A Family AffairKaren Chance / Fantasy
A Family Affair
Copyright 2011 Karen Chance
Thank you for thinking about reading my story. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you start:
1) This is not, nor is it intended to be, a novel-length work. It is a novella, part of a series of bonus features designed to accompany my Cassandra Palmer urban fantasy books. A full list of the extra stories can be found at http://www.karenchance.com/freebies.html.
2) Since this story was written for those already following the Palmer series, it assumes knowledge on the reader’s part of the basics of Cassie’s world. If you don’t have it, you will almost certainly find some parts to be confusing.
3) Chronologically, this story comes between Curse the Dawn (Cassie Palmer #4) and Hunt the Moon (Cassie Palmer #5). Reading it before that point in the series will result in spoilers, including at least one major one.
4) As with the books, this story is not intended for children.
If you’re still here after all that, then welcome aboard. Hope you enjoy the trip!
A Family Affair
The double doors were painted white with gold trim and had fussy gold door handles. They also had one of the new, high-priced protection wards with none of the traditional potion stench or oily residue. Or any protection worth a damn, John thought darkly.
He was scowling at it when something hard bumped into his back. He flung an arm across the doorway to keep himself from falling into the useless ward. “Wait a minute.”
“You wait a minute.” The impatient voice came from behind him. “This is heavy!”
“Then put it down.”
“I’m going to. Inside.”
John forced himself to count to ten. Guarding the pythia-elect, the woman soon to become the world’s chief seer, was no easy task. The fact that the supernatural community was currently in the middle of a war didn’t help. But it was her penchant for running headlong into trouble that regularly threatened his nerves—and his sanity.
“The wardsmiths haven’t been here yet,” he explained. “There’s only the standard protection.”
“So I know of at least a dozen ways around this particular type, and that is assuming the would-be intruder is human. Which considering your talent for making enemies, is by no means—”
“I’m about to rupture something,” he was informed, as the big, gaily wrapped box she was carrying smacked into the small of his back again. She had an uncanny ability to hit the same spot every time.
“We’ll add additional weight training to your routine,” he told her evilly, and threw a shield over one hand. He ran it cautiously over the doorway, checking for traps or the tell-tale holes in the ward’s surface that an intruder would likely leave behind.
“Pritkin, it’s a hotel room, not a death trap!” A glance over his shoulder showed him impatient blue eyes under a fall of messy blond curls. “Anyway, you’re here.”
“I can’t protect you from everything,” he forced himself to say, because it was true. It was also frankly terrifying in a way that his own mortality was not. He’d never had children, but he sometimes wondered if this was how parents felt when catching sight of a fearless toddler confidently heading toward a busy street. Not that his charge was a child, as he was all too uncomfortably aware. But the knowledge of just how many potentially lethal pitfalls lay in her path sometimes caused him that same heart-clenching terror.
And the same overwhelming need to throw her over his lap and spank the living daylights out of her, he thought grimly, when she suddenly popped out of existence. “Cassie!”
His only answer was a loud groan from indoors. He ripped through the ward and bolted inside, gun drawn and heart in his throat. Only to see her staring in annoyance at six huge vampires lounging in the suite’s sizeable living room.
Marco, their leader, was a great bear of a creature, a foot and a half taller and at least ten stone heavier than the small woman facing him. But he was the one who looked alarmed. Possibly because she’d just appeared out of thin air barely a foot in front of him.
And she wasn’t backing up. “What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“It’s not my idea of fun, either, princess,” he told her defensively. “Master’s orders.”
“Oh, for—Casanova was just here!” she said, referring to the hotel’s manager. “He checked everything out this morning.”
Marco sneered. “Yeah. Like I’m gonna trust that pansy-waist incubus to check anything. Everybody knows what they’re good for.”
John ignored the unintended jab in favor of grabbing Cassie’s arm. “You’re not moving until I check it out.”
“We’re inside a vampire stronghold!” she said, thrusting the package at him.
He thrust it back. “That’s what worries me.”
She sighed and shoved the box into the nearest vampire’s gut instead. “Don’t drop it,” she warned, before turning her attention on his boss.
“Hey!” Marco protested as she tugged his polo shirt out of his pants and pushed it up, revealing an angry red scar bisecting a thick mat of black hair.
“I knew it!” She looked at him accusingly. “You aren’t healed.”
“Close enough,” he said, trying to pull his shirt back down.
He stopped when Cassie slapped his hands. Then her touch gentled, and she traced the ugly, livid mark with one finger. The simple movement sent an unexpected shiver along John’s spine, perhaps because he recalled what those soft little hands had once felt like on his own scars, moving over his skin…
He shook himself and shoved the image away.
Marco didn’t seem to be having the same reaction, but the obvious concern on her face brought a softer look to his. “I’m okay.”
“You almost died, Marco—less than two weeks ago,” she told him severely. “You are not okay!”
“I’m not planning on running any marathons. But I couldn’t stay in that damn hospital bed one more day. Those nurses are complete bastards.”
“Just because they wouldn’t let you bring in vodka and cigars.”
“Or my laptop.”
“And why did you need a laptop?”
He looked shifty. “You know, for games. And…stuff.”
Cassie rolled her eyes. “You needed to rest.”
“That is resting!”
She gave up with a little snort and started for the bedroom. John had anticipated that and stepped in front of the door. “Shift inside and I will make your life hell,” he said pleasantly.
