The Shocking Truth About What Writing Fiction Pays (a personal comparison)

librarianEarlier this week, I got my royalty statement for Little Red Hen Romance for September 2015 from Amazon and went into a full-blown fidget. In spite of the fact that we had outsold our previous best-selling month, June 2015, by more than two to one, moving more than twice as many books to paying customers (excluding promotional freebies from both months’ sales figure, of course), we made less than one-quarter as much money. How the fuck does THAT happen? I shrieked, racing figuratively around the internet squawking for most of the afternoon.

The villain who had stolen from me, I soon determined, was that damned Jeff Bezos with his double-damned Kindle Unlimited – specifically, the new rules for Kindle Unlimited that went into effect July 1, 2015 (you know, the day after our big month). Under the new system, publishers and self-pubbed writers get paid by the page read instead of by the copy downloaded. In June, the Hens were paid $1.25 per KU download, quite a trick since our books average about 25 standard pages and only cost 99 cents each. We were, to be perfectly bald-faced frank about the thing, one of the short works publishers who were unintentionally scamming the KU payment system, collecting as much payment on our short stories as novelists at comparable sales rank were getting for full-length books. Even in mid-squawk, I had to admit that wasn’t fair and that some sort of correction had been required. But I still felt screwed by the steepness of the sudden drop.

After a little arithmetic, I figured out that for KU downloads, we were now being paid about 12 cents a book or $0.005 per page. Since the royalty on those books when sold outright is about 35 cents, Kindle Unlimited still seemed like a really bad idea for us, money-wise, and I met with my fellow Hen, Alexandra Christian, to discuss how much we wanted to continue to help Amazon sell free shipping and baby diapers with our books.  We’re still working on that, and to that end, I sat down this morning with my calculator and contracts (including the stone tablets on which my traditional publishing contracts were carved back in the 2000s) to do a little comparing. I also took into account good points made by friends on both sides of the issue about what something like KU takes away from authors and publishers versus what it offers in exposure and promotion. My findings surprised me, and since I know a lot of other people are trying to make the same kinds of decisions at the moment, I thought it might be helpful if I shared them here.

I have published just about every way there is except Xeroxing my fan fiction and selling it out of the back of a van in the parking lot at Comic Con. For my purposes here, I’ll compare traditional publishing (contracts under Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster for full-length romances under the old template, about 400 pages/100,000 words), independent small press publishing (contracts under Purple Sword Publications, a fairly typical, better-than-average small press for full-length romances under the new template, about 250 pages/60,000 words), Little Red Hen Romance (a sort of self-pubbing co-op my sister and I started for short story romances, about 25 pages/7500 words), and Kindle Unlimited downloads of those same shorts. (None of the other stuff is available from Kindle Unlimited; the people making those decisions have already voted no.) All of these figures are for e-books; the Pocket contracts were primarily negotiated for print sales, but they do establish an e-book royalty that I’m still collecting on e-book editions of those books today.

Traditional Publishing: My cheapest e-books from Pocket retail for $8.99 (yeah, I know, no kidding), and I get paid a 15 percent royalty or $1.34. The books are about 400 pages long, so that works out to be about $0.003 per page. My two most successful books with them retail in e-book for $15.99 for 400 pages, with the same 15 percent royalty. So if anybody is desperate enough for medieval vampire romance in e-book to pay that, I make $2.39 or 0.005 per page (which, incidentally, is the same rate KU downloads pay–probably a coincidence, but I don’t know). The obvious advantage for Pocket in print is scope and reach–those books in print sold in the tens of thousands, not the tens, because Pocket was able to ship and place multiple copies all over the world at once and did; you could buy my books in any mall in the US and most of the world. But them days are over, for chain bookstores and for me, and these e-books are competing on the same digital playing field as stuff that’s much, much cheaper. I suppose there are probably readers who are more likely to buy a book from a traditional publisher (assuming they happen upon it in their keyword search), but at those prices? And by this royalty scale, if the sales figures aren’t hugely better, I’m not making any more money; my share comes out to be about the same in spite of the inflated price tag.

Small Press:  Most of my e-books from Purple Sword cost $6.99, run about 250 pages, and pay me a more-than-fair royalty of 50 percent. This works out to be about $3.49 or $0.01 per page paid to me, which for me is as good as it gets. (Writers who self-publish AND self-distribute are working in a different office.) Problem is, I don’t sell any books through Purple Sword. It’s not their fault; other PS writers are doing much better through them than I am. I’m pretty sure the problem here is me and my books–not enough active promotion on my part of those titles and books that don’t really fit the brand of the press as a whole.

