Gosh, it’s been forever since I blogged. Sorry about that. Lots of stuff kept me busy, some good, some bad. The good: we’re moving to Maryland soon. I’m so excited about this because I cannot take the Florida heat anymore, and even if I could, the new Husky puppy sure isn’t a fan of it. Four seasons instead of one endless summer, here I come!
The bad: We lost a dear family member last month, plus I had several family members hospitalized, plus a couple (thankfully not serious) health blips myself, plus a nasty surprise of not one, not two, but THREE tax audits, all on top of the usual stresses of applying for a mortgage. So, be thankful that I didn’t post anything before now because some days, those posts would have only consisted of screeches and screams.
However, I’m hopeful that the rough start of 2021 is over, and there will be smoother sailing from now on. And hey, since I’m back, I come bearing gifts! As I mentioned in my last post, I have new Night Huntress story coming up in the HEX ON THE BEACH anthology. Have you been wondering what Cat, Bones, Katie, Denise, and some of the rest of the gang have been up to lately, especially after the climactic events at the end of WICKED ALL NIGHT? Then wonder no more because I’m about to show you! Missed the news that I’m collaborating with Kelley Armstrong and Melissa Marr to bring you a fun, sexy, paranormal beach read? Then let me recap:
Girls Night Out has never been so much fun–but what are they going to do with all these bodies?
New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Authors Kelley Armstrong, Jeaniene Frost, and Melissa Marr deliver a sexy summer read with this novel-length anthology containing three all-new stories from their Cursed Luck, Night Huntress, and Faery Bargains worlds. Kennedy, Cat, and Gen are just trying to enjoy their respective getaways, but when immortals, vampires, and witches come out to play, things are bound to go awry. Let the supernatural hijinks begin!
And now, some free reading to whet your appetite! To kick it off, here are the first three chapters from A GRAVE GIRLS’ GETAWAY by yours truly. After that, delve into the first chapters from GODDESS OF SUMMER LOVE by Kelley Armstrong, and then DAQUIRIS AND DAGGERS by Melissa Marr. Enjoy!
A Grave Girls’ Getaway
Copyright © 2021 Jeaniene Frost. All rights reserved
I was not spying on my daughter. I wasn’t.
Sure, I was flying to the spot in the woods where Katie was, but that wasn’t to avoid her hearing my footsteps. It was just…convenience. If you came from a line of flight-capable Master vamps like I did, would you dirty your shoes by trudging through the dirt and leaves?
And sure, I was avoiding branches that would snap in a telltale way if I got too close, but that didn’t prove anything. Why ruin the natural sounds of the forest?
Okay, fine, my slowing down and ducking behind a tree when I glimpsed Katie was incriminating, but why couldn’t a mother enjoy a few private moments admiring her recently discovered daughter? Katie was lovely, with auburn-colored hair, the same dark gray eyes as mine, skin like sunlight on snow, and an uncommon gracefulness that was on full display as she danced among the trees.
If I still breathed, my breath would have caught as I watched her. I’d had her in my life less than three years, so I didn’t have the memories most parents had of watching their babies coo in the crib, or laugh for the first time, or take their first steps, but I could watch Katie dance now, and it was indescribably beautiful. No prima ballerina had Katie’s grace, precision, or speed.
And that was why we still had to keep her hidden. Those traits would reveal that Katie wasn’t fully human. Mixed species people might be legal now, but Katie’s particular blend of species had almost caused two undead wars before.
I was about to call out to her when she suddenly turned a pirouette into a roundhouse kick that leveled a nearby birch tree. Another spinning combination took out a larger spruce to her left, and then a ferocious roll-and-kick combo felled three evergreens in a row. As the coup de grâce, she ripped the stump of the nearest toppled evergreen out of the ground, and then held it up by its roots as if the stump were a decapitated head.
Dammit! Katie wasn’t out here secretly dancing. She was practicing killing. Again.
I knew something was up with all her recent “walks.” That’s why I was spying on her—and yes, I had known all along that I was spying. Don’t judge; motherhood was still very new and overwhelming to me. Hell, I hadn’t even known I was a mother until a few years ago, when I found out that—while I was unconscious—my eggs had been harvested, fertilized, and implanted into a surrogate. Sound impossible? So does a half-vampire working for a secret branch of Homeland Security that polices murderously misbehaving members of the undead society, but that was my old job. Unbeknownst to me, I’d also been a guinea pig for a shadowy government official who’d been trying to create a paranormal super soldier. He’d succeeded with Katie, and though she was only ten years old, all the growth hormones they’d pumped into her meant that she looked several years older. The worst part, though, was by the time I found her she’d already racked up a body count that would do a hardened mercenary proud.
I’d spent the last few years trying to undo the brutal tutelage Katie had received when she was the government’s secret weapon, hoping that with time, she would forget much of her early years. My husband, Bones, and I had given Katie as normal a life as we could, especially considering that we were both vampires hiding out from the vampire world because of Katie’s unique combination of species.
We thought we’d been making progress with Katie, yet here she was practicing killing people again despite being told that killing was wrong. Did she think I couldn’t protect her? Or did…did she miss killing people?
If she were human, I could read her mind and know the answer, but Katie was inhuman enough for her thoughts to be locked away. That left me guessing, and I couldn’t come up with any innocent reason for what she was doing. Despair pricked me. Maybe I hadn’t given Katie enough “normal” to help undo the massive psychological damage done to her. Was that why she was reverting back to her old behaviors?
My lips tightened as I shoved my despair aside. If my daughter needed more normal in order to break free from her horrifying past, then fine. I’d deliver an ass-ton of it.
