Wolfsbane and mistletoe, p.9
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       Wolfsbane and Mistletoe, p.9
 

           Charlaine Harris
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
Chapter Nine

  Christmas Past

  Keri Arthur

  Keri's an Aussie gal who grew up sharing her life with dragons, elves, vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, and the occasional talking horse. Which worried her family to no end. Of course, now that she's actually making a living sharing her life with the aforementioned creatures, they no longer contemplate calling the men with the short white coats. When not at her keyboard, Keri can be found in front of the TV, or taking her two dogs for a walk.

  Normally, I love Christmas.

  I love decorating my scrawny little tree with tinsel and ornaments, and hanging Christmas lights in every available corner of my one-bedroom apartment. I love making eggnog and baking Christmas gingerbreads, and the way Christmas cheer suddenly fills the usually dour offices of the Para-investigations squad. I even liked battling the Christmas hordes to get the latest "must-have" present for my niece and nephews.

  And I'd been looking forward to all that and more this year to make up for the crappiness that had been last year's Christmas. But it was all starting to go sour again, and it had a whole lot to do with my current situation.

  For a start, it's hard to feel very Christmassy when you're standing in an elf costume in the middle of a snowstorm freezing your ass off.

  And okay, it wasn't exactly a snowstorm - more like a steady sprinkling of the wet white stuff - but when I was dressed in a silly green outfit that wasn't even fur-lined like a Santa costume would have been, and wearing stupid pointy shoes that jingled annoyingly every time I moved, it might as well have been a storm. Warmth just wasn't happening.

  But the snow wasn't the worst of it. I could probably have handled the snow and the cold and the non-appearance of anything resembling a bad guy, if it weren't for the six-foot, broad-shouldered, dark-haired presence standing deep in the shadows of a doorway ten feet to my left.

  That presence just happened to be Brodie James, werewolf expert and chief investigator for the Para-investigations squad. Owner of a killer smile and a body designed to inspire lust.

  And the man who had dumped me without warning precisely one year ago.

  I blew out a breath and rang the bell with more force than necessary. The cheery sound pealed out across the darkness, but did little to attract the attention of the strangers who scurried past. On a night like this, all anyone wanted to do was get inside. Giving to charity wasn't even hitting their radar.

  Hell, the fiend who was murdering Christmas collectors probably had more sense than to come out on a night like that.

  Which meant my standing there as bait was every bit as useless as it was feeling.

  "Ring that bell any harder, and you'll probably break it," Brodie said, his warm, rich voice filled with amusement.

  It was a sound that had filled far too many of my dreams over the last year.

  I didn't answer him. I might have to work with the rat on this case, but I didn't have to talk to him any more than necessary. I suppose I just had to be thankful he'd been out of the state on other cases for the better part of the year. I would have had to ask for a transfer if I'd had to deal with him day in and day out.

  And that would have been a damn shame, because I actually liked being a part of the squad. When I wasn't standing out in a snowstorm freezing my ass off, that was. And it was certainly a job that suited my talent for sensing "evil" in people - human or not. The squad was a small pision of the FBI, and we handled any case that held even the remotest hint of paranormal activity. Humans might have accepted the presence of vamps, werewolves, and the other things that went bump in the night, but they sure as hell didn't like getting involved with them. And the cops were very quick to handball anything mystical.

  Of course, I was human myself, but my talents had always made me feel like an outsider within my own race. Although Brodie dumping me so suddenly hadn't exactly made me feel wanted by the non-humans.

  "You have to talk to me eventually," he said, shifting position slightly. His rich, spicy aroma stirred through the cold air, bringing on memories of the long nights I'd spent in his arms, breathing in that very same scent.

  I rather violently rattled the tin at a woman running past. She shook her head without even looking at me. It was just as well I wasn't a proper collector - the children's charity wouldn't be doing very well out of me.

  "What if I say I'm sorry?" he added eventually.

  "What if I tell you I don't care?" I snapped back, kicking myself mentally for actually breaking my vow of silence, but unable to hold back the words regardless.

  "I wouldn't believe it. "

  I turned around, eyeing the darkness that held him so completely. "Last Christmas, I cared. This Christmas, I just want to catch our murderer so I can get out of this stupid costume and the snow that is freezing bits of me off, and go enjoy being with my sister and her kids. "

  I swung away, presenting my back to him again. Which really wasn't a good thing, because I could still feel his gaze on me. Could feel the heat of it travel up my cold length, warming the ice from my bones and making my pulse skip and dance.

  Where the hell was a murdering Christmas fiend when you really wanted one?

  "It's nearly midnight," Brodie said. "Given that our murderer hasn't shown an inclination to attack and drain anyone after the magic hour, what do you say to us going to find a cafe and some coffee?"

  "I'd prefer to go straight back to my apartment. " Spending more time than necessary in this man's company was not a good idea. I might not want to talk to him, but there were bits of me that would have been happy to do a whole lot more.

  "Come on, Hannah," he said softly, in that sweet, oh-so-sexy tone that could charm the pants off a virgin. At least, it had charmed the pants of this former virgin. "Tomorrow's Christmas Eve. How about showing a little Christmas spirit?"

  "Would this be the same Christmas spirit you showed when you dumped me without a by-your-leave?" I said, ever so nicely.

  "Ouch," he muttered. Then added, "Did I mention I was sorry for that?"