Little Red Hen:  My sister and I started Little Red Hen as a way to try to give the people what they want – good, cheap romances short enough we could afford to sell them for only 99 cents each. (Because it takes us a couple of weeks to write each one versus the six months to a year we’d put into a full-length novel.) Currently, we distribute them only through Amazon, and our royalty for each one sold is 35 cents. This works out to be $0.01 per page, the same as the small press books, except that I’m actually selling quite a few. So while I’m still not pricing summer homes in Tuscany, I am able to call the experiment a success; the co-op is self-sustaining. But obviously I’d prefer to do more.

Little Red Hen – Kindle Unlimited: And here’s where we get to the problem of today. Little Red Hen shorts downloaded through KU pay us $0.005 per page or about 12 cents per full book, less than half what non-KU sales pay. We also tend to have 3 KU downloads for every 1 outright sale. (This is not an exact statistic – some books do better in KU; some books do better in regular sales. But it’s a fair generalization for the press as a whole.) Amazon is obviously committed to promoting KU; consequently books listed through KU are treated more kindly by their sales ranking algorithms. We’ve also been doing a free book promotion for every new release, something that’s only available through Amazon for KU books. Like a writer friend who is listing his on-going serial with KU pointed out, we are almost certainly reaching readers through KU that we would never reach without it, and that can’t be easily dismissed. But are we losing royalties to Amazon on readers who would want the book enough to buy it if they had to but are downloading it through KU instead? The many KU haters would say of course; Amazon would say certainly not. Me, I just don’t know.

I’m still mad at Amazon for the snake oil salesman approach they’ve taken with writers about KU. I get emails from KDP every month congratulating me on my brilliance for signing up and promising the moon when in fact, best case scenario, it’s paying me at exactly the same page rate as the fat cat traditional publishing model Amazon keeps saying it means to vanquish forever. (As I wrote more than a year ago in an open letter to Jeff Bezos, stop pissing on my shoes and telling me it’s raining.) But KU’s sins aren’t nearly as black as I wanted to paint them when compared to the alternative. My guess is Lexie and I will end up compromising, listing some books through KU for the sake of the promotional push and withholding others; in any case, we will have to take a hard look at every step in our current protocol. And I would advise any other author who isn’t James Patterson to do the same.

An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Coming October 27!

SHA_finalHey kittens, guess what? I have a story in this anthology coming out October 27, 2015 from Mocha Memoirs Press. Doesn’t it look awesome?

“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognizable characters in Western literature.  Conan Doyle’s inimitable detective has been the subject of literally thousands of books, movies, television shows, plays and even songs.  With the rise of the BBC series and the release of all copyrights, the beloved character has found a new life among modern audiences.

In An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 14 authors of horror and mystery have come together to create a unique anthology that sets Holmes on some of his most terrifying adventures.  A pair of sisters willing to sacrifice young girls to an ancient demon for a taste of success, a sinister device that can manipulate time itself, and a madman that can raise corpses from the dead are just a few among the grisly tales that can be found within these pages.

Curl up with a warm cuppa and leave all the lights on.  This is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes.

Wanna sneak peek? Here’s an excerpt from my own story (and first ever mystery tale), “The Fairy Pool:”

Watson packed his case with grim determination, preparing for an outing to the countryside as if for a bivouac through the wilds of Afghanistan. But the most perilous frontier to be crossed was the front parlor of his own London lodging where his accustomed adversary lay in wait.

“Watson, where are you going?” The ambush came as he’d expected from the dim recesses of Holmes’ library, a shout through the open door.

“I told you.” He placed his case by the door and went calmly to the cupboard for his overcoat and hat. “Mary and I are going to visit an old school chum of hers in the country.”

Sherlock popped out of the library like a jack from a box. “It’s a lie.”

“It is not.” Watson smiled the mild smile of the righteous man. “Why should I lie?”

“Well done, John.” His friend’s color was high and dramatic. Either he had already imbibed some chemical stimulant at nine in the morning or the mere fact of John’s leaving had sent him into the first stages of frenzy on its own. “For once, you’ve hit upon the crux of the question without prompting. Why indeed?” John removed the train tickets from his pocket, and Sherlock snatched them from his hand. “Ravenglass,” he read.