Later, I gripped my knife so hard that my knuckles whitened. I’d been in many battles before, but seldom had my nerves been stretched this tight.
“You’d better be worth it,” I said to my prey.
One hard slice later, my hopes shattered. “Mother…fudger!” I swore, altering the curse just in time.
A stifled laugh behind me increased my ire. I whirled to see my mother turning away with her hand covering her traitorously twitching lips.
“I told you to take the turkey out half an hour ago,” Justina murmured.
Yes, well, the meat thermometer hadn’t registered 165 degrees then, and the recipe said poultry had to be cooked to at least 165 degrees. I gave the meat thermometer an evil look. Either it was broken, or it was possessed by the spirit of a vengeful chef bent on destroying my attempts at a nice family dinner. Hey, stranger things had happened.
“Sorry. Dinner’s going to suck, but on the bright side, no one’s getting salmonella from this burnt offering.”
“You’re all vampires, and I’m not fully human, so salmonella can’t harm any of us,” Katie replied. Her tone was faintly quizzical, as if she was trying to hide her surprise that I hadn’t figured that out for myself.
“I know, honey,” I said gently. “I was making a joke.”
“Ah,” she said. Then, she smiled a little too wide. “Of course. Your joke was very entertaining!”
Now I was the one smiling. Despite Katie’s many skills, she had yet to master lying. It was almost comforting.
“Don’t fret,” Bones replied, getting up and moving into the kitchen. “That bird will do nicely with the right roux. Give me a few minutes, Kitten.”
I left the kitchen, defeated by it once again. No matter how many recipes I tried, I still couldn’t cook to save my life.
Bones began whisking the pan drippings while adding wine, spices, flour, and other ingredients. Soon, the aroma was heavenly. His roux, or gravy, as we Americans called it, was so good that it made even the overcooked turkey delicious.
By the end of dinner, I would have called tonight a success, except for what Katie said after taking her plate to the sink: “I’m going for a walk in the woods.”
Granted, ten o’clock at night might be well past bedtime for a human child, but for a household of vampires, it was barely evening. Also, our nearest neighbor was several acres away in this stretch of forested land in Mission, British Columbia, Canada, so she was safe. Still, I tensed.
Going for a walk, my ass!
I had to handle this. I just wasn’t sure how to do so yet.
“Fine, but don’t be gone too long.”
I waited until I couldn’t hear Katie’s footsteps anymore before I said, “She’s up to no good out there.”
My mother’s eyes widened. “She isn’t smoking, is she?”
“I wish,” I replied with feeling.
Justina gave me an appalled glance. My wave dismissed it.
“That would at least be an expected form of pre-teen rebellion. She’s sneaking off to practice killing.”
Saying it out loud made it more real. Guilt, grief, and rage scalded me with its usual toxic mixture. I saved Katie from the human monsters that had held her captive, so why couldn’t I save her from the horrible things she’d learned from them?
“You’ve been spying on her?” Bones sounded more surprised by that than he was by hearing of Katie’s activities.
“I prefer ‘practicing attentive parenting,’” I muttered.
His look plainly said, Who are you bullshitting?
I threw up my hands. “Fine! Spying on her is messed up, but that’s hardly our main concern, is it?”
“Kitten, we told Katie it was wrong to kill anyone who wasn’t trying to harm her, but we never told her that she couldn’t still train.”
My eyes widened. “Isn’t that focusing on the letter of the law while ignoring the intent?”
“Maybe training is just familiar to her?” my mother said.
Justina, the excuse-making, indulgent grandmother? Never would’ve pegged her for that, but here she was, showing Katie more understanding for her trial slaughters than she’d shown me my entire childhood.
“She wasn’t just shadowboxing, Mom. She was kicking trees in half and then decapitating their fallen stumps.”
And appearing to enjoy it. That worried me the most. Had she enjoyed killing people in her former life?
Bones didn’t look concerned. For a second, something flashed across his face that looked traitorously like approval.
“Oh, come on,” I snapped. “She’s just a child!”
His dark brown eyes seemed to stare into my soul. “Yes, but she’s no ordinary child, and you know it. So, what’s really bothering you about this, Kitten?”
“I keep screwing things up with her!”
The words burst from me while emotions that I tried not to think about, let alone show, exploded free like a cork shooting out of a shaken-up champagne bottle.
“I wasn’t there for the first seven years of her life when she was experimented on and forced into becoming a killer,” I said, trying to regain control. “Now? What sort of mother am I? I can’t cook, I keep dropping f-bombs, I could barely stitch the tear in her favorite pants, and, oh yeah, I’m spying on her.”
My mother stood, not appearing to notice that she upended her chair with her fast, jerky movements.
“You love your daughter as she is.” Her voice vibrated, and I was shocked to see her eyes shine with unshed tears. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen my mother cry.
“I failed to do that with you when you were growing up, and it almost killed you. Don’t worry about the other stuff. Keep loving your daughter unconditionally, Catherine, and unlike me, you’ll always be a wonderful mother.”
With that, she left. Moments later, I heard her car start, and then the spin of gravel as she pulled away.
“Your mum is right.”
Bones’s statement broke the silence. I turned toward him, a humorless smile tugging my mouth.
“You and my mom agreeing? Is it the apocalypse again?”
He smiled back although his gaze was serious. “Hope not, but still, she’s right. You’d see it, too, if you weren’t so busy punishing yourself for what happened to Katie before we found her.”
Damn Bones. He always cut to the heart of matters, and worse, he frequently used logic as his scalpel.