  "I still don't care. "

  "Did I mention I realize I was an ass, but things got so crazy so quickly - "

  "I'm still not caring," I interrupted, feeling like a broken record.

  Another stranger appeared at the top end of the street. I rang the bell and he looked up briefly, his face ghostly in the darkness. He shook his head and huddled deeper into his coat, before crossing the road and walking down the other side of the footpath. Great, now prospective donors were avoiding me.

  That said a whole lot about my appearance. Or my mood.

  I took a deep breath and tried to look happy about the whole situation.

  I don't think I succeeded.

  "Look," Brodie tried again. "I'm a rat, I know, and I don't really have a good excuse for doing what I did. It was thoughtless and inconsiderate and I'd really like the chance to make it up to you. "

  No, I told my hormones, which were suddenly dancing at the thought of some hot Brodie action. Remember Christmas past? He's bad for us. We don't like him.

  Unfortunately, what came out of my mouth was, "Why?"

  "Because it's Christmas, and because I've missed you horribly. "

  Of all the damn things to say, I thought, as my treacherous heart did a little sideways lurch. It was just as well parts of me were still holding on to anger, otherwise I'd be putty in his hands. And oh, wouldn't his hands feel so good.

  "Yeah, you missed me so horribly," I replied, irritated at myself, "that you couldn't pick up a phone and talk to me. "

  "I did," he said mildly. "You hung up on me. Several times. "

  Oh. Yeah. "That was when I was in my hurt and angry stage. You should have tried once I'd rolled into my not caring stage. You might have had more luck. "

  "You've been saying you don't care for the last ten minutes, and I'm still having no luck. "

&
nbsp; "That's because I've now rolled into the no-longer-caring-but-aiming-to-make-you-grovel stage. It's just not your night, I'm afraid. "

  "Ah," he said, the deepening amusement in his rich tones making my toes curl ever so slightly. "And if I do grovel? Will that get you sharing a cup of coffee with me?"

  "No, because I can't stand men who beg. " The wind chose that moment to blast down the street. I hunched my shoulders against it and wondered if my legs were turning as blue as they felt.

  Maybe coffee was a good idea.

  No. He's bad for our health and we don't like him, remember?

  Across the street, the pale-faced stranger grabbed the fly-away ends of his coat and wrapped them around his body, his hands so white they almost appeared skeletal.

  Gloves, I thought, even as a chill ran down my spine. Had to be. No hands were that white, no matter how cold. Unless you were a vampire.

  My psychic radar hadn't yet sensed anything out of the ordinary, but I'd learned long ago never to ignore the little niggles of wrongness - and that man across the street definitely felt wrong.

  "Does he smell funny to you?" I asked Brodie softly.

  There was a sharp intake of breath, and I had a vision of his nostrils flaring, sucking in the scents of the night and rolling them across his taste buds, sorting and categorizing them. I'd seen him do it a hundred times in the few months we'd been together, and I found it as sexy now as I had then. Which was odd, because until I'd met him, I'd never considered nostrils to be remotely alluring.

  But then, the whole package connected to this man's nostrils was beyond fine.

  "He reeks of booze and cigarettes. " Another intake of breath. "And he hasn't washed for a few days, either. "

  "So he's not the scent you've caught at the last three crime scenes?"

  "No. " He hesitated. "It's similar, though, meaning he could be related to our killer. "

  "Being related doesn't mean he knows anything about the killings. "

  "Doesn't mean he doesn't, either. "

  The stranger lumbered sideways, crashing shoulder first into a wall. He muttered something I couldn't catch, then glanced over his shoulder.

  Our gazes met, and my psychic senses roared to life. There was no life in that blue gaze, but there was unlife. And hatred, so much hatred, mixed with anger, and the need to shed blood and taste revenge.

  But, deeper than that, there was evil. The sort of evil that likes to rip and tear and drain.

  "He may not smell exactly like our quarry," I whispered. "But I'm sure he's connected to these murders somehow. "

  The words were barely out of my mouth when the vampire snarled. I had a brief glimpse of shattered, broken canines, then he pushed away from the wall and started running. Brodie leapt out of the shadows, stripping off his clothes as he ran, his lean, powerful form shifting, changing, until what was running in front of me was wolf rather than human.

  A shiver ran through my soul. I'd seen him do that a hundred times, too, and I still found it awe-inspiring.

  "Wait for me!"

  But of course he didn't. He was a werewolf, after all, and few of them bothered with rules, regulations, or half-shouted requests unless it really suited them.

  I swore softly and threw the bell and collection box into the shadowed corner where he'd been standing, then grabbed the stakes and his clothes, and ran after him, the bells on my shoes ringing happily across the night with each step. I felt like a one-person Christmas band.

  We bolted up the road and around a corner. The suspect was fast, his spindly arms and legs pumping like a runner in a race, his black coat flying out behind him, looking a little like black wings. But for every step he took, Brodie was taking two or three and he was gaining fast.

  The vamp skidded left into a side road. Four seconds later, Brodie's sleek wolf form disappeared after him. I was six seconds behind them both, sliding around the corner in a jingle of bells, only to have to suddenly leap over the still-wolf form that was Brodie.

  "Where is he?" I said, standing beside him and frowning into the dark and silent side street.

  He shifted shape, then said, "I lost him. " He held up the stranger's black coat. "This is what I smelled. He was using it to cover his own scent. There's obviously some poor wino out there now freezing his nuts off. "

  "If he hasn't been drained. " My gaze met his. The green eyes were flat and annoyed. "How could you lose him?"