“In the Lake District,” John said, taking them back. “Mary’s friend Seraphima grew up there. It’s meant to be quite lovely.”

“In summer perhaps.” The great detective was obviously unconvinced. “In October it will be a miserable bog. And really, John, Seraphima? Is that the limit of your invention? Seraphima is the name of an Italian carnival dancer, not the school chum of one’s respectable fiancée.”

John was inclined to agree. “Nevertheless, that is her name. Her aunts are the novelists Nora and Mirabel May. Perhaps one of them chose her name.”

Sherlock frowned. “That does seem plausible.” He took the tickets again and sniffed them. “As spinsters and the most prominent and financially successful members of the family, they would no doubt exert a certain influence over the naming of offspring, particularly those from poorer branches of the clan.”

“Seraphima was orphaned at an early age and brought up by the aunts,” John said. “So I’m sure you must be right.”

“One hardly follows the other, but yes, I must be.” He sniffed the tickets again. “When did you purchase these?”

John took them back. “Yesterday afternoon.” He put them back in his pocket. “I had just returned from the station when I told you about our trip.”

Sherlock’s smile was positively demonic. “That is a lie.”

“Holmes, really—“

“Those tickets rested for no small time in close proximity to the bare skin of your fiancée—next to her bosom, unless I miss my guess.”

John’s eyes popped. “I do beg your pardon!”

“They reek of her perfume—an ordinarily subtle scent intensified precipitously by abundance, heat, moisture, or some combination of the three. Since Mary is an extremely hygienic young woman not given to bathing herself in perfume or acts of great physical exertion, I deduce that she carried the tickets next to her skin while in a state of anxiety which resulted in greater than usual perspiration.”

“Have you been sniffing my fiancée?!?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“No, but really!” Ordinarily Holmes’ deductions were a source of wonder and no small delight to his friend, but this seemed not only improper but highly perilous. “Who are you to recognize her scent?”

“I recognize the presence of Mrs. Hudson’s favorite hack driver by the lingering aroma of horse shit on my hall rug,” Holmes said. “This in no way represents a symbolic romantic attraction.” Now that he had the upper hand, his smile was almost warm. “Tell me the truth, John. Why are you going to the Lake District? What has Mary so frightened?”

“She isn’t frightened, Holmes; don’t be so dramatic.” He handed over the newspaper clipping Seraphima had enclosed with her frantic letter. “Merely concerned.”

“Search continues for missing child,” Holmes read the headline. “Hope fast slipping away—good lord, who writes this drivel?”

“The missing girl apparently has some connection to Seraphima and her family,” John explained. “She’s only seven years old, and Seraphima feels responsible for her in some way. She wrote Mary to ask if I might come and offer my assistance to the police.”

“You?” He handed back the clipping. “She asked for you?”

‘Why not?” John said, trying to remain unruffled. “She has read my accounts of your exploits, so she is aware of my expertise in such matters.”

“Your accounts, my exploits.” Holmes was heading for his bedroom. “Expertise indeed—do they want a nicely typed story for the newspapers, or do they want the girl found?”

“Perhaps they don’t want their lives turned upside down by a raving madman whose methods of investigation require the emotional ruin of everyone even remotely involved.” John followed and found him throwing a seemingly random collection of personal belongings into a case of his own. “Holmes, you are specifically not invited.”

“Nevertheless, I shall go.” He latched the case and handed it to John. “Come, come, Watson; Mary will be waiting. We mustn’t be late.”

“No.” There was no use arguing, and if put to torture, John might have admitted to feeling a wee bit relieved. “All right. Let’s go.”

End of excerpt – sounds pretty good, right? And here’s a list of the rest of the stories and authors involved – they all look fantastic to me:

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Hungry Ghost by Katie Magnusson

The Diamond Carter Ghost by Matthew Wilson

The Haunted Branch Line by Tally Johnson

The Arendall Horror by Thomas Olbert

Worlds Collide by S. H. Roddey

Time is Running Out, Watson by Adrian Cross

A Voice in the Blood by Dan Shaurette

The Hunt of the Red Boar by Thomas Fortenberry

The Canaries of Clee Hills Mine by Robert Perret

The Chase by Melissa McArthur

The Adventure of the Missing Trophy by Mark W. Coulter

The Case of the Rising Dead by Trenton Mabey

The Adventure of the Slow Death by Harding McFadden

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!

