on the raincoat. “Did you kill someone for this, Richard?”

If he grabbed her while she held the amulet, she could accidentally blow him to pieces. “Darling, please,” he said, taking a step toward her.

“I am not your darling,” she said, her eyes flashing with fury. Then she smiled. “Well . . . I suppose I could be.” She was backing toward the door, still wearing nothing but his raincoat.

“We could spend the holidays together,” he said.

“I have plans for the holidays,” she said. “A long overdue appointment.”

“I could come with you.” He took a step toward her, and she took a step back, still smiling. She was infuriating, captivating, so much more than he had imagined. And she had the amulet. “I promised to be your slave remember?”

“You did,” she agreed. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to catch me first.” In an instant, she was on the run.

“No!” He chased her out the door, but she was insanely fast, much faster than he was. By the time he made it to the stairs, she was gone.

 ††††††

 

San Francisco

Christmas Eve, 2014

Lacey had spent a fortune on her costume for her company’s annual Christmas masquerade, and she hated it.  The anime-style black kitten suit had looked so cute on the skinny little Japanese model online, fun and quirky and even a little bit sexy in a twisted kind of geek-chic way.  Sitting in her cubicle staring at it on her computer screen, it had looked like just the sort of thing to catch a hunky gaming industry millionaire’s eye across a crowded dance floor.  But standing in her apartment looking at herself in a full-length mirror, she had been forced to face the truth – she looked like a fat mascot at Pocky-land.

This year’s party was being held at the yacht club, and it was obvious even from the parking lot that it was a total blowout – the music was great, the lights were great, the costumes of the other guests as they breezed past her hatchback in happy, laughing groups were great.  Her boss and secret beloved, Rex, had outdone himself as usual.  Magazines, websites and cable channels alike would be posting pictures and video tomorrow of how totally kick-ass it had been.  And there she would be in the background, as always, looking like she’d lost her way to the onion dip.  At least in the stupid kitten head, nobody would recognize her.

She had gotten out of the car and was leaning in from the passenger side to collect her big fat kitty head when someone tapped her on the shoulder.  Stifling a scream, she straightened up, banged her head on the door frame, said the dirtiest word she knew, said, “Oh shit, sorry,” and turned around.

“Don’t be sorry; I startled you.”  The most gorgeous woman she had ever seen was standing behind her, dressed in a black velvet slip dress, thigh high boots, a cat’s ears headband and a gorgeously decorated domino mask .  “I’m the one who’s sorry.”  Her voice was lovely, too, with a slight Irish lilt.  “Are you all right?”

“Yes.”  She sidestepped clear of the car door with her bulbous costume head tucked under her arm.  “Yes, I’m fine.”  Actually, her ears were still ringing, but she couldn’t bring herself to say so.  “Can I help you?”

“I just wanted to ask, whose party is that?”  The woman had a mane of auburn hair straight out of a shampoo commercial, and her skin was so pale and perfect, it glowed even in the ugly yellow light of the parking lot.

“It’s the Christmas party for my company, Rexaco Games – my boss’ company, actually.  I just work there.  I’m a programmer.”  She shifted the costume head and offered her hand.  “I’m Lacey.”

“Hi Lacey.”  The woman’s hand felt ice cold even through the thick, fuzzy mittens of Lacey’s costume, but her smile was warm.  “I’m Catriona – Cat for short.”  She looked Lacey up and down.  “Dear heart, what are you wearing?”

“My costume.”  She put on the head.  “I’m a black cat.”  Her voice sounded muffled and weird even from inside.  “Like you.”

“Indeed.”  A cold breeze from the water swept over them, molding Cat’s dress to her obviously perfect body, but she barely flinched.  She seemed to be studying Lacey.  “Let me see your hands.”

“Why?”  But she was already pulling back the mittens.

Cat took her hands—skin to skin, she felt even colder.  “Just as I thought.”  She circled Lacey’s wrist with her thumb and forefinger as if she were measuring her for a bracelet.  “You’re perfect.”  She grabbed her hand and started leading her off toward the other side of the levee, away from the party.  “Come on.”

“Wait, where are we going?”  Lacey stumbled along behind her, half blind inside the cat’s head.

“Just trust me.  This will be fun.”

She led her across the parking lot, down the dock, and up the ladder to the biggest, shiniest yacht in the harbor.  “Watch your step,” she said, moving easily in her mile-high heels.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know you.”  She followed her on to the deck.  “I’m not sure I should just—“

“I am not going to hurt you, Lacey.”  She turned and looked her in the eye, and even with the mask, she had the nicest, most sincere, most beautiful face Lacey had ever seen . . . or so it seemed when she was talking, anyway.  “I absolutely promise.”

“Okay.”  She followed her below decks—the yacht was apparently deserted.  “But seriously, what are we doing?”

“In here.”  She led her into a stateroom.  “All right.  Take off your clothes.”

“What?”  Suddenly it all made sense, in a completely unreal, Penthouse Forum kind of way.  “Oh no.  I’m sorry, but . . . look, I’m not a lesbian.  I mean, if I were ever going to switch teams—“

“Don’t be ridiculous.”  Cat slipped off her mask.  Without it, she looked even more beautiful, with huge blue eyes and lashes that went on for centuries.  She looked really young, too, barely older than a teen-ager.  “We’re going to switch costumes.”

“You have got to be kidding.”  The other woman was already unzipping her boots.  “Even if that wasn’t completely insane, there is no way I could possibly fit into that dress.”

“Would you care to make a bet?”  She kicked off the boots and slid out of the dress to reveal black lace underpants, a strapless corset, and a garter belt complete with little red silk bows.  “I will bet you one thousand cash dollars we are exactly the same size.  I have the cash in my purse right now.”  She opened her purse and took it out to prove it.  “If you do not fit perfectly into every garment I’m wearing, I will give this money to you and never bother you again.”

The memory of all of Lacey’s credit card bills screamed as one inside her head, begging her to take the bet.  “Why would you want to do this?”

“I’m playing a sort of game.”  She put the money on a low table between them.  “Hide and seek with a friend of mine.”  She smiled.  “He’ll never find me in that.”