“You sound like I’m about to run headlong into danger—”
“As you just did? As you always do?”
“—when you know the room has already been checked out. Twice.”
He crossed his arms and didn’t budge. He’d found out the hard way—give the woman an inch and she’d shift to another continent when he wasn’t looking. She was the oddest combination of contradictions he’d ever met: innocence and sensuality, candor and diplomacy, anxiety and utter fearlessness. He hadn’t even begun to figure out how her mind worked.
But she was damn well going to live long enough for him to try.
She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “This is ridiculous! I’m not going to live my life in constant fear, do you understand?”
“Better than not living it at all,” he snapped. And for once, he received a semi-sympathetic glance from Marco.
Cassie threw her hands up in a gesture that reminded him vaguely of someone, although he couldn’t place it. “Fine,” she said, obviously annoyed. She took the heavy package back from the vamp, probably so she would have something to complain about later.
“We already did that,” Marco said mildly, as John pushed open the bedroom door with his foot.
“And now I’m doing it again.”
Marco bared a lot of gleaming white teeth, several of which were pointier than they should have been. But he didn’t argue. They each had abilities the other lacked, and there was a chance a mage might detect something his men had missed. And whatever else John might think about the creature, it was clear that he took his job seriously.
So did John, and he wasn’t happy about this latest move. The ongoing repairs from the hotel’s most recent disaster had forced Cassie to switch suites, requiring that all protection spells be redone and a new security workup be created. The extra labor was annoying, but the real issue was that it left worrying holes in the security net for however long it took for the wardsmiths to show up.
He went over the bedroom and attached bath twice, just to be sure, switching from Arcane to Druid to Fey magic to detect different types of spells. But it looked like the vampires had done their job. He didn’t find so much as a decayed eavesdropping charm.
As soon as he gave the all clear, Cassie pushed past him and staggered inside, carrying her precious burden. She dropped it onto the king-sized bed next to the panoramic view of the Vegas skyline, then collapsed beside it with a theatrical groan. An outside observer might have been forgiven for concluding that she was on her last leg, but John knew better. And sure enough, by the time he returned from checking out the rest of the suite, she was sitting cross-legged on the bed, trying to get the cherry red ribbon off the package.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Opening my gift.”
“You don’t know what it contains.”
“I didn’t find it on the doorstep,” she said impatiently. “Ming-de sent it to me.”
That did not reassure John greatly. Ming-de was a first-level master vampire and empress of the powerful Chinese court. More to the point, she was currently in a cut-throat competition with the Consul, the leader of the North American vampires. And Cassie was viewed by most vamps, however inaccurately, as one of the Consul’s chief supporters.
Vampires were a short-sighted breed when it came to getting what they wanted, or in most other ways. And he wouldn’t put it past Ming-de to try to weaken the competition by removing one of the Consul’s assets. Not to mention that he’d heard rumors of a long-running affair between the empress and Mircea, the vampire Cassie was currently dating.
“I’ll open it,” he said decisively, holding out a hand.
“Are you sure you don’t want to submerge it in the bathtub first?” she asked sarcastically.
“That’s not a bad idea.” He pulled it out of her hands.
“Stop teasing! It could be something delicate, like porcelain. Or…or silk.” She reached for it, her eyes hopeful.
“I will be careful,” he said patiently. “But I’ll open it in the next room.”
She looked like she planned to argue, but thought better of it at the last minute and flopped back onto the bed. He decided that he needed to run her around the track a few extra times every day. It cut down on arguments.
He took the package outside. Giving gifts to the pythia-elect was traditional, but it was yet another headache for her security. That was especially true in this case, when half the senders had been loudly denouncing her for a month, and a good portion of the rest had been trying to have her killed.
Under the circumstances, her guards had no choice but to open each and every package before Cassie saw it, looking for booby traps, poison and malignant spells. And that was after everything had been gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Casanova’s people in the lobby. But a brief perusal of this particular gift had his lips twitching.
It seemed that politics wasn’t the main thing on Ming-de’s mind.
He left most of the box’s contents in the front hall, re-entering the bedroom carrying something that resembled a thin soft drink can. He handed it to Cassie, who took it, looking puzzled. “What is this?”
She blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“It’s made from the oral secretions of a certain type of bird. They build nests out of it.”
Cassie examined the can as if she thought he might be making the whole thing up. “Ming-de sent me bird spit?”
“They sell it in the salon downstairs,” Marco chimed in. “I think they harvest it somewhere in the mountains in China. I hear it’s pretty hard to get because the birdies nest so high up.”
“Why would anyone bother?” Cassie asked, looking revolted.
“It’s good for the skin,” John said, waiting for it.
“It’s supposed to improve the look and texture of the skin.”
Cassie’s frown took on a new quality as the implication set in. “Ming-de sent me bird spit because she thinks I have bad skin?”
“I thought women liked cosmetics,” he said innocently.
“She sent me a case, Pritkin!”
He started to reply, when a presence slammed into him, hard enough to send him staggering. It was the buzz that came from a powerful demon, and there was no question which one. The familiar, hated aura was like a prickle of acid against his skin.
“Pritkin?” Marco’s amused dark eyes went suddenly sharp. But this wasn’t something any vampire could fix.
“I just recalled…an errand,” he said, his breath hitching on a snarl. And then he was out the door, before Cassie could figure out that a much bigger threat than a spurned lover had just arrived.