 

One from the Vaults for Halloween

frankenstein_150211-173Earlier this week, me and my peeps Alexandra Christian, Crymsyn Hart, and Siobhan Kinkade went to the big city moving pitcher show and saw Benedict Cumberbatch and company in the NBT’s version of Frankenstein. And it was awesome!  I wanted to write a full, glowing review, but honestly, enough people have done that already – just trust me; if you haven’t seen it yet, just go already. And if you’ve only seen the version with Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, go back and see the other one. Seriously, there are no words to describe how awesome Cumberbatch is in that part.

But I digress.  It’s Halloween, I just saw a kick-ass version of Frankenstein, and I don’t have time to write a new story at the moment, so I’m reposting this one.  It originally appeared in a gorgeous coffeetable book on the art of Isabel Samaras entitled Tender Hooks, and I’ve actually featured it here before. But for anyone who hasn’t seen it and wants a short, scary read, here’s for you. Fair warning, though – it is VERY gruesome and pretty darn explicit. Read at your own risk. bwhahahahahahah

 

The Bride

My darling sister,

            I have little hope that you could believe the strange particulars of my tale even if I could tell it to you sitting at your side.  In truth, I can hardly believe it myself.  But I beg you, do not listen when others will tell you I am dead, that my precious Charles is dead and I have succumbed to despair.  Those who would tell you such a lie are only protecting themselves, and in truth,  I cannot blame them.  But neither can I bear to think that you will grieve for me.  Know by these lines that I live.  I have found the every happiness you wished me not so long ago when you kissed me on my wedding day.  My Charles is here beside me, and my heart is full of joy.

                                                            Yours ever loving,

                                                                        Elizabeth

 

Elizabeth leapt down from the coffin maker’s wagon almost before the horses stopped.  “The hospital!” she demanded, grabbing the first British soldier she saw standing upright.  “Where is the hospital?”

The young man just stared at her as if he couldn’t quite believe his eyes.  “I don’t . . . who are you?”

She slapped him across the cheek.  “Listen.”  She took hold of his bearded chin and focused her eyes on his.  “I am the wife of Captain Charles Dumont of His Majesty’s Royal Marines.  He has written he was wounded.  He has asked me to come quickly.”  Her grip tightened.  “Where is the damned hospital?”

“There.”  He pointed across the ruined field to a half-demolished gatehouse.  “In the cellar – use the outside steps.”

“Thank you.”  She heaved the heavy carpetbag full of Charles’ notebooks in both arms like a baby and broke into a run.

The stone stairs were sticky with blood, and the charnel-house stench rising from the open doorway was appalling, but she didn’t hesitate.  “Ho, Miss!” the guard at the door called as she pushed past him.  “You can’t go in there!”

“Stop me, and I’ll kill you where you stand,” she muttered without slowing down.  A skinny young fellow in bloodied shirtsleeves and a bloody apron over his uniform trousers was coming toward her up the narrow aisle between the stretchers, carrying a tray with a brown bottle of laudanum, a small glass, and a crystal pitcher of water.  “Come with me,” she ordered.  “I may have need of you.”  Without pausing to see if he obeyed, she hurried along the line, looking down into each sweating, pain-twisted face.  “Charles!” she called out, fighting back tears.  “Darling, where are you?”  The officers and foot soldiers were all mixed in together, and some were obviously already dead, but she refused to panic.  She had come at once in the clothes on her back with nothing more than the notebooks; she must surely have arrived in time.

“Elizabeth!”  Alistair Gray was hurrying toward her through a narrow doorway to one side, wiping his bloody hands on a towel.  “In Christ’s name, why are you here?”

“Where is he?” she demanded, her legs going weak with relief.  “He sent for me – I came as quickly as I could.”  The look on his face made her blood run cold; she tried to shut it out.  “Where is Charles?”

“Dear Elizabeth.”  He tried to take the carpetbag from her arms, but she refused to loosen her grip, clutching it more tightly to her breast.  “He should not have sent for you.  You should not have come.”

“He is my husband; of course I should have come.”  She looked up into his eyes, clenching her jaw to keep from screaming.  “For the last time, Alistair, where is he?”