“I know I’m not responsible for what was done to Katie, but I feel like I am,” I admitted. “Maybe, deep down, Katie feels that way, too? Maybe that’s why she’s acting out this way?”
Bones let out a soft snort. “Kitten, Katie isn’t doing this because she blames you for what happened to her.”
Bones gave me an unfathomable look. “Ask her, but not now. Ask her after you’ve had a mental break from trying to make up for every evil deed that someone else committed against her. That way, you’ll be able to truly hear her answer.”
“How do you propose I get this cleansing mental break?” I said with a wry scoff. “Give myself a lobotomy?”
His lip curled. “Those don’t work on vampires, so we’ll go with the more effective option of going on a getaway.”
I waited, but he didn’t follow up with ‘just kidding!’ “You think I’ll stop worrying about Katie if we’re off somewhere where neither of us can make sure that she’s okay?”
“’Course not,” he replied in an easygoing tone. “That’s why I’ll be staying behind, and you’ll go.”
I laughed. He only arched a brow.
“I’m quite serious. Denise was just saying it’s been too long since she’s seen you. I’m sure she’d love the chance to catch up, and Charles can certainly spare her for a week.”
Charles was Bones’s best friend, just like Denise was mine. I hadn’t seen her in several months, and I missed her, but…
“I can’t just up and leave. Katie—”
“Will be fine,” Bones interrupted. “I’ll be here, your mum and Tate are right down the road, and your uncle still floats by frequently though the spectral sod thinks I don’t know it.”
“That sounds great, but…uh…”
“Can’t imagine doing something solely for yourself?” Bones let out a knowing grunt. “Like most good mums, you’re too focused on everyone else, and now you’re burnt out from taking on too much. Time to recharge, luv. You deserve it. I’ll miss you, but we both know you won’t relax unless I’m here with Katie, so ring Denise and tell her you’re inviting her to a girls-only getaway. She’ll love it.”
I had no doubt. I kind of loved it, too, even if I had already started to think of a hundred reasons why I shouldn’t do it. Still, I hadn’t had a vacation in…God, several years.
“Fine. I’ll call Denise.”
“Call her later. Now, we’re making the most of Katie being out of the house. Have to give you a good reason to miss me, don’t I?”
He gave me a heated glance while a far hotter emotion slid through my subconscious, suffusing me with tantalizing sensations. He’d changed me into a full vampire, and that bond meant I felt his emotions as if they were my own—if he wanted me to. He wanted me to now, and when he grabbed me, his low laugh teased my lips before his mouth covered mine.
I barely noticed the blur of household fixtures as Bones flew us out of the kitchen and up the stairs. When we reached our bedroom, the door closed behind us on its own, and my clothes came off without either of us touching them.
Cooking wasn’t the only thing Bones excelled at. He’d also become a fairly powerful telekinetic, and he’d expanded his abilities far beyond moving simple objects with his mind. My moan turned into a gasp as both his hands and his power slid over me, caressing and teasing with knowing, skillful touches. Then my gasps turned into cries when his mouth replaced his hands, and his tongue shot honeyed fire through my veins.
I writhed beneath him, too caught up to say more than a panted “Now!” as I tried to pull him up from between my thighs.
His laugh hit my flesh like an erotic brush of feathers.
“Not yet, Kitten. I did say you needed some ‘you’ time, didn’t I? Let me get back to work on that…”
By the time I left on my trip, I was feeling far less guilty. Katie seemed to look forward to having some one-on-one time with Bones. In fact, they’d both all but shoved me out the door. I mused on that as I waited for Denise. Maybe in my attempt to be an attentive mom, I’d been smothering Katie? How did anyone manage to raise a kid without constantly screwing up?
I turned to see a beautiful woman with long, mahogany-colored hair and hazel eyes running across the hotel lobby toward me. I barely had a second to brace myself before Denise launched herself at me. Her momentum swung us in a circle, and I found myself breathing in her familiar scent of honey and jasmine as I hugged her back.
She caught what I was doing and laughed. “You’re smelling me, aren’t you?”
I grinned, sheepish. “Sorry, but hey, at least I didn’t give you an exploratory bite, too.”
She snorted. “I’m not your brand, remember?”
No, she wasn’t. Because of my funky half-breed lineage, I was the only vampire who didn’t drink human blood. Instead, I fed from other vampires, not that most of my kind knew that. That’s why I had a couple bags of Bones’s blood packed in with my clothes. Sure, I could eat real food, but it didn’t nourish or strengthen me the way vampire blood did.
Denise gave me a wide grin. “I’m so glad you’re really here! I kept thinking some emergency would make you cancel.”
I fought a wince. I’d cancelled lots of plans with her in the past several years. Guess that made me a bad friend in addition to my questionable mothering abilities. In my defense, someone had usually been trying to kill me during all the times I’d cancelled. Fighting off an attempted murderer was hardly a “the more, the merrier!” type of occasion.
“Nope. I’m here, and we’re going to have so much fun.”
“You bet, and look at this place!”
She waved at the sumptuous lobby, where the huge domed ceiling hung like a crown over the ornately designed floor. All that paled next to the magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean through the many windows. The Ritz Carlton at Half Moon Bay sprawled on top of steep bluffs like a modern version of a medieval castle. Only a narrow strip of beach ran between those bluffs and the surf, and further up that sandy stretch, there were tide pools that would soon be swallowed up by the incoming high tide.
“The ocean in front of us, and redwood forests behind us,” Denise continued. “Plus, the clubs in San Francisco are only half an hour away. This is perfect! I wasn’t expecting this, to be honest.” She paused to grin again when I squirmed, and then teased, “Bones picked this place out, didn’t he?”