  "Because werewolves can't fly. "

  My gaze went skyward. All I saw was darkness and wet white stuff. "Vampires can't, either. "

  "Well, apparently no one told this murdering son of a bitch that. I should have stayed in human form and shot the bastard. " He grabbed his clothes and started dressing.

  "Shooting vamps doesn't kill them. "

  And this vamp had an execution order on him. While most non-humans had rights to courts, lawyers, and justice, vamps were the exception. When they killed, an execution order was placed on their heads. No ifs, buts, or maybes. It was our job to serve it - which was the one huge difference between our squad and the rest of the FBI.

  "It would have stopped him enough for me to catch the bastard. "

  "Trouble is, we only have my instincts saying he's connected to our vamp. He isn't our killer, because his canines were smashed and our victims had neat bite wounds. "

  "If you say he's connected, that's good enough for me. " Brodie caught my arm and swung me around, his fingers so warm they just about branded my arm. "But let's get this coat back to the labs so they can double-check. Then once we make our report, we can go get that coffee we were discussing. "

  "It's going to take more than coffee to make me talk pleasantly to you," I said as we walked - or in my case, jingled - back to his car.

  He raised an eyebrow, a smile breaking through the annoyance and tugging at his luscious lips. "What if I add the sweetener of cake?"

  I'm an idiot for even considering this. "Depends on the cake. "

  "Carrot?"

  I snorted. "Get real. It has to at least be triple chocolate. With fresh cream. "

  "Done. " He opened the car and ushered me inside, then he bagged the coat while I radioed headquarters, asking them to research flying vamps and where they might have come from. The boss wasn't too happy about us losing our quarry, but hey, when vamps decide to grow wings and fly, there wasn't a whole lot a werewolf and a human could do about it.

  Brodie started the car and turned the heater on to full. Cold air blasted down onto my toes, making them feel icier than ever.

  "Gee, thanks," I muttered, shifting my feet out of the way.

  "It'll warm up in a minute," he said.

  "I won't," I said, and wondered even as I said it just how true it was. I mean, he hadn't even gotten serious about trying to seduce me, and here I was about to go for coffee with him. If he went too much further, just how quickly would the ice in my soul melt?

  Too damn quickly. The specter of Christmas past, it seemed, wasn't the shield I was hoping it might be, despite all my defiant words earlier.

  "How are we going to catch a vampire who can fly? And how can a vamp even manage to do that?" I added, hoping work talk would distract my thoughts from the man sitting far too close.

  "It's likely he has shifter in his background. Not all vamps come from human stock, though it is the most common source. And we catch him by spotting him earlier, and chasing him harder. " He glanced at me as he ran an amber light. "You got a change of clothes back at headquarters?"

  "No. " Stupidly, I'd gone straight from home to the stakeout site. "Hopefully, we can get the reports done quickly so I can get home and get warm. "

  He glanced at me, and the twinkle in his eyes was all too familiar. Plans were being made, plans that undoubtedly involved me and nakedness. But all he said was, "How come you didn't sense what he was when he firs
t appeared?"

  "Because it doesn't always work like that. " I reached around and grabbed my coat from the backseat, wrapping it around my legs blanket-style but feeling no warmer. "I sometimes sense the evil in people very quickly, but it often takes something like eye contact to actually feel what they are. " I glanced at him. "But you know all that. "

  "Last case we worked together, you were getting squat about a guy who'd killed nine people. I thought maybe that was a sign that your psychic gifts were burning out. "

  Burnout was a problem in the squad - though it was often a case of the people burning out more than the actual gifts. So far it had not been a problem for me, but then, simply feeling the evil in someone's soul was a whole lot different from actually sharing their darkest dreams and desires - as some in the squad could.

  "It's hard to find the evil in someone's soul when they haven't got a soul," I said. "Just like it's hard to find someone's heart when they haven't got one. "

  "I have a heart," he said, keeping his gaze on the road. "I just didn't use it very wisely. "

  Ouch, I thought silently, and looked out the window. We drove the rest of the way in silence. Once back at headquarters, Brodie carted the evidence down to forensics, and I quickly typed up a report. There wasn't much to tell, so it didn't take long. We were in and out inside an hour.

  "Now, let's get that coffee," Brodie said, as he opened the car door for me.

  "I'd really rather go home," I said, shivering a little despite the thermal thickness of my coat. The building may have been heated, but it hadn't done a lot to chase the chill away from my skin. "Besides, I'm wet and I'm dressed as an elf. Not the sort of outfit any respectable person would wear to a nice cafe. "

  "Nonsense. You look lovely in it. " He slammed the door shut and climbed in the other side of the car. "And I promised you cake. I intend to keep that promise. "

  "Yeah, it would be this one," I muttered.

  He ignored me and drove out of the parking lot. I watched the world go by, half of me wanting to play it safe and go home, but the other half - the foolish half - wanting his company, however dangerous that might be to my emotional health. Unfortunately, the foolish half was winning the war.

  "Hey, we just passed a perfectly respectable-looking cafe. "

  "Is mere respectable going to gain me a smile?"

  "Not even triple chocolate cake with fresh cream is going to gain you that, my friend. "

  "My friend?" He glanced at me, eyebrows raised. "That's better than rat. Or what was it you called me the other day? During that brief moment you deigned to speak to me?"