Finally, something that made sense.  “I could just sell you my costume.”  She’d even have a perfect excuse for skipping the party—nobody she knew at work except Rex himself could afford to turn down a thousand bucks.  “Wait here; I’ve got some gym stuff in the car—“

“No, no, no, I want you to wear mine.”  She looked into her eyes again, the way she had in the parking lot, and suddenly everything seemed perfectly clear and perfectly okay.  “Please, Lacey.  Let me do this.”

“Okay.”  She took off the cat’s head.  “But I still think you’re out of your mind.”

Except she wasn’t.  By some miracle, everything fit – the dress, the boots, the corset, everything.  Standing in front of the stateroom mirror, she had to admit that she even looked pretty okay – not stunning like Catriona, but not bad.  “I can’t believe it.”

“Neither can I,” Cat said.  She was wearing the boy’s boxer briefs and sports bra Lacey had been wearing under her costume, and she was still breathtakingly gorgeous.  “I haven’t gone without heels in a century.  I feel like a hobbit.”  She stepped into the plush kitten costume.  “Zip me up.”  She smiled at Lacey in the mirror as she obeyed.  “You look lovely.”

“Yeah, right.”  She pulled her blonde hair out of its bun and tried to fluff some life into it.  “I feel ridiculous.”

“Oh for pity’s sake.”  She grabbed Lacey by the shoulders and turned her around to face her.  “Look at me.  Look straight into my eyes.”

For the first time since they’d met in the parking lot, Lacey felt afraid.  “I don’t think I want to.”

“You don’t have any choice.”  Her grip didn’t tighten, but suddenly Lacey couldn’t have turned away or pulled free if her life had depended on it—which, in the next moment, she thought maybe it did.  “Lacey, I’m a vampire.”  To illustrate her point, a pair of lethal-looking little fangs popped out over her rose petal lips.  “And I’m going to do this for you if it kills you.”  She framed Lacey’s face in her hands.  “Listen to me.”  The same feeling as before, that Cat was the most beautiful, most friendly, most kind creature on the planet came over Lacey again, but this time it was more intense, not just an instinct but an absolute conviction.  “You are absolutely gorgeous.”  The very idea that this wasn’t the truth, that Cat could say anything that wasn’t absolute fact was ridiculous.  “You are far and away the sexiest woman at that party, and every man there would give the entire contents of his bank account and at least one limb to have you, not just as his sexual partner for the night but as his lover for all time.  You can say anything, do anything, and it will be all right because your life is charmed.  Tonight, you can do no wrong.”  She smiled, and Lacey smiled with her.  “Do you believe me?”  She gently nodded Lacey’s head.

“Yes.”  She had never felt so vibrant, so pretty, so alive.  “I believe you.”

“Wonderful.”  Cat’s fangs disappeared as quickly as they’d come.  “Now come on.”  She handed Lacey a tube of scarlet lipstick and her mask.  “We’re late.”

 

††††††

Richard stood on the rocky beach and breathed in the brisk night air. He had chased Catriona all the way around the planet twice already, following her scent, following the lethal pull of the amulet. He was frustrated, exhausted, and, as much as he hated to admit it, more alive than he’d felt in centuries. She didn’t seem to have the slightest clue about the artifact’s power; he had found no evidence whatsoever that she had used it. She couldn’t even have examined it very closely or she would surely have discovered at least some of the evil it could do. She was playing with him. Maybe she meant to punish him for taking her by force and making her like it. Maybe she was simply amusing herself. She had led Indo a merry dance since the reign of Elizabeth I; perhaps now it was his turn. The very idea should have made him furious, but strangely, it didn’t. She left him the most amusing clues – a pair of lacy underpants tucked inside a Shakespeare folio in Cambridge; his own ragged raincoat run up a flagpole at the Kremlin. If this was punishment, at least it was fun. And revenge would be delicious.

The biting wind brought a familiar scent, and he smiled. Turning, he saw bright lights in the distance and heard the muffled thump of appalling modern music. Catriona was there. Tonight was the night she’d be caught.

††††††

For Lacey, walking into the party was like walking into a dream.  The security guys at the entrance all smiled at her and looked her in the eye, but they barely glanced at her invitation before waving her in.  “Have a great night, beautiful!” one of them called as she walked away.

She didn’t flinch or hunch her shoulders or wonder what he’d meant.  “Thanks!” she called back with a wave.  “I will!”

Carma, the bitchy hot receptionist from work who always made her feel like the fat girl with braces, stopped and stared at her, mouth agape.  “Oh my god, Lacey!  What happened to you?”

“I know, right?” she found herself saying without a moment’s thought.  “I love these boots.  I spent way too much money, I know, but what’s the point of having a programmer’s salary if you can’t treat yourself once in a while?”  She heard Cat snicker beside her from inside the kitten costume head and realized, holy crap, for once she was the one with the girl posse.  “I love your costume, by the way.”  Carma looked like she’d eaten a bad clam.  “Little devil horns and a bikini are never going to go out of style.”

“Thanks,” Carma said.  She opened her mouth like she had her next remark queued up, but Cat hooked her arm through Lacey’s and led her away.

“Shock and awe, dear heart.”  Somehow she made herself heard through the mask in spite of the pounding music.  “With cows like that, hit hard and walk away.”

Lacey giggled.  “I think I heard some guys at the office say the same thing, actually.”

“Bad girl.”  The vampire gave her arm a squeeze and let her go.  “I’m so proud.”

The music suddenly changed from throbbing techno to a thumping hiphop classic.  Rex’s voice roared out over the PA.  “Dance, bee-yotches!  This is my jam!”

He was standing on the stage beside the DJ booth, looking as utterly, heartstoppingly gorgeous as ever.  He was wearing red fake fur Santa pants and big black boots and a Santa hat, but no shirt, and his pecs and abs were gleaming with perfectly positioned sweat.  Two obviously professional dancers in tiny elf outfits were dropping it like it was hot on either side of him, and he danced up on one of them, taking a manly swig from his beer.

“Who is that?” Cat asked.