Denise knew my thriftiness would never allow me to splurge like this, even if I thought it was perfect, too.
“Of course he did.”
She laughed. “I’ll compliment him on his taste later. Now, let’s get dressed in something fabulous. Tomorrow, we’re hiking in the redwoods or going horseback riding on the beach, but tonight, we’re shutting down the clubs.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone to a club just to have fun. Mostly, I went clubbing to hunt and kill vampires. Tonight, though, all I’d be a danger to were gin and tonics.
“Sounds great, and if you like this, wait until you see our rooms. We have our own mini cottage on the beach.”
Denise groaned in mock ecstasy. I grinned as I made a mental note to call Bones later and thank him. Maybe he was right, and this break was just what I needed. I already felt better, and the night hadn’t even begun yet.
Several hours later, Denise and I walked down the beach, both of us holding our shoes instead of wearing them. The foamy surf came closer, threatening to soak our feet. Our hotel was still a few miles ahead, but we’d chosen to walk since it was such a lovely night. Still, the incoming tide might force us to change that plan.
It wouldn’t be the first time we’d changed our plans tonight. So much for shutting down the clubs. We hadn’t even lasted until midnight before both of us decided to head back. Even now, Denise shook her head, bemused.
“Were clubs always that loud? I could hardly hear a word you said, and damn, were we the only ones not high? I swear, I saw twenty pill handoffs at that last place, and some of those kids looked like teenagers!”
I let out an amused sniff. “They weren’t. They only looked that young because we’re getting older.”
“Thirties is not old,” she said at once.
“Of course it isn’t, but it’s old enough to admit when we’re not having a good time versus staying and faking it.”
She shook her head. “I don’t get it. I used to love dancing all night. Now? My feet hurt, my ears are ringing, and I want to curl up on the couch and order dessert from room service.”
I laughed. “That sounds great to me, too.”
Denise gave me a wry grin. “I’m still kinda human, but you’re a vampire. What’s your excuse for crapping out early?”
“Spending time with you,” I replied. “Like you said, it was too loud to talk before, and I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.”
We kept walking, chatting with an openness we hadn’t managed in a while. Calls, texts, and video chats were great, but they didn’t beat the joy of being together.
Soon, we reached what was left of the tide pools. I slowed my stride to avoid slipping, and then caught Denise’s shoulder when she almost stumbled on the uneven rock.
“Want to head back to the street and call a Lyft?” I asked.
“Or you could fly us over these,” she pointed out.
I could, but vampires had kept their existence hidden from humanity because we avoided public displays of power. Still, it was pitch dark, and the nearest hotel was a good mile away. I sent my senses outward. Nope, I didn’t hear anyone else along the beach…Wait. I strained my senses more.
There. Someone was in the caves tucked into the bluffs bordering the beach and the sea. If I were human, I wouldn’t have heard the low murmur of voices that almost blended with the sounds of the surf, and I really wouldn’t have caught the new tang to the air before the sea spray snatched it away.
Still, that brief, sharp, new scent was unmistakable, especially to a vampire.
“Earth to Cat,” Denise began.
I pressed a finger to my lips in the universal gesture for silence. Then, I leaned in and whispered, “Stay here. Something’s wrong,” against her ear.
Maybe that blood was from a normal crime, or maybe I wasn’t the only person out here with supernaturally great hearing.
I flew toward the sounds and the smell of blood.
At first, I was confused when I reached the spot where the scent and sounds were strongest. Nothing but smooth, unbroken cliff wall met my gaze. Where was the entrance? There had to be one, and…what was that? A new, stronger wave had swept seawater all the way up to the cliff. It stopped everywhere except in one spot, where the water somehow disappeared into the rock.
I tried to touch that spot, and like the water, my hand vanished as it appeared to go through the wall of stone. I pulled it out and did it again. Same result, only this time, I concentrated and felt cool air coming from the side where I could no longer see my hand.
This part of the wall wasn’t real. It was glamour, the term for a magical mirage. To use this, someone really didn’t want their bloodletting interrupted.
I felt around until I found the rest of the entrance. Then, I squeezed into the hidden cave. Once inside, the glamour disappeared, revealing a narrow passageway. The smell of blood pointed my way, as did the sounds that I realized were chants in an unfamiliar language. Now, I caught snatches of thoughts, too.
…can’t be happening…oh God, no…no, please, stop!
Chanting, pleas, magic, and blood—never a good combination.
I kept going, ducking when a new, flickering light appeared after a sharp bend in the tunnel. I could pick out several voices from the chants, and underneath them, the ominous sounds of grunts, as if someone was trying to scream and couldn’t.
I pulled a knife from its sheath beneath my skirt. Since I found out at sixteen that silver through the heart killed vampires, I’d never left home without one. I’d barely palmed the silver blade when icy water soaked me to the ankles.
The incoming tide had reached the cave. This whole place would be underwater soon. I might be beyond drowning, but whoever was bleeding wasn’t.
Fuck being stealthy. It wasn’t my style, anyway.
“Housekeeping!” I sang out, and flew around the corner.
Nine hooded heads jerked up. The robed figures all appeared to be women, and four of them were vampires. Weak ones, if their auras could be trusted. Must be why I hadn’t felt their energy before now. Strong vampires usually gave off vibes like an electrical current.
“Get out,” a vampire with hair as red as my own snapped.
Torchlight revealed runes and other ancient markings drawn onto the cave walls. The women were standing around a pentagram that had a gagged, panicked boy inside it. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen, and runes had been carved onto his chest, leaving bloody trails running down his body. No surprise, the mental pleas I’d overhead were coming from him.