“Darling, Charles is dead.”  Her legs gave way for a moment, making her stagger, and Alistair caught her by the arms.  “Help me,” he ordered the young man carrying the laudanum.  “We must get her out of here—“

“No.”  She straightened up, wriggling free.  “Take me to him.  I don’t believe you.”

“Elizabeth, for pity—“

“He is not dead.”

“My love, I promise you, he is—“

“Take me to him!”

The fury in her tone made his face turn whiter underneath its freckles.  “Very well.”  He took her gently by the elbow, and this time she allowed it.  “Come.”

The dead were being stored like firewood in a gardening shed, the bodies of foot soldiers stacked along one wall.  Two officers had been laid head to foot on a low, marble-topped counter along the other wall below a row of windows.  One of these was Charles.  She let out a small, strangled sound, and the carpetbag fell from her arms.

“Elizabeth,” Alistair said, trying to take hold of her, but she pushed him away, moving forward.

“My darling . . .”  She touched his face, the skin as hard and smooth as stone.  “My darling, I have come.”  Half-blind with tears, she ran her hands over his body, pushing back the tatters of his clothes.  His head, arms, and torso were mostly intact, but one leg was little more than butchered meat and bone, and the flesh was swollen and torn over one hip, a sickening wound that smelled like blood and shit.

“He was in terrible pain,” Alistair said from behind her.  “The intestines were torn, Elizabeth.  I know you would have wanted to speak with him one last time, but truly, his death was a mercy.”

“He is still warm.”  She lifted a dead hand to her face, kissing the palm and curving the fingers to cup her cheek.  “His flesh is still pliable.”

“He has not been gone for long.”  She shivered, swallowing a sob, and he put a hot, dirty hand on her shoulder.  “Let me take you away from here.  The troops will be pulling out soon – Nappie is nipping at our heels.”

“Was his heart damaged at all?”  She caressed her husband’s face, tracing the curve of his jaw as she gazed down on his closed eyes, the dark brown lashes stark against his blue-white cheek.  The eyes beneath those lids were blue.  She imagined the moment when the life went out of them, when her darling one had ceased to live inside this shell she loved.  “And his brain?”

“His heart no doubt sustained a certain strain as he lay dying, yes.”  He knew what she was getting at; she could hear the horror in his voice.  “With the brain, it would be impossible to say what damage might have occurred.”

“But all of the tissue is present,” she persisted.  Letting go of Charles’ hand, she moved along the counter to examine the other dead officer.  This one had lost the top half of his head, but the rest of his body seemed virtually untouched.  She unbuttoned his trousers and pushed them down over his hips, making the young medic who was still attending them cry out in horror.  “Their frames are of comparable size,” she said with barely a tremble.  “Presumably the organs would be compatible as well.”

“Elizabeth, be quiet,” Alistair ordered.  “Think what you are saying—“

“I’ve brought the notebooks.”  She bent down and opened the carpetbag, pulling out the one on top and holding it out to him.  “He asked me to bring them.  Alistair, he knew.”

“You’re mad,” he insisted.  “Mad with grief—“

“Your experiments in London were successful—“
“Successful?” he demanded, aghast.  “The subjects went insane with violent rage the moment they awakened—“

“The subjects were dogs,” she pointed out.  “They had no true consciousness, no soul—“

“His soul is gone!” he shouted.

“No,” she said, tears spilling down her cheeks.  She was still crouched on the floor beside the carpetbag; now she reached out and took hold of his trouser leg, on her knees.  “His soul is waiting for me.  He will return.  He could not leave me.”  He was looking down at her, terror and tenderness mingled on his face in equal measure.  “He sent for me, Alistair.  He told me to come.”

“To say good-bye.”  He fell to his knees as well.  “Elizabeth, your heart is broken now, but it will mend.  You will love again—“

“No.”  She laid her palm against his cheek.  “If you love me, you must help me now.”  She stood up and went to the medic, still watching them as if he thought he must be dreaming, his tray still before him.  She poured a healthy measure of laudanum into the glass and topped it off with water.  “Go and prepare a surgery,” she told him.  “Dr. Gray must operate.”

“No,” Alistair said, shaking his head.  “You cannot ask me to do this.  I will not.”

“You will.”  She handed him the drug.  “I will help you.”  He drank deeply, and she smiled.  “We will bring him back.”