“That’s my boss, Rex.”  She had loved him since art school.  She had taken digital design and computer graphics just to be close to him – it was really thanks to him that she was a game designer now.  She had labored day and night to help him get the perfect art for his first game as project director at their old job, helping him realize his vision.  When he had decided to form his own company and asked her to come with him, she had been so honored, she had cried.  “It’s not a marriage proposal, Lacey,” he had said, hugging her.  “God, I love your commitment.”

That had been the happiest, sweetest, most romantic moment of her life.

“Rex?” Cat echoed now.  “With a company called Rexaco Games?”

Lacey laughed.  “Exactly.”  He was high-fiving the guys from his lead design team, the inner circle.  “Everybody just loves him.  He’s just so . . .”

“Douchey?” Cat suggested.

“No!”  She couldn’t see the vampire girl’s face, but surely she was kidding.  “Of course not.”

“So you like him.”  She bumped her shoulder.  “Go talk to him.”

“He’s dancing.”

“So go dance with him.”

“No, I can’t.”

“Lacey!”  Even under the mask, the vampire could project her will.  Lacey felt it like a sister’s hug.  “Do you like Rex?  Do you want him to be your boyfriend?”

She couldn’t lie to her.  “God, yes.”

“Then go get him.  Right now.”

She felt the warm sense of confidence and well-being rising up in her again.  “Okay.”  Having a vampire as wing woman was better than dope.  “I guess I will.”

By the time she reached the stage, the song was over, and Rex was coming down.  “Hi Rex.”

He did a double take that was only slightly more subtle than Carma’s had been.  “Hi to you.”

“I love your costume.”  She breathed in the scent of his cologne, a happy little thrill racing through her like it always did.

“I am loving yours.”  He took her hand and looked her up and down.  “Yowza, Miss Kitty.”

She giggled.  “Thanks.  I was hoping you’d like it.”

“Not like, honey.  Love.”  He circled around her.  “You said you were hoping . . .”  He was breathing on the back of her neck, almost nuzzling under her hair.  “Do we know one another?”

At first she thought he was joking.  “You mean you don’t recognize me?”

He laughed.  “We met in Vegas, didn’t we?  Or Aspen?”  They had known one another for ten years.  For the last five, they had seen one another nearly every day.  “I’m an asshole for not remembering, aren’t I?”

“Kind of.”  What was the word Cat had used?  Douchey?  But he was drunk, and they were at a party.  And she was wearing a mask.  “But I guess I’m prepared to forgive you.”

“Excellent.”  He kissed her lightly on the cheek, which was lovely, and put his free hand on her ass, which really wasn’t.  “Listen, Kitty, I’ve got to kinda mingle with the troops a bit, press the flesh, pat some backs.”  He kissed behind her ear, and she couldn’t help but notice how his beer breath was kind of gross.  “Gotta make all the geeks feel loved, you know what I mean?”

“Oh yeah.”  Any other night, she would probably have felt like crying.  Tonight, she was feeling something very different, something that felt suspiciously like pissed off.  “I think I might know exactly.”

“Why don’t you get us a couple of bottles of champagne from the bar and meet me in an hour?”  He had moved in closer behind her.  She could feel his erection brushing the small of her back.  “You like boats, don’t you?”

“Of course.”  This was a Rex she had never met, she realized.  Was this the way he was with all the girls she had envied, the girls he had dated?

“Awesome.”  He turned her toward the docks, lacing his fingers with hers as he put his arm around her, pressing her back against him.  “You see the really big one with the pirate flag?”

“Uh huh.”  That was the one Cat had taken her aboard to switch costumes.  “Is it yours?”

“It is tonight.”  He snickered.  “You bet your truly amazing little ass.”

“Okay.”  His lead design team were watching in a bro-pack just a few feet away.  One of them muttered something to the others, and they all broke out in giggles.  She turned to face Rex.  “I’ll meet you there.”

“Excellent.”  He kissed her hand, and she saw the twinkle in his eye that always made her melt.  Her Rex was still in there somewhere.  She refused to believe he wasn’t.  “Don’t forget the champagne, okay?”

“I won’t.”

He kissed her, and it was just . . . wrong.  Nothing like she had imagined.  His mouth tasted like stale beer, and he was slipping her tongue within two seconds, and all these guys from work were watching—she bet at least some of them recognized her.  But this was Party Rex.  Once she got him alone, she would tell him off, tell him what a total douche he was, tell him she expected better.  And he would realize she was right.  He would realize she was the only woman in the world who really knew him.  And he would realize he loved her.

She broke the kiss, planting her hands against his bare chest, an intimacy she’d been dreaming about for a decade.  “I’ll meet you on the yacht.”

He grinned and walked over to his bros, and she turned away before she could see the high-fives.  She wandered back into the crowd and wondered what she was supposed to do for the next hour.  On an ordinary night, she would have already planted herself like a potted palm somewhere at the edge of the party, waiting for Rex to get around to—what was the phrase he had used?  Press her flesh to make her feel loved.  But tonight he was interested in doing way more to her flesh than pressing it, and wasn’t that what she had always wanted?  Maybe by the morning she’d feel loved for real.

She looked around for Cat, half-expecting that she would have disappeared like a fairy godmother or a drug-induced hallucination.  But no, there she was on the dance floor.  That was the way Lacey had pictured herself when she’d ordered that costume, a cartoon kitten with the moves of a sex goddess, mysterious as moonlight and cute as baby gophers.  She was dancing all by herself, but every man within sight of her was staring, smiling, looking like he’d just been hit by a plank and liked it.  Lacey couldn’t help herself.  She scanned the watchers for Rex, almost certain she would find him, mesmerized by the vampire, his appointment with Lacey forgotten.  But she didn’t see him.

What she did see was a man she didn’t recognize.  He was tall and thin with longish blond hair and no mask over his exquisite aquiline face.  He was wearing a monk’s robe that looked more like the real thing than a costume.  He was watching Cat the same as the others, but he didn’t seem stunned.  He was just smiling.

