Home for the Holidays

Page 5

"Keep your voice down," I reminded her, adding, "It's got to be Wraith. Everyone is acting, well, kinda mesmerized by him, except vampires can't mesmerize other vampires."

"True. Besides, we're not affected," Denise pointed out.

"Neither is Ian."

Fabian and his girlfriend, Elisabeth, also weren't, but ghosts were normally immune to anything that affected the living or the undead. I suppose I still could have some of that same immunity in my system due to my recently absorbing a voodoo queen's powers over the other side; my unprecedented status as a vampire who fed off of and absorbed powers from undead blood had thrown a monkey wrench into things before. But if Wraith had some sort of unknown snake-charmer mojo, then Denise and Ian should also be gathered around him in rapt attention. Not wondering, like me, about what was going on.

I waved the ghost over. "Fabian, what do you think?"

"I suspect magic," he replied. "I searched Wraith's room and found a bloody symbol drawn on the floor under a rug. Why would he do that and hide it, unless he had ill intentions?"

We were in agreement about that, but I wanted to be absolutely sure we weren't overreacting before I started conspiring with Ian. Maybe Wraith was just superstitious.

"I'm going back there and pulling Bones aside. Find out right now if this is all an act or not."

Denise touched my arm. "Be careful, Cat. If Wraith has . . . I don't know, bewitched everyone, then you'll tip your hand that you're onto him."

I sighed. "Fine, I'll be subtle. After I talk to Bones, if I say that I can't find my boots, you'll know it's not an act, so you'll need to play Stepford Wives along with everyone else."

"And what will you do then?" Fabian asked.

I smiled with a touch of grimness. "I'll meet Ian in Asheville, and we'll find a way to stop Wraith."

Chapter Seven

The six of them were still in their same spots in the family room when we came back inside. Denise went straight upstairs, but I pasted on my best hostess smile as I walked over to Bones, laying my hand on his shoulder.

"Pardon me, but I need to steal my husband away for a few minutes."

It took two tugs on his shoulder, but he finally glanced up. "Why?"

I kept my smile even though the question was curt. "Because, dear, I need your help with something."

"Whatever it is, I'm sure you can manage."

Ice raced up my spine. His expression was cold, and the look he gave me was the one I'd seen him bestow on enemies before a brawl that ended bloody. Never had I thought to be on the receiving end of such a glare from Bones, and the fact that it was over something so small made my sense of foreboding triple.

This wasn't just odd behavior. It was as if Bones had been replaced with a stranger.

I met Wraith's gaze, noting the surprise that flickered over his face before he covered it with a smile.

"I've monopolized everyone too long, I fear. I'll retire to my room for a bit."

Several instant protests met this statement, until Wraith held out his hands.

"Please, everyone. Attend to your lovely ladies. I'll see you later."

As if a switch had been flipped, Bones turned to me and smiled, his expression warm. "What did you need?"

I kept my jaw from swinging, with the utmost difficulty. "It's in our room," I managed. "Come with me."

My rising fears made the steps leading there feel like they'd morphed into miles. By the time we crossed the threshold, I was almost vibrating with agitation.

"What the f**k is going on?" I demanded as soon as I shut the door. So much for subtlety.

Bones frowned. "Blimey, what's gotten into you that you're in such a lather?"

"What's gotten into me? Me?" I repeated, catching myself before I became more shrill. Even soundproofing would be tested with a scream. I forced myself to calm down, to take two deep breaths before continuing.

"Care to tell me what you and the others are up to with Wraith?" I asked in almost a normal tone.

Another frown creased his features, this time with traces of confusion. "What do you mean?"

More deep breaths. I hadn't breathed this much in months. "You all seem . . . inordinately attentive to him. Like you don't notice anyone else."

That also wasn't subtle, but it was the best I could muster, since every fiber of me wanted to grab Bones and see if shaking him would snap him out of this.

His frown cleared and when he spoke, his tone held teasing, affectionate notes. "You're not jealous about me paying attention to him, are you?"

