Annette remained silent. Bones's tone hardened.
"An attack against a member of my line is the same as an attack against me, so I'm no longer asking you as your friend. I'm commanding you as your sire to tell me who did this."
With those last three words, Bones unleashed his aura, and the weight of his power filled the room. This wasn't the tingling caress of sensations I'd felt from him earlier, but chilling waves of building pressure and crackling currents, like being in the center of an ice storm. Anyone undead within a hundred-yard radius would feel the force of Bones's aura, but most especially those tied to him through blood, as Annette and I were. She flinched as though he'd struck her, her champagne-colored gaze flickering between Bones and the floor.
"Crispin, I . . . I can't," she said at last, bowing her head. "I told you, I don't know."
Anger pulsed in palpable waves from Bones, showing that he didn't believe her. I was torn. Aside from one incident with me when we first met, Annette was as loyal to Bones as the day was long. She was still in love with him, too, and probably always would be. So why would she defy him over someone who'd tortured her? That was beyond my comprehension.
Unless she thought she was protecting Bones by her actions? I'd thrown myself in front of a few metaphorical trains for that reason. If Bones was right and Annette did know her attacker, maybe she thought whoever sliced and diced her was too powerful for Bones to take on in retaliation.
"Let's get her back to the house," I said, placing my hand on his arm to soothe away some of that furious energy. "We can figure out our next move there."
Bones gave Annette a look that promised he wasn't done with this discussion, but he swept his hand toward the door.
"All right, Kitten. After you."
To give us some privacy, Spade, Denise, Mencheres, and Kira went back to the guest cabin instead of rejoining us at our home. We hadn't needed to update everyone on what happened. With their hearing, they'd gotten the full scoop while guarding the perimeter of the inn. Annette, Ian, Bones, and I filed back into my house, where the balloons, confetti, and banners now seemed out of place with our new, somber moods.
"Look at all these lovely gifts," Annette remarked.
"All I want to hear from you is a name," Bones cut her off. "Stop acting as though nothing happened and give it to me."
Annette flounced onto the couch with none of her usual grace. "I told you. I've never seen him before."
Bones sat on the couch across from her, stretching out his legs as though getting ready for an extended nap. "If that were true, you would have given me his description straightaway instead of trying to convince me that you don't know who he is."
"Not to mention you wouldn't have let him in, and you would've fought instead of lying quiet while he carved into you," Ian added, ignoring the dirty look Annette shot him.
Both men had very good points.
"You're wasting your time hoping Bones will let this go," I chimed in. "No self-respecting Master would allow the torture of one of his people to go unpunished. You told me that yourself a long time ago."
Under these admonitions, Annette should have folded. Everything we'd said was true, and she knew it. Yet when I saw her lips compress together, I could tell she still wouldn't budge even though it made no sense.
Fabian materialized in the center of the room. "There's a vampire in the woods!"
I immediately jumped to my feet, going to our nearest cache of weapons. Ian didn't seem interested in armoring up first. He started toward the door.
The single word came from Bones. He hadn't moved from his position on the couch, his lean body still sprawled as if totally relaxed. I knew better. The tension exuding from his aura made the air feel thicker.
"I hoped we'd be followed here," Bones went on in that same quiet, unyielding voice. "Now we don't need Annette to tell us who her attacker was. We'll find out for ourselves."
"Crispin, wait," Annette began, alarm crossing her features.
"You had your chance," he said shortly. Then he glanced at Ian and nodded in Annette's direction. Whatever else she was about to say was cut off when Ian slapped his hand over her mouth. Only faint, muffled grunts came from her as Ian settled on the couch behind Annette, dragging her tight up against him.
"Don't fret. She'll stay quiet like a good girl, won't you, poppet?" Ian drawled in her ear.
Annette's grunts now sounded furious, but there was no way she could overpower Ian. That was also why I wasn't too worried about our uninvited guest. Either he was suicidal, or he had no idea that he was sneaking up a hill where there were several Master vampires, one of whom could rip his head off with merely his thoughts.
"Fabian, you only saw one vampire?"
The ghost bobbed his head. "On the lower half of the hill."
Must be why the others didn't sense him yet. Our house and guesthouse were on the highest point of this hill, deliberately less accessible to any passersby.
"Kitten, come with me," Bones said, rising at last. "Fabian, tell the others to stay inside and talk as though nothing's amiss."
I finished strapping more silver knives to the sheaths lining my arms. Wooden stakes would've been cheaper, but those only worked in the movies. Then I threw a coat on, not for warmth against the frigid November evening but to conceal all my weapons.
"Ready," I said, my fangs popping out of their own accord.
Ian snorted. "Appears as if Christmas has come early for you, Cat."
I glowered at him, but the exhilaration coursing through me must be evident from my aura. I hadn't wanted a knife-happy intruder to crash Bones's birthday party, but it had been weeks since I'd indulged in a little ass-kicking. Who could blame me for wanting to show this vampire what happened to anyone coming around my house looking for trouble?
"Remember we need him alive, luv," Bones said. His gaze flared emerald with his own form of predatory anticipation. "For now at least."
Frost-coated leaves crunched underneath my feet as I walked through the woods. My strappy heeled sandals were the worst choice of footwear for any normal person navigating these steep hills, but vampires had great reflexes and couldn't catch cold, so I hadn't bothered to change my shoes. Plus, if it made me look more vulnerable to whoever was prowling out here in the dark with me, so much the better.
Bones was somewhere flying above, but I didn't see him, due to his clothing blending against the night sky, or him being too high up. I didn't see Fabian or his ghostly girlfriend, either, but I knew they were out here, ready to notify our friends if our prowler turned out to have an entourage. We'd guarded the location of our Blue Ridge home from all but close friends and family, yet if one enemy had found us, others might have, too.