“Hell no,” I said, pissed for more reasons than their clear intention to murder this kid. “Less than a year after magic’s been declared legal, you bitches are doing a ritual sacrifice of a teenager? First, that’s evil, and second, are you trying to give the vampire council a reason to ban magic again? Innocent witches did not fight so hard for freedom from persecution for you selfish schmucks to fuck it up this way!”
The redhead wasn’t the only one giving me an incredulous look. Guess the last thing they expected was a lecture, but magic wasn’t the only thing that the vampire council had recently declared to be legal. Mixed species people like Katie were now legal, too, and it wasn’t a stretch to assume that if one law got overturned because of assholes like these witches, the other law would get overturned, too.
“We obey no earthly council,” the redheaded vampire hissed. “And you have sealed your fate, intruder. Now, we will have two sacrifices to give our goddess instead of one.”
Oh, she’d picked the wrong girl on the wrong night. Anticipation thrummed through me. Hiding with Katie had retired me from my former ass-kicking lifestyle, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until now.
More water rushed around my ankles. It was now up to the bloody boy’s cheek since they had him restrained to the cave floor. He flailed, the stench of his fear almost choking.
Don’t worry, kid. You’re not dying on my watch.
I snapped his restraints with a single, concentrated thought. One perk of being a freaky vampire who fed from other vampires was that I temporarily absorbed any powers the other vampire had. Bones was my favorite food, and since he was telekinetic, I had some of that power, too. I wasn’t nearly as good at it as he was, but small, inanimate objects were easy.
“What?” the redheaded leader said in shock.
I gave her a nasty smile. “Yeah, and that’s not all I’ve got.”
Goddess of Summer Love
Copyright © 2021 by Kelley Armstrong. All rights reserved.
I do not know how I became the goddess of love. Oh, I understand the “goddess” part. I am immortal, and I possess certain powers, and in ancient Greece, “deity” was the only language they had to describe us. We were lucky to be born in that world. A monotheistic culture has far different words for such a thing, as Denny—Dionysus—discovered when he over-imbibed in Inquisition-era Spain and started showing off his powers. Marius—Ares—had to ride to his big brother’s rescue, roping me into it because Athene decided a little pyre-burning might teach Denny to hold his liquor. Yes, Athene still goes by Athene, and dear Lord do not spell it Athena. She once snuck a chisel into the British Museum to fix a statue.
No, I understand why the appellation of goddess. It’s the “love” part I’ve never quite fathomed. Goddess of beauty, yes, and that is no show of ego. I know how I look, and if Fate had given me some say in the matter, I would have denied that particular gift. I suppose “love” arises from that. What else is a beautiful woman good for?
My powers have nothing to do with love. Or sex, though I am very fond of it, and rather good at it, as one might certainly hope to be after three thousand years of practice. No, I lack any powers of love or sex or fertility, and yet one can even find twenty-first century sects that worship me in hopes of receiving those blessings.
I have no dominion there, and so after centuries of confusion, I did the only thing I could. I slammed down my banner and claimed the territory for myself. Aphrodite aka Venus aka Vanessa. Patron deity of lovers. Matchmaker extraordinaire.
And I am about to do what I do best.
Marius arrives to the soft blip of the security panel as he lets himself in. He doesn’t call for me. Doesn’t ask where I am. He strides straight through to my dressing room as if by homing beacon. We have been friends since we were children, lovers since we were adults, and even if we are currently “on a break”—as we have been too many times to count—he is first in my life, and I am in his. As he says, “Venus and Mars, planets with the entire earth between them sometimes, but still always within each other’s sight.”
He doesn’t say hello. We are far past pleasantries. He walks in, and I don’t turn from the mirror, but I do watch him enter through it. I will never be past that.
Marius looks in his forties. We all do. Our immortality took hold as we passed our youth and settled into early middle age, which is a very comfortable place to inhabit. He is handsome, of course. Athletic, of course. Confident and self-possessed. He is Ares, after all. God of War. But every statue leaves out the best of him. The easy-going charm and the kindness. Most of all, the kindness.
He walks up behind me as our eyes meet through the mirror. Dark blond hair curls over his forehead. Beard stubble signifies he is taking the long weekend off work, as do the chinos, a golf-shirt and loafers.
“You’re look very corporate,” I say.
“Don’t worry. I have my Hawaiian shirt in the car.” He catches my look and grins, showing perfect teeth. “Hawaiian shirt. Deck shorts. Sandals. With socks of course. Memorial Day appropriate attire.”
“I love the corporate look,” I say.
“I thought you might. And I see we’re still trying to pick an outfit.”
His gaze moves to the clothing hanging from every surface of the room.
“You do realize it’s a small-town festival, right, Vess? Not a black-tie dinner.”
“I would prefer black-tie. Then I would know exactly what to wear. This requires subtlety. Kennedy invited us as her guests, to celebrate the opening of her new shop, and I need to blend. Blend.”
“Good luck with that.” I shoot him a glare.
He tilts his head. “Wait. Did you say Kennedy invited us? Pretty sure you invited us. In fact, I’m pretty sure the whole opening-gala weekend was your idea. You played fairy godmother, getting her new shop ready in time, everything moved from Boston to take advantage of the long-weekend crowds, and oh, why don’t we make a grand opening of it, invite Aiden for the weekend, yes, what a lovely idea that has absolutely nothing to do with matchmaking.” He looks at me. “Please, please tell me it has nothing to do with matchmaking.”