Wow, was karma quick to pay me back for how I'd dismissed Ian's concerns this morning!

"I'm not jealous," I gritted out, switching tactics. "But I thought we agreed that Wraith needed some investigating before we went any further with him."

"Oh, that." Bones waved a hand. "Not necessary. It's obvious he's a good bloke and I'm proud to call him my brother."

My stomach felt like it sank to my knees. His words and my tie into his emotions revealed that this wasn't an act. Bones believed everything he'd said even though the man I loved would never be so blindly trusting. Somehow, Wraith had managed to do the impossible - brainwash a vampire. And not just one; several, judging from Spade, Annette, Mencheres, and Kira's identical behavior. If I didn't need to discover how, so I could reverse it, I'd go downstairs and kill him for screwing with everyone's minds.

Then again, if Wraith was powerful enough to mesmerize other vampires, who knew what tricks he had up his sleeve? I might end up as nothing more than a stain on the floor if I went after him before I knew more about the source of his abilities.

I stared into Bones's eyes and made him a silent promise. I'll fix this and get the real you back. I don't know how yet, but I will.

And then I'd kill Wraith, brother-in-law or not. Of course, if he had enough power to brainwash vampires, fabricating his connection to Bones would've been easy. He might have done it as an excuse to get close to everyone. For what purpose, I didn't know, but whatever his motivation, I couldn't let him succeed.

But before I did anything else, I had to cover my tracks. "You're right, I was a little jealous of all the attention Wraith was getting," I said, hoping my voice wasn't too husky from the anger roiling in me. "Let me make it up to you. We'll change our plans for Christmas. Instead of just the eight of us, we'll have a big party to officially welcome Wraith into the family."

He smiled with such clear pleasure that my heart twisted. The gorgeous vampire in front of me looked exactly like the man I loved, but somehow, Wraith had buried the real Bones underneath layers I couldn't penetrate.

"That's a smashing idea. He deserves a proper welcome."

Oh, I'd welcome Wraith good and proper, all right. With a lot of lit dyn**ite, if I got my Christmas wish. But I smiled back, glad beyond measure that the tie between us didn't flow both ways and Bones couldn't sense my emotions.

"Don't you worry, I'll take care of everything."

I banged on the door of room 116. A conversation with the hotel's registration attendant combined with a couple flashes from my gaze had gotten me Ian's room number. Even though I didn't know what alias he'd checked in under, the descriptors of "tall, red-haired, hot, and English" had been enough.

"Open up, Ian!" I called out when another round of banging didn't produce any results.

The door in front of me didn't open, but one at the end of the hall did. A familiar head poked out.

"That's enough, Reaper. You've already woken the dead. No need to rouse everyone else."

Guess I hadn't been given the right room number after all. I started down the hall, but Ian waved me back.

"Let me get my trousers and I'll be right with you."

He disappeared into the room and was back in a minute, sans shirt but wearing the aforementioned pants. To my surprise, he pulled out a key and opened the door I'd been banging on.

"Come in."

I put two and two together, and shook my head in disgust.

"Unbelievable. Something really scary is going on with Bones and the others, but you still take the time to get laid."

"Do I smell like I've been shagging?" he said grumpily. "I slept in another room for safety. I told you where I was without knowing if your mind had been bollocksed up, too. So if you'd have shown up with Crispin and broken down this door, I'd have taken that as a sign to run for my life. Since you're alone and appear to be your normal harping self, I take it you're not under Wraith's influence."

I was so glad to drop the all-is-well act I'd kept up since last night that I didn't even mind the harping comment. "No, I'm not. But you, I, Denise, and Fabian seem to be the only ones who aren't. It's got to be some sort of spell, but I don't understand how Wraith got one to work on everyone except the four of us."

Ian sighed. "Since I saw you yesterday, I've done nothing but ponder that very question. If I'm right about what we're dealing with, the only thing protecting me is this."