  "I called you a stinking love rat," I muttered. "And let's not make this about what I've done. You're the one who left me, not the other way around. "

  "And I do believe I have apologized profusely for that. " He slowed down for a red light, then added, "And, technically speaking, the term love rat does not apply, because I have never loved anyone else. "

  Again my heart did that treacherous little lurch. Calm down, stupid. He didn't mean it that way. He left you, remember? That doesn't infer love in any way, shape, or form.

  "That's not what the office talk is. "

  "You should know better than to listen to office talk. After all, they had us married off within three weeks of us starting to date. "

  So did I. Of course, we'd only lasted a total of six weeks. I looked away and blinked back tears. Damn it, this is why it was a bad idea to speak to him.

  He pulled into a side street, and began to slow the car down. Old two-story houses rubbed shoulders with interesting little shops, but none of them resembled a cafe or anything actually open.

  "Here we are," he said, stopping the car in front of a pretty blue and white two-story building.

  "And where is here?" I asked, looking up at the window boxes filled with greenery.

  "Mom's," he said, and got out of the car.

  "What?" But I was talking to thin air. Or thick air, in his case. I waited until he opened my door and added, "I am not going inside to meet your mother. "

  Especially when she had totally disapproved of me and Brodie going out.

  "Well, good, because she's not there. No one is. They're all at my gran's for the night. "

  He took my hand and tugged lightly. I remained right where I was.

  "Then why are we even here? You know how your mom feels about me. "

  "That isn't a problem anymore, trust me. Besides, you wanted triple chocolate with fresh cream, and my mom bakes the best you'll ever taste. Come on. "

  He tugged harder, leaving me with little choice. With the bells on my feet ringing joyously, I untangled my legs from my coat and got out.

  "We need to get you some decent clothes," he said, his gaze sweeping me critically but still managing to leave me feeling all hot and bothered. "You look rather cold and wet. "

  He opened the gate and began leading me up the garden path. In more ways than one, I suspected.

  "That's because I am cold and wet. And I have perfectly decent clothes waiting for me at home. You need to take me back there. "

  "If I do, you won't come back here. "

  "So?"

  "So, all the progress I've made this evening will go sliding away, and I'll be back to being the rat. "

  "But you've never stopped being the rat," I said sweetly. "So what's the problem?"

  He laughed, a warm rich sound that slid across my skin as sensuously as a caress. He opened the door and waved me inside. I slid past and tried without success to ignore the tangy heat of him. The way my body ached to press forward just that little bit more, and feel all that heat against my skin.

  Hello, last Christmas? Remember that? Remember the whole he's a bad man and we don't like him spiel?

  I remembered. Unfortunately, I also remembered how good it felt being with him, and no matter how much I told myself I was just setting myself up for more heartache, I couldn't help the need to soak in the warmth of his presence one more time.

  You're a sap. And an idiot.

  And it's Christmas, and I'm lonely.

  It was dark inside the house, but the air was warm and smelled ever so slightly of baking. I sniffed lightly as I hung my coat up on the nearby hook. While the hints of ginger and vanilla were strong, they were underlined by an animal mustiness, and it was a strong reminder that this wasn't any ordinary house. That this was the abode of werewolves.

  He caught my hand, his fingers so warm against mine. "This way. " He led me up a set of stairs and into a bathroom. "There's clean towels on the shelf above the bath, and a clean robe behind the door. "

  "Brodie - "

  He stopped the words with a short, sharp kiss that left me breathless and yet wanting more. "I'll have coffee and cake waiting downstairs. "

  And with that, he left me standing there, staring in shock at the back of a door. This night was so not going to plan. Well, not to my plans, at least. It was becoming a little obvious that he had a whole lot more planned for his Christmas than just catching a killer.

  I blew out a breath and began to strip off. I had two choices - stay or leave - and as much as I knew it was a stupid move, I wanted the cake, and the coffee, and his company for a little bit longer.

  I might well be setting myself up for another crappy Christmas, but it was supposed to be the season of goodwill to all men, wasn't it? And Brodie was definitely a man . . .

  And I was reaching for straws in an effort to justify the stupidity of my actions.

  I shoved the thoughts away and took a shower, then donned my still-wet underwear. I'd rather risk getting a chill than being naked around Brodie. After wrapping myself up in the thick, fluffy gown, I finger-combed my short hair then I grabbed the sodden elf outfit and headed downstairs. Following his scent led me into the rich-smelling warmth of the kitchen.

  He was pouring cof
fee into a mug, and there were two huge slabs of cake already sitting on a tray.

  "Where can I dry these?" I asked.

  "Are they shrink proof?"

  "Well, they didn't shrink on me. "

  He smiled. It did my pulse rate absolutely no good whatsoever. "There's a clothes dryer through there," he said, nodding toward the door to the right.

  I shoved the clothes in the dryer, then headed back into the kitchen. "We eating here?"

  He shook his head. "In the living room. It's warmer. You want to grab the cake tray?"

  I did, and followed him out of the kitchen and into the living room. A huge log fire was the room's main feature, but it was the Christmas tree that drew my eye. It was big, lush, and totally without decoration, except for the fake snow that adorned the end of the dipping branches. It reminded me of a tree in the middle of a snow-swept forest, and maybe that was the whole point.

  "That kind of dwarfs my tree," I said, putting the tray down on the coffee table.

  "The tree you had last year had character," he commented, and offered me a mug.