ššššššššššššššš

            Making ready was much easier than she had dared to hope.  The British troops had indeed moved out within the hour and left the dead and wounded behind with only Alistair and the one skinny medic to attend them.  There was no one to see them carry Charles and the other officer’s corpse into the roofless dining room that would serve as a laboratory, no one to ask questions as they assembled the equipment listed so carefully in Charles’ notebook, no one but Elizabeth to know how much of the opiate Alistair needed before he was ready to begin.

With Elizabeth standing on one side of the long dining table to mind the instruments and the medic ready at the other to do the heavy lifting, Alistair removed Charles’ ruined leg at the hip, dismantling the joint with a watchmaker’s careful precision.  “The skeleton can be saved here,” he said calmly, as if he were back in London addressing his students at the RoyalAcademy.  “But the flesh and organs must be replaced.”

“Sweet Jesus,” the medic groaned, closing his eyes.

“Steady on, lad,” Elizabeth ordered, refusing to acknowledge the tremor in her own voice.  “We’ve only just begun.”

Three hours later, the anatomical assembly was complete.  The medic lit lamps and tall torches against the gathering darkness, and Alistair mixed himself another drink, laudanum in brandy now instead of water.  “You’ve done beautifully,” Elizabeth said, standing by the body that now lay on the table intact, her precious Charles with the leg and cock of a stranger.  The medic had already discarded the leftover bits into one of the mass graves left open by the infantry when they marched away.

“I have done abomination,” Alistair said, his words slurred from the drug.

“Nonsense.”  She caressed her husband’s cheek for a moment before she turned back to his dearest friend, determined to go on.  “How do we charge the cells?”

Alistair looked as if he wanted to argue, but he smiled instead.  His flesh was as pale and drawn as the man on the table’s, his eyes rimmed in red, and his smile was like the grotesque grin of a skull.  “Not yet, my love,”  he said, raising his glass to her.  “First we must bind him down.”

The electrical apparatus was a clumsy, inelegant thing, a cage of greasy metal fittings and crystal tubes enclosing Charles on every side connected to an inner web of delicate copper wires that wrapped around his body like a shroud.  Back in London, she had wept to see such a thing constructed over the corpse of a dead dog, had bitten her own fist to the bone to keep from sobbing when Charles and Alistair had switched it on.  But now her eyes were dry.  “Have we made it properly?” she said, studying the beautifully-drawn schematic in the notebook.

“What does it matter?” Alistair said with a bitter laugh.  The mad light she had always feared in him had come into his eyes.  “How can we hurt him now?”

“Just what is it we mean to do, Doctor?” the medic asked.  “What is this contraption?”

“Oh come now, Sergeant, surely you’ve guessed,” Alistair said, draining his glass.    “We mean to make new life.”  He took Elizabeth’s hand and kissed it.  “Are we not gods, after all?”

Elizabeth caught his hand as he would let her go.  “Promise me you’ve built it just the way you and Charles did in London,” she said, her nails digging into his flesh.

“Oh yes.”  He drew her closer, close enough to smell the brandy on his breath.  “It is exactly the same.  When the sergeant engages those cells, the current will surround him completely and penetrate his flesh, just as it did to those poor creatures we tortured in London.  Every nerve will be charged with electricity at once, a fire in his blood, inside the marrow of his bones, a pain to raise the dead.  Remember how they howled, Elizabeth?”  Her lower lip trembled, and tears spilled from her eyes, but she refused to look away.  “Is this what you want?”

“Yes.”  Her voice was steady in spite of her tears.  “I will not let him go.”

“Selfish, stupid child.”  His grip was painful on her wrist, and he bent closer as if he meant to kiss her mouth.  She closed her eyes and turned her face away.  “The sin be on your head.”  He let her go.  “Not mine.”

She opened her eyes to find that he had turned away, and she whispered, “Of course.”

“Engage the cells,” he ordered the medic.  The young man obeyed, though his face was white as death with fear.  A high-pitched whine rose from the apparatus, and the vapor in the crystal tubes began to glow.  “Guard the door,” Alistair said, shouting over the din as the metal cage began to shake.  “For God’s sake, don’t let it escape.”  The medic scrambled for his rifle and stationed himself at the door, his bayonet pointed at the corpse.