 ††††††

Cat knew Richard was watching her. She had felt his presence as soon as he had come into the party, and inside the marvelously convenient costume head, she had been able to watch his approach. He thought he had her, that she was finally caught, and in truth, she was impressed. No one had ever tracked her on her annual holiday trip to San Francisco to check in on little Lacey, not even Indo who ought to have guessed where she went. But she wasn’t quite ready to surrender just yet. Checking the room and seeing that Lacey was safely talking to a bartender who looked infinitely nicer and more interesting than the appalling Rex, she formulated a plan.

When the song was over, she left the dance floor, slipping through the crowd, knowing he would follow. She had been watching couples disappear through an innocent-looking steel door all night, all those appalling boys from Rex’s posse with their plastic dollies. The door was guarded by a bouncer, and she couldn’t use her eyes through the mask. But she reached out and gave the brute’s big hand a squeeze, and he let her pass with a dazzled smile. Richard would have to use his powers on him. That would slow him down just long enough.

The door led to a short corridor which in turn led to a VIP room hung with just enough twinkle lights to stumble by and filled with more teeth-rattling music. The effect was very strip club; she suspected it was all Rex’s own design. Another door across the hall opened on a private room with a round, red velvet covered bed. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said, laughing. The couple on the bed were just getting started; the guy was still dressed, and the girl was in her bra and the skirt of her elf costume. “Sorry, you two.” She took off the kitten head so they could see her eyes. “Bugger off.” She smiled and showed them a bit of fang just to seal the deal. They snatched up their discarded clothes and fled before she’d finished wriggling out of her costume. She had drawn her dagger and was standing behind the door when Richard came in.

“Hello, Richard,” she said, putting the blade to his throat.

“Hello, Catriona.” She led him into the room, and he closed the door behind him. “Where is the amulet?”

“That’s all you have to say?” The dagger Indo had given her the night she found Lacey was still blessed and still sharp enough to slice through falling snowflakes.  It was made specifically for the efficient destruction of vampires, maybe even one as powerful as Richard. “Where is the amulet?”

“I should spank you, you know,” he said. “You have no idea what you’ve stolen.” He was stalling, turning as she circled him.

“I couldn’t care less about your amulet, Richard.” She advanced on him, naked and deadly, the dagger pointed straight at his heart. “And I don’t believe I’m going to let you spank me just yet.” She lunged, making him stumble back.

“You intend to fight naked?” he asked, trying for a rakish laugh.

“It wouldn’t be the first time, but no,” she answered, still advancing until the point of her dagger hovered just beneath his chin.  “I don’t have to fight.  You don’t have a weapon.”  They both knew he didn’t need one.  She traced the blade delicately along his jawline, barely drawing blood, enjoying the sight of his eyes going wide.  She noticed, however, that the blade’s blessings had very little effect on him, no more than a slight hiss of smoke.  Apparently Richard wasn’t much of a believer.  “I don’t appreciate being treated like a toy, Richard.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” His blue eyes were twinkling, but his expression was grave.

“In Budapest,” she said. “I’ve had several weeks to think over your behavior, and I rather think I ought to be insulted.”

“Insulted?” he said. “Because I was out of my mind with desire for you?”

“For me?” she said. “Or for Indo’s kitty?”

“Catriona, don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “My desire for you had nothing to do with Indo.”

“Oh, how I’d love to believe you, darling.” She flicked the blade, cutting a tiny nick in the delicate skin of his throat, as lethal and deep as the piercing of a fang.  “Convince me.”

He reached for the sword, and she gave her wrist a flick, instantly on guard as she sliced a neat morsel of flesh from his earlobe.  “Damn it, woman!”

“Yes?” she asked pleasantly.

“What is it exactly that you want?” he asked testily.  His tone and body language said he was tiring of the game, but she could still see the twinkle in his eyes.  The terrible sadness she had seen in Budapest was starting to fade away.

“Come now, ancient one, canst not thou guess?” she teased.  “I am a gentle, virtuous lady who died the little death while taken against her will.  What do you think I want?”   He still looked mystified.  “Make me believe it was me you wanted, not just some convenient hole.”

“Convenient?  You?” he scoffed.  “Good lord . . . . I had to track you down to Budapest, for pity’s sake–there are holes far more handy than Budapest.”

“Not that ordinarily belong to Indo.”

“Well, actually . . . . ”

She pressed the sword point to the hollow at the base of his throat.  “You’re not helping your cause.”

He raised his hands in surrender.  “All right!”  He took a breath, gazing into her eyes.  “Of course I wanted you, Catriona.  Look at you . . . . you’re perfect.”

“Um-hmm,” she yawned.  “The most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen, right?  You forget, dear, I’ve been around a while myself.  Trust me, I’ve heard this one before from men far more poetic than you.”

He smiled.  “Yes, but did they have my context?”

“That’s true,” she admitted with a tiny smile back.  “Go on, please.”

“What else is there to say?  You’re lovely.”  He believed it, she realized, watching his eyes.  He really did admire her, really did think she was beautiful.  She was surprised and very flattered.  But she wasn’t ready to let him off the hook just yet.  She had the feeling he wasn’t quite ready, either.  He needed this game, the same as he had needed to pillage her on the hotel room carpet in Budapest.

“And lovely was just what you needed,” she said, leading him on.

“Not just.”   She raised an eyebrow, tilting the blade as if preparing to slice his healing ear again.  “All right, Catriona, you win,” he said quickly.  “Yes, you’re right–I’d be lying if I said Indo’s feelings for you had no role to play in my decision to go to you.”

“You’re sweeping me off my feet,” she said dryly.

“But mostly I wanted to be with someone who might conceivably be as bad as I am.”  His mouth twisted in a tiny smile as she laughed, shocked but not offended.  “Someone completely self-involved who seems soft and lovely, but who wouldn’t . . . . ”  He broke off, waiting for reaction.

“Who wouldn’t die if you hurt her,” she finished for him.  “Fair enough . . . . and you must be right.”  She let the blade fall slowly down his chest, cutting open the monkish robe he wore as smoothly as if it had a zipper.  “I must be exactly as bad as you are, because I can certainly understand the concept.”  She smiled at him sweetly as the point of the dagger reached his waist.  “Would you mind terribly taking off the robe? I don’t want to get it all bloody.”