  I smiled. "Both that tree and this year's are very sad representations of the Christmas tree. "

  He sat down on the sofa and patted the spot beside him. I retreated to the fire, standing with my back to it.

  Amusement teased his mouth. "So why buy them?"

  "Because they looked lonely. "

  His gaze met mine, green eyes holding touches of amusement and something else. Something that had my pulse skipping. Not lust. Something deeper. Stronger.

  "It's a rotten thing," he said softly, "being lonely at Christmas. "

  I didn't bite. I wanted to, but I didn't. I stepped away from the fire to avoid burning my butt, and picked up a plate of cake instead.

  "How are we going to catch this vampire before he kills again?" I spooned some cake into my mouth and felt my knees go weak. Damn, this was good chocolate cake.

  "The team is still working on possible locations given everything we've seen and I've scented at the crime scenes. If they find something, they'll contact us. "

  He leaned forward to pick up the other plate of cake, and my fingers suddenly itched with the need to run through his thick, dark hair. I gripped the spoon harder.

  "Other than that," he continued, "we just have to hope the bait plan works. "

  "It's difficult to catch someone when they can up and fly away. "

  "If it was that easy for him to shift shape, he would have flown the coop earlier. Are you going to sit down?"

  "Are you going to make any moves on me?"

  Again that sexy smile teased his mouth. "Do you want me to?"

  Yes, yes, yes. "No. "

  "Why not?"

  I just about choked on my cake. "Why do you think why not?"

  "Because I'm a rat?"

  "That would be a good start. "

  "Because I forgot to call you for Christmas?"

  "And my birthday. And Valentine's. "

  "That's true. I did, however, buy you presents for both. Does that count?"

  Yes. No. "Damn it, Brodie, stop. This isn't fair. " I shoved the half-eaten cake on the table and thrust my hands into my pockets so he couldn't see they were suddenly shaking.

  Because it wasn't fear. It was the need to reach out and touch him, caress him, love him. Just like we used to. Just like I dreamed of on so many of those long nights I'd spent alone.

  He placed his plate back down then rose. Only the coffee table separated us. Only the coffee table stopped me from stepping into the sweet strength of his arms.

  "I know it's not fair," he said softly. "But I never intended it to be. "

  "But why?"

  The question was practically torn out of me, and he grimaced. "Because for the last month I've been trying to talk to you, and you've barely given me the time of day. "

  "And that surprises you?"

  "No. It's highly frustrating, though. "

  "Damn it, Brodie, this has to stop. I can't . . . " My voice broke a little. I stopped and took a deep, quivering breath. "I can't go through another Christmas waiting for you to call but knowing you never will. "

  He raised a hand and gently brushed my cheek with his fingertips. His fingers were so warm and felt so good against my skin that desire surged, making me tremble. And it was tempting, so tempting, to press into his touch. To ask for more than just that light caress.

  But that way lay heartache.

  I went to step back, away from him, but he must have sensed the motion. He caught the end of the robe belt and held it lightly. If I stepped back, the loose knot would undo.

  Part of me wanted to step back. Wanted to give in to the heat and power of what still lay between us. But the part of me that was still desperately clinging to sanity and reason made me hold still.

  "What if I promise never to make you wait by a phone again?" he said softly.

  My gaze searched his, saw the sincerity and the compassion and the hunger in the bright depths. I wanted to trust it - trust him - I really did. But I just couldn't.

  "I don't believe in promises anymore. I don't believe in you. "

  The words hurt him, as I knew they would. But the flash of pain in his eyes, and the lingering, aching regret in his expression gave me no sense of satisfaction at all. Because in truth, I didn't want to hurt him, and I didn't want retribution for all that he'd put me through. Part of me wanted to know why, but mostly I just wanted to get on with my life.

  A life that didn't involve him. Didn't involve the hurt or the pain that he'd brought into my life.

  "I've never promised you anything that I haven't delivered," he said eventually.

  Maybe not out loud, but in deed and action you promised me the world. And then you ran away. "You promised to call me the minute you got back from Chicago, Brodie. But you never did. "

  He blew out a breath and had the grace to look guilty. "There were reasons - "

  "It's too late for reasons," I cut in. Too late for us.

  "I refuse to believe that," he said, leaving me wondering whether he was answering the spoken or unspoken comment.

  Then he stepped around the table, wrapped his hand around the back of my neck, and dragged me forward, into his arms. And kissed me.

  This time, it wasn't a fleeting thing, but rather a long and erotic exploration that had my blood screaming through my veins and my heart threatening to jump out of my chest.

  And oh, it was good, so good, to be kissed like that again. Like this moment and I were the only things that mattered to him, the only things that would ever matter to him.

  It was a lie, of course, but one I was so ready to believe, even if only for this moment. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pressed myself against his long, lean length, until I could feel his every intake of breath. Feel the rigid hardness of his erection pressing against my stomach. Lord, he felt good.

  His free hand brushed my side, sliding teasingly past my breast. Something akin to electricity flashed through every nerve ending, and a low-down ache leapt into focus. Tiny beads of perspiration skated across my skin - moisture raised by the sheer heat of his body, and my own crazy longing.

  I knew I should step away, should retreat from the kiss and from all the tangled, unsettled emotions that it raised. But I couldn't. Call me weak, call me a fool, but the reality of this kiss was so much better than the dreams that I could only stand there and enjoy.