Twigs snapped about a hundred yards to my left. I didn't jerk my head in that direction, but continued on my way as if I were out for a leisurely midnight stroll. I doubted our trespasser would fall for the act, but he had to be somewhat stupid or he wouldn't have attacked Annette while Bones was within striking distance. No Master vampire worth their fangs would stand for that.
More crackling noises sounded, too close for me to pretend not to hear them anymore. I turned in that direction, widening my eyes as if I hadn't already noticed the shadowy figure lurking behind the trees.
"Is someone there?" I called out, edging my tone with worry.
Laughter rolled across the cold night air. "You'd make a terrible horror-movie he**ine. You neglected to hunch your shoulders, clutch your coat, and bite your bottom lip ever so tremulously."
His accent was English, and his manner of speaking sounded more like Spade and Annette's aristocratic dialect than Bones and Ian's less formal vernacular. Shoulder-length blond hair caught the moonlight as he stepped out from behind the trees.
It wasn't his looks that made me stare, though the vampire's chiseled cheekbones and finely sculpted features reminded me of Bones's flawless beauty. Or his height, and he had to be at least six two. It was his shirt. Lace spilled out from under his coat sleeves to almost cover his hands. More of that frothy white stuff gathered at his neck and hung midway down his chest. I almost forgot to scan him for weapons, it was so distracting.
"Are you serious?" I couldn't help but blurt. "Because RuPaul would think twice before wearing that in public."
His smile showed white teeth without any hint of fang. "A nod to my heritage. I drew the line at the tights, though, as you can see."
He wore black jeans, so yes, far more modern than his top. The jeans also showed off the silver knife strapped to the vampire's thigh, but aside from a long wooden walking stick, that was the only visible weapon he carried. Didn't mean it was the only weapon he had; all my best stuff was hidden, too.
"Let me guess. You're lost?"
I started to close the distance between us. Although he didn't have a speck of blood on him, chances were I was looking at Annette's attacker. His aura marked him as a couple hundred years old, but I wasn't afraid. Unless he was cloaking his power, he wasn't a Master, which meant I could wipe the floor with him.
The vampire appraised me in the same way I looked him over; thorough, assessing, and unafraid. All the while, that little smirk never left his face.
"Beautiful, aren't you, though I don't care for the short hair. You'd look lovelier with long, flowing red locks."
Something about him seemed familiar, even though I was sure we'd never met. His cockiness would certainly make him memorable.
"Yeah, well, I got my hair styled by inferno three weeks ago, so it's still growing back," I said flippantly.
If I wasn't a vampire, I wouldn't have hair at all after being nearly burned to death, but undead regenerative abilities meant I didn't need to invest in wigs. Or skin grafts, thank God.
"So, you want to talk more?" I went on. "Or should I just start whipping your ass for trespassing and probable assault?"
I was now close enough that I could see his eyes were the color of blueberries, but he didn't react in anger. Instead, his grin widened.
"If you weren't my relation, I'd be tempted to take you up on your flirting."
The idiot thought I was hitting on him? That annoyed me into missing the first part of his sentence, but then I froze.
"What do you mean, relation?"
The only family I had aboveground consisted of an imprisoned vampire father, a ghostly uncle, and a newly-undead mother. Yet the conviction in his tone and the steady way he held my gaze had me wondering if he was telling the truth. Good Lord, was it possible that my father wasn't the only vampire in my family ancestry?
He traced a line in the dry leaves with that long stick, his brow arching in challenge.
"Haven't figured it out yet?" He gave a mock sigh. "Thought out of everyone, you'd be most attuned to the similarities, but appears not."
Word games weren't the right move with me. I gave his long blond locks and intentionally outdated shirt a withering glance. "If you're trying to double as Lestat, then sure, you nailed it with the similarities."
He snorted. "Thick little kitten, aren't you?"
Something dark dropped down behind him, but before the vampire could whirl around to defend himself, he was enveloped in a punishing embrace. Moonlight glinted off the blade Bones held to the vampire's chest.
"No one calls my wife that but me," he said in a deadly, silken voice.
The vampire twisted in a futile attempt to free himself, but iron bars would've been easier to pry off. His thrashing drove the tip of Bones's knife into his chest, darkening that white lacy shirt with crimson. More struggling would only shove the blade deeper, and if that silver twisted in his heart, the vampire would be dead the permanent way. He stilled, craning his neck to peer back at the man restraining him.
In that moment, seeing their faces so close together, the first inkling of realization slammed into me. It seemed impossible, but. . .
"Bones, don't hurt him!" I said, reeling at the implications. "I - I think maybe this isn't about Annette's attack."
The vampire shot me an approving look. "Not so thick after all, are you?"
Bones didn't move the blade, but his hand tightened around the hilt of the knife. "Insult her again and those will be your last words."
A pained laugh came out of the vampire. "Here I thought teasing one's relation was normal."
"Relation?" Bones scoffed. "You're claiming to be a member of her family?"
"Not by blood, but by marriage," the vampire said, drawing each word out. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Wraith, and I'm your brother."
Shock washed over Bones's face. Wraith seemed more urbane, even with a knife protruding from his chest.
"Lies," Bones finally said. "My mother had no other children aside from me."
"She didn't," was Wraith's reply. "Your father did."
Bones still looked thunderstruck, but his grip didn't loosen. "My mum was a whore. There's no way she could've known who my father was."
"Your mother was Penelope Ann Maynard, who did indeed become a whore. But not until after she bore the Duke of Rutland's illegitimate son. That son was raised in a London whorehouse and sentenced to deportation for thievery in 1789. He died in the New South Wales penal colonies a year later, but he didn't stay dead." Wraith's gaze slid to the man behind him. "Any of this sound familiar to you?"