Elizabeth barely noticed.  The spider’s web of copper had begun to spark and crackle, the body snared inside of it to twitch.  As she crept closer, she could see the veins along the inside of her husband’s arms deepen in color and begin to pulse with life.  “It’s happening.”  His fists clenched, a voluntary movement, graceful and controlled.  “It’s all right, darling,” she promised.  “I’m here.”  His eyes popped open, and his gaze met hers.  “You’re alive.”  She was laughing and crying at once, horrified by the pain she could see in his eyes but weak with relief.  “You will be all right.”

“Don’t touch him!”  Alistair caught hold of her arm, moving closer as well.  “The current would kill you.”  The sparks were reflected in the surgeon’s eyes, his expression a mixture of horror and fascination.

The body began to jerk on the table like a puppet shaken by the strings, but the apparatus was losing power, its whine losing pitch, its glow beginning to fade.  “No!” Elizabeth said, rushing to the cells, but she didn’t know what to do.  “Alistair, fix it – don’t let it stop!”

“The cells will only hold so much charge,” he answered, coming after her.  “A man is not a dog—“

As to dispute him, Charles threw back his head and howled, the muscles in his neck contorted with the strain.  His head thrashed back and forth against the table, his lips drawn back over his teeth.  The medic screamed like a woman as the creature lunged against the restraints, one powerful arm coming free.

“Turn it off!” Elizabeth cried.

“Elizabeth!” Alistair shouted, appalled, as the creature groped for her, breaking through the cage of glass and metal.  The surgeon dove for the controls, ripping at the wires, his hands burning as he grabbed the still-glowing copper.  “Sergeant, for God’s sake, help her!”

“My lady, come back!” the medic said, rushing forward.  He tried to grab hold of her with one hand as he aimed his rifle with the other, but she dodged him, pushing him away.  In the same moment, the creature on the table broke free.  He flung the cage that surrounded him away in a shower of sparks and breaking glass, howling and snarling like a wolf at bay.  Elizabeth screamed as he caught hold of the medic and shook him like a rag doll, the rifle firing wild as he dropped it on the floor.

“Charles, no!” she screamed again as he wrapped a hand around the medic’s throat and squeezed, snapping his neck like a reed.

“Elizabeth, get back!” Alistair ordered, drawing his pistol.

“No!”  She moved to grab for him, but the creature was faster.  Raising a heavy section of the apparatus that had saved him in both hands, he turned on the man who had been his dearest friend and broke the metal framework over his head.  Alistair staggered, the pistol falling from his grasp.  “Charles!” Elizabeth cried, but she could not seem to move; her legs had turned to water.  The creature raised the last broken pipe he still held and hit Alistair again, a sideswipe to his skull that sent him crashing to the floor.

“Charles.”  He turned to her, panting, his face still drawn with pain.  His dark brown hair was wet with sweat and falling in his eyes, and his head was lowered, his shoulders hunched – an animal at bay.  “You’re safe.”  Trembling, she made herself move closer.  “The worst is over, darling.”  He still held the broken pipe, now wet with Alistair’s blood.  “You have come back to me.”  He looked confused, a child lost in the dark, and she smiled, tears spilling down her cheeks.  “It will be all right.”  Moving slowly, she reached for the twisted web of copper still wrapped around his waist.  “No one will hurt you any more.”  He drew in a sharp breath as she touched him, his fist tightening around the pipe, but he didn’t move to fight her as she unwrapped the web and dropped it at their feet.  “I love you so much.”  She laid her palms against his chest, and he flinched, a tremor racing through him.  “I love you.”  She pressed her open mouth to his skin, the hard plane of muscle just over his heart.  She could feel his heart beating, stronger and stronger, feel his flesh warming under her hands, and she moved closer, curling against him, making a sound between a laugh and a sob.  He was alive.

He dropped the pipe and scooped her off her feet.  Making a sound that was almost like words, he kissed her, his mouth rough and clumsy on hers, his tongue pushing inside, and she tasted him, meat and metal, not revolting but different, not the taste she knew but somehow like it.  He carried her across the room and shoved her back against the broken plaster wall, and she felt a sharp stab of pain in her side.  “Elizabeth.”  His voice was thick and slurred, barely intelligible, barely human.  But it was her Charles’ voice, speaking her name.