  It was just as well his cell phone chose that moment to ring, because we both knew where that kiss would have led otherwise.

  Brodie growled low down in his throat, a sound that seemed to echo through my lips and body, then pulled away, his breathing harsh as he dragged the phone from his pocket.

  "What?"

  To say he sounded annoyed would be an understatement. It was probably the closest thing I'd heard to a gr
owl from him when he was still in human form.

  His expression got darker as he continued to listen, and I knew without doubt it was work. I took a deep breath to regroup my thoughts and steady my riotous heart rate, then, rather determinately, tied a double knot on the dressing gown. It wouldn't stop him or me, but it was the action that mattered. It was a way of reminding my scattered self-control and exuberant hormones that I did have a choice, and that I could do what was best for me.

  Although after that kiss, I wasn't so sure what, exactly, that was right now.

  I picked up my coffee and moved back to the fire. I wasn't cold - far from it - but it was the farthest point away from him without getting too obvious about retreating.

  He hung up and made another low, growly sound.

  "Work?" I said, trying not to sound relieved and failing miserably.

  He gave me a dark look. "Yeah, there's been another murder. "

  My stomach sank. "But it's after midnight. "

  "I noticed. He obviously didn't. "

  "Why can't they send someone else? Why us?"

  But I knew the answer. The squad was a small one, and this was our case. And there was no such thing as standard hours or being off duty when it came to the Para-investigations squad.

  He simply said, "You want to get dressed?"

  "I really don't want to wear that elf costume - "

  "Well, Mom's clothes won't fit, because she's much bigger than you. So unless you want to wear the robe, we're stuck. "

  I swore under my breath and stomped out of the room. "We wouldn't have been stuck if you'd just taken me back home like I asked. "

  "But I wouldn't have had the chance to kiss you if I'd done that, now, would I?"

  "Not a snowflake's chance in hell," I muttered. I closed the laundry room door, then quickly pulled the clothes out of the dryer and got dressed. There was a thick pair of woolen socks sitting on top of some clean washing, so I took those and put them on before dragging on my wet shoes.

  He was waiting in the kitchen when I opened the door, and his gaze drifted down my length, heating me as quickly as any caress or kiss. "The white socks spoil the look. And they're my brother's. "

  "Well, your brother just donated them to my cold feet. Where are we going?"

  "The cemetery. "

  "So he didn't attack a collector this time?"

  "Nope. Gravedigger. "

  "They're digging graves at this hour of the night?"

  "Death doesn't stop just because it's almost Christmas, you know. "

  He placed his hand against my back and guided me out of the house. My feet jingled merrily as I clomped down the steps, suggesting a mood I couldn't reach and annoying the hell out of me. So I bent and ripped the stupid bells off.

  Silence fell. It was heavenly.

  We zoomed through the streets at record speed, and all I could do was thank the stars that there wasn't much traffic about at that hour.

  The cemetery's main gates were locked but that wasn't much of a problem to a werewolf. Once he'd broken the lock and opened the gates fully, we drove around to the left, following a road that was lined by bare rosebushes.

  "Who reported the murder?" I asked, eyeing the gravestone-filled darkness with some trepidation. Cemeteries were not a favorite place of mine. There were too many ghosts wandering about, and not all of them were the pleasant type.

  "It came in anonymously, and they weren't on the line long enough for a trace. "

  "No caller ID, then?"

  "Nope. "

  "Unusual. "

  "It could be, but a lot of folks don't want to get involved any more than necessary. "

  Especially when it came to non-human activities. Still, this time it niggled, and I had no idea why. He pulled to a parking spot and climbed out of the car. I grabbed the stakes and my coat, then followed suit, relieved that I'd torn the bells off my shoes. The jingle would have clashed against the somber feel of the cemetery.

  I slammed the door shut and moved to the front of the car. "Where is the body?" I said, my gaze sweeping over the varied headstones sitting in orderly soldier rows. There were no ghosts out there, and for that I had to be glad. I wasn't in the mood for their chatter tonight.

  His nostrils flared slightly, then he caught my hand in his and said, "It's this way. "

  I didn't question his certainty. He was a were, so if there was blood on the breeze, he'd be smelling it. But as we wound our way through the headstones, a chill began to creep across my skin and goose bumps formed.

  Something was out there.

  My steps slowed. "Brodie - "

  "I know," he said softly. "We're being paced at the moment. "

  "Can you smell what they are?"

  "No. They're slightly downwind. But I can hear their steps. " He squeezed my hand lightly, but if he meant it to be reassuring, then it failed miserably. "There's only one, so it won't be a problem. "

  "Maybe not for you, but I'm human. " And though I could fight, I still had nowhere near the strength or speed of a non-human. Which was a bummer when it was my job to fight the bad apples amongst them.

  "They have to get through me to get to you, and trust me, that's not going to happen. "

  I couldn't help smiling. Werewolves were so damn confident in their own fighting prowess it was sometimes scary. But at times like this, that was also damn comforting.

  The smell of fresh earth touched the cold night air, and within minutes we came across the body. He was lying on his back beside a tractor, right next to a freshly dug grave, and the look of shock frozen onto his face suggested he hadn't even seen his attacker. His neck had been slashed wide open by something jagged, but not much blood had seeped into the collar of his overalls and thick jacket. Someone - probably our vamp with the shattered canines - had sucked it all up.

  "Why would he be digging a grave at night? And without a light?"