“You wouldn’t,” he said, going as pale as a freshly-fed vampire could go.

“Behead you?” she joked.  “Why not?  It’ll grow back, I promise.”

“The voice of experience?” He actually sounded a little nervous, much to her delight.

“Maybe.”  She cut down a little further.  “You know, these are the only clothes you seem to have . . . .”

He pulled the robe over his head.  “Catriona, you must know I won’t let you castrate me.”

She did love the way he said her name.  “Richard, you must know I haven’t the slightest interest in doing so.”  She took a step back as he tossed it away, but she didn’t drop the dagger.  “It’s been my experience that as tenuous as their relationship appears, a penis doesn’t function particularly well once separated from its brain.”  He shucked out of the boxer briefs he was wearing underneath, and she motioned him toward the ridiculous bed.  “Let’s just say this time I’m making sure I get to be on top.”

He smiled as he sat back on the pillows.  “Darling, all you had to do was ask.”

“But I don’t want to ask.”  She climbed onto the bed on her knees, straddling his thighs with the dagger held upright in front of her.  “I don’t want to talk about it . . . remember?”  She focused her gaze on his penis as it rose as if willing it erect.

“So why don’t you shut up?” he asked, going breathless.

She laughed, “Okay.”  Bending down to kiss his mouth, she laid the dagger across his chest, the hilt still in her right hand, the blade barely touching his throat.  He arched up, gasping, as the blessed metal was laid flat against his skin.  If he leaned up to her at all, the skin would be pierced.  “Comfy?” she whispered in his ear as she sat up.

He didn’t answer, just watched as she raised herself on her knees, then brought her sleek, warm cunt down over his cock.  “Don’t move,” she ordered, husky, looking down at him from under her lashes.  “And don’t come.”

“I won’t,” he promised, his gaze locked to hers.

She set the rhythm this time, using her own delicate motions to maneuver him into position.  Using her left hand as a brace, she leaned forward until the base of his cock rested flush against the opening folds above her clitoris and the tip barely teased another tingling button of nerves deep inside her.  “What say we just stay here forever?” she murmured, her muscles aching with the tension of keeping still.

“Let’s don’t,” he muttered.  He slid his hands up the curve of her hips and tried to rock her forward, but she pressed the dagger tighter to his throat, making him cry out.  “Catriona, please . . . .”

“Oooo, I like that,” she cooed.  “Very, very much.”  She lowered her head and concentrated hard on her cunt, feeling the friction in every fold and hollow as a separate, sweet sensation as she slowly began to move.  His eyes were closed, pretty smudge of lashes on either sharply-sculpted cheek, but as she raised her hips, his mouth fell open in a gasping sigh as if she’d drawn out breath and sound as she drew herself away.  “Miss me?”

“Yes,” barely audible through teeth clenched tight.

“Good.”  She slid back down again as slowly as she could manage, but she could feel it coming, the moment when she’d lose this delicious control and let him have her.  Not yet, she thought, desperate, her fist flexing on her dagger hilt as she began to pick up the pace.  She could feel the tension in his body, the need to take control, but like her, he was holding back.  His hands clutched the soft flesh of her ass, his fingertips bruising her, marking her as his, but she knew he could have easily broken her arm and flung her underneath him.  But that would be nothing new, a moment, the same thing over again.  And that wasn’t what either of them wanted.  A thin sheen of blood sweat had bloomed through his skin, and she leaned down to lick it from his cheek, salty and delicious. “Darling,” he murmured as she leaned down to kiss his mouth.

Then suddenly she broke the kiss, her head flung back as she ground him deeper, her clit so battered and ripe with blood she could feel its shape, a berry bursting with juice.  She thought of him grabbing her, throwing her to the floor, and snarled, letting go of the dagger to grapple his shoulders and pull him upright, pull him up to her.  Slice of pain as he flung the dagger away, his hands coming to her face, and she screamed as he kissed her deeper, her orgasm torn from a center she could sometimes forget she had.  She wrapped her arms and legs around him, crushing him as he bathed her face in sweet saliva kisses as she trembled and shattered around him.  “Come now,” she growled, her fingers sliding up through his hair.  “I want to feel you shooting in me.”  He obeyed without a moment’s pause, a feat she would have doubted possible if asked before tonight, and she screamed again, softer, fading to a sigh as every muscle fell slack.

“You are,” he mumbled, cradling her as she fell.  “Most beautiful of all.”

††††††

 Lacey watched the strange man follow Cat through the door to the VIP rooms, and she was considering going after him to try to warn her friend or intervene somehow when someone touched her arm. “Lacey?”

She turned and for a second, she didn’t recognize the handsome masked man standing behind her.  He was dressed as a pirate—specifically, the pirate hero of Lex’s latest pet project, an open-world RPG he absolutely insisted on calling, “Ahoy!” But unlike the avatar from the game, who looked blown up with steroids and had a fat, square head, this guy was gorgeous.  He carried just enough muscle on his torso and thighs to make the flowing shirt and skin-tight pants look dashing, not ridiculous.  “Merry Christmas,” he said, his green eyes twinkling through his mask, and suddenly she knew exactly who he was.

“Noel, hi!”  She hugged him and was pleasantly shocked—who knew code monkeys could carry such guns?  “Merry Christmas to you.”

“Thanks.”  Noel was an artist and code writer who had been slaving in the dungeons of the company for a little less than a year.  But he was really sweet and really talented; she expected him to do great work someday.

“That’s some costume,” she said, looking him up and down with a grin.

“Yeah, I know.”  She saw his cheeks and neck flush red under the mask.  “I lost the office lottery.  Rex said somebody had to wear it.”

“You look great.”  She gave his arm a comforting rub and felt those amazing muscles again.  Do you work out? she almost asked before she stopped herself, not wanting to sound like Carma.

“You’re sweet.”  Rex told her this all the time, and it always made her feel like a kid sister.  It sounded different coming from Noel.  “You looking stunning, by the way.  I’d heard you were coming as a black cat.”  He blushed again, and she thought he sounded a little short of breath.  “I’ve been watching for you all night.”