“Yes.”  She caressed his cheek, framing his face in her hands.  “Your own Elizabeth.”  She kissed his mouth, drawing his lower lip between her teeth.  She was bleeding from her side, hot and wet, but she barely noticed, barely felt the pain.  He lowered his face to her shoulder, sniffing her flesh like a dog as he ripped at her clothes, baring her breasts.  Hunched over her, he wrapped his arms around her, one powerful forearm under her behind to lift her up, his mouth coming down on her breast, suckling like a child.  “Yes,” she repeated, faint with sudden, fiery want.  His touch was as rough as his kisses, and she gasped as his hand found her cunt.  He groaned low in his throat, and she felt his cock against her hip, hard and strange.  She trailed her fingertips along his side, across his stomach, and finally down over his hip, trembling with fear and fascination as she traced the seam where he had been remade.  He grabbed her wrist so hard she cried out, but she didn’t try to pull away.  He looked down at her, awareness dawning in his deep blue eyes.  He kissed her mouth again, more tenderly, more sure.  She wrapped her hand around his cock and guided him inside her.

He drew his breath in sharply, closing his eyes, and his arms tightened around her.  She braced her hands against his shoulders as he drove upward, pushing her up the wall, then wrapped her legs around his hips.  His bare skin felt hot against hers, as hot as ever in his life, and though the cock inside of her felt strange, his rhythm was familiar, a long, slow build that carried her passion with his.  She watched his face and nearly cried, the way his brow was knit in concentration was so much the way she remembered.  She pressed her cheek to his, her arms around his neck.  “My love . . .”  He quickened his pace, shifting her closer, his hips ground to hers, and the sharp thrill of her climax broke inside her.  She cried out, and he groaned, driving her harder against the wall, and she felt him come as well, the wet burst cooler than life and vaguely shocking, making her shiver.  She lay her head down on his shoulder, clinging tight, and he cradled her close for a long, sweet moment.  A sob escaped her as she pressed her face to his throat, her arms wrapped tightly around him.  Still holding her against him, he sank to the floor, and she curled close in his lap.

“Elizabeth . . .”  His voice was still strange but more tender.  He cradled her jaw in his palm, turning her face up to his.  He smiled down on her, haunted but alive.  “Thank you.”

“My sweet darling,” she said, laughing with relief.  Her face pressed to his chest, she felt his arms enfold her.  She knew they were safe.

“Elizabeth.”  Alistair was coming toward them, his head and neck and collar soaked with blood, his pistol aimed before him.  “Get out of the way.”

“Alistair, no,” she said, trying to struggle to her feet.  He was coming closer, stepping over the dead medic.  “Please, stop.”  Charles stood up, lifting her easily.  “Wait, both of you,” she protested as he set her to one side.

“It is a monster,” Alistair was saying, his eyes bright as if with fever.  “It must be destroyed.”  The pistol was shaking in his hand.  Charles snarled at him, taking a step forward.

“No!” she screamed, throwing herself between them.  The pistol shot ripped through her, a bolt of lightening through her chest.  She fell forward, clutching at Charles, an icy cold spreading inside of her, hot blood pouring from her breast.

“Dear God,” she heard Alistair say from behind her, a dull thud as the pistol hit the floor.  “Forgive me . . . .”  Then everything went black.

ššššššššššššššš

            When she opened her eyes, a man was bending over her – a demon.  Fire was consuming her; she was in hell.  She screamed, struggling in bonds that held her down, desperate to escape.  Searing, stabbing pain raced down her limbs, making them jerk without her will, and she whipped her head from side to side, gnashing her teeth in fury.  How dare they? she screamed inside her head, but the words would not come; she could not make them form inside her mouth.  As quickly as the thought was born, it died, lost inside a wild, animal rage.

“Peace, love,” the beautiful demon was saying, words that just barely had meaning.  Just outside the range of her vision as she fought, she could hear another creature sobbing, begging for . . . . something . . . . what did this mean, forgive me?   The fire was fading, the pain becoming less, but her confusion was growing.  The man bending over her was unfastening her bonds, and she began to cry.  “Come back to me.”  He kissed her, lifting her up in his arms, kissed her eyelids and her cheeks, and suddenly she knew him.

“Charles.”  Her voice was barely more than a rasp, but he heard her.

“Yes,” he said, smiling.  She looked down at her chest and saw a long, jagged line of black stitches.  He touched her chin and turned her face to his.  “And you are Elizabeth.”

The end