  "There's a lot of non-humans doing this sort of stuff now, and many of them don't need lights to see at night. This guy doesn't smell human. " He released my hand and knelt beside the body. "The scent lingering here is the one I chased earlier tonight. But there's also a fainter scent that's the same as the one I found near the other victims. "

  "So we have two vampires, who may or may not be related, working together. " I studied the darkness surrounding us. "You think they could be hiding out here?"

  "Wouldn't be the first time vamps have made themselves at home in a cemetery. After all, that's where the legends of vampires rising from graves came from. "

  "But if our vamp tonight was hungry enough to attack this gravedigger, surely he would have attacked someone earlier? Hell, I was standing there looking more than a little cold and forlorn, and he showed no inclination to attack me. "

  "Maybe he sensed the anger in you, and figured you'd put up too much of a - "

  I didn't hear the rest of his sentence, because something long and thin leapt out of the surrounding darkness and came straight at me. I had a brief glimpse of a white face, then he was flying into me, knocking the stakes from my hand and sending the both of us crashing to the ground.

  I landed hard enough to leave me winded and briefly seeing stars. Stars that were quickly shattered by the growls of the vampire. His body covered my length and pinned me to the ground and the smell of him - earth and unwashed flesh - filled every breath. He snarled, revealing those shattered bloody canines, confirming our suspicions that he'd been the one to kill the gravedigger. And he intended to feed off me as well.

  Not that I was about to let him.

  I bucked in an effort to get him off, but he rode me like a bronco and laughed harshly - a sound that was abruptly cut off when my fist smashed into his face. I might be human, but I was strong, and my blow mashed his nose, sending blood flying.

  He growled low down in his throat, a sound that was su
ddenly echoed. Then he was gone from me, tossed into the night like so much rubbish, and Brodie was there, hauling me upright.

  "Are you okay?" he said, voice harsh and green eyes afire with anger and concern.

  "Yeah, I'm fine - "

  "Good. Stay here while I take care of that bastard. "

  "Brodie, no, wait - "

  Once again, I was speaking to nothing more than air. I rubbed my arms and studied the surrounding darkness. Whatever had been watching us before was still watching me now, and the feel of it made my skin crawl. It was an older evil than the one Brodie was chasing, and there was an odd sense of satisfaction coming from it.

  I shivered slightly and looked around for the stakes. I found one. I'm sure the other one was out there in the darkness somewhere, but I wasn't willing to go too far to find it. And while one stake might not help if whatever-it-was out there in the darkness attacked as suddenly as the first vamp had, at least holding it gave me some sense of security.

  With stake in hand, I knelt down beside the body and studied the poor man's neck. What a mess.

  So who'd reported his murder? Did this gravedigger have a partner who'd fled the scene, or was he also lying out there in the darkness with a savaged neck? If so, why hadn't Brodie scented him?

  And who the hell was watching me?

  I glanced at the surrounding gravestones, my heart pounding rapidly and the taste of fear in my mouth. I might have faced more than my fair share of bad guys over the years, but I was still human. Humans were easy kills for vampires, even one as well trained as me.

  God, Brodie, where are you?

  Why had he left me alone? Why hadn't he sensed that our other watcher was still out there? Or had his anger at me being attacked blocked out awareness of everything else?

  I blew out a breath, and tried to remain calm. But my knuckles practically glowed with the force of my grip on the stake, and every sense I had was tuned in the direction of the thing that still watched.

  Still oozed an evil that was making my senses and stomach squirm.

  I rose and walked around the body, heading for the tractor, to make sure we didn't have another victim waiting to be uncovered in the cabin.

  I didn't get more than five steps when I sensed the approach of evil. Before I could react, he hit from behind, smashing my face into the ground. Suddenly all I could breathe was dirt, and the panic that had already been stirring surged to new heights. I struggled with all my might, but a hand against the back of my head pressed me down harder. A scream rose up my throat, but it had nowhere to go, echoing through my mind instead.

  And then his free hand was on me, tearing at my clothes, caressing my skin, his flesh cold and clammy and horrid. I shuddered, fighting his touch, fighting him, with all my might, twisting and kicking and punching backward.

  He chuckled. A heated, lusty, and totally evil sound.

  Clothes tore. His fingers forced themselves underneath me, groping for a breast. I shuddered, fighting nausea and feeling more and more desperate for air.

  Stake, I thought, and groped blindly around me. My hand brushed against wood, and I grasped it frantically, my fingers tightening around it spasmodically as I lifted my arm and stabbed backward with all the strength I had left.

  I hit flesh, felt it give way. He roared in pain and jerked away. Not getting off, but giving me the freedom to move. To breathe. I gulped down air, my whole body shuddering with the effort.

  "Bitch!" The sound rode the air, harsh and forced. "For that, I will do you slowly, and then I shall let my brother suck you dry. No easy death for you, little girl. "

  "Your brother is dead," came a voice so flat, so deadly and so damn cold that for a moment I didn't even recognize that it was Brodie's, "as you soon will be. "

  Then the weight was off me, and I could move. I forced my trembling limbs into action and pushed up, the now-bloody stake still in my hand as I swung around.

  Brodie's powerful fingers were around the neck of a thickset man, and he was holding him off the ground by a good six inches or so. That took more strength than I could ever imagine anyone owning, but he didn't even seem to be exerting himself.