“Really?”  He didn’t sound like he was joking, but she couldn’t quite believe him, either.  “Why?”

“Oh . . . well.”  The sight of this man—who was really tall, she realized for the first time; even in Cat’s heels, she had to look up to see his face—all dressed up like a romance novel hero but fidgeting like a kid was shockingly adorable.  “I just wanted . .. you really helped us out this week with those notes on the Tortuga fight scene.  You were right; the motion capture was good; it was almost there, but the movement of the hair on the big guy . . .”  He broke off with a shy grin.  “Sorry.  I know we’re not supposed to talk about work tonight.”

“It’s okay.”  For what felt like the first time in her life, she was getting a clue.  He liked her.  He had come to the party that night already liking her before he ever saw her in Cat’s costume.  If she hadn’t been under a vampire’s spell, she probably wouldn’t have noticed it or wouldn’t have believed it or would have talked herself out of it.  But tonight she knew it was real.  This gorgeous guy liked her and wanted to talk to her.  It felt amazing, better than chocolate and whiskey and the last big drop on the best rollercoaster in the world, all wrapped up in one.

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” he said.  “I mean, Rex is brilliant, obviously.”

“Yes, he is.”  What could he be thinking? Had he seen her before with Rex? For a split second, she panicked, thinking he thought she and Rex were a couple—but why should she panic at that?  Wasn’t that all she’d ever wanted?

“But you’re brilliant, too,” he was going on. “I don’t think he realizes how much he owes you.” The tempo of the music on the dance floor was changing, and the lights were starting to dim.  “I just wanted to tell you, if you ever wanted to do something of your own, I’m here for you.  I mean, I would love to be a part of it.” She saw him every day, but she had never seen his eyes look so blue. “I would be honored.”

Again, any other time she would have thought this meant she had totally misinterpreted his interest, that he didn’t like her as a woman at all, that he only admired her work. She would have been kicking herself, brutally embarrassed, rushing to cover up or explain away any sign she might have made that she liked him as a man.

But tonight was different.  Tonight she knew that his blush and stammer came from something more primal than professional respect.  Liking her art wouldn’t make the hairs on his forearm stand on end when she let her hand brush the back of his wrist the way she was doing now.

“Thanks, Noel.”  She took his hand.  “I really appreciate that.” The dance floor was filling up with couples. “Would you like to dance?”

“I would, but . . .” She could see him wincing even from behind the mask. “I can’t dance. I mean, I really, really can’t—I’m pathetic.”

It took her a minute to place where she’d heard this before, these same words spoken in exactly this same way. Then she realized this was almost exactly what she always said whenever anyone asked her to dance. As gorgeous and brilliant as he was, Noel was obviously just as shy as she was. “Okay,” she said, smiling at him, squeezing his hand she still held.

“There’s a lounge set up on one of the docks,” he said. “I could get us some drinks, and we could just talk.  Unless you don’t want to—I mean, I don’t want to keep you from the party, or—“

“Talking is great.” For a second, she thought about Rex, but only for a second. “I like talking a lot.”

 

††††††

Richard kissed lovely Cat softly on the mouth. “Where is the amulet?”

“Look in my costume,” she said. “It’s in my purse.”

He got up from the bed and found the purse tucked inside the cat suit. The amulet was tucked inside, wrapped in its own chain. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She sat up on the bed. “So are you ready to tell me what that thing is now?”

“Does it matter?”  He pulled the amulet over his head, and the darkness it carried settled over him.

“You chased me all the way around the world to get it back,” she said. “Obviously it matters.”

He sat down on the bed and picked up her bare foot to trace the delicate blue vein that curved down from her ankle.  “Didn’t I promise to lick your toes?”

“Later,” she ordered, but she didn’t pull her leg away. He pressed a kiss to her instep and felt her shiver, but her voice was steady. “Why was there vampire blood on your raincoat?”

“Not easily distracted, are you?”  He ran a fingertip up the curve of her calf.  “The blood came from a very old vampire named Seth.”

“Seth?” she echoed.  “Not the Seth.”  He hadn’t known if she would have even heard of his ancient brother.  The Destroyer had been in the ground for so long, and Catriona was so young.  But it was obvious from the look on her face that she knew exactly who he meant.  “I thought he was a myth, the big bad wolf vampire that gave the Enforcers an excuse to be such dicks.”  She sat up, sliding her leg free of his touch.  “You’re telling me he’s real?”

“He is—was—very real, yes.”  Here with her, the weight on his heart was almost bearable.  “More to the point, he was my friend,” he finished.

“Unbelievable . . . ”  She looked at him, up and down, eyes wide and serious.  “So how did you end up covered in his blood?”

“It’s very simple, darling.”  He patted her knee.  “I killed him.”  He took the lighter she had used to light her cigarette and sparked it, then stared into the flame.  “I killed him because he woke up.  He was wreaking havoc, slaughtering humans in the hundreds.”

“Where?”  She took his other hand.  “I haven’t heard—“

“Africa,” he interrupted.  “A warlord—the mortals called him a warlord.”  He smiled.  “I’m sure he must have loved that.”  He let the flame go out.  “But it was only a matter of time before they realized he wasn’t human.”

“And the amulet was his,” she said.

“Yes.” She reached out and touched it, and he resisted the urge to snatch it out of her reach. “It holds unspeakable power. He took it from our—from his maker.”

She sat back, curling her legs under her.  “What about the Enforcers?”  She brushed a lock of hair back from his cheek, a tender, womanly gesture he would never have expected.  “What about Indo?”

“Seth would have snapped Indo like kindling.”  He got up from the bed.  “That’s the whole point.  They were going after him, and they didn’t have the slightest idea what he was, what they’d be facing.”

“So you went instead.”  Her voice was like a tonic, flowing sweetly into his consciousness, steeping out the poison of his anger and regret.  “You killed him yourself to save Indo and the other Enforcers.”