“It is the perfect weekend to open her shop. The start of the summer season in a tourist town. The timing was tight, so I helped make it happen.”
He motions sprinkling fairy dust.
“I am old,” I say. “Excruciatingly old, and entitled to my whims and notions. I had a notion to help Kennedy, in partial payment for all the help she gave us.”
“I noticed you dodged the matchmaking question.”
“Kennedy and Aiden make a perfect couple. They just need a nudge.”
He sighs and lowers himself into a chair. “They’ve only known each other for two weeks.”
“And at this rate, it’ll be two decades before either makes a move. I am accelerating the schedule. They’re mortal, after all. They don’t have the luxury of time. However, that is far from the only reason we’re going to Unstable. I do want to help with the grand opening. I also have other plans. Other work to do.”
His eyes narrow. “Other matchmaking?”
“Jonathan and Ani.”
“What?” I say. “You complain that I haven’t given Kennedy and Aiden time. Jonathan and Ani have been friends since childhood. They’ve had time. Now they need help.”
“Also Rian and Hope, I presume?” he says, naming Aiden’s brother and Kennedy’s younger sister. I snatch up a dress from a chair.
“Certainly not. They don’t suit, and I have every intention of making sure that particular match doesn’t happen. She’s a child. He’s the emotional equivalent of one.”
“She’s twenty. He’s a twenty-four-year-old in need of some maturity, but I see promise there.”
“Of course you do, because he’s your hundred-times-great-grandson. If you want promise, you have Aiden. Rian needs a swift kick in the rear.” I pull on the dress. “Thankfully, he is out of the country, so that is one fewer problem to worry about.”
I slap on my accessories, turn and strike a pose. I’m wearing an unflattering brown sundress and equally unflattering glasses with my hair pinned up.
“Sexy librarian,” Marius says. “I like it.”
I scowl and switch to a pencil skirt and linen blazer, leaving the glasses and hair.
“Hot for teacher?” he says.
A hard glare, and I try outfit number three, a linen pantsuit.
“Mmm, speaking of corporate.” He waggles his brows. “Can I be the misbehaving new hire, lady boss?”
I sigh and slump into the other chair.
He rises, riffles through one of my closets and pulls out a simple but elegant sundress. Then he removes my glasses, sets them aside and unpins my hair before handing me the dress.
“Be yourself, Vess. No one expects anything else.” He pauses. “If you do want to change up anything, may I make a suggestion?”
“Don’t play matchmaker this weekend.”
“I am the goddess of love,” I say. “This is what I do. I have a plan. They are all very keen on mysteries, so I have one for them.”
He winces. “Please don’t tell me you’ve invented a fake mystery for them to solve.”
“Of course not. They aren’t children. I’m bringing them an actual local mystery . . . with a few extra clues.”
“Clues you planted?”
“Red herrings. Just a sprinkle.”
“Here’s a thought. Give them the mystery, minus the fake clues, and skip the matchmaking. They’re all adults. If they’re meant to be together, they’ll figure it out for themselves.”
He catches my expression and throws up his hands. “I tried. No one can say I didn’t try.”
I kiss his cheek. “You did. It was a lovely effort, and I appreciate it so much that I will let you be my plus-one at the weddings.”
He sighs, deeper, and returns to his chair.
We’re driving to Unstable, Massachusetts, the paranormal capital of New England. Oh, yes, Salem gets most of the attention, but that’s an entirely different thing. Salem is renowned for killing witches. Unstable is renowned for welcoming them. Witches, mediums, spiritualists, and dozens of supernatural species that do not actually exist. What does exist has made a home there.
I suspect there’s at least one immortal in town. There’s also the Bennett family, with three orphaned sisters Ani, Kennedy and Hope. They’re curse-weavers, distant descendants of Mercy—Mercury—the “trickster god” of our family tree. The Bennetts aren’t immortal, but they did inherit that specific gift, just as dream-shapers inherit my power, being mostly descended from me. The Connolly brothers are descendants of Marius. Luck-workers, inheriting their talent from the god of battle luck.
The Bennetts settled in Unstable generations ago, and they openly ply their trade. That’s the advantage to both the modern era and to living in a town devoted to paranormal tourism. The average person doesn’t quite believe in things like hexes and curses, but they don’t quite not believe either, especially if they find themselves drawn to a weekend in Unstable. The Bennett family business is called “Unhex Me Here”—someone had a proper appreciation of Lady Macbeth. Their specialty is uncursing. Most of the objects people bring them suffer only from the stain of superstition. They love this watch they inherited from their grandfather, but they feel a little uncomfortable wearing it, especially since he’d been wearing it himself when he died. Could the Bennett sisters have a look, maybe lift any lingering unpleasantness? What Ani and Hope really sell is the soothing balm of reassurance.
Middle-sister Kennedy has found another way to use her talents. She tracks down cursed antiques and buys them cheap from owners who are in a hurry to get rid of them. Then she removes the curse, fixes them up and resells them. For two years, she had a shop in Boston, where she fled after her mother died of cancer. With both parents tragically taken so young, Kennedy had felt the need to escape the memories. Now she’s sorted that out and returned to open a shop in Unstable.
Marius exaggerated when he said I invited us to Unstable for the long weekend. As Kennedy’s shop fairy-godmother, I wanted to be there for the opening. So I booked Marius and I into a bed-and-breakfast. Kennedy insisted we stay at her family home.
I’d then asked whether she was sure there’d be enough room as Aiden would obviously be there too, given all the help he’d provided with the insurance claim. I knew she’d only invited him for the opening. With my prompt, she extended her invitation to the entire weekend, including lodgings at the Bennett home, and he’d cleared his schedule to accept.