  The only sign of effort was in the whiteness of his fingers. Fingers that were ever-so-slowly squeezing the life out of my attacker.

  No quick death intended there, whatever he might have said.

  "Brodie - "

  "No one attacks you and lives," he cut in, his gaze not leaving the thickset man's. "No one. "

  There wasn't only anger in his voice, but possessiveness. It was the wolf speaking, and the wolf was protecting what belonged to him.

  Me.

  Normally that knowledge would have made my heart dance, but such a reaction seemed out of place when he was intent on slowly strangling his quarry in the middle of a graveyard. And the fact that this vamp entirely deserved it was beside the point.

  "Damn it, Brodie, kill him quickly. You're not him. I don't want you to be like him, or any of the others we kill. " Didn't want him to enjoy it, as the protector within undoubtedly was.

  His fingers moved, and a loud crack ran across the night. The vamp went limp, and Brodie released him, letting him drop to the ground like so much rubbish.

  "God, I'm sorry," he said, his voice soft and suddenly weary as he turned to face me. And the pain in his eyes, the fear still etched in his face, made my heart ache. "I'm so damn sorry - "

  I didn't let him finish. I ran into his embrace. Felt his arms wrap around me and hold me so tight. Arms that were trembling more than I was.

  "It's okay, I'm here, I'm safe. "

  "I thought my stupidity had taken you from me a second time. " His breath whispered heat past my ear. "I felt your fear echo through me. The thought of a life without you in it hit me, and I panicked. I can't live without you, Hannah. I don't want to live without you. "

  I broke free of his fierce grip, and stared into the glory of his green eyes. Seeing the honesty there. Seeing the love. Wanting to return it twofold, but still trapped by the hurt of Christmas past. "Yet you walked away for a year. I can't just forget that, Brodie. " And while I might have told him I didn't want a reason, that was a total lie.

  He sighed, and ran a finger lightly down my cheek. My body trembled in response, and it was all I could do not to step into his embrace again, to forget the past and just enjoy the promise of the present.

  But I couldn't. I owed my tear-soaked pillow more than that.

  "I was an ass - "

  "I think we've both agreed on that point," I said dryly. "The point we need to clarify is why. "

  He thrust a hand through his hair, then said, "We happened very quickly. I just wasn't ready for it. "

  "So you coped by running away? That's logical. "

  "Loving a human isn't logical. "

  "Me being a human isn't a reason, Brodie. It's an excuse. I need a reason. " Needed to believe he wouldn't do it to me again.

  He sighed. "You scared me. "

  I almost choked on my disbelief. "I scared you? You're the big bad hairy monster, not me. "

  He half smiled. "I never expected - or wanted - to fall in love with a human, Hannah. And my family certainly didn't appreciate the thought of me bringing a human into the pack. " He shrugged, his expression a little sheepish. "So I convinced myself it was nothing more than an infatuation, and walked away. "

  "Just like that," I said, and all the hurt and the pain of that time was suddenly right there in my voice. "So damn easily. "

  "It wasn't easy. It was never easy. " He grimaced, and suddenly his green eyes held a loneliness as powerful as anything I'd been feeling over the last year. "You have no idea how many times I picked up the phone to call you. No idea how many times I sat out in front of your place, practicing an apology. " He hesitated, and smiled ruefully. "And no idea how many times I came close to interrupting your dates an
d punching out whatever man you were with. It was that need to destroy the men you were dating that finally convinced me this was no mere infatuation. "

  "And you never thought to talk to me about any of this?"

  "I thought about it, trust me. But it's never easy for a werewolf to admit that they're wrong, especially in the face of such anger and hurt. And the longer I left it, the more certain I became that I'd made the biggest mistake of my life, the more afraid I became that apologizing wouldn't undo the damage and that I might have lost you forever. "

  "So why are you finally apologizing now?"

  "Because I think about you every day, and dream about you every night. We were never a mistake, no matter what I might have thought at the beginning, and what we have will never go away. I love you, Hannah. I need you. " He let his fingers run over my lips, making them tingle, then dropped his hand. "Please, tell me you'll forgive me. Tell me you'll give me another chance. "

  I stared at him for a moment, knowing there could only ever be one answer. That there had only ever been one answer from the moment he'd walked back into my life. I might not be able to totally forget the year of loneliness, or the pain he'd caused me, but what we had was worth fighting for.

  Rat or not, right or wrong, I wanted this man in my life.

  For Christmas.

  For ever.

  I blew out a breath, and said hesitantly, "I don't know, Brodie. " Tension flitted across his shoulders, and for a moment, utter bleakness shone in his eyes. I let a smile touch my lips, and added, "After all, I didn't even get to finish my chocolate cake. And there's still the matter of the missing Valentine's Day and birthday presents to be resolved. "

  He laughed - a sound so joyous, so happy, that goose bumps ran across my skin. He wrapped an arm around my waist and hauled me close. "What if I promise to bathe you in chocolate cake for the rest of your life?"

  I snuggled closer, letting the heat and scent of him flow over my skin and fill every breath. "That might be a step in the right direction. "

  "And give you two birthday presents for the next ten years?"

  "And at Christmas and Valentine's. I'm missing those, remember. "

  "It's a deal," he murmured, then his lips claimed mine, and he kissed me.

  It felt so good, so right. Like I was finally home, right where I belonged.

  Christmas past might have been a nightmare, but Christmas present and Christmas future were suddenly looking mighty damn fine.

 
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