“To save everything.”  How could this child of only three centuries ever understand?  “To save the world we’ve made, the creatures we have become.  If Seth had been allowed to live, he would have remade the world into what it was when we were young.  Nothing could have stopped him.”  She was so soft, he thought, so lovely.  She lived in a world of luxurious hotels and lead-lined coffins upholstered with silk and human thralls desperate to give her their blood for nothing more than a smile.  She had never dug her own grave with her hands as the sun crept over the horizon.  She had never been burned at a stake by mortals who didn’t know they couldn’t kill her with fire.  She had never chased her prey across an open delta in the darkness or murdered a dozen virgins at a banquet with hundreds of her own kind looking on.  “Nothing except me.”  He turned away.  “I am of his world, Catriona, not yours.  I was once as bad as he was – probably worse because I was fully aware of my evil.  He was an animal.  I was a demon.”

Cat watched his face as he spoke.  He was a completely different man from the one she’d thought she’d known, a completely different creature.  “Was Indo properly grateful?”  He reminded her of a caged tiger, ready to pounce, suffocating in captivity.  “Are the Enforcers going to give you a medal?”

He laughed.  “Not exactly.”  He took her hand and kissed it.  “Indo was furious.  He said I had no right, that I had taken the law into my own hands.”

“Oh dear.”  She could just see her lover in her mind, bristling with righteous indignation, strong and just and oh so very stupid.  “Poor Indo.  Did he try to arrest you?”

“He threatened.”  He turned back to her with a wry smile that reminded her of the old Richard.  “But when I called his bluff, he backed down.”

“Ooo, he must have hated that.”  She should have been angry on Indo’s behalf, she supposed, but she just couldn’t seem to feel it.  She loved Indo more than any other creature, more even than she loved herself.  But he was simple in his code, simple in his judgments, simple in his feelings.  She knew how infuriating that could be, how hurtful.

“He said he washed his hands of me.”  She didn’t need to imagine Indo saying that; she had heard it so many times herself.  “He said we were through.”

She couldn’t help but laugh.  “Whatever will you do about the prom?”  He laughed with her.   “You’re not worried about it, are you?  You know Indo; he’ll get over it.”

“Yes.” He looked into her eyes. “But I think he and I may have something new to fight about now.”

“Don’t say that,” she said, looking away. “We don’t have to think about that.” She got up. “Come on. We should let those poor mortal darlings have their playpen back.”

 ††††††

 Lacey watched as Noel got a bottle of red wine and two glasses from the bar, then the two of them walked hand in hand out to the dock. The lounge was just as impressive as the dance floor, a long rectangle of overstuffed couches and low tables with greenery and fairy lights strung on poles overhead. They took a love seat near the very end over the water and just talked, and it was easy, as easy as anything she had ever done. He told her about growing up in the Pacific Northwest and spending summers with his grandparents in Cornwall, U.K., learning to surf, falling in love with computers and art.  She was fascinated.  She found herself talking about her life before she’d met Rex, her own ambitions, her own dreams—all the stuff she never thought much about any more, the stuff she’d tucked away. And he seemed fascinated, too.

After what seemed like almost no time at all, they were two of only four people left on the dock. The other two were an obviously very happy couple who were making out with wild abandon on a couch across the way.  “Wow,” she said, giggling. “Who knew Barry in Marketing was so passionate?”

Noel snickered, too. “Colin in Accounts Receivable, apparently.”

“I think it’s sweet.” She and Noel had been moving steadily closer to one another as they talked, she suddenly realized.  Now she was turned sideways facing him with her legs curled under her, her pet position when she got comfortable to read or play games or watch TV.  One knee was overlapping his thigh, and one of his hands was resting casually on her booted calf. To anyone watching, they must have looked as much like a couple as Barry and Colin.

“I do, too,” he said. “And besides, they can’t help it. They’re under the mistletoe.” He looked up. “Actually, so are we.”

She looked up at the garland overhead. “Well, would you look at that?”

“I have to kiss you.” He had taken off his own mask ages ago.  Now he gently lifted hers off, too. “It’s the sacred law of Christmas.”

“It is.” She felt breathless, heart racing—all the things she’d always known she was supposed to feel.  His lips were soft and strong and tasted like the wine, and when she slid her arms around his neck, he moaned, pulling her closer, and her whole body seemed to melt. She thought she could have happily slid his shirt off, slipped out of her dress, made love with him right there in front of Barry and Colin and anyone else who cared to look, even Rex . . .

“Oh damn it,” she said, breaking the kiss. “What time is it?”

“What?” Noel looked stunned, dreamy-eyed, confused . . . completely beautiful. “I don’t know. After midnight, at least.”

When she’d left Rex, promising to meet him in an hour, it had been barely nine o’clock. She could see the big yacht in the distance, lights still blazing from its cabin. Had he gone to meet her, the mysterious hottie he hadn’t known from Adam’s housecat, as her mother would have said? Had he waited, nervous and impatient, wondering if she would ever really show?  Was he still waiting?

The thought of it made her smile.

“Lacey?” Noel touched her cheek, his other arm still holding her. “Is something wrong?”

“No.” She turned her head and kissed his wrist. “Nothing at all.” She brushed his hair back from his brow. “Did you drive here?”

“I came on my bike.” She laughed, and he grinned. “In this outfit, yeah.” He kissed her, softer this time, less urgent but just as sweet.

“I have my car.” He smelled amazing, she thought, like salt air and pine woods. She wanted to bury her face in the soft, smooth skin of his neck and breathe him in forever.

“I could drive you home.” He traced the line of her jaw with his fingertips. “Then I could get a cab home from your place.”

“Or you could stay.” Her eyes met his. “And I could make you breakfast.”

As they were leaving, she saw Cat again.  Her new and most beloved vampire BFF was back on the dance floor, still wearing Lacey’s costume, though she had taken off the head. But now she was slowdancing with the tall blond man in the monk’s robe, her head resting on his shoulder, her eyes closed. She looked utterly content.

The man saw Lacey watching, and for a moment, their eyes locked. His gaze was like Cat’s, only more so, beautiful, compelling, terrifying, impossible to resist.  Lacey felt herself leaning toward him even as Noel, oblivious, was leading her away.

Then the man who was a vampire smiled, and the spell was broken.  Lacey smiled. “I guess he found her after all.”

“Who?” Noel said. “What did you say?”