So we are all staying at the Bennett residence for a delightful weekend, as the town throws open its doors and kicks off the summer season.
We arrive a little past four and park on a side street. The Bennett house is along the main street, which has been roped off for the upcoming festival. Stalls line the street, stretching almost to the Bennett house. In the distance, a ferris wheel is being set up.
Marius whistles. “They really go all out,” he says, scanning the street. “What do you say we sneak off tomorrow night, grab some elephant ears and give that ferris wheel a whirl?”
“Yes, that is exactly what I want. Fried carnival food prepared under god-knows what kind of conditions followed by sailing into the air on a metal wheel that probably hasn’t been inspected since Watergate.”
“Good thing we’re immortal, right?”
I sniff and roll my eyes. He knows I’ll go on the ferris wheel, and I’ll eat the fried-dough monstrosity, and I’ll enjoy it too, because he will enjoy it. Just as he will pick through the local book shop with me and stroll the gardens on the edge of town.
When a peal of laughter rolls over, I pause and frown. It seems to be coming from the Bennett’s yard.
“Sounds like a party,” he says, picking up his pace.
“Sounds like a lot of people,” I say, frowning.
“Uh, yes. Because it’s a party, Vess.”
“No, Kennedy said get-together. A backyard get-together with a few people.”
He grins. “I have a feeling that Kennedy shares my definition of ‘a few people.’ Less than fifty for an intimate get-together.”
He’s right. It’s definitely a party, with people streaming into the backyard and spilling out onto the driveway and front lawn. People their age—all in their twenties.
“We’re going to be the old fogies,” I say.
“Well, then you didn’t need to worry about what you wore, right?” He glances over, brows creasing. “This is okay, isn’t it? You like parties. You like young people.”
“But . . .?”
I shake it off. “Nothing. This is fine.” I walk over and take his arm, and we head into the back yard.
Daiquiris & Daggers: A Faery Bargains Novella
Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Marr. All rights reserved.
“Come down here!” I stalked around the edges of mausoleum. Some enterprising soul had festooned the edges of the roof with concertina wire. The deadly décor glittered right now thanks to the mix of torrential rain and the glowing streetlights.
“So, help me, if I have to crawl up there . . .” I circled again, not entirely sure how to manage this.
Millicent Johnson, eighteen and dead, was supposed to be in her grave. When her mother came to weep and found the ground disturbed, her parents had paid me to retrieve her and deliver her to a T-Cell House if she was out and about. They ought to have observed the waiting period, saving themselves a pile of cash and me a long, wet evening. They’d been so sure their precious Millie wasn’t infected, though, that the young woman had been buried post-haste.
“Come on, Millie.” I held out my arm, not beckoning but like holding kibble out toward a cat in a tree.
As rain soaked me to the bone, I decided I was willing to pretend to be kibble if it meant she came down easily. This was to be a simple bag and tag, not a beheading, just the sort of the recovery that I’d been able to pull off even as a teenager still trying to get comfortable with a sword.
Millie growled at me, glaring at the sword in my other hand. She was hunched over, balancing on her hands and feet like she was imitating a less verbal primate. I’d nudge her ass-over-tea-kettle if I could, but the height of the mausoleum meant she was well over my head and out of reach.
“If I can’t contain you, I will chop that pretty head off,” I threatened, stalking her from the sopping wet ground. At least if she leaped down, I could catch her. “I mean it, Millicent, pop goes the weasel! Off with her head!”
Millie paused, but unfortunately, she couldn’t be threatened into clarity. Draugr didn’t start their “second lives” terribly coherent. They were akin to toddlers, all instinct and drool. Again-walkers grew in clarity and strength after they were transfused, but the newly risen were far from clarity. By about a decade—if they weren’t beheaded before that—draugr would be nearly indistinguishable from humans unless they were in a fight.. They were stronger, faster, and hard to kill.
My job was often giving the uncontrolled ones their second death before they went around New Orleans ripping throats out. Or in cases like this, bagging and tagging so they could be warehoused.
I pointed at the muddy wet ground. “Down, Millie!”
She plopped down on the roof of the mausoleum, looking like a dripping-wet, dead princess, and stared at me.
“Not what I meant!” I swiped at the water sluicing down my face.
Millicent was very obviously not coming down. I wasn’t an archer, so I had no projectile weapons others than a gun, and I’d rather not shred my skin crawling up there. That left me with either waiting or leaving a confused draugr perched on top of a grave. Both options sucked.
I shoved my hair out of my face, flinging water. “Damn it.”
I hated the bag and tag jobs. Killing was easier than capturing.
She’d come down eventually, but I wasn’t particularly enjoying standing in the cold spring rain. The air was thick was more smells than I could catalogue, and I wanted to sort them out. Thanks to my recent melding with a faery, my nature awareness—already present thanks to my witchy heritage—was a bit over-the-top. But contemplation would have to wait until I could drag Miss Johnson back to solid ground.
“Millie?” I beckoned. “Please?”
Until recently, I could’ve pulled the actual dead from their graves to help me, but a few weeks ago, I had summoned a swath of corpses St. Louis #1 to help stop a murderous dead woman—and in the process, I’d accidentally restored a dead man to life. Since then, my necromancy was sluggish, not quite awake. Apparently, if I drained my magical reserves enough, I needed time to recharge.
My heritage wasn’t just witch, though. My twice-dead sperm donor had already been dead when he impregnated my mother, so I was the only living draugr in existence as far as I knew. I had counted on that to be enough to handle a simple job.