He unzipped his pants and tugged them down. I whirled just in time, barking, "I don't care what you think, your junk does not have special abilities. And I already heard about the piercing," over my shoulder.

"That's not what I wanted to show you," he replied in an implacable voice. "Now stop being such a twit and look."

"This better not be one of your sick jokes," I muttered, turning around. Thankfully, the first thing I saw wasn't Ian waggling Mr. One Eye at me, though he didn't seem concerned that his hand didn't totally conceal the flesh behind it. With his free hand, he pointed at a tattoo that was so close to the base of his groin, it melded into his hairline. So you're a real redhead, too, ran through my mind before I could help myself.

"Aside from knowing that you appear to have a fetish for decorating your goods, I don't see - "

"This is no ordinary tattoo," he cut me off. "It's a warding symbol. Don't you recognize it from Denise's former markings?"

My gaze narrowed and I did something I would've sworn was impossible not five minutes before - I came closer and knelt down so Ian's groin was in better view. Sure enough, I recognized the symbols. They were smaller, contained in a single circle versus the various markings that had covered Denise's forearms, but unmistakable.

"Wow," I whispered.

He grunted. "If I had a pound for every time a girl said that while in your position."

I sat back and asked the most obvious questions. "Why do you have a tattoo that wards away demonic influence on your groin, Ian? And what does this have to do with Bones and the others?"

He gave me an unblinking stare. "Because decades ago, I ran afoul of a demon and didn't want him finding me. Also didn't want that fact bandied about, so I hid my warding spell in a place where most people who saw it wouldn't know its meaning."

My gaze bored into his with equal intensity. "How did you run afoul of a demon? Did you make a deal and then renege?"

"No." For some reason, I believed him, so the single word relieved me. Getting out of a demonic deal was nigh-impossible, and they usually accepted only one form of currency: your soul. Much as Ian rubbed me the wrong way, I wouldn't wish that to be hanging over his head.

"Then what?"

"It's not pertinent," he said crisply. "Suffice it to say that during this time, I discovered demons have their own form of black magic, only theirs makes everyone else's look like child's play."

I swallowed hard. Fabian had spied Wraith sprinkling blood around our property and found the strange symbol in the bedroom. With everyone's bizarre actions the next day, I'd assumed Wraith must be into magic. Looked like I was right, only he'd gone much darker - and more dangerous - than that.

"Wraith's a vampire, not a demon. So how could he wield hell's version of a spell? I've never heard of a vampire doing that, and mastering a demonic enchantment strong enough to enthrall other vampires should be way beyond his pay grade, from the feel of his aura."

Ian smiled, cold and tight. "Denise feels like an ordinary human, yet she's much more than that, isn't she?"

It hit me what Ian was driving at. He thought Wraith got his additional power through the same method that had made Denise far more than human. If he was right, it explained why Wraith only felt like an average vampire though he could wield a spell that even Mencheres wouldn't dare to attempt. I still didn't know why I was unaffected, but it also made sense why Ian, Denise, and Fabian weren't influenced by the demonic magic. Of course, it also meant that Wraith was nearly unstoppable.

"We're so f**ked," I breathed.

Ian let out a dry laugh. "That's the first sensible thing you've said all morning."

Chapter Eight

I heard Wraith's voice before I got out of the car. Its melodic cadence combined with my favorite accent should've sounded soothing. Instead, it was like nails on a chalkboard. Don't you ever tire of listening to yourself talk? I wondered irritably, but affixed a bright smile on my face when I came through the door.

That smile almost cracked when I saw Wraith seated on an ottoman as though it were a throne. He'd moved it so that he was near the large fireplace, the glow from it playing over his features and making him look even more ethereal. Wraith wore another flowery shirt under his jacket, lace spilling out over the cuffs to wreath his hands. I'd first thought he picked those shirts to be pretentious, but now I had another idea about why he wore them, and it had nothing to do with an outdated fashion sense.

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