“Nothing.” She waved at the vampire, and he waved back. “Come on, let’s go.”

††††††

 Richard pressed Catriona closer as the little human made her escape. “You never fail to surprise me, beloved,” he said, kissing the top of her head. “But this costume has got to go.”

“You don’t like it?” She looked over his shoulder just in time to see Lacey leaving with a perfectly luscious-looking lad in a pirate costume. “Oh good,” she said. “She managed to scrape off Rex.”

“Who?” Richard said, obviously amused.

“Never mind.” She stepped back, still holding his hand. “I know she’s safe now. Let’s go.”

They went back to her hotel and changed into more normal clothes. Richard took the amulet from around his neck and slipped it into the pocket of his jeans as Cat brushed her hair and pulled it into a messy bun, watching herself in the mirror. “Fancy a walk?” he said. “Do you know I’ve never been to San Francisco?”

She smiled at him in her reflection. “Then by all means let’s have a look around.”

They walked hand in hand down the street through a delicate veil of f0g with the dreamy air of tourists in love. “I’m worried about you, you know,” she said, squeezing his hand.

He couldn’t help but smile.  “Worried? You?” he teased.  “About me?”

“Better take advantage of it now,” she warned.  “Believe me, it will pass.”

“I don’t doubt it,” he said.  “But honestly, love, I’m fine–I actually feel better.”  He kissed her cheek.  “How are you?”

“I’m always fine, Richard, you know that,” she smiled.  She turned and started down the street again, tucking her arm into his.  “So where are you headed now?  Back to the cloisters?”

“Eventually.”  He had forgotten how nice it was, just walking with a woman.  “But first I have to see Indo.”

“Oh honey, why would you want to do that?” she asked, laughing.  “Trust me, if he’s in a snit, you’d do better to just leave him alone for a century or two.”

“The voice of experience?”

“You know it.”  They had reached a lookout over the bay, and she let him go to lean on the railing, looking out over the water.  “Unless you mean to fight him.”

“No.”  He brushed her hair back from her cheek.  “If I did, would you try to stop me?”

She smiled, still gazing down into the darkness.  “Of course I would.  He’s my Indo.”  The streetlight glowed on her auburn hair.  “Seriously, Richard, just leave him alone.  That’s the trick.”  He thought she had never looked more beautiful.  “Letting him stew just long enough to miss you but not so long he forgets . . . . ”  Her voice trailed off into a smile.  “But the two of you have a somewhat different relationship.”

“Catriona, may I ask you a question? I’ve been wondering for weeks.”  He touched her cheek, turning her face to his.  “Why are you in San Francisco for the holidays?  You said you had an appointment. With whom?”

She smiled, turning away. “You saw her at the party,” she said. “The mortal girl wearing my cat costume.”

He had known Cat to take all manner of prey and seduce all manner of lovers, but never an innocent mortal girl. “And what is she to you?” She arched an eyebrow at him. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Nothing, really.” She laughed. “Believe it or not, when she was a tiny baby, I saved her.” The wind caressed her hair, blowing it around her face. “I saved her from a vampire named Yuri because her mother was dead.”

“Of course.” He was a fool, he thought. An old fool falling hopelessly in love with a creature who loved someone else. “Indo told me about that—the night he gave you the dagger.”

“Exactly. It’s silly, I know, but I check on her every year at Christmas, just to make sure she’s all right.’

“So she knows you saved her?”

“Oh no, not at all. She never actually met me before tonight—well, not to know she was meeting me. I’ve always kept my distance before.”

“So what’s different about this year?” he asked. “What’s changed?”

“Nothing,” she said, but he wasn’t quite sure he believed her. “I guess it’s just that she’s grown up now, and there really isn’t much left that I can do for her.”  She laughed. “You’re shocked, aren’t you?”

“Why should I be?” he said, smiling. “I’ve always known you were much kinder than you let on.”

“God, Richard, don’t say that, please.”  She grimaced, shuddered, as if cut by the wind.  “What are the odds of survival for a vampire who’s kind?”

“You don’t have to be afraid.” He smiled, making light, when all he wanted was to take her in his arms. “I promised to kill for you, remember?”

“Oh that’s right . . . . . can I save that one for later?”

“Absolutely.”  He leaned over the railing as well, giving her a nudge.  “So this holiday trip of yours .  . . Indo isn’t invited?”

“He’s busy, and besides, we just . . . No, not we, I, I just needed a break.  And you said he was on a mission with the Enforcers?”  She sighed.  “I dare say he needed one, too.”  She turned around, taking a deep breath of icy air.  “I love him, but sometimes, being with him, I feel like I can’t breathe, you know?”

“I can certainly believe that,” he agreed.  “So you just disappear.”

“He knows I’ll be back.”  She looked over at him, making a purposely winsome face.  “I always go back.”

“Lucky Indo,” he answered, kissing her frozen nose.

“Hey, don’t go all squishy on me, please,” she protested with a grin.

“Too late.”  He hugged her, and she wrapped herself around him, a friend’s embrace.  “So you think I should stay away from Indo?” he asked

“Just for a while.”  She looked up at him and smiled.  “Besides, you’re going to be busy.” She slipped out of his arms and held up the amulet she had stolen from his pocket.

“Catriona, no.” She was backing away, and he lunged for her. She dodged him easily, laughing, and ran down the street. “Catriona!”

“See you later, Richard!” A cab appeared as if by magic in this city known for having almost no cabs. “I need a date for New Year’s Eve!”  He started running after her, knowing he’d be too late. She jumped into the cab and sped away, leaving him standing, laughing, in the middle of the street.

 

††††††

 Lacey stood at the window in her apartment, drinking coffee and watching the sun come up. The costume she had borrowed from Cat was scattered all over the bedroom floor; now she was wearing her own comfy flannel pajamas.

Noel came up behind her and put his arms around her. “You okay?” he asked, kissing behind her ear. “What are you thinking about?”

“Just stuff.” She was an orphan with no family, a code monkey with no life. But last night she had met vampires. And she was in love, real love, for the first time in her life. “I’m having a very merry Christmas.”

 

THE END

Merry Christmas, Kittens!