“Damn it, Millicent. Get your dead ass down here. Right this moment . . . or else!”
“Bonbon?” Eli’s laughing voice behind me had me spinning around too quickly.
My feet went out from under me, and I landed flat on my back. Now I was not just soaked but muddy, too. Slimy ooze coated my back, squishing into the neck of my jacket. “Ugh.”
My husband held out a hand, as if to help me from a carriage not a muddy mess.
I accepted, letting him tug me to my feet, but I dug my feet in to the ground, stopping him from embracing me. “What are you doing here?”
“You were late, so . . .” Eli gave an elegant half-shrug that pretended the act was nonchalant. It was anything but.
My husband worried a lot since my magical depletion, balancing on a line between infuriating me by hovering and happening to be near when I needed help. It was graceful enough, explainable enough, that I couldn’t yell at him for being smothering.
And truth was that I needed the help more than I’d like. The past three months had been rough. My magic was absentee, and I was restless.
“Plus, I missed looking at you,” Eli added lightly.
I tilted my head up, letting the still-pouring rain wash away some of the mud. My hair, more brown than its usual blue thanks to my impromptu mud bath, hung in clumps, and I was doing a great impression of a wet cat. “You, Eli, are a lunatic.”
“Perhaps.” He shrugged again, but the look in his eyes—and the fact that the fae can’t lie—made it clear that he somehow still found me appealing even spattering in muck. Sometimes, I wished he was a little less breath-taking. The combination of the way he looked at me and the way he looked was distracting. From cut glass cheeks to courtesan’s lips, Eli was much too beautiful to in the rain with my muddy self. Even dripping wet, his hair, darker-than-black, hid glimmers of stars, entire universes blinked out at me.
I sighed. “You shouldn’t look at me that way when I’m . . .” I gestured at my muddy self.
Eli shrugged in a way that only a man like him could pull off: elegant, careless, and utterly telling all at once. “You would need to pluck my eyes out for me to look at you any other way.”
“Fine. You’re pretty, too,” I muttered.
Eli chuckled and then looked up at the dead girl who was watching us with a keen interest. “How’s work?”
“Obstinate. Work is obstinate.” I swiped mud out of my hair. “Princess Squirrel here won’t—”
“I see,” he interrupted before I could rant. “Could you summon her? As with proper corpses?”
I sighed and admitted, “If someone gave me an energy boost . . .”
“My damsel in distress,” Eli murmured, stepping closer.
I had a sword raised before he touched me. “Not a fucking damsel.”
“My damsel.” He pushed my sword away. “As you are, undoubtedly, also my knight.”
“Sweet talker.” I pulled him closer with a muddy hand fisted in his shirt and kissed him. The moment my lips touched his, I felt the wave of faery magic. His magic. I should be able to draw on it at will since we were wed, but that, too, was beyond me currently.
Eli poured his energy into me, and I could taste fresh water and green trees.
When he pulled away, I had only moments before that surge would resettle itself in me, food for my depleted reserves, and vanish.
I stared up at the dead girl. “Get down here, Millicent Leigh Johnson.”
This time, the words held a compulsion, a magical command wrought by my necromancy.
The draugr girl stood and cartwheeled from her perch to the ground. Millie landed with a sploosh of mud, but as I was already filthy, I couldn’t object.
Quickly, I bound her hands and feet, smacked a bite-proof gag over her mouth, and dropped my hold.
Eli waited, not touching me while I did what I must.
“I free you, Millicent Leigh Johnson. Not mine. Not yours.” I stepped back just as the light was returning to her eyes.
As soon as I dropped my compulsion over Millie, she flopped around like an angry caterpillar trying to bite me through the gag. No longer calm, she wanted my blood or at least to strike out at her captor.
“Cutting it close, bonbon,” Eli murmured.
I nodded. If I stayed bound to any draugr beyond when Eli’s magic stopped working for me, the dead would be my responsibility. Any draugr I bound to me would be coherent as long as she stayed near me, but I had no interest in collecting minions. I’d already accidentally bound two draugr, and I was fairly sure I’d bound my human assistant, too.
Eli called for transport while I hauled Millie to her feet. “Come on. Up you go.”
My hand on her bound wrists wasn’t enough to keep her standing, though. She jerked out of my hold and fell to the ground. We repeated the process several times, mostly because I was too stubborn to ask Eli to help, and he was adamant that he would not “overstep” unless my life depended on it.
So, I hauled a trussed up dead girl to the gate where a bright purple van waited. The purple was unnecessary as it had T-Cell TransitionHomes emblazoned on the side, but to each her own.
Once they took the growling girl away, I stood there, wet and muddy but victorious.
“Shall I tell Alice to invoice the Johnsons?” Eli’s voice was calm enough to make clear that he wasn’t sure of my mood.
“Yep. And add ten percent for complications.” I met his gaze. “Dead folk are not supposed to perch on any roof.”
Eli nodded, his expression unreadable.
“Would you object to walking to bar, Geneviève?” He offered me his arm, chivalrous as always.
“What? No chariot?” I looked around for his little blue convertible.
Eli was silent for a long moment before saying, “You smell rather atrocious, love.”
I sniffed. Obviously, someone had been taking Fido on walkies in among the graves and not scooping. The slimy mud in my jacket was not just mud from the smell of it. “Ugh. I need a shower and a vacation.”
“As you wish, bonbon.”
And then my patient spouse escorted my mud and poo coated self to Bill’s Tavern, where we walked through the bar and into the back where I all but ran to the shower while Eli was still peeling off his soaking clothes. He was polite enough to give me space to get clean before joining me to correct